If you can dream—and not make dreams your master

Rudyard Kipling

In every age man has been apt to dream uneasily, rolling from side to side, beating against imaginary bars, unless, tired out, he has sunk into indifference or skepticism

Henry Adams

Realists have a reputation, thoroughly deserved, as dour, cynical, and unpleasant. The bust of Thucydides glowers at you, and while Machiavelli smiles, he smiles with a leering grin of worldly irony. This worldliness has a certain sophomoric attraction to undergraduates—pessimism is a cheap way to buy intellectual cachet—but as Christians we do not condone it. “Rejoice evermore!” exclaims St Paul, and this rejoicing should be bright, not biting, and merry, not mordant. We dare not let the realist’s typical cynicism (however tamed) infect our characters or those of our students. Yet can the Christian rejoice as he studies international relations, or is such an attitude reserved for the dreamers—for the utopians?

Reinhold Niebuhr has become the patron saint of Christian realism, with The Irony of American History its axial text. An undergraduate, judging by the cover of Irony, could be excused for mistaking the scholar for a mortician. Here is no saint who laughs with brother fire, even as it scalds his eyes, or jokes as he climbs the scaffold.[1] Whatever was the man himself, his writings are as powerful and stark as a thunderstorm—and as severe. I am thankful for Niebuhr, and no writer has more influenced my thinking about international politics. He renews and clears my mind, much as a storm renews the land and clears the skies, but I would not wish to dwell in his prose any more than I would wish to live amidst the lightning.

So, to my fellow realists, I want to pose a challenge. Allan Bloom writes:

Utopianism is, as Plato taught us at the outset, the fire with which we must play because it is the only way we can find out what we are. We need to criticize false understandings of Utopia, but the easy way out provided by realism is deadly.[2]

Most realists will have their backs up at this passage, but I submit to you that Bloom is (partly) right. So, if we want to redeem realism from Thrasymachus, we will need to show how a realist can play with utopia. The only escape from cynicism is a childlike readiness to dream of imaginary worlds.

Can a realist dream of imaginary worlds and remain a realist? After all, realists make a point of dwelling in the real world and not in a daydream. The realist sees himself as mature, where others are childish; shrewd, where others are naïve. He criticizes the idealist, rightly, because the idealist is living not in reality but in an illusion. Worse, when the idealist tries to implement his utopia, he more often effects a nightmarish new reality. It seems to go against the very nature of realism to indulge in such fantasies.

If we are to answer in the affirmative—and I think we must—then the answer seems to lie in this word play. Indeed, for the Christian, this playfulness emerges as the most important quality of all, the thing that separates the healthy realist from the idealist: not whether he dreams, but whether he makes his dreams an idol. To put it provocatively, an idealist is always a kind of sot, but that does not mean realists can only drink Welch’s. To put it more soberly, the Christian realist should see international politics as tragic but not as a tragedy.

I believe that realists have too quickly abandoned dreaming to the idealists. In the rest of this space, I want to sketch how Providence and its readers might revive the playfulness of Christian realism by establishing it on Niebuhrian irony. First, though, I want to clarify what, exactly, realists find so very objectionable about the idealist’s kind of dreaming.

Peevish Idealists and Playful Realists

Samuel Johnson describes an idealist as someone who “retires to his apartments, shuts out the cares and interruptions of mankind, and abandons himself to his own fancy; new worlds rise before him, one image is followed by another, and a long succession of delights dances around him. He is at last called back to life by nature or by custom; and enters peevish into society, because he cannot model it to his own will.” Alas, many realists are no better. The great Florentine, after all, would retire as evening fell, “put on the garments of court and palace,” and absorb himself in an imaginary communion with very-dead Italians. Is Machiavelli’s LARPing really so different from Johnson’s dreamer? Was this child of darkness, who defied the light, any more delusional than a child of light, who ignored the darkness?

It is a strange fact that precisely their dreams, whether of the utopian or the cynic, cause both idealists and realists to “enter peevish into society.” Claes Ryn puts it best:

It might seem far-fetched and paradoxical to connect the modern dreams of a marvelous new world with cynicism and bitterness. And yet… they are two sides of one and the same modern personality… This is because every romantic-utopian flight of imagination aggravates resentment against the world as it is, and the more disappointing the actual world appears, the greater the desire for imaginative solace… who is the cynic, that person who sneers at life and suspects all others of having the most foul of motives? Who is he but the disillusioned, repeatedly disappointed dreamer, a person who bears other human beings and life in general a deep grudge for defeating his cherished longings?[3]

Here is my thesis: it is childish to demand the real world conform to one’s fancy; it is childlike to learn about the real world by playing in an imaginary one. Both the idealist and the cynical realist are childish. The Christian realist, by contrast, should be childlike.

The idealist sees his dreams as prescriptive: a dream describes what he wishes the world to be. The realist should approach dreams as formative: the dream trains him to act in the world as it is. The realist plays in imagined worlds to develop those virtues he needs to navigate the real one, in the same way that children play games to develop practical skills. That is, the realist should play in utopias to train himself in prudence.

In The Once and Future King, Merlin prepares Arthur for kingship by traveling among various animals. These worlds are simplified versions of human communities—the fish are Darwinian, the geese communitarian, the ants fascist[4]—and the point of Arthur’s education is not that he should try to transform England into one of these simplistic societies, but that, after living in these simpler worlds, Arthur is better prepared to move in (and improve) his more complex one.

A realist can approach his dreams in this way because he begins from humility. He assumes the world is more complex than he could ever understand, and therefore it will never work precisely as he imagines. In cultivating this humility, Christian realists have an additional advantage: we know how it all turns out. We do not need to impose our utopias, because the New Jerusalem will be better than anything we might dream.

Niebuhr and Playful Irony

Niebuhr put irony at the foundation of Christian realism, and he urged the Christian to learn from the children of darkness, the serpents of this world—but not to crawl like them. “Angels can fly because they take themselves so lightly,” quips G.K. Chesterton. To understand the playfulness that separates a healthy realism from both idealism and cynicism, we should explore this ironic foundation a little further.

Christian irony requires distance; it requires responsibility; and it requires trust. Each of these has its tragic elements, but fundamentally these are properties of comedy, not tragedy—as Niebuhr, with great solemnity, reminded us.[5] Together with Christian doctrine, they allow us to take our utopias lightly, playfully, as we await a better utopia to come.

Irony implies distance.[6] The fatal weakness of the idealist is that he leaves no space between himself and his dreams; the idealist identifies himself with his ideal world. The greatest strength of the realist, then, is his ability to laugh at himself. The Christian realist should be ironic, but his irony is wry, not caustic; he is imaginative, but he laughs when his dreams collide with reality and reality gives them a bruising.

Still, distance is not enough. Alone, that kind of irony leads to superciliousness or apathy—to a perverse pleasure in offending humanitarian sensibilities or to a Herman Kahn who can discuss the thermonuclear annihilation of millions with a calm that seems almost manic.[7] Or, worst of all, it collapses into a kind of hipster pose, whose lack of seriousness means no one else takes it seriously, either.

To escape this trap, the realist must reconcile ironic detachment with sincere responsibility.[8] The Christian realist must see his task, not as to effect a new world he imagines, but to perform his role as it is given. He can do this because he knows that whatever he does will pass away.[9] To put it so bluntly seems like a paradox, but its resolution is easily seen: a child plays a game with the utmost sincerity and no hint of self-mockery, and he does so because he knows that the game will end and, like a fairy tale, all will be as before. The Christian realist, unlike every idealist who has ever fallen in love with his own vision, can rejoice that these “cloud-capped towers… shall dissolve, and like this insubstantial pageant faded, leave not a rack behind.”

Finally, a playful irony, a comic irony, requires trust.[10] The difference between pagan and Christian irony, writes Anthony Esolen, is that our God gives good gifts.[11] Ultimately, the Christian realist expects the world to humiliate his best theories, and he is glad to play along, because he trusts that these cosmic jokes will reveal something better. The Christian realist trusts that we are playing a better game than any we might devise. This trust requires enormous faith in God’s design—who would willingly put wars and plagues and nukes and Justin Bieber in his utopia?—and it is, finally, this trust that enables playful irony in the first place: to let go of his dreams, to hold them as less precious than the world as it is, whatever its problems. Because he can let go of his dreams, not in bitterness but in gladness, the playful realist, at long last, in a great gale of comic and cosmic irony, escapes from cynicism.


This is all a bit abstruse, which while perhaps the best way to get scholarship published is the worst way to effect change. Let me end with three practical, concrete suggestions for the Christian realist as either scholar or policymaker.

First, let us redeem the word realism.[12] Niebuhr warned that its humorlessness was a sign of idealism’s wrongness; let us not fall into the same trap![13] When our students or colleagues hear the word, let us live and write in such a way that they imagine a wry smile and a sparkling eye, not pursed lips or a manic grin. We should write seriously but not grimly. While acknowledging the tragic element of politics, we should hasten to add that tragedy is never more than a first act (and Hell never more than a first book). Ours is not a Thrasymachean, nor even a Thucydidean, realism, and we should make that fact vivid with our joy and good humor.

Second, let us embrace imaginative fiction, not as a private diversion but as an essential part of our calling. We should be writing Utopias—and then laughing at them. Our age is saturated with post-apocalyptic political fables and Jacobin manifestos that take themselves oh-so-seriously (the fiction even more than the screeds). Where is our Utopia or Utopia, Ltd.? Where are the realists who, like Disraeli, are as capable in satire as they are at foreign policy? Where are the playful realists?

It is perhaps importunate to urge a reader to write a novel or comic opera. Very well—assign them! The best way to teach students how to play in imaginary worlds, without those worlds becoming their masters, is to read good fiction. Realism, at its best, strives to awaken people to the facts of politics: that justice and necessity conflict, that human nature has a fundamental depravity (including one’s own), and that everything has tradeoffs. Classic fiction is a tutor of sympathy and self-reflection: it awakens a reader to the complexity of the world and the darkness of one’s own heart. In doing so, it is unmistakably realist. Authors like Shakespeare manage to portray human motives in all their “dignity and depravity,” and this is a more effective introduction to realism than any Theory of International Politics. Personally, I have had success with Kipling’s Kim and C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces; William Inboden recommends The Pilgrim’s Progress. Let us all trade notes (here, in Providence), and let us ensure that our syllabi and nightstands are full of imaginary worlds. If my students are any guide, they will remember Henry V long after they have forgotten World Politics, 4th edition.

Third and finally, let us clarify—Who are the heroes of Christian realism? Niebuhr and St. Augustine, to be sure, but let us add, as well, a few jollier faces to our scowling promenade. I nominate Thomas More, “merry More,” for the next vacancy in the pantheon. His “jolly invention” seems the model of how a realist can let his imagination frolic and yet “keep his head about him when all about are losing theirs”—albeit figuratively, not literally.[14] If the final test of a philosophy is the man of character, then Sir St Thomas’ laughter lends more to our cause than whole syllabi of syllogisms.

In sum, the realist should let himself imagine Leagues of Nations; he should envision strange new alliances and untested institutions; he should map out vast empires of democracies, and he should explore fantastic landscapes of Edenic republics like a stranger in a strange land. Then, at the end of the day, rather than drug himself with dreams and wish himself elsewhere, he should instead laugh heartily at these games, recognize them as “quite absurd” fantasies and not at all practical or desirable, and yet still say to himself, “I confess there are many things in the Commonwealth of Utopia that I wish our own country would imitate—though I don’t really expect it will.”[15]

[1] In person, Niebuhr is reported to have been downright hilarious, a man who “loved to laugh.” But the reader will permit me to say, such jocularity does not come across in his writing.

[2] Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987), 67.

[3] Claes G. Ryn, “Imaginative Origins of Modernity: Life as Daydream and Nightmare,” Humanitas 10, no. 2 (1997).

[4] One of these excursions is particularly noteworthy here. Merlin transforms Arthur into a fish so that he can visit the castle moat, which is ruled by a pike. The pike supposes that, because the world he sees is dark and cruel, so must the whole world be—but of course, it isn’t; it is also full of birdsong and summer days. From this visit, Arthur learns that cynicism is a sin not least because it is false. I am grateful to Eliot Cohen (Johns Hopkins-SAIS) for bringing the subtleties of this passage to my attention.

[5] “Tragic elements in present history are not as significant as ironic ones… Irony however prompts some laughter and a nod of comprehension beyond the laughter; for irony involves comic absurdities which cease to be altogether absurd when fully understood.” Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History, in Reinhold Niebuhr: Major Works of Religion and Politics, ed. Elisabeth Sifton (New York: The Library of America, 2015), 465.

[6] Niebuhr warns, “The heat of the battle gives us neither the leisure nor the inclination to detect the irony in our own history.” Niebuhr, Irony, 475.

[7] Andrew Bacevich, perhaps a bit unjustly, describes Kahn as a “creepy figure” who “took pride in ‘thinking about the unthinkable.’”

[8] Irving Babbitt, a great early-twentieth-century humanist, wrote extensively against “irresponsible play”: “No more essential question can be asked regarding any man than whether he regards liberty primarily as a taking on or a throwing off of limitations.” He continues, “At its best, form in the human sense may be defined as the imposition on the raw material of experience of some pattern that has been apprehended with the aid of imagination.” Irving Babbitt, On Being Creative (New York: Biblo and Tannen, 1932), 147-150.

[9] “Over these exertions we discern the ironical laughter of the divine source and end of all things. ‘He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh (Psalm 2,4).’ … whenever judgment defines the limits of human striving it creates the possibility of an humble acceptance of those limits. Within that humility mercy and peace find a lodging place.” Niebuhr, Irony, 510.

[10] “The realm of mystery and meaning which encloses and finally makes sense out of the baffling configurations of history is not identical with any scheme of rational intelligibility. The faith which appropriates the meaning in the mystery inevitably involves an experience of repentance for the false meanings which the pride of nations and cultures introduces into the pattern. Such repentance is the true source of charity… The Biblical interpretation of the human situation is ironic, rather than tragic or pathetic, because of its unique formulation of the problem of human freedom… The wrong use [of man’s power] is always due to some failure to recognize the limits of his capacities of power, wisdom and virtue. Man is an ironic creature because he forgets that he is not simply a creator but also a creature” (576). To bring Tolkien in here at the last: playful realism demands that we treat our dreams as subcreations; we are creative creatures, and the final downfall of the idealist is his proud false confidence that he is some kind of ultimate creator. Niebuhr, Irony, 572-6.

[11] Anthony Esolen, Ironies of Faith: the Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007).

[12] “A chief task, indeed, of the Socratic critic would be to rescue the noble term ‘realist’ from its present degradation.” Babbitt, On Being Creative, 213.

[13] Niebuhr, Irony, 586.

[14] C.S. Lewis, to my mind, has the best take on More’s Utopia: “It becomes intelligible and delightful as soon as we take it for what it is—a holiday work, a spontaneous overflow of intellectual high spirits, a revel of debate, paradox, comedy and (above all) of invention, which starts many hares and kills none” C.S. Lewis, “A Jolly Invention,” in Thomas More, Utopia, trans. Robert M. Adams (New York: W.W. Norton, 1992).

[15] Thomas More, Utopia, 85.