The profound Germano-Italian philosopher and theologian Romano Guardini (1885-1968) remains, by and large, one of the most unsung heroes of twentieth-century conservatism.
His reputation revived a bit during the all-too brief pontificate of Benedict XVI as so much of Ratzinger’s thought came from Guardini, directly and indirectly. But, he and his work should stand much higher than they do in our memory and in our adulation. In particular, his various books–a biography of Jesus; a discourse on technology; a metahistory on the meaning of modernity and post-modernity; and a meditation on the death of Socrates–should signal to us his depth of thought as well as his breadth of interests.
Henry Regnery, though not a Catholic, promoted his work with fervor in North America in the 1940s and 1950s, publishing 13 of the German’s works. Many of these books, as Regnery understood them, were not as much academic and scholarly as they were descriptions of “encounters.” That is, they described the relations between Guardini and Socrates or between Guardini and Jesus or between Guardini and Pascal. Despite Regnery’s valiant efforts, Guardini is known only to a few in North America as of 2013.
As a young boy, Romano Guardini’s father moved the family from Italy to Germany, and Romano adopted German citizenship as his own, though he remained deeply Italian in his cultural understandings and pan-European in his outlook on life. His own views on liturgy and the human person profoundly shaped Catholic intellectual life in the decades leading up to Vatican II. No intellectual slouch himself, Regnery went so far as to suggest that Guardini was the traditional glue that allowed Germany to find some peace and justice after the 12 years of evil under Hitler. Certainly, fewer Germans would have held as much cultural sway in the post-war world as did Guardini. Young Germans especially adored him. His death in 1968–during the whirligig of chao accompanying the cultural changes of Vatican II, however–allowed Catholics of the 1970s and 1980s to dismiss him as irrelevant. Much the same happened to Chesterton, Dawson, Maritain, Gilson, and Watkin in the same period.
While an undergraduate at the University of Notre Dame, I had the grand privilege of studying all too briefly with a Guardini scholar, Father Robert Krieg. Nearly a decade after graduating, I had the equally profound privilege of getting to know another Guardini scholar through the auspices of Winston Elliott–the eminently intellectual and beautiful Father Donald Nesti. Father Nesti, Winston, Barbara Elliott, Gleaves Whitney, John Rocha, and I spent hours discussing Guardini in the late 1990s and earliest part of the 2000s. I remember those conversations as critical in my own formation as a scholar (with all my faults).
As with Russell Kirk, Guardini strove to define things properly. One concept he considered repeatedly was the concept of modernity and, especially, what might come after it, post-modernity. Having just completed my fourteenth year teaching our college’s history core sequence, the heritage of the West and of America, I’m yet again reminded of the sheer necessity of proper definitions and the near impossibility of reaching them for a number of words our chaotic reality.
So many concepts demand definition after 150 years of terror in the western tradition: nationalism, progressivism, ideology, modernity, and post-modernity. Thinking of each individually is enough to make the brain ache. Thinking of them as they interact and exaggerate one another is even more difficult.
This last two concepts are, to my mind, the most difficult to comprehend. Indeed, perhaps the very advent of post-modernism is enough to realize how almost incomprehensible modernity is or was. Or, perhaps more accurately, was and is. And, yet, there has been a tendency to find post-modernism throughout the twentieth century. B.I. Bell saw “post-modernism as early as the 1910s; some have found no small amount of post modernism in the work of Hayek; Gerald Russello finds much in the mind and works of Russell Kirk; Pete Blum sees it in a number of anabaptist thinkers; and Peter Lawler goes so far as to embrace the concept of post-modernity personally, labeling himself a pomocon.
But, let me not stray too much from the topic. Back to Guardini and his thought. Recently, The Imaginative Conservative published a review of one of Guardini’s greatest books, The End of the Modern World. It is the type of book every single reader of TIC should own and know and linger over and read again and again and again.
Nothing less than Dawsonian metahistory, Guardini penetrates in the way only someone well versed in the liberal arts can to the very heart of history and of the human person’s relationship to history. Here is a revealing and not atypical passage:
It is cheap and false to condemn the medieval use of authority as ‘slavery.’ Modern man makes this judgment not merely because he enjoys the discovery of autonomous investigation but because he resents the Middle Ages. His resentment is born of the realization that his own age has made revolution a perpetual institution. But authority is needed not only because by the childish but also in the life of every man, even the most mature. Integral to the full grandeur of human dignity, authority is not merely the refuge of the weak; its destruction always breeds its burlesque-force.
Guardini is as far from an authoritarian as possible, however. In the Middle Ages, man willingly and joyfully submitted to the authority of God, as revealed in the liturgy and, especially, in the liturgy of the seasons. Modernity, Guardini feared, did nothing less than attempt to destroy the cycles of the seasons, the cycles of man, and the cycles of government and existence. Modernity, in its arrogance, wanted to even out time, to conquer it, and to make it obsolete.
Such a rebellion by man, however, would only lead to chaos, destruction, and death. What man considers creation is really only a wiley way of creating destruction. In his otherthrow of nature and God’s Providence, man has actually sold himself to the forces of power, thus losing his personality as created uniquely by God. Once man has sold his personality, he will quickly become the victim of rape and slaughter. Guardini reacted in horror but not in surprise to the two world wars, the rise of ideologies, the death of millions in the Gulags and Holocaust camps of the 20th century. Such evil came from decades of a laissez faire attitude toward the significance of each person.
This frightful destruction did not drop down from heaven; in truth it rose up out of hell! A culture marked by a true ordering could not have invented such incomprehensible systems of degradation and destruction. Monstrosities of such conscious design do not emerge from the calculators of a few degenerate men or of small groups of men; they come from processes of agitation and poisoning which has been long at work. What we call moral standards-responsibility, honor, sensitivity of conscience-do not vanish from humanity at large if men have not already been long debilitated. These degradations could never have happened if its culture had been as supreme as the modern world thought.
Still, as personality is rooted in our very being, made in the Image of God, we can always reclaim such truth. In so doing, man becomes more man and not less.
A man is a person called by God. As that man he is capable of answering for his own actions and of participating in reality through an inner and innate source which is one with himself. This capacity makes each man unique. A man is not unique because of his peculiar talents; a man is unique in the clear and absolute sense that, as is each of his fellows, he is a being one with himself, indispensable, irreplaceable, inviolate.
As man grows in personhood, he “is robed with duties no other can assume.” Duties, not rights, distinguish man from non-man, free man from enslaved man, and true man from mechanized man.
In every one of his works, Romano Guardini called on us to be women and men, never shadows or shades of bureaucracies or corporations or fads or foibles–but always claiming the personality that God stamped uniquely upon each one of us.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.