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The writings of German theologian, philosopher, and cultural analyst Romano Guardini (1885-1968), one of the most influential Catholic intellectuals in the 20th century, have come to the fore with the papacy of Pope Francis, well-known to be a great admirer of his. Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si’, has spurred a re-examination of Guardini’s apocalyptic writing The End of the Modern World (1950), by making it a crucial point of reference. In line with Guardini, Pope Francis diagnoses the root cause of the conjoined anthropological and cosmological crises of our day as a globally-institutionalized, monolithic “technocratic paradigm” that encourages a rationalistic, domineering attitude in the human race toward both physical nature and its own being.

The End of the Modern World and its successor essay, Power and Responsibility (1951), were written in the wake of two World Wars, of the national and international devastation wrought by the citizens of Guardini’s own adopted homeland, where he lived his whole life after his parents moved to Mainz from Verona in Italy when he was one-year-old. They exude the air of post-war existential and social crisis. The specter of Friederich Nietzsche hangs over them. Guardini set a path to transcend the prerogatives of this infamous 19th century smasher of bourgeois idols by rendering a realistic portrait of a possible, soon-to-emerge Christian Übermensch (a word that Guardini does not use in this context), who would be an alternative to Nietzsche’s Overman or Superman, and would alone be able to lift us from the condition of technological self-alienation and powerlessness into which we have plunged in late modern capitalism and industrialism.

Romano Guardini

Romano Guardini

The key to understanding Guardini’s thought in its apocalyptic register is to recognize the nature of his Christian transgression of modern and contemporary notions of power. It is illuminating, in this regard, to contrast his construal of power with Nietzsche’s libido dominance or “will-to-power.” Both men lament the growing presence in Europe of a type of “un-free” personality or anonymous person. Nietzsche projected the outcome of this growing presence into the condition of the “Last Man,” concerned only with comfort and security, the endpoint of Western civilization if it continues on its egalitarian course. Guardini, for his part, puzzled over the emergence in his day of a “non-human man,” “Mass Man,” who is “absorbed in technology and rational abstraction.”

Nietzsche, in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, presents the Last Man as the antithesis of the Superman. If the condition of the Last Man should prevail, humanity would be trapped in nihilism, in a world without values. Only the Superman, Nietzsche holds, can renew human life after the death of God by creating values. The Superman would recognize that power, or, more precisely, the will-to-power, is the one motivating principle in life. He would master himself, in a non-ascetical way, and gain power over his power, so that it may flourish without constraint, without the inhibitions of fear of danger and the “slave morality” of Christian humility—a condition, he thinks, of weakness and lifelessness that alienates or estranges man from himself by projecting life and power externally into an illusory, other-worldly, heavenly realm. The Superman would pull back power into his own being and live in perfect joy only for this world. For Nietzsche, Christian self-alienation is the historical pre-condition of possibility for the emergence of the Last Man.

Guardini, too, hopes for the emergence of a new man, one who can master the depths of human power, and he, too, thinks that self-alienation increasingly is the mark of our cultural condition, of Mass Man. Mass Man no longer seeks to cultivate the great and glorious personality esteemed by modern humanity. He no longer abides by the dictates of a physical nature presumed to be infinite and good as modern man did. Instead, he is satisfied to be fashioned anonymously by the standards of the machines that he has made. He objectifies himself, turns himself into a thing. Mass Man would inhabit, Guardini thought, barracks and factories, but we might just as well find him in-dwelling the contemporary bubble of social media or technological self-isolation, where oftentimes neither virtuous personality nor personhood can be effectively cultivated. It is not, then, for Guardini, the doctrine of an illusory heaven that estranges Mass Man from himself, but technological objectification whereby he lets technology push him in whatever direction it will go.

Masses of people Yet, in spite of all this, Guardini sees the condition of Mass Man as one of unprecedented opportunity and challenge. It offers to all humanity the soil to develop “an inner freedom and strength of character” hitherto inconceivable. This opportunity is especially great for Christians. The objectivism and powerlessness of the masses will eventually, he thinks, strip away from public culture even the goods of natural law enlightened by Christian revelation, such as a sense of the inviolable dignity and uniqueness of the person. This will cast out the vestigial and incoherent Christianity of the modern age. It will enable Christians to see clearly their need to make a decisive choice to be exemplars, in co-operation with Christ, of the reintegration of power and freedom that is required to save humanity from the dangers posed by unfettered technoscientific abstraction. They will have to live by greater sacrifice and humility, which are signs not of “slave morality” but of genuine boldness and self-mastery—images of the glory and majesty of the incarnate Son of God. It is not self-assertion or the “will-to-power” that can overcome the alienation of freedom and power that threatens to absorb the person into the objectified masses, but a life lived more fully and consistently in obedience to Christ, the Lord of Being, who humbly emptied himself and took the form of a slave. The Christian “Superman” will gain self-control only through radical receptivity to grace and the rediscovery of the virtue of asceticism. This will enable him to become detached, at least in spirit, from the control of “technics and gadgets.” He will indeed live more dangerously than his modern liberal Christian counterpart, in that he stays truer to the Way of the Cross.

humilityGuardini provides a forceful awakening, for Christians and non-Christians alike, to the demands of the Gospel, to the responsibilities called forth by our troubled age, and even to the personal foundation of Catholic social doctrine. Many people recognize the danger of power, either in its totalitarian manifestations or in regimes of utilitarian decadence. However, the problem is not often probed deeply enough, and an adequate remedy is not found. If we do not locate the problem in alienation or self-enclosure from the personal God, whose good news includes the dignity of our personhood and the ontological majesty of humility and love, we end up in fact evading the problem of power, succumbing to the abstract, objectifying the culture of the technocratic paradigm in the manner of economic or political wonks, or even embracing power in its corruption through the glad sanctioning of unjust acts of coercion and violence. We fail to address squarely the problem on the level of virtue, freedom, and their absolute safeguard, that is to say, on the level of the person as both an image and child of God.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission from The Distributist Review (January 2016).

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2 replies to this post
  1. I like this article. I look forward to any follow-ups that may touch on Pope Francis’ prescriptions, especially in Laudato Si but perhaps in Evangelium Gadium or his other writings/speeches, for living out this transformation in the 21st century.

  2. Mr. Lemna,

    I was wondering when the IC would finally get around to posting essays on Roman Guardini’s prophetic works. When you were a small wee thing, among others, I highlighted Romano Guardini in my published 1999 Doctor of Pastoral Counseling Thesis, named: “The Prophetic Power of Language” (to awaken, illuminate and heal).

    Here…for those unfamiliar and unversed in his earlier and later works, I would like to illuminate and summarize what his seminal insights were and remain, excerpts from “The End of the Modern World.” c. 1956.

    In his own words,” “Until today, the great historic eras through which the West has passed have been in a living continuity with one another. Until the present (now mid-1950’s), our civilization has reached for the future by mounting the scaffolding of the past. Until now, common forefathers maintained that history sustains-as part of itself-a corporate memory that redeems death and time, and this lifts them to the dignity of things eternal.

    And if this be true, if history really partakes of the inherited civilization of our ancestors, then man today has dropped history as a ship drops its pilot at Land’s End. From thenceforth, we wail in darkness.

    For the first time in history, man has absolutely “no place” in the universe. This alone cuts the new age away from the modern world which has gone before it. Man no longer has a place, not merely in the theoretical sense that all hierarchic orders have disappeared in a collectivist and utilitarian society of MASS MAN, but in the more profound sense that the universe of relativity physics has abolished the concept and the very reality of “place” itself.

    The Christian of tomorrow (60 years ago now), will be a man and woman of the masses, conditioned psychologically like his/her unbelieving co-workers, thus,politically-correct group-think. Her grip on the supernatural will not be buttressed by the natural sense of the divine (the natural world), which is the awareness of the luminous and the numinous of all things.

    Seeking God, the Christian of the future will scan the horizon in vain:’ nowhere in the age of mass-man and cyber-technology will he find Him…but only in that Love which conquers the world. ”

    Fr. Guardini’s most prophetic words are revealed in the last few pages of “The End of the Modern World:”

    “Loneliness in the faith will be terrible. Love will disappear from the face of the public world…but the more precious will that love be which flows from one lonely person to another, involving a courage of the heart born from the immediacy of the love of God, as is known in Christ.

    Perhaps mankind will come to experience this Love anew, to taste the sovereignty of its origin, to know its relationship and yet independence of the world, to sense that mystery of the final WHY? Perhaps love will achieve an intimacy and harmony never known to this day. Perhaps it will gain what lies hidden in the key words of the providential message of Jesus: ‘that all things are transformed for the man and woman who makes God’s Will for His Kingdom her first concern.”

    These last illuminations for us in 2016 beckon us not to withdraw and hide, not to critique or shun or amputate ourselves from our mass cyber-tech age, which IS the world and age that we live in, rather to enter into the soul of the world and witness to the courage of the heart…flowing form one lonely person to another. (Let’s just say the the Christ-courage of the human heart rules over all ages)

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