The Renaissance and Enlightenment thinkers hollowed Western culture out of the very spiritual body that held it together: the mystical body of Christ…

Today’s offering in our Timeless Essay series affords readers the opportunity to join Wayne Allen as he explores Romano Guardini’s understanding of the dissolution of Western culture via the de-spiritualization of the West, the modernization of ideas, and the rise of the nation. —W. Winston Elliott III, Publisher 

The End of the Modern World, by Romano Guardini (ISI Books, 2001).

The appearance of this new and expanded edition of Romano Guardini’s book is both timely and helpful. Guardini (1885-1968) writes partially in the spirit of a theologian and partly with the critical eye of the philosopher—and he rightly sees no inherent hostility between the two, which itself is a modern prejudice, often held by both camps. Indeed, too many members of each camp have embraced modernity without flinching and have abandoned their true calling. Guardini rightly treats modernity as less of an “age” and more as an idea, or a distillation of ideas that shapes and misshapes man according to the ascendant mundane preoccupations that are prevalent at the time. We have become accustomed to unquestionably thinking that modernity is as good as a mother’s milk; that it is by definition a good, and that any force (reaction) or idea (conservatism) that impedes modernity is no different than poisoning a mother’s milk. Guardini is not a sentimentalist, calling for some return to Eden; he is more than mindful that modernity’s fascination with its own advent deserves more questioning than it has received thus far. He is one in this interrogation with Christopher Lasch (The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics) while demonstrating some of the poetic insight of a T.S. Eliot.

Of course, the sanguine view of modernity is a testimony to the propagandist’s success in establishing modernity as the end of history in which “progress” was trying to assert itself against the dark forces of religious and philosophical repression. Hence, the Greeks are not only classified as “ancient” but also as “archaic,” which is not a timeline judgment but a moral indictment. Both seem to suggest that which is worn out, spent, or merely quaint. The “Middle Ages” conveys a transitional phase preparatory to the era of light and progress. This is more clearly implied in the chronological epithet, “Dark Age,” to elicit a reaction against the superstition of religion, which inhibited the growth of science whose purpose is the “relief of man’s estate” (Francis Bacon). That these sciences have been used to push man to the brink of a new “dark age” only confirms the fear of the romantic poets: that the tree of science kills the tree of life. It also confirms the fear of the “ancients” who first warned us about the spiritual disorder.

Among the things this disorder means is the alienation of man from God as the author of the world, and also of man in the world. Man is homeless in the only refuge he has left once he abandoned the cosmological abode formerly provided by God. Formerly situated in the world that was God’s making and part of God’s purpose for man on earth, man-in-the-world is the source of his own alienation because he cannot find anything that transcends his moment in it. The shrinkage of the cosmological principle of human self-understanding did not merely conclude in materialism, but in a re-spiritualization of the world itself. This is where Guardini entered the human drama, the Great Story.

Man is no longer the subject of God’s authorship; man is the object of his own creation. Man makes the world and then spiritualizes his own creation so he will have something towards which to bow down. Marx made perfect use of this reverence with his theory of “historical materialism,” which was later amended to include race, class, and “social constructions.” The providential intention of God has been usurped by the eschatological movements of “cultures.”

Culture is derived from the Latin cultus, which has its philological roots in the Greek paideia, and conveys a reverence, a homage toward the high and the praiseworthy. In both the Greek and the Roman sense, culture took its direction from beginnings, from the origins that established the divine purpose and set limits on human actions. For the Greeks, this was done through virtue (aretê), that towards which the people moved through history and which helped them move together in common. This was the ordering principle of the polis because it was the collective desire to possess the beautiful understood as harmony between the one and the many. Culture pointed them toward the good, while tradition indicated their success. This forms the backdrop to Guardini’s thesis: Modernity has disconnected man from his history and uprooted him from a “place” in the world. The significance of place is twofold: It means the experiential reality located in past human events, and an orientation for man’s actions within a cosmology that preceded him and of which he is a part. Instead, the new “cultures” take direction from an intramundane nature (materialism), which is the grounding of Enlightenment rationalism (ratio), and which aims at a new imperial rule in the temporal plane. Hence, one hears today what Guardini saw in its worst manifestations: “all politics is a struggle for power.” This is an atavism Guardini thought he saw come to an end with the Holocaust and the Gulag because they symbolized the most tenacious spiritualized forms of matter in history.

Guardini began nearly at the beginning, when the modern world could be identified as the threshold to something new (“modern,” from the Latin, modo, meaning new, recent), the Renaissance. But the Renaissance was a return to classical ideas without the philosophy that supported them. Hence, the ideas were sterilized, cleansed of their cosmological intentions that could indicate the real loss of the Middle Ages. The pagan humanism of the Renaissance, Guardini seemed to recognize, could only provide sanctuary to the modern idea of state, raison d’état, that was enclosed as a territorial unit. “Both ages,” he says of the classical and Middle Ages, saw the world as a “limited frame, a ball or sphere,” but it was self-contained spiritually because it was integrated with the whole of existence. Here Guardini errs by believing the Greeks never sought to transcend their world. Indeed, the polis of Socrates and Plato was a temporal analog to the cosmological order, the “unseen measure” of Plato’s theology. But this view, hardly insulated, died with Socrates and with Plato’s withdrawal to the Academy. This was the “springboard into transcendence” in Guardini’s language since it was seen as a model for all men who sought to live together. But Guardini was right when he said that the Middle Ages “transformed radically man’s sense of existence and his vision of the world,” precisely because the Orderer was given credit for both authorship and sovereignty over the world.

God’s authorship, the creator ex nihilo, not only humbled man but also placed him in a world context which diminished time as an enemy of man. Under conditions of modernity, however, temporality was given undue urgency because of the shift to man’s mundane, biological existence. The imperatives of the life process began to determine man’s new principles of human organization. One sees this clearly in the late fifteenth-century ideas of Machiavelli and the seventeenth-century ideas of the political thinkers Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. Hobbes made fear of dying the centerpiece of his Leviathan, while Locke made preservation of property the justification for government. Hobbes and Locke were the first modern and first liberal political thinkers. In trying to understand them, contemporary liberal thinkers focus more on institutions, structures of power, and ways to justify them. It is more important, however, to see how the psychology of motives replaces the pursuit of goodness. Liberals still fail to see motives as selfish—hence apolitical—and they point man at his own body, while goodness points him away from it. Motives are disintegrative because they dissolve community and create only temporary alliances for the purpose of momentary satisfaction; they are modernity.

However, the men of the Renaissance tried to rescue the new state units by renouncing Christian spiritual integration. The return to the ancients was a rebuff of the Middle Age scholastics by looking to the Greek and Roman systems of thought for virtues that could be disconnected from the whole, which was their inspiration. This is what prompted Nietzsche to scornfully conclude that “the modern doctrine of culture is nothing but a Christianity without Christ.”

The Renaissance and Enlightenment thinkers hollowed Western culture out of the very spiritual body that held it together: the corpus mysticum Christi. Theoretically, there was little hostility between Greek philosophy and the revelatory principles of Christianity—even Augustine said that Plato required little to make him a Christian. Guardini recognized their symbiosis was much more than textual: “the Renaissance used its fidelity to the classical as a tool with which to cut itself away from Revelation and ecclesiastical authority.” Hence, the inversion of the former spiritual hierarchy was completed when the mystical body of Christ was turned into the corpus mysticum humanitatist.

The spiritual openness to transcendence of classical and medieval man was beginning to close around an immanentized, despiritualized world. Nevertheless, Guardini rightly recognized their synthesis since they both sought to complete Western culture in an attempt to situate the individual within the whole of Being; both were open to the transcendence of being. By the seventeenth century, political thought began to turn inward and downward, guiding man toward a lower order of existence. Political thought thereby foreshadowed the closing of man’s spiritual life: first in the secularized state and then in the nation. I think this is the meaning behind Guardini’s forlorn conclusion that, “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’s real strength is expressed in the last two parts of his book. He recognized both the spiritual and the political implications when the sacrum imperium was forced to give way to the saeculum mundum. The rise of secularity, which has its antecedents in the Renaissance, only became a driving force when the Enlightenment made the periodization of history into a self-flattering denouement with what Eric Voegelin calls the “consciousness of epoch.” One can hardly ignore the analogy between the earlier “bringer of light,” Lucifer. This same consciousness of epoch and light also issued in the Age of Reason and the Age of Revolution. The collapse of the divine spirit as the ordering principle through the assault on the mystical body of Christ led to a closing of the mundane political units, and it soon insulated them from each other while they consolidated their power internally.

Schismatic conflicts between creedal passions—not to mention the Thirty Years War—issued in the formation of secular elites that often created their own communities to contend with and counter the parochial communities of faith. In a crass sense, they made faction the basis for leveraging a new political order. Bereft of a spiritual authority to justify their rulership, they had to develop, or in some cases take advantage of, a new idea as a principle of organization. The notion of state was being cleansed of its religious symbolizations (especially in England), so the idea of a nation, an ethnic designation, was beginning to assert itself. Guardini rightly, if generally, identified the new ideas that led to the formation of the new internalized saeculum. Nature, more as a symbolization for reordering men, was transformed by the new sciences, both physical and “social.” Personality meant the recasting of man ontologically from a supplicant bound by duty into a rights-bearer—but one whose rights were immanent in the ethnic solidity that defines him. One gets a sense of the significance of this change in the later formation of Johann Gottfried Herder’s Volksgeist, which finally led to the neo-tribalism now stalking America.

Indeed, Guardini’s third idea shaping modernity, culture, emerged from the insulated idea of nation, which reconfigured personality around the closed idea of ethnicity. Contrary to current academic orthodoxy, the spiritual closing of Western culture from the former sacrum imperium had the fateful consequence of particularizing individual ontology through the insularity of ethnicity contained within the “state.” This issued in the formation of peculiar character-logical traits that were taken to define each of the new bodies politic. Again, to tweak the haute intelligentsia, America is the only country in history founded as a “multinational” reality, which later gave rise to the unique moral epithet of “un-American.” But both aesthetically and morally, this new, closed cultural identity of a nation began to reflect utility, expediency, and functionality over the former Greek and Christian aspirations of excellence, perfection, and permanence. Art, like the life process it began to imitate, began to reflect the temporary and the transient over the enduring and the transcendental aspirations of men. “Progress” is understood as a dynamic defined in terms of an empirical reality that is always in flux. But this allows moderns to measure their success by how far removed they are from Greek and Christian antecedents. This is why moderns loathe the static-and-universal-implications of the Ten Commandments. The Decalogue is a constant reminder of the modern failure to make progress without looking backward.

While this whole contraction of the spiritual and political universe is manifest to various degrees of intensity in the new political units, the French thinkers Voltaire and Comte best revealed the synthesis of the three ideas of modernity Guardini described: nature, culture, and personality. In these thinkers, the three ideas were “modernized” and finally respiritualized to justify the political closure and reduction of man. Voltaire deliberately set out to establish the secular construction of history by substituting intramundane progress for the Christological openness to transcendental Being. This latter presumes the unity of all beings through a history that points from the beginning to the end of time, eternity to eternity, thereby uniting all men in the spiritual order of things: “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity” (Psalm 133:1).

God begins time and Christ points the way through it. But the idea of progress gives urgency to chronology, discards the past (“the dead weight of previous generations,” to recall Marx), and encourages each generation to see itself as the terminus of history, hence the high-point of culture. This forms the narcissism that promotes generational warfare. Voltaire replaced the grace of God with the reason of man through a redemptive history: “We rather have to see by what steps we have advanced from barbarian rusticity of his time to the politeness of ours” (Essai). This “advance” he understood symbolically as the extinction, renaissance, and progress of the human spirit. The esprit humain then became the object of general history, and it was justified in terms of philosophies of history. The transcendental pneuma (vital soul) of Christ was replaced by the intramundane spirit of man. The analog to Christian meaning is nearly complete when the change of heart is replaced with the change of opinion. Of course, opinion (doxa) is the ruling sentiment in the era of mass democracy, and it is particularly adaptable to the demand of modernity, novelty.

Science, the rise of the “human sciences,” was pressed into the service of shaping this “public opinion” in the name of popular sovereignty, the ground-up rulership. This provided the gnostic twist to the democratic movements from the eighteenth century onward. The herald of modern gnosticism, Auguste Comte (the founder of sociology), united the Enlightenment’s ratio with the physical expropriation of nature to advance the esprit humain within the ambience of the new “social construction.” Unlike the old view of nature, which saw man on a continuum in nature and perfectible once complete, the new view of nature is shaped into an artificial construction as a willful product of the human mind; hence the debate between nature and nurture. The new man, the modern personality, is the autonomous intellect emancipated from all historical and spiritual antecedents that do not point toward mundane salvation.

There is really an unnatural synergism between Voltaire’s esprit humain and Comte’s positivist scientism. They were united only within a narrow temporal space to justify the ascendancy of a natural datum that might be intellectually fashionable at the time. To be sure, both thinkers correctly saw the struggle between the spiritual and the temporal powers that emerged from the Middle Ages, and both saw that this meant the rise of the autonomous critical intellect to power in shaping a new epoch in history. But only Comte foresaw that this shift marked the descent into the sensual, animal basis of existence that could subsequently be respiritualized through “science.”

There has been a steady erosion of man’s spiritual quest from Voltaire’s intramundane faith in the “human spirit,” to Comte’s reverence for the organizing and engineering intellect, to the Marxist faith in the working class as the true heir of history, down to the naturalism of chosen nations and races. The internalization of the spirit in the closing political unit, which propelled the enmity between modern nations, was followed by the privatization of the spirit among disparate groups of persons seeking a common material designation: Note the rise of such characterological groups as “feminists,” homosexual “community,” and the self-justificatory label of “authentic blacks.” These are only contemporary variants of H.S. Chamberlain’s designation of Verjudung (“Jewification”) used as a counter idea to demonize opponents of Nordic purity. Each of the above is part of a profane history designed to justify its modern claim to power in the mundane world.

What we have discovered to be part of the modern project wrought by the devastation hastened by the rational-scientistic approach is that it could serve as a substitute for the respiritualized integration of personality. By itself, this might explain the growth of psychologism and the rise of the therapeutic state administered by the healing sciences, which are the social sciences in their capacity to impose moral outcomes.

The history of the de-spiritualization of the West is simultaneously the history of the formation of counter-symbolizations used by various theorists to respiritualize certain portions of humanity the theorist wants to make use of at the time (e.g., race for Gobineau, class for Marx). The purpose was to endow the partiality with a moral significance it needed to combat the former Christian universalism. This was particularly the case in England with the purge of Puritanism by the Church of England and the assertion of monarchy against all contending groups. The plurality of churches was made to appear as a plurality of civilizations. This belies the academic assertion that there is a “culture” of the West. In fact, Peter the Great was the first to refer to “the West” as an integrated body of ideas, a Culture. As the prototype, this began the centralization of the state that was to spread throughout Europe, but without a concrete foundation to justify itself. The state had lost its transcendental authority, and “popular sovereignty” proved ethereal in the formation of moral orientation, the perennial problem of liberalism.

The genius of George Berkeley (1685-1753) was to recognize the real meaning of this separation of state and faith. His search for the “concrete” revealed a loss of orientation of existence through faith, while the symbols and concepts of integration and existence were being expropriated by the nation, soon to command final loyalty. Loyalty to nation was used to separate one partiality from another, which concludes in our day with “multi-culturalism.’’

Perhaps the most devastating effect of the corruption of religious symbols was the confused attempt to situate man in a moral universe that would provide meaning to human actions. This was expressed, as in our day, through various cultural media, especially literature and art. The decay of earlier Christian symbols nurtured a dissonance between the private and the public. The individual found no confirmation between his own (private) virtues, what the state promotes, what conscience demands, and what society holds dear. This remains a basic dilemma of liberalism. This was a reprise of the old tension between the city and the family in Plato, and which Aristotle tried to relax. Popular sovereignty was deliberately confused with a new idea of the good. Hence, it appeared that a form of rulership contained its own moral justification—for example, Woodrow Wilson’s injunction to go to war for democracy.

As we might suspect, a decaying society built on the fiction of “popular sovereignty” demands conformity and begins to undermine private life as well. Berkeley himself diagnosed the pathologies of his age in terms of two categories of analysis still valid to this day: materialization of the external world and psychologization of the self. The first can be parodied as Lockeanism with a vengeance, while the second made a star of Freud. The first de-mystifies God in the world, while the second relocates Him to the therapist’s couch. Perhaps this is why Pius X concluded that “Modernism is the synthesis of all heresies.”

The End of the Modern World suffers from a severe compression of this complex history. But the advantage goes to the general reader who wants a summary of the descent of man from a cosmological soul integrated spiritually beyond the limitations of temporal units-states, nations, races, or classes. Romano Guardini provides a thoughtful, but not hopeless, meditation on the dissolution of Western culture.

This essay in our series of “Timeless Essays” was first published here in May 2013.

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