The author calls the book “a survival manual for the aristocrats of the soul,” although in concrete fact I’m not sure there is such a thing in his sense. Still, it’s hard to think about things without referring to ideal forms, and his qualities as a writer—clear, to the point, unpretentious—may reflect the circumstance that he actually was an aristocrat (as it happened, a Sicilian baron).
It’s his final book, apparently published in 1961 and revised about 1970, so it deals with our own time—post-war, post-Vatican II, post ’60s. Its basic point is that we live in an age of dissolution, in which effective public action is impossible, so the question is how to lead a life of grounded integrity in a social setting based on rejection of Tradition (he uses the capitalized term to mean tradition that refers to the transcendent).
He favors a hierarchical civilization based on severe transcendent absolutes, I suppose one should imagine Shang bronzes or the pyramids. He’s not conservative, because for him there’s nothing worth conserving today. He thinks the collapse of bourgeois civilization, based on individualism, property, contract and sentiment, is the result of its own intrinsic anti-Traditional destructiveness, and he’s not interested in saving it. Throughout the book he tries to find uses for late-modern cultural collapse (it gets rid of superficialities and distractions).
His attempts to see something useful in the collapse of bourgeois civilization are constantly thwarted by recognition that what follows collapse isn’t a neutral field for reconstruction or an automatic turn of the wheel but something worse than what preceded. My own view is that he’s too much of an absolutist and exaggerates the degree of dissolution. A complex system like human life can’t remain at all functional unless it mostly works more or less as it should, which requires the continuing presence however obscured of tradition and an orientation to the transcendent. You can always work with what you have but you can never control things completely. He seems to think that if you don’t will the whole of something yourself in a clear way then it doesn’t count, because (at least under current circumstances) you can’t rely on anything outside yourself. I think that ignores the mixed nature of life.
For him the question of personal integrity comes down to metaphysics: how do you base your life on transcendent Being. His basic answer is that you find it within, thereby achieving calm mastery and independence of surroundings. His sympathies are thus with Eastern religions rather than Christianity. Naturally, I disagree with him:
- His comments on Christianity mostly relate to a Christianity that’s adopted a modern metaphysics that views the world as something arbitrary that’s just there with man somehow tossed into the middle of it. On such a view God even if he exists becomes a sort of cosmic tyrant who can’t solve any basic questions for us any more than any other tyrant can. Religious devotion and Christian morals become a matter of avoiding dealing with our situation in any serious way by paying attention to something else and insisting on external rules that have no real connection to what at bottom we really are. If you’re stuck in someone else’s watch, one might say, it doesn’t seem to take hold of the deeper problems of your situation to say there’s a divine watchmaker who put you there and has set up promised rewards and threats to make you do this and that.
- If you assume a more metaphysical Christianity, as has mostly been the norm, then the issue between Eastern religion and Christianity seems to be whether the ultimate principle of things is personal, so Being should be understood as intended, or impersonal, so it should be understood as unintended and the ultimate principle of things in fact viewed as a sort of fate. I don’t see why it’s shallower, less hierarchical, or more at odds with the comprehensive integrity of all existence to add intention to whatever other features the ultimate principle of things is thought to have. In fact, it seems to me the “it’s-all-intentional” theory knits things together much better than the “fate” theory, and makes it easier to understand why the higher is higher, how the lower can have a real relationship to the higher, and how mixed beings (like you, me and everybody else) can participate in the ultimate. A problem with the “fate” theory is that it becomes very hard to understand how something personal (human beings, for example) can participate in the ultimate. It means you have to believe in impassive stoics, perfect spiritual masters, supermen, or esoteric rites of ontological initiation, none of which actually seem to exist anywhere, to explain how life worth bothering with is possible.
Still, the book’s useful in some ways. His emphasis on the importance of metaphysics and the transcendent is salutary if a little one-sided even in the admittedly extreme circumstances of the present day. He discusses a variety of modern philosophical and cultural tendencies and has good things to say about them. I found his comments on Nietzsche—mostly, that if what you want is transcendence you can’t get by without transcendence—very sensible, much more sensible than Nietzsche himself who I find incoherent. Ditto for his comments on various later thinkers. His comments on sex and family life I thought were hurt by his all-or-nothing approach to things. Even though the conception of the family is a mess, it seems to me, some of the reality of the family nonetheless persists simply because the human body and human actions have intrinsic meanings that even a degraded culture can’t altogether eradicate. Besides, people never wholly believe the dominant theory of their time, and in our time that allows more transcendent metaphysics and more possibilities of a tolerable life to survive behind the scenes than one might think possible.