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More on a world's end

Romano Guardini’s book The End of the Modern World provides an interesting comparison with Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences. Both were written in the immediate post-war period, and first presented to the public in 1947-1948. Both considered, in the setting of recent horrors, the tendency of technological mass society to reduce all things to function and utility.

The two are nonetheless quite different. The key difference, I think, is that Guardini was religious where Richard Weaver was only reverent. The difference made Guardini much more independent of his social and cultural setting, and enabled his book to be far more radical than anything Weaver could have written, In particular, it enabled him to emphasize the compulsive power of historical transformations much more than Weaver could, since it gave him a point of reference altogether outside the historical process.

In his book, Guardini divides history into four stages:

  1. Antiquity, when man lived in a thoroughly finite world that could be taken in by inspection. (That, I believe, was Spengler’s view.) In such a world there are many principles but no single supreme principle, Hence the freedom of Greek speculation and the disorder of Greek political society.
  2. Medieval times, when the infinite Christian God relativized the finite world of antiquity by placing it in a larger setting. Hence the love for grand architectonic structures ordered by a transcendent principle that gives everything its place, meaning and dignity.
  3. Modernity, when infinity became immanetized in the form of infinite space and time. (Guardini’s modern world sounds like Spengler’s Faustian one, although for Spengler the Faustian included the Medieval as well as the modern.) The arrival of modernity caused Medieval architectonic to fall apart and let science, politics, economics and culture regain their autonomy. Things no longer had a definite place, and in the absence of a concrete transcendent, which could not exist because there was no concrete place for God to be, nature, the individual personality, and culture become the most authoritative conceptions.
  4. Post-modernity (although he did not call it that), which arose after the collapse of nature, the individual personality, and culture as governing standards. Modern science and technology eventually caused nature, man and culture to evaporate just as they had earlier caused God to evaporate. The First World War was the decisive turning point. Today we are ruled by technology and by its complement, the Mass Man, who Guardini calls “non-human” because of his immersion in technological structures and consequent abstraction from the effects and meaning of his own actions.

Guardini believes in History, so for him there’s no turning back and there’s a lot we just have to accept, That causes problems for him, since, as he says, “it is difficult to discover any new possibilities in a future relinquished to the mass.” (63) Nonetheless, he still thinks he has to find some goal that offers hope, and to some extent he seems to find it in the very difficulty under present circumstances of facing toward God and so becoming a person (or “Person,” as his translator puts it):

Strangely, the very mass which carries the danger of utilitarianism and totalitarianism also offers the fullest range of spiritual maturity to the human person. Such a challenge demands an inner freedom and strength of character, a strengthening of character which we can scarcely conceive. Nothing else, however, can withstand the powers of anonymity which grow more immense day by day.

(65) He also suggests that the enormous collective effort involved in taking on the challenge of dominating the world through technology will promote the goods of comradeship, “If this comradeship is accepted in accord with the true meaning of ‘Person,’ it will be the supreme human value to come from the mass.” (66)

Guardini’s ideal thus seems to be a sort of Christian Nietzschean superman who is also a socialist comrade, and who by combining all those things is able to exercise the power technology confers on man without abusing it. All that is very, very strenuous:

The new culture will be incomparably more harsh and more intense. It will lack the organic both in its sense of growth and of proportions; for the new culture will have been willed into being by the spirit of man, built up abstractly by his own hands…. it presents a vision of factories and barracks to the eyes of the mind.

A single fact, we must emphasize, will stamp the new culture: danger…. What can guarantee man’s proper use of his power in the realm of freedom? Nothing.

(88-90) He calls for earnestness, gravity and asceticism to deal with such demands, believing that such qualities can be called forth by the increasing clarity of the horrible alternative to human control over human power, The consequences of giving up Revelation and adopting a truly post-Christian ethic will also become clear, and call forth renewed devotion to the “absoluteness,” the “unconditional demands and affirmations” of dogma. Thus will return a sort of Old Testament age in which God is a mighty God of battles. “The absolute experiencing of dogma will, I believe, make men feel more sharply the direction of life and the meaning of existence itself.” (106)

Such is the theory. On the whole, though, the new age of clarity and struggle has yet to arrive, except perhaps in the eyes of a few. Those who manage public issues have succeeded in diverting people from basic questions, with the aid of prosperity, social protections, electronic entertainment, and never-ending obfuscations. Technocratic uniformity has been defined as “diversity,” since it eats up and therefore includes all things, while enthusiastic acceptance of how we are ruled is thought not only good mental health but true prophetic Christianity. The dominant notes of today’s public life, at least as most people experience it, are less clarity, struggle and danger than inertia and an absolute demand for ease and security. That may change, of course, to the extent reality catches up with desire and overtakes it. For now, though, “not with a bang but a wimper” seems to summarize the development of the postmodern age.

More generally, it seems to me that Romano presents the alternatives too starkly. The conflict of absolutes is important, but it is not and cannot be the whole of life. Technocratic society is an ideal that can’t really be realized, since people aren’t like that and life doesn’t work that way. If dominant institutions and established ways of thinking demand it, and consider all alternatives dangerous and irrational, then the result will be not its realization but corruption, irrationality and growing disorder as official rhetoric and goals diverge more and more from the actual conditions of life. So what the future will call for may be less the Christian Nietzschean socialist comrade than the man who combines strong religious commitments with strong personal and community attachments—in other words, the good man as traditionally conceived. Tradition can never die, because what can be made explicit is always outweighed in life by the implicit, personal and customary.