How many persons in the West, and even in the United States, are in their hearts still Christian?
Toward the end of the Second World War, the French philosopher Bertrand de Jouvenel observed:
In this war everyone—workmen, peasants, and women alike—is in the fight, and in consequence everything, the factory, the harvest, even the dwelling-house, has turned target. As a result the enemy to be fought has been all flesh that is and all soil, and the bombing plane has striven to consummate the utter destruction of them all. The war would have counted fewer participants, it would have wrought a less frightful havoc, had not certain passions, fiercely and unanimously felt, so transformed men's natures that a total distortion of their normal modes of doing became possible. The task of stirring and sustaining these passions has been that of a munition of war without which the others must have proved ineffectual—propaganda. Savagery in act is sustained by savagery of feelings; this has been the work of propaganda.1
By the time de Jouvenel wrote, the war had laid waste to much of Europe from the Atlantic seaboard to the Ural Mountains. Although cities were rebuilt and prosperity restored when the fighting stopped, we live still amid the wreckage of a civilization. The modern world had fallen in disarray even before the war because modern ideas, beliefs, and convictions were in disarray. Beset by confusion, doubt, vulgarity, and stupidity, men and women suffered a paralysis of the mind.
This past spring I taught a course on the passing of the Modern Age to undergraduates. (I had taught the Birth of the Modern Age during the fall semester.) Their woeful ignorance of history and current events notwithstanding, they were engaged with, if somewhat bemused by, the lectures and discussions until the final weeks of the semester when they read Romano Guardini's End of the Modern World. They did not understand the import of Guardini's nuanced reflections. But they did recognize the challenge he posed to their world view: technology could be detrimental; progress could be illusory; power was often treacherous. Most categorically rejected such conclusions, denounced Guardini's analysis as myopic and old-fashioned, and embraced their tablets and their Smart Phones with greater fervor and affection. All but a few refused even to consider the validity Guardini's apocalyptic prophecies. They preferred to disavow reality. The consensus was that Guardini's logic doomed the world to a primitive existence, depriving people even of life-saving medical technology. This misrepresentation of Guardini's argument is, of course, beyond caricature. Not only mistaken, it ignores his profound critique of modernity and his dire warnings about the dissolution of the modern world.
Historians ought to be wary of applying biological categories to historical realities. But similarities do exist. Like living organisms, like the human body, civilizations are born, grow, age, and die. The French writer Paul Valéry expressed this realization when, at the beginning of the twentieth century, he declared: "We modern civilizations have learned that we are mortal … We feel that a civilization is as fragile as a life."2 Like others of his generation, Valéry anticipated catastrophe, the fall of majestic empires with barbarians storming the gates. He did not imagine—how could he or anyone have done so?—the widespread and insidious boredom, loneliness, and despair that exist in the midst of material comfort, abundance, and luxury. My students recoiled at the prospect, declining to contemplate the spiritual filthiness and poverty that mark the degradation of the West now that the Modern Age has passed. As the coherence of civilization erodes so, too, does the coherence of our minds and our lives.
For [my students], history remains something unpleasant that happens to other people.
Although they do not know why, my students expect happy endings. They are superficially optimistic. Without seeming to give the matter much more than a passing thought, they are steadfast in their belief in progress. Or, rather, they believe that no matter what happens in the rest of the world, they will be spared the worst. For them, as Arnold Toynbee said, history remains something unpleasant that happens to other people. However inadequate and naïve, their outlook is reasonable. They want the world to make sense. They want to avoid suffering. They want life, or at least they want their lives, to have meaning and purpose. They assume that the world they imagine and desire will emerge automatically and inevitably, for it is inscribed in the nature of things. As a consequence, Guardini's less cheerful prognosis was difficult, if not impossible, for them to accept, or even to comprehend.
According to Guardini, Nature, Personality, and Culture constituted the modern trinity. The foundation of the modern world view, they were also the source of misjudgment and perplexity:
Insofar as modern man saw the world simply as "nature," he absorbed it into himself. Insofar as he understood himself as a "personality," he made himself the Lord of his being, and insofar as he conceived a will for "culture," he strove to make of existence the creation of his own hands.3
Exalting the autonomous self, modern man sought unlimited freedom. The self, Guardini argued, became the ground for meaning. Subjectivity eclipsed objectivity in the quest for knowledge independent of authority, as human beings determined to make themselves the masters of creation.
Nature then became alien, an enemy to be possessed, subdued, and conquered. Technology enabled modern man to satisfy the ambition to dominate nature for the alleged benefit of humanity. This conviction of benevolence obscured the destructive potential of technology, including the destruction of the earth itself. In reality, Guardini maintained, power was the motive for human actions:
The technological mind sees nature as an insensate order, as a cold body of facts, as a mere "given," as an object of utility, as raw material to be hammered into useful shape; it views the cosmos similarly as a mere "space" into which objects can be thrown with complete indifference. Technological man will remold the world; he sees his task as Promethean and its stakes as being and non-being … Man's relations with nature have reached the point of final crisis: man will either succeed in converting his mastery into good—then his accomplishment would be immense indeed—man will either do that or man himself will be at an end.4
Even were modern man to survive his own aspirations, he would sacrifice his humanity. Anonymous, absorbed by technology, Guardini anticipated the emergence of a new type of human being that was defined by regimentation and conformity. This "man without personality" would make no effort to assert his identity or to achieve individual excellence, two of the hallmarks of the Modern Age. Rather, the post-modern individual would disappear into the collective, ceasing to exist as a person and becoming a biological, sociological, economic, political, and psychological abstraction.
Human responsibility would be the most important casualty of this development. People would no longer give an account of their behavior, nor would they wish to do so. In their irresponsibility would be their freedom. Conscious of, and confident in, their absolute power, human beings, Guardini predicted, would come to live life without a sense of limits. They would take possession of the earth and manipulate creation itself to achieve their objectives without fear of the consequences. As Guardini understood, history—the record of actions in the past—had demonstrated the fallacy of these convictions. Human beings were free to do evil as well as good. They could build and preserve or they could tear down and demolish. "The facts prove that man often takes an evil road," Guardini asserted. "Our age is aware of the reality of the deliberate destructiveness in the human spirit and our age is troubled to its very depths."5 Far from ensuring a better future, humanity at the end of the Modern Age stood in danger of losing itself, befouling nature, and annihilating the world on which life itself depends.
Since the seventeenth century, the modern assumption had been that increased power accelerated progress and enhanced security. But since intemperance and irresponsibility had guided human conduct, the problem of the future, as Guardini saw it, was to limit, not to expand, power. In his view, power had become demonic. "Close examination proves that recent years [Guardini wrote in the late 1940s] have been marked by a monstrous growth in man's power over being, over things and over men, but the grave responsibility, the clear consciousness, the strong character needed for exercising this power well have not kept pace with its growth at all."6 As a consequence, Guardini assumed, the future will be fraught with, and defined by, a single characteristic: danger. Human beings will face danger at every turn—danger from the state, from culture, from nature, from each other.
With the advent of science and technology, human beings may have gained ascendancy over nature. They may have fashioned a culture that was the work of human hands, wholly independent of God. Culture since the Renaissance was conceived as the product of human intelligence, imagination, and creativity. It replaced divine revelation as the source of meaning and made humanity the lord of creation. At the same time, human achievements had dispossessed human beings of their humanity and cast them adrift. They had no place in the world and no home in the cosmos. They were disoriented. Modern men had not learned how to control their aspirations and so had not learned to master their use of power. That peril for Guardini was the legacy of the Modern Age. It brought about the demise of grand hopes for democracy, prosperity, justice, equality, and progress. Civilization was reversing course, "all the abysses of primeval ages yawn before man, all the wild choking growth of the long-dead forests press forward from this second wilderness, all the monsters of the desert wastes, all the horrors of darkness are once more upon man."7 At the end of the Modern Age, humanity confronted the frightful prospect of a decent into chaos.
"Progress," discerned the French historian Albert Sorel, "was only one of the beautiful theories of philosophers."8 At the zenith of the Modern Age during the first half of the nineteenth century there was a long moment of sublime tranquility, a precious equilibrium that but did not lead to stagnation. The Modern Age was a unique development of Western Civilization, and belonged more specifically to the history of Europe. It was thus Europeans who initiated its dissolution first in their quarrels over the "Eastern Question," the competition to seize the remnants of a dissolving Ottoman Empire, and then completed its destruction in the two world wars of the twentieth century. "Could the events of the last decades have happened at the peak of a really true culture in Europe?" Guardini wondered. "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 calculations of a few degenerate men or of small groups of men; they come from processes of agitation and poisoning which had 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.9
The Great War not only destroyed governments and empires, laid waste to cities and farms, slaughtered millions, and gave rise to radical ideas about art, literature, fashion, manners , and sexuality, it also, as Guardini made clear, bred a carelessness and irresponsibility in the conduct of human affairs from which new and even more sinister dangers emerged.
After the end of the Second World War in 1945, Western Europeans lived on borrowed money and borrowed time. Most sensed that their good fortune was temporary and dependent on American resources and largess, but they preferred it to the desolation that their counterparts in Eastern Europe suffered. They had learned how to live with a sense of impending doom, and so cherished their affluence while it lasted. Gradually, Americans also began to recognize that their country and way of life were not immune to the decline of the modern world. By the middle of the 1960s, more Americans began to sense an element of despair looming up beneath the vibrant surface of American life. To the rest of the world, and especially to Europeans, Americans had represented the pinnacle of success. They appeared youthful, powerful, and rich. But that image, that cult of youth, power, and wealth, was almost utterly devoid of substance. Despite suspicions that something had gone amiss, Americans continued to think of themselves and their country as exceptional. They believed because they wanted desperately to believe that through the special favor of heaven the United States would escape the perils and tribulations of history that had twice in the twentieth century devastated Europe. They were wrong.
The United States, of course, did not replicate the fate of Europe in the twentieth century. No bombs fell on American cities. No great wars were fought on American soil. Yet, the United States, once thought of as a city on hill, a beacon to humanity, the last, best hope of mankind, has neither forestalled nor avoided the crisis of the Modern Age. America shows myriad symptoms of decay, exhibiting both the infantilism and the senility that accompanies premature old age. Like Europeans a century ago, Americans are rejecting the ideas, values, and institutions of the Modern Age, that is, the ideas, values, and institutions of the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and the American War for Independence. Guardini detected in the Modern Age, and more so in the waning of modernity, a nihilistic egoism that stood in marked contrast to the world view prevalent during the Middle Ages.
Christian theology assigned a universal significance to human life, teaching that all human beings matter to God.
The Christian Middle Ages, Guardini affirmed, offered compensation for the injury, injustice, humiliation, and misery of this world, at least for the devout, the faithful, and the pure of heart. In place of a Golden Age in the past, Christianity promised an otherworldly kingdom that existed outside of time. Christian theology assigned a universal significance to human life, teaching that all human beings matter to God. It thereby replaced the pessimism and resignation of antiquity with hope. There was, Guardini contended, also a unity to medieval thought. Medieval thinkers did not abandon reason. They instead used it in the service of faith. The "crucial truth for medieval man was the fact of Divine Revelation." Not content to explain the mysteries of the world through the application of science or reason, medieval thinkers had little interest accumulating in merely empirical knowledge, although they yearned for truth. They instead constructed a world "out of the content of Revelation … The Summae are that world as it was erected out of the human mind," which forged divergent principles and ideas into "a powerful synthesis … an architectonic unity" that constituted a diversified but orderly whole.10 Given the fragmented condition of our society, nothing at the moment seems more un-American.
To counter the disintegration of the modern world, Guardini hoped for the revival of an age of faith. Cognizant of the difficulties that spiritual renewal was certain to entail, he nevertheless posited "the religious character of the future order" and expected that "the world to come will present less basis for objecting to Christianity as a refuge." He also foresaw that the:
loneliness in 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 it was made known in Christ.
Nearly seventy years after the publication of The End of the Modern World, the rot has advanced too far to entertain any serious prospect of restoring a Christian social order in which, as Guardini insisted, "faith will maintain itself against animosity and danger" and "man's obedience to God will assert itself with a new power."11 How many persons in the West, and even in the United States, are du fond du coeur still Christian?
Historians, of course, should not engage in prophecy. They know nothing of the future. "History can predict nothing," cautioned the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga, "except that great changes in human relationships will never come about in the form in which they have been anticipated." Historians ought to know that the world to come will be different than any we can imagine. It does not seem likely that we stand on the threshold of a Christian renaissance, but transcendent events are even more mysterious and unpredictable than the human actions that fall outside the range of our vision. In one respect, and it is of the utmost significance, Guardini's assessment of the modern predicament is beyond dispute. The prospects of any civilization, he suggested, are determined not by the corruption of its political, economic, and social institutions but by the emptiness of its spirit. "The ideas of the day demand immediate results," Huizinga conceded, as if ignoring his own dictum he could peer into the future that is our world. "The great ideas have always penetrated very slowly," he continued. "Like smoke and petol fumes over the cities, there hangs over the world a haze of empty words."12 If ideas are meaningless then life is meaningless. The loss of meaning creates the ideal breeding ground for despair.
In his masterful Ideas Have Consequences, Richard Weaver sensed among modern men and women a "suicidal impulse," "an incentive to self-destruction," a "wish to destroy the world."13 Guardini thought the danger embedded in the misguided attempt to understand and master nature condemned humanity to a rootless, spiritually nomadic existence, without a resting place. Destined to remain in perpetual motion, "the new man of the modern age" found in "the unexplored regions of his world … a challenge to meet and conquer. Within himself he heard the call to venture over what seemed an endless earth, to make himself the master." Human beings had, in fact, gained mastery over nature but in the process they lost the mastery of themselves. They could thus, and perhaps fatally, not "exercise power over power" or "restrain the chaos arising out of the very works of man."14 The consequence has been a hopeless fatalism that for a long time was disguised as intellectual freedom and prowess.
Men and women embrace fictions with which to silence their opponents and slogans with which to justify killing them. We should entertain no illusions that such debased language is either innocent or harmless.
Can we alter the trajectory and halt our dissolution? Is there reason to hope? In all candor, I do not know. More often it is obligation rather than conviction that keeps me from despair. Treachery flourishes everywhere. Everywhere the world is dominated by mistrust and filled with hate. Worst of all is the pervasive indifference to truth. Men and women embrace fictions with which to silence their opponents and slogans with which to justify killing them. We should entertain no illusions that such debased language is either innocent or harmless. It contains a recipe for worse mayhem and bloodshed than we have already experienced. Whether more persons today than formerly are given to delusion and folly is impossible determine, for not everyone has surrendered. But there can be no doubt that those who traffic in delusion and folly speak with authority and continue to gather enthusiastic disciples.
For more than a century the West has been descending into barbarism, the accretions of a new Dark Age. Its champions have less in common with the chivalrous knight errant of the Christian Middle Ages than they do with the Vandals, the Vikings, and the Goths. Regrettably, no one these days needs instruction in how to be a barbarian. Barbarism, lamented the historian Eric Hobsbawm, "is rather a by-product of life in a particular social and historical context … indicating the actual adaptation of people to living in a society without the rules of civilization."15 Americans and Western Europeans once self-consciously resisted these tendencies. Now there are many in the United States and Europe who self-consciously celebrate them. The American soldiers who stormed the Normandy beaches in 1944, by contrast, did not die to extend American power or to establish an American empire in Europe. Instead, for perhaps the only time in history, soldiers fought to rescue others from tyranny and to save a civilization from barbarism.
Yet, as Guardini, de Jouvenel, and countless other thinkers have acknowledged, the Second World War, which occasioned that feat of magnanimity and sacrifice, itself became a veritable school of barbarism. Writing after the Napoleonic War, the military theorist Carl von Clausewitz could take for granted that the armies of civilized states did not seek to devastate their adversaries. The conduct of the Second World War promoted no thought save the necessity to win by killing the enemy and destroying his factories, his cities, his farms, and his country. The war effort transformed every aspect of life. Any consideration that impeded total war—including considerations of humanity, mercy, and compassion—had to be swept aside, and any measure that led to total victory, no matter how inhumane or horrific, had to be embraced. The Second World War obliterated the distinction between soldier and civilian, between combatant and noncombatant. The bombing raids that both sides conducted against civilian targets put an end to all such discrimination. They spared not men, women, or children; they killed rich and poor, young and old alike. No one in any theater of war was immune from destruction. Mass killing robbed the cradle and filled the grave. Bombs set London and Coventry ablaze. Bombs turned Dresden and Tokyo into flaming burial grounds. Bombs destroyed the ancient monastery at Monte Cassino and the ancient shrines at Nuremburg. Atomic bombs, of course, pulverized Hiroshima and Nagasaki, reducing them to rubble and ashes. These incidents offer evidence that, in the end, a war of unlimited objectives consumes humanity itself.
Such developments are so contrary to the foundations on which civilized life has rested that they cast into doubt the possibility of recovery. The religious and humane traditions of the West proved inadequate to stay the tide of destruction. Even Churchill, Roosevelt, and Truman, the leaders of the democratic alliance fighting to defeat tyranny, were vulnerable. Churchill declared no extreme of violence too great in pursuit of victory. Roosevelt remained confident that the United States was entirely in the right even as the American military showered unimaginable destruction on the civilian populations of Germany and Japan. Truman said that, having given the order to drop the atomic bomb, he went to bed and slept soundly without being troubled by feelings of doubt, guilt, regret, or remorse. Add to these examples the savagery of the war on the Eastern Front and in the Pacific, the brutal mistreatment of prisoners of war by all the combatants, the enslavement of peoples in the Nazi-occupied countries, and, of course, the holocaust against European Jews. We are compelled to wonder whether the war inflicted a wound on Western Civilization that may never heal. Then imagine how much worse the world would have been had the Nazis prevailed.
Does a residue of violence and inhumanity still cover the world, including especially the United States, which itself escaped the devastation of the war—a residue of violence and inhumanity that conditions us to accept all manner of atrocities as a matter of course? The shock and outrage at some exceptionally ruthless act serves only to conceal how normal such occurrences have become. The knowledge of history does not seem to have chastened us or made us more contrite. Our manners have coarsened and our morality has broken down. Conduct that would have been unthinkable in a more civilized age is now permissible and even encouraged. But at this juncture we arrive at what is perhaps the most dismal recognition in the history of modern barbarism. The continuing degradation of the West at the end of the twentieth and beginning of the twenty-first century is not directly the result of the First or the Second World War, the influence of which is receding. It shares no intimate connection with the ambitions of Wilhelm II, Hitler, Stalin, or Mao. It originates instead from the advent of a world that increasingly eludes our control.
The deployment of nuclear weapons and the assumption that only the threat of a nuclear confrontation could save the West from despotism were enough to undermine accepted standards of civility.
The logic of the sectarian conflicts that dominated the twentieth century, including the Cold War, led to a mutual escalation of barbarism. Men on both sides came to regard their opponents as the embodiment of evil and refused to permit evil to triumph whatever the cost. War and the prospect of war thereby became not an extension of politics but an apocalyptic catastrophe. Under those circumstances, it is not surprising that civilization receded. But after the Second World War, the West experienced unprecedented economic prosperity and political stability. Yet, as Guardini appreciated, barbarism continued to advance. In part, the deployment of nuclear weapons and the assumption that only the threat of a nuclear confrontation could save the West from despotism were enough to undermine accepted standards of civility. In addition, the resort to torture among Western Powers, such as France, in the attempt to preserve their colonial empires contributed further to the spread of barbarism. Finally, the establishment of terrorist organizations accentuated hostilities among different peoples, a technique that invariably led to an escalation of violence even when the prospects for enduring political success were nonexistent. The result was a weakening of civilization and the further descent into barbarism.
The legacy of war, the peril of nuclear annihilation, and the rise of torture and terror have combined to effect the disintegration of political, social, and moral order, that is, to bring about simultaneously anarchy and anomie. For those who are deracinated, who can find no place in their societies, who can discover none but a bad cause with which to identify themselves, who have no purpose to which to devote their lives, the rules that limit conduct—even the rules that formerly limited the use of violence-no longer exist. Such persons can commit inexpressible atrocities because we have dismantled the safeguards that the past erected against them.
In the conclusion of The End of the Modern World, Guardini explained that the moment of crisis had arrived. "Man's existence is now nearing an absolute decision," he proposed. "Each and every consequence of that decision bears within it the greatest potentiality and the most extreme danger." He announced that:
Existence has lost its order … Obsessed with the exercise of his own power, man today frantically hunts for a way out of his own social breakdown. As long as men are unable to control themselves from within, however, they will inevitably be "organized" by forces from without. To ensure proper, external function the state steps in and places, that is it forces, its own power upon a new order.16
The situation has worsened considerably since Guardini published The End of the Modern World. We have lost both the ability to govern ourselves and to be "'organized' by forces from without." It may not be the strength but the weakness of states that should most concern us. They afford no effective guide to, or restraint upon, public conduct. The world is spinning out of our control. Centrifugal force governs us. We are thus at once more prepared for, and more inured to, acts of barbarism. In addition, some have responded as if curtailing barbarism is not as important as enhancing corporate revenues or augmenting private fortunes. Our condition will thus continue to deteriorate. I see no way to prevent it from doing so. Events may take place that we cannot yet imagine, the significance of which we cannot yet fathom. All signs are now against it. But we cannot know what lives on beneath the surging waves of barbarism that inundate the land. I hope that the future has a few pleasant surprises in store for us. It is not much to offer but it is the best I can do.
1. Bertrand de Jouvenel, On Power: The Natural History of Its Growth, trans. by J.F. Huntington Indianapolis, IN, 1993; originally published in 1945), 3-4.
2. Quoted in Hans Kohn, "The Crisis of European Thought and Culture," in World War I: A Turning Point in Modern History, ed. by Jack J. Roth (New York, 1967), 28.
3. Romano Guardini, The End of the Modern World (Wilmington, DE, 1998; originally published in 1956), 42.
4. Ibid., 55-56.
5. Ibid., 78.
6. Ibid., 82.
7. Ibid., 92.
8. Albert Sorel, Europe Under the Old Regime, trans. by Francis H. Herrick (New York, 1964; originally published in 1885), 3-4.
9. Guardini, The End of the Modern World, 86.
10. Ibid., 15, 18.
11. Ibid., 95, 108-109, 106-107.
12. Johan Huizinga, In the Shadow of To-Morrow: A Diagnosis of the Spiritual Distemper of Our Times (London, 1936), 202, 188.
13. Richard M. Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences (Chicago, 1948), 185.
14. Guardini, The End of the Modern World, 33, 94, 93.
15. Eric Hobsbawm, "Barbarism: A User's Guide," in On History (New York, 1997), 253.
16. Guardini, The End of the Modern World, 109, 113.
Mark Malvasi. "Romano Guardini & The End of the Modern World." The Imaginative Conservative (June 27, 2022).
Reprinted with permission from The Imaginative Conservative. Image credit: Charles Levy, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Mark Malvasi is Senior Contributor at The Imaginative Conservative and Professor of History at Randolph-Macon College, where he teaches "The Idea and Problem of Slavery." Dr. Malvasi is the author of The Unregenerate South: The Agrarian Thought of John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Donald Davidson, Slavery in the Western Hemisphere Circa 1500-1888, and Dark Fields: Poems and an Essay.Copyright © 2022 The Imaginative Conservative
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