The Crisis of Modernity

I have been reading the work of the Italian philosopher Augusto Del Noce. Recently two of his major works have been translated into English, The Crisis of Modernity and The Age of Secularization. Del Noce devoted his scholarly life to understanding the rise of totalitarianism in the twentieth century. He had a unique understanding of the emergence of both Communism and Fascism. The standard narrative is that the massive brutality of both of these regimes represents a reaction to the progressive forces of modernity. Demagogues are able to rally people afraid of the progress and liberation of the modern world and are able to usurp power with the rhetoric of scapegoat and security. The descent into barbarism is a parenthesis in history, an interruption in the inevitable forward progress of history in which reason, science and technology will bring in a more just and equitable society.

Del Noce who was a young man when Mussolini came to power and who briefly embraced Marxism but was ultimately unable to reconcile himself to revolutionary violence. Del Noce came to believe that the rise of totalitarianism was not a parenthesis in the march of modernity but that totalitarianism is quintessentially modern. He came to believe that what makes the modern age modern is atheism. Del Noce’s study of the early philosophical writing of Karl Marx convinced him that atheism is foundational for Marxism. In order for man to be free he must be liberated from all dependencies. The greatest of all dependencies is the dependency on God. God must not exist or else man cannot be free. Marx insists that we make ourselves by our own labor or engagement with the world. This absolutely autonomous self is the idol of the modern world and millions have been slaughtered on its altar.

This radical atheism of Marx has profoundly influenced the intellectual culture on both sides of the Atlantic in the Twentieth Century. It is a radical atheism because it is not only faith in God that is attacked but the reality of any transcendent point of reference for humanity. One of the consequences is a change in the nature of philosophy. Philosophy ceases to be a search for the truth and becomes merely instrumental. The question is no longer is it true but does it advance the cause of the revolution, or progress or sexual liberation or whatever the cause may. The worth of ideas is judged by who proposes them and not by any inherent quality. Philosophy is collapsed into politics and politics is collapsed into war. The war can be cold or hot but all that is left is raw power when any sense of universals or moral absolutes is gone.

Del Noce predicted the collapse of Soviet Communism. He thought there were two elements in Marxism, the destructive atheism and relativism, and the romantic, revolutionary impulse which functioned like an atheistic religion. He thought it inevitable that the relativism would consume the romantic, revolutionary and religious side of Marxism and history has born him out. Del Noce said that Marxism failed in the East because it won in the West. But what comes as the result of the triumph of the negative pole of Marxism is not the revolution but the nihilism of the technocratic society. Rather than overturning the bourgeoisie, the atheistic and relativistic side of Marxism has produced a hyper bourgeois society in which any transcendent restraints on capitalism have been rendered impotent. People are controlled by a new totalitarianism that oppresses chiefly by restricting and managing desire. The desire for the transcendent must be anesthetized at all costs.

In the same way the hyper individualism that comes with the radical atheism and the loss of the transcendent must, because of the logic of ideas, lead not to greater and greater individual freedom but to a new kind of totalitarianism where dissenters to the anti-religious and anti-metaphysical mode of the technocratic society will be exiled to “moral concentration camps.” Modernism is not the tide of history running against totalitarianism but the tide running toward it. But also Del Noce said it does not have to be so and religious and metaphysical reality can be rediscovered and indeed cannot be forever suppressed.

Carlo Lancellotti, the translator of Del Noce can explain his work far better than I can. I recommend this YouTube video from Notre Dame and this video from Biola. I think the implications of Del Noce’s work for Christian mission are significant. Among other things opening the religious and metaphysical dimension through beauty and art and serious philosophical discussion become important for reawakening the deepest desires of the human heart so that contemporary people can recover their hunger for the true, the good and the beautiful and the hunger for God.

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