The Crisis of Modernity
Augusto Del Noce | McGill-Queen’s University Press | 2015, 260 pp
Augusto Del Noce’s The Crisis of Modernity, a compilation of essays and lectures originally published in Italian, is a scholarly work that examines the roots of the discontent and disorder of Western culture in our time.
Del Noce, a highly regarded 20th century continental philosopher, has only recently become more familiar in the anglophone world through translations of his work by McGill-Queen’s University Press in 1914. Since then, there have been regular reprints of The Crisis of Modernity.
Del Noce died in 1989 and many of the chapters in this compilation were written or delivered as far back as the early 1970s, so his prescience in identifying social patterns that continue to accelerate and take the ever more bizarre and oppressive forms he signalled some fifty years ago, is one of the most striking things about this book.
Search for autonomy
His careful, erudite analysis finds the emergence of our cultural memes in the history of ideas stretching back to Martin Luther. What was seeded in the writings of religious reformers was a loosening of the idea of “uncreated authority” and “uncreated values” towards an assertion of man’s individual autonomy, a movement from the classical and Judaeo-Christian understanding of human identity as a search for “belonging” to a search for “being”.
Del Noce traces this ideological creep through the 20th century existentialist philosophers and through the influence of avant garde movements in art. The latter he finds of particular interest, because he says the Catholic Church with its focus on the threat posed by communism at the time missed the implications of developments in the artistic sphere, mistaking “the ascent of eroticism for pornography”.
Del Noce observes that the freedom of women “is equated with absolute sexual freedom”. As an insight, this observation would be considered perceptive if written today but, given his observation is decades old, one might ask why we are so slow to read the signs of the times? One might also ask if the Church is not making an even graver error today, mistaking an even bolder “ascent of eroticism” for a movement for equality and inclusion?
Philosophical and artistic ideas and 20th century socio-political revolutions came together to accelerate the pattern that centres on a quest for freedom and personal autonomy. Del Noce foresaw how the materialism and atheism of Marx would endure even after the revolutions he inspired had failed and how they would take the new forms we are now experiencing.
Del Noce lived just long enough to see the fall of the Berlin Wall that confirmed the first part of his analysis. The underlying quest of both revolutionaries and the philosophers who led the way was for freedom understood as “freedom from” rather than “freedom to”. It was about abandoning restraints and toppling elites and systems of power. Its prophets and drivers characterise themselves unvaryingly as enlightened.
They believe they are on the right side of history. Those who oppose them are characterised as suffering from a “psychological condition”, if they don’t have vested interest in the status quo, that demands they be “repressed, cured or more generally ignored”. They must be dragged, kicking and screaming, into a future that cannot be evaded because it represents humanity’s inevitable progress towards enlightenment.
Del Noce observes that casting off the restraints of authority does not lead to freedom but rather to totalitarian force, to “the falsification of language”, to an outright rejection of the past “even if it is as recent as yesterday”. The assumption is that “traditional values have passed away for good”.
Lines like that read like their author was privy to the ideological totalitarianism of the last decade. Yet, Del Noce made these observations long before the wokeist doctrines we are familiar with today took shape. He did not live to witness the sweeping decolonisation crusades in our institutions, yet he wrote that we are “doing to ourselves” what we did to others in history, that is “uprooting people from their traditions”.
While the idea of transcendence is anathema to the shapers of our culture, Del Noce notes that ideas of Utopia, the possibility of a perfect human society, underlies all revolutions. The concept of original sin is either forgotten, overlooked or denied. But what Del Noce describes as the “messianic” quality of revolutions, particularly Marxist revolutions that envisage a golden age of equality and sufficiency, inevitably flounder in disappointment, disillusion and the emergence of new elites who replace the authorities they have supplanted with force and authoritarianism.
The cultural and social movements of our own time which, as Del Noce notes, replaces the idea of revolution with the idea of progress, tends towards a softer form of totalitarianism. Ideological enemies are neutralised from within. Faiths themselves co-operate in quietly abandoning ideas of transcendence and the supernatural, if not denying them outrightly. “Christ is absorbed into philosophy.” Religion must surrender to what Del Noce calls “scientism”: “The only evidence that is admissible is empirical.”
In our time, it is becoming more and more evident that empirical evidence is not the authority its defenders claim it to be. It is led by ideology rather than the other way round; as reports of the suppression of inconvenient research testifies, the very suppression that modernists accuse the Church of doing in the past.
It is not, Del Noce emphasises, that a new morality is seeking to replace the old. “It’s about the abolition of the idea of morals.” What emerges is “an a-religious, technocratic spirit”, where “every sin is a sin against the direction of history” and “morality is reduced to norms that ensure co-existence”. The moral arguments between right and wrong, good and bad are now posited as the “permissive spirit versus the repressive spirit”.
The myth of progress to a perfect human society is belied by reality but today’s cultural engineers have at their disposal the endless novelties of the technological age which hides or appear “to hide the process of disintegration”. Man, cut off from his past and future, “lives through a series of discontinuous instants”. Novelty “hides unchanging, undeveloping life”.
“The full satisfaction of one’s desires” suppresses man’s deeper quest for truth and meaning, the deeper needs of his being, the fact that he inhabits a moral wasteland. The hedonism, permissiveness and decadence of our age is the bread and circuses that keeps the social fabric from unravelling to the point of disintegration for now.
Ironically, since one of the foundational ideas of Marxism was “to free man from subjection to the economic law”, incessant consumption of the age’s novelties has led to reinstating the “primacy of the economic dimension” and consolidating its tyranny. Hence the alliance of strange bedfellows in our culture, described by Del Noce before the Silicon Valley phenomenon, as “the technological right and the cultural left”.
Again, anticipating the age of Putin, Del Noce notes that this very collapse of moral authority, represented by Western decadence, is seen in the Communist world as self-destructive, not self-preservative. If the enemy state is engaged in its own collapse, there is little for its opponents to do but wait.
One is led to consider how Putin calculated that a self-indulgent and self loathing West would not stand in the way of his expansionist goals when he invaded Ukraine last February. The fact that he miscalculated perhaps shows the West believes some things are still worth defending?
Freedom with authority
Del Noce analyses the odium in which the Catholic tradition is held by the secularist progressives in terms of their perception of the values of faith. Beliefs are seen as delusional or self-serving or both, but values are essentially about giving self-interest a cloak of justification for oppressing the masses. It is because such values are deemed to be “hollow and hypocritical”, to constitute “repressive violence” that revolutionaries feel justified in engaging in “revolutionary violence”.
Del Noce suggests the Church and the wider culture alike must re-assert “the idea of authority” and distinguish it from power and force. “Authority has a liberating character, power an oppressive one.” As the histories of social and political revolutions amply illustrate, the breakdown of religions based on authority does not bring freedom but coercion and “authoritarianism based not on authority but force”.
Authority is underpinned in western culture by the Logos, by reason as well as the revelations of faith. Classical thought, Scripture and Christian tradition shaped our civilisation. Historically, the transmission of values and beliefs was by the Church and its institutions but Del Noce also emphasises the central role of the family as “transmitter of values”. That is why “the family must be feared” by the agents of social progress, he says.
If the Catholic Church fades away, it will be as a result of “the disappearance of the idea of authority”. Re-asserting the value of family and traditional sexual morality is core to this task for Del Noce. With astonishing foresight, he writes “the decisive battleground of Christianity could be fought today at the level of the Sexual Revolution”.
Del Noce did not live to see the strange trajectory of the expanding notion of sexual freedom in our time, but he could see that rejection of authority has its own intrinsic logic that impels it towards more and more deviation and eventually disintegration.
The Crisis of Modernity is a seminal work in the sense that it precedes numerous commentators on modernity who make similar arguments from the vantage of hindsight that wasn’t available to Del Noce. Being right without the benefit of hindsight gives his work added interest.
Many well-known names have made their mark with books on the subject. Writers like Jordan Peterson, Douglas Murray, Rod Dreher, J.D. Vance, Abigail Shrier, Tom Holland and Mary Eberstadt and many more have made the field a literary genre that generates book sales worldwide.
What sets this lesser known Italian thinker apart, apart from his extraordinary foresight, is the acuity of his perception, the range of his erudition, and the rigour of his scholarship which is so much more than the research undertaken in tackling a standalone project.
There is something else too. His own unequivocal commitment to the faith gives his style and argument a grounded confidence that is unparalleled among the expanding cohort of analysts that follow him. As a read, this book is more demanding than its successors, but it is worth the pains of careful reading, both for its content and the questions it raises for the reader in the context of the more manifest disintegration of traditional values and beliefs in our own time.