The world looked a pretty bleak place in the aftermath of the horrors of The Great War, “the war to end all wars”. For many, T. S. Eliot’s “rhythmic grumbling” in The Waste Land epitomised the mood of the time. Its magnificence as a poem perhaps softened its doleful cry of bewilderment at the dried-up landscape confronting humanity.
In that age other voices also confronted this wilderness. Among them was Romano Guardini, a devout Catholic priest who was to become one of the most significant and influential figures in the history of the Catholic Church in the twentieth century. He looked at the same uncertain age and searched for signs of hope in the debris confronting mankind.
“Our age is so uncertain, skeptical, seeking, and homeless”, he wrote in one of his famous Letters from Lake Como, “that there are not a few today, I believe, who stand directly before God. Those who stand in the world have need of a stance in themselves and in something deeper than themselves from which to come to grips with the world again. And indeed a wave is moving out from God and reaching our innermost limit beyond which is the other.”
That was indeed true, but God’s ways are not man’s ways. Neither are God’s waves as predictable in their ebb and flow as Guardini may have supposed them to be. Those who stood before God in the “roaring twenties” were fewer than Guardini thought they might be. Through the thirties and forties mankind piled bewilderment upon bewilderment making Eliot’s vision of our decaying civilisation trump Guardini’s hopes.
Advance four decades into the future, on the other side of the apocalypse that was World War Two, Guardini’s reading of our world was in many ways more pessimistic than even that of Eliot. But it was still rooted in his Christian faith and therefore founded on Christian hope – something profoundly different from optimism and pessimism. But what made it so that pessimism had gained ground? It was not just the manifest evil which had festered through the twenties and then erupted in all its horror in the thirties, forties and in China in the fifties – death camps, gulags and famines perpetrated by ruthless human agents. It was the burgeoning tower of Babel represented by man’s “conquest” of nature and the catastrophes hidden beneath the “promise” of unlimited progress. Blinded by the power which science and technology put at our disposal, and seduced by a false paradigm of how society would best flourish, he foresaw us sinking further and further into a quagmire in which God was either ignored or scoffed at – or both.
All this was contemplated in his 1950 book, The End of the Modern World. In spite of its seemingly categorical title, Guardini, while being clear about the follies he was describing, was nevertheless tentative in his judgements about the future.
“Since”, he wrote, “the spirit of an age becomes wholly clear only when it has begun to vanish from the face of the earth, it has been possible to draw a picture of the modern world without falling victim either in a spirit of admiration or of hatred to the thing represented.
“Of itself my work led me into further studies which threw a shaft of light onto the epoch which is coming but is still unknown. It disclosed how deeply penetrating is the change everywhere passing over the world, it intimated the tasks which man will then have to face.”
Moving forward more than seventy years into what we now call the postmodern world, do we still need to be so tentative? The phenomenon of hubristic man replacing God has not diminished. Even in the realm of the Christian faith itself, Joseph Ratzinger mildly reflected on a tendency in the pastoral life of the Church in which God’s way was being placed as second fiddle to man’s. In God Is Near Us, published in 2001, he wrote:
“I sometimes have the impression that there is a temptation today to set up beside the pastoral approach of faith, or even against it, a pastoral approach based on one’s own cleverness, an approach that no longer actually trusts in faith’s ability to call men together today. Because this approach no longer believes that faith can actually affect anything, it has, so to say, to outwit God and men with its cleverness and to build something on its own account. How can that stand the test? It may perhaps seem simpler to begin with. But it remains our own work and still has the weaknesses of what is ours.
“A bishop from a country with a Marxist government said to me that what was most characteristic of that world, no longer allowed to be open to anything transcendent, was its unbelievable dreariness, the boredom of a world that can expect nothing but itself, the everlasting grayness of leaden everyday life with no celebration, in which, ultimately, nothing else can arrive, because man alone simply reproduces himself. In such a dreary wilderness, in the grayness of merely self-made life, there awakes a longing for something completely different to happen. Vladimir Maximov, the Russian emigré, said, on the basis of a similar experience: ‘For too long already we have talked about man; let us finally talk about God again. The world needs more than just itself.’”
In the 1920s Guardini asked the questions, “Will we come to God from the depths of our being, link ourselves to him, and in his freedom and power master chaos in this coming age? Will there be people who place themselves totally at God’s disposal and alone with and before him make the true decisions?”
We must still ask those question and hope, as Guardini did when he wrote:
“At bottom I do not know what else to say except that from my heart’s core I believe that God is at work. History is going forward in the depths, and we must be ready to play our part, trusting in what God is doing and in the forces that he has made to stir within us.”
But as we move forward again, into the third decade of the twenty-first century, we still find ourselves faced with threats to our civilisation. Even Elon Musk is on board our apparently fragile vessel tweeting about his fear that “the woke mind virus” is “pushing civilisation towards suicide”.
A much more considered judgment as to what has happened and is happening to our culture and civilisation here and now is that of Jewish philosopher and writer, Yoram Hazony. His recent book, Conservatism – A Rediscovery, was reviewed in these pages several months ago (Position Papers 561) by James Bradshaw. In Hazony’s reading it is the liberal paradigm for the organisation of our society which has led us down the path to potential destruction. This paradigm, he argues, carries within it a vision of mankind which allows for neither God nor mankind as they really are. Within its DNA is a dogmatic belief in the individual’s freedom which “has moved liberals to destigmatise – and, eventually, to actively legitimise – sexual license, narcotics, and pornography, as well as abortion, easy divorce, and out-of-marriage births, until finally the family has been broken and fertility ruined in nearly every Western country.
“Now an entirely different kind of decay is ascendant: a growing lassitude and despair, a true decadence in which no praise is to be gained from moving in any direction. And so meaningful movement ceases, and all that is left is the monotonous parade of sensations induced by alcohol, drugs, and flickering screens.”
With a little more than a flicker of hope he predicts regeneration.
“No human society can remain in such a condition indefinitely. A shattered society will eventually regenerate itself. The human ruins will cohere into households and clans, and then tribes. Their leading figures will teach self-discipline and constraint, and individuals will be honored and advanced for upholding certain beliefs and behavioral norms.”
The false paradigm which Hazony identifies as having led us into this morass is based on four assumptions which he outlines as follows:
- All men are perfectly free and equal by nature.
- Political obligation arises from the consent of the free individual.
- Government exists due to the consent of a large number of individuals, and its only legitimate purpose is to enable these individuals to make use of the freedom that is theirs by nature.
4. These premises are universally valid truths, which every individual can derive on his own, if he only chooses to do so, by reasoning about these matters.
The alternative paradigm, based on realism and evidenced in human history, by which we can escape from the abyss to which the former is leading us can be identified in the following premises:
- Men are born into families, tribes, and nations to which they are bound by ties of mutual loyalty.
- Individuals, families, tribes, and nations compete for honour, importance, and influence, until a threat or a common endeavour recalls them to the mutual loyalties that bind them to one another.
- Families, tribes, and nations are hierarchically structured, their members having importance and influence to the degree they are honoured within the hierarchy.
- Language, religion, law, and the forms of government and economic activity are traditional institutions, developed by families, tribes, and nations as they seek to strengthen their material prosperity, internal integrity, and cultural inheritance and to propagate themselves through future generations.
5. Political obligation is a consequence of membership in families, tribes, and nations. 6. These premises are derived from experience, and may be challenged and improved upon in light of experience.
In elaborating a programme, based on those six premises, which might be adopted for the rescue and reform of our political culture, he advocates that all who can, emphasise honour and loyalty in speaking to adults and in teaching children. “Let them be zealous in giving weight to parents and grandparents, elders and teachers. Let them honour our forefathers, their political and intellectual achievements, their military service and their acts of righteousness, their God and their Scripture. Where honour and praise are given to those who came before us, restoration and renewed health become possible again.”
In relation to the most egregious folly of the Enlightenment paradigm Hazony is withering – and in it we can surely hear echoes of both Guardini and Ratzinger as quoted above.
“This new world announced by Enlightenment rationalism is a fraud. It is a fantasy world that does not exist. In reality, an individual who believes that the political or moral principles delivered by his own mind hold good for all mankind and for all time is a confused person. He has confused his own local, limited perspective for that of God. He has forgotten that he approaches truth by means of a scheme of ideas that blinds him to whatever it was not framed to grasp, and that there are, inevitably, hidden factors that his principles are not taking into account.
“These hidden factors will eventually emerge and demand their due, often bringing on a calamity that a less arrogant theory of knowledge might have avoided. For this reason, a man who has confused his own local, limited perspective for that of God is potentially a very dangerous person indeed. The belief that one’s local, limited perspective is that of a god is paganism.”
He identifies this paganism as the poisonous ancient Roman type where emperors claimed to be gods – as opposed to the paganism of the city states who looked to gods who were not confused with men.
For one hundred years – indeed more – we have been sliding into a world which the wisest of men have been warning us to avoid. At the heart of our folly is our ignoring the admonition of Christ himself, “Seek ye therefore first the kingdom of God, and his justice, and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matthew 6:33).
The original of this essay first appeared in the March 2023 issue of the review, Position Papers