Are We Listening?

July-August 2000By Michael Berg

Michael Berg is Professor of Mathematics at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

The End of the Modern World.  By Romano Guardini. ISI [Intercollegiate Studies Institute] Books. 220 pages. $24.95.



This new edition of Romano Guardini’s famous 1956 work, The End of the Modern World, is really two books in one. The first part, subtitled A Search for Orientation, is a sweeping appraisal of the history of culture, indeed, of Christendom, brought to a fearsome precipice in our day. It ends with a weighty question about our future.

The second part, subtitled Power and Responsibility, begins to suggest an answer to this question by delineating a rough outline of what “the new human architect of [our] emergent world” ought to look like. Much of Guardini’s analysis, by now forty years old, is prophetic. We are now in a historical position to decide whether the hopes he expresses have any potential to be realized in our day and whether his new man is anywhere to be found.

In the first part, Guardini gives a theological analysis of the succession of cultures from the Middle Ages to modern times, with the Middle Ages as something of a peak. The central question of each age is the central question facing the individual: It is Our Lord’s question, “Who do you say that I am?” The question is as old as man himself, as in Eden a catastrophic choice was made by our first parents who, shifting their eyes away from God and onto themselves, sought to be like God.

The Middle Ages were characterized by a proper cultural movement away from a classical worldview (inherited from the Greeks) and emphatically toward a worldview centered on Faith: “In this Faith the world was born afresh, but it was born neither of mythology nor of philosophy. The mythical bonds which had chained man to the universe were destroyed. A new freedom dawned in history for the human spirit. Sundered now from the world, man was able for the first time to face all things from a new plane, from a vantage point which depended neither upon intellectual superiority nor cultural attainment. Thereupon was wrought a transfiguration of being utterly impossible for the old pagan world.”

Thus the Christian Middle Ages, as distinguished from a classical culture that was ultimately incapable of transcendence (in the Christian sense of the word), are a high point. Guardini discusses this apex of Christendom in terms of the various Summae which date from this cultural epoch. The Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas was prominent among them, but it was not unique.

The next cultural epoch Guardini delineates is (like its successors) severed from the medieval culture by a widening fissure. With the 14th century a discernible Sturm und Drang enters the scene. Guardini discerns a certain “Germanic longing to embrace the whole of being,” which he then identifies with the “drive for transcendence” that came to be historically associated with Goethe. In Guardini’s view (not a controversial one) Goethe personifies the Romantic movement whose prime characteristic is a shift in focus: Man, not God, is now the center of culture. The Romantic Zeitgeist amounts to nothing else than man’s primordial wish to wrest omnipotence from God; it is a prelude to a Götterdämmerung. “For the new man of the modern age the unexpected regions of his world were 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.”

But the devil will have his due, and with such a Promethean maneuver man lost his place in the order of creation: “Anguish, violence, greed, rebellion against order — more compellingly than ever these primitive drives stirred the soul of man….” We begin to come face to face with the all-too-familiar features of our own time, their roots residing in rather recent history: the modern age (with our age as postmodern) was neither the age of God nor of man, it was the age of the machine.

Guardini notes that personhood is a gift man discovers when he stands before God; our cultural growing away from God has yielded modern man, who is not human, and a modern nature (or world) which is not natural. Alienation and existential anxiety (Angst) marked the worldview of the first half of the 20th century, at least as far as the intelligentsia were concerned. And in Guardini’s analysis the horrid culmination of these cultural (and psychological) forces was the Second World War.

The history of culture has shown that man’s very sense of his own humanity has deteriorated and that modern man is susceptible to enslavement to power (and powers) well beyond any of his ancestors. Man is unable to handle his own progress, and he is now alien to himself, just as the creation he inhabits no longer resonates with him. What, if anything, can we do?

The answer to this question, or rather Guardini’s approach to a preliminary answer, comes in the second half of the work under review. He observes that our spirits are sick and that our malaise is a religious one (the Sacraments themselves are under attack). But he says: “exactly at this point a hope emerges which cannot be easily defined. For one thing its form is purely religious: it expresses itself in the confidence that God is greater than all historic processes; that these are in His hands, hence in His grace….”

Guardini then posits that a true metanoia (conversion) is required. But it must be a conversion appropriate to the situation in which we find ourselves. “What, then, ought he to look like, the new human architect of that emergent world?” “[He] will have to rediscover that…power lies in self-control; that inwardly accepted suffering transforms the sufferer; and that all existential growth depends…on freely offered sacrifice.”

Most descriptive, perhaps, is the following passage: “the new man would be able to see through the illusions which reign in the midst of scientific and technological development: the deception behind the ‘liberal’s’ idolatry of culture, behind the totalitarian’s utopia, the tragecist’s pessimism; behind modern mythicism and the hermaphrodite world of psychoanalysis. He would see and know for himself [that] Reality is simply not like that!”

Guardini prescribes for our (post)modern malady the only true and lasting healing that the spirit may experience, be it the spirit of man or the spirit of the age. He calls for a return to Christ in full humility and faith, even as we carry with us the heavy baggage of our cultural past. Guardini ultimately implores us to answer Our Lord’s question with the reply of St. Peter: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”

Writing more than four decades ago, Guardini suggested how we ought to go about the all-important task of rediscovering our religious destiny and what the charisms of our leadership should include. Today we can read Guardini’s analysis in the light of the leadership offered by one who never ceases to implore us to be signs of contradiction amid the madness of our age: John Paul II. Our Pope certainly meets the requirements sketched above: He personifies the condition that “inwardly accepted suffering transforms the sufferer.” And, in Veritatis Splendor, for example, he preaches the “right relation to the truth of things.” But are we listening?



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