Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

In February 1943, standing before thousands of loyal Nazis in the Sportpalast in Berlin, Josef Goebbels called for “total war.” Total war it was, and within a few years the Sportpalast was part of the smoldering ruins of the National Socialist movement.

Martin Heidegger, one of the movement’s most famous former members, had said that the “inner truth and greatness” of the Nazis’ vision “consisted in modern man’s encounter with global technology.” Surveying the wreckage of that encounter after the war, the German Catholic writer Romano Guardini saw instead the completion and the collapse of the modern project. The aspirations that had inspired the founders of modern thought—the conquest of nature through science, indeed the conquest of human nature through science and the emancipation of power from moral restraint—had been achieved beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, and they had turned to ashes before that success could be enjoyed.

Guardini was moved to write his classic study The End of the Modern World and its companion volume, Power and Responsibility. The essence of modernity, he argued, lay in the “divorce of power and person.” After centuries of reductionism and debunking, personhood stood reduced to mere subjectivity, the transparent assertion of values without anchorage or horizon. Power cast a shadow over man through impersonal institutions and processes following their own soulless logic. “There is no being without a master,” and demonic power had filled the vacuum left by the eclipse of ­personal responsibility. Having squandered the moral capital of Christianity, moderns had little left to spend.

These days, standing amid our own ruins, we hear from all sides an apparently similar thought: Modern thought has run its course, leaving behind only a thoroughgoing skepticism about all meaningful accounts of human nature and destiny. Both academic and popular postmodernism establish a taboo on the examination of ultimate reality, invoking a blithe relativism that would make Protagoras blush. Yet Guardini saw that the true lesson runs in the opposite direction: Only a Christian understanding can make sense of the postmodern human condition.

In other words, the crisis of modernity had been grasped well before the academic fad of our own time. The postmodernism that prevails in today’s intellectual climate is a secondary phenomenon, derivative and not truly radical. Guardini saw it and transcended it, calling for a new philosophical anthropology, one that would reappropriate the Christian understanding of the person as the agent of participation in a shared reality and as the locus of responsibility.

There were others working in the same fields. This theistic revival, this preemptive postmodernism, grew from the insights of a group of European thinkers who had found the answer to the crisis of modernity in the spiritual resources of the West. None saw the pathologies of modernity as the final or real expression of the meaning of the West. They asserted instead that the end of modernity reveals the radical reality of human freedom and dignity. They saw that the clash between the naturalistic reductionism of modernity and postmodern subjectivism is a family quarrel premised upon the eclipse of the person.

Most of these thinkers were marginal figures in their time. Few were active in politics, and none demonstrated sympathy for National Socialism or Soviet communism. All—with the ambiguous exception of José Ortega y Gasset—were theists. Some were poised between Judaism and Christianity, and almost all were aware of their indebtedness to a Christian vision of human nature and destiny.

So, for example, in the fall of 1940, an ailing and elderly Henri Bergson stood for hours in the freezing rain in German-occupied Paris, waiting for the yellow star that would be his stigma in the New Europe. One of the few philosophers to win the Nobel Prize for literature, he had refused the protection of the Vichy government and chosen to embrace the fate of his people. He would be dead within months but not before resigning in protest from all his positions and honors, a profound step for someone who had once been professor of philosophy at one of Europe’s greatest universities. He had found himself unable to complete his conversion to Christianity, convinced that in the Nazis’ Europe his cross was to die as a Jew.

In lapidary French, with gripping images and intuitions that defied the systems and definitions of technical philosophy, he offered a sustained critique of what he called modernity’s “Eleatic reason,” after the home of the ancient Greek metaphysicians Parmenides and Zeno: the willingness to explain everything through predigested intellectual categories that leave no room for the human experiences—freedom, memory, love, drama, and comedy—that defy explanation through cold, impersonal reason.

His last great work, The Two Sources of Morality and Religion, published in 1932, proposed that any human society, like any soul, was either “closed” or “open” to the experience of transcendence through which human beings are capable of breaking natural cycles and processes. That openness, Bergson concluded, could ultimately rest only on the Christian understanding of the person and of universal brotherhood. It was in expression of that brotherhood that he chose to die wearing a yellow star.

Around the same time, a solitary figure living a simple life in the Swiss Alps reached a similar yet even more radical conclusion, clothed in language even more poetic than Bergson’s. In 1934, a remarkable work called The Flight from God was published by Max Picard, a Jew who a few years later converted to Christianity.

Picard saw the modern, secular West as a self-perpetuating system of spiritual amnesia, frantically busy yet accomplishing nothing, full of communication yet bereft of conversation, loud and bright yet at the same time mute and senseless. Love, friendship, and loyalty exist only as fragments in the world of Flight from God: evanescent snippets of experience that come and go. That is why, in modern times, words have become merely signs, disconnected from the persons who utter them: “Whistling and signaling replace words in the world of the Flight . . . . If two ships wish to communicate with each other, little flags are hoisted on ropes; just so do words flutter up and down the sentences. When two men talk with each other by means of signals instead of using words, the distance between them is just as great as the distance between two ships: An entire ocean lies between them, the ocean of the Flight.”

Impersonal deconstruction requires personal reconstruction. Scattered and dismembered words must be gathered together in prayer and sent to God, for “only before him who is himself eternal and complete can the dead and dismembered be made whole once more.” Only in a world constituted by faith in a personal God do the relations between human persons assume consistency and integrity.

A year after the Second World War concluded, Picard published Hitler in Our Selves, diagnosing what Hannah Arendt would characterize a generation later as the “banality of evil.” He envisions the dutiful Hitlerite who, in his civilian capacity as a clerk, would race through the street to return the penny someone had left on the counter, while in a different circumstance he would just as easily carry out an order for mass murder. Yet Picard goes deeper, seeing National Socialism as the ultimate demonic expression of human fragmentation, of the reduction of the person to a closed, mutilated entity capable of relating to others only by manipu­lating them as objects.

While Picard lived and wrote on his mountain in Switzerland, the cafés and salons of Paris were the nerve center of twentieth-century intellectual history, enriched by scores of émigré thinkers—predominantly Russians in the 1920s and Jews from all over Europe in the 1930s. One of the greatest was a Russian Jew named Lev Shestov, whose later writings drew on such “knights of faith” as St. Paul and Martin Luther. Shestov was as uncompromising a critic of rationalism as one can find in twentieth-century letters. Exiled from Russia after the Bolshevik takeover, he saw the First World War and the travails of his native country as a lesson in the folly of human pride, particularly the intellectual conceit that unassisted human reason can organize and control all of reality.

Shestov heralded the need for what he termed a “biblical philosophy” that would renounce the ­philosophical quest to explain the necessary reason for things and point instead to a human freedom that derives from God’s unlimited freedom. Philosophy begins not in wonder but in despair, in the night of silence and in the desert of loneliness. He took as his starting point the opening of Psalm 130: “Out of the deep have I called unto thee, O Lord; Lord hear my voice . . . . I look for the Lord; my soul doth wait for him; in his word is my trust.”

Shestov’s last work was entitled Athens and Jerusalem, contrasting the temple of self-sufficient reason with the city of righteousness and locking horns with every philosopher from Heraclitus to Husserl. Willfully blind to the possible synthesis of reason and revelation, Shestov spoke in a prophetic voice to a world in which the life of the mind had been thoroughly uprooted from a spiritual foundation. His nightmare of a world fashioned by rationalism was described by his friend Nicolas Berdyaev as a “rounded-off universe in which there is no more individuality, risk, or new creation.”

To such younger thinkers as Walter Benjamin, Leo Strauss, and Alexandre Kojève, Shestov was the adamant theistic alternative to the dominant atheistic currents. Benjamin corresponded with Gerhard Scholem about the power of Shestov’s fideism. Strauss would later write a subtle work reversing the title of Shestov’s final volume, and Kojève would become a theoretician and agent of what he described as the “universal and homogeneous state.” It may be that Strauss’ understanding of the history of political philosophy, as well as the vision of a universal techno-bureaucratic order at the end of history, originated in part as a reaction to Shestov’s biblical and personalist philosophy.

Another prominent voice in that interwar Parisian scene was Gabriel Marcel, who gradually extricated himself from neo-Hegelian rationalism, joined the Catholic Church, and established himself as a major Christian philosopher. In relative obscurity (he did not publish anything remotely resembling systematic writing until the late 1940s), Marcel outlined the main themes of theistic postmodern philosophy. The human condition, he thought, must be understood in terms of participation in a way that transcends the antithesis of subject and object that has bedeviled modern philosophy. Each human existence participates in a reality marked by the tension between the subject and the object: Isolate one to the exclusion of the other and what is left is an abstraction, either a solipsistic individual or an impersonal object.

Human existence is that tension actually lived; subject and object can be distinguished but not conceived in isolation. Human beings do not so much have a nature as live a condition. Their nature and freedom are inextricable. While often labeled a founder of existentialism, Marcel is better understood as someone who built his philosophy on a Christian understanding of the person as “incarnate being,” who neither is nor has a body but who is inconceivable apart from a mysterious relation to a body.

Like Shestov’s friend, the great Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, Marcel came to believe that personal reality receives its clearest expression when one being addresses another in the vocative case, in the second person. The first person, the I , may merely mask transient sensations and impulses, while to identify persons as he or she or they is to begin the process of objectifying them. The condition of mutual presence, the second person, the Thou or the You, is the presupposition of every distinctively personal relation: love, friendship, brotherhood, citizenship, and worship. God is the absolute Thou, who is either a personal presence or hidden but who can never be a mere object for us, that is to say, an idol.

All theories that claim to explain the causation of human action end up abstracting from the personal reason of the thinker. This is keenly true of different types of relativism and reductionism, which claim a present-company-excepted clause that grants themselves an epistemological status they would deny to others. “Mystery,” for Marcel, denotes those experiences that defy explanation in terms of instrumental reason or natural causation. Foremost among these are the realities of personal identity and human agency, including thinking.

The Spaniard Miguel de Unamuno, exiled in Paris for a time in the 1920s, had already, on the eve of the First World War, authored a remarkable work, The Tragic Sense of Life, in which he had, like Shestov, called for a philosophy from the depths of the abyss. In his critique of contemporary secular civilization, Unamuno compared the typical modern intellectual to an intestinal parasite who denies the existence of sight or hearing because it gets along without them. For centuries, moderns have enjoyed the trappings of human freedom and dignity while propounding theories that explained them away. In a formulation at once characteristically elegant and characteristically dangerous, Unamuno wrote (playing on the similarity in Spanish of the verbs creer, “to believe,” and crear, “to create”) that through believing in a personal God human beings create God, who in turn had already ­created them.

The other great Spanish thinker of the time, José Ortega y Gasset, had in his own cooler and more playful way proclaimed the death of what he called the “modern tradition”—the twin temptations of modern thought: relativism and rationalism. Ortega saw the rationalist systems that had dominated modern thought as tyrannical, masking an ambition to subordinate the contingency and spontaneity of life to the logic of theory. He recognized relativism as “suicidal theory,” hypocritical and inconsistent with itself. The modern sensibility is “mistrust and contempt of everything spontaneous and immediate. Enthusiasm for all the constructions of reason.”

To supersede the intellectually bankrupt modern theories, Ortega proposed a doctrine he sometimes termed “vital reason.” The truth of relativism is that each person occupies a unique point of view; the truth of rationalism is that such points of view look out on a suprapersonal reality. Although he uses a different vocabulary, Ortega had worked out a theory of participation similar to Marcel’s. In the aftermath of the modern age, the West must learn to recognize the roots of the pathology of late modernity, written across the scarred physiognomy of the twentieth century.

There are a number of reasons why these thinkers are not more discussed today. Although some of them knew each other, they did not form an organized school of thought. Although some held professorial appointments, they by and large lived and wrote as public intellectuals, not as professional academics. Most of them were masters of idiomatic prose in their respective languages, incurring the suspicion of professional academics. Few were active in politics. None joined the Nazis or Communists.

Moreover, all these thinkers—again, except perhaps for Ortega—were theists. Their thoughts were formed in the decades leading up to the Second World War and crystallized in its aftermath. The critical features of their portrait of modernity and postmodernity were perhaps best captured after the war by Viennese psychiatrist and Auschwitz survivor Viktor Frankl, who wrote that his generation had come to know human existence as encompassing both the being who invented the gas chambers and “the being who entered those gas chambers upright, the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.”

Seeking an explanation, Frankl diagnosed the intertwined pathologies of the “objectification of existence” and the “subjectification of logos.” The first describes the reduction of man to the being who is the plaything of impersonal forces and who is not addressed as a thou. The second describes the reduction of meaning to human subjectivity. Rationalism and relativism, as Ortega had recognized, are the dual aspects of impersonal thinking, conspiring to untether personal iden­tity and erode personal responsibility.

It is in this context that we can appreciate the full force of Guardini’s warning that modern man faces the call to master power. These thinkers envisioned human existence in one way or another as a form of participation. Their work reflects, in some ways, what we would now recognize as a postmodern sensibility. But it is grounded in a philosophical anthropology inconceivable without the Christian understanding of the person.

Impersonal thinking impales the mind on either horn of the dilemma sketched above—in the case perhaps of the truly rigorous thinker—or, most likely, on both simultaneously.

The end of modernity did not mark a swing from Enlightenment rationalism to postmodern subjectivism. Modernity itself brought man face to face with everything at stake in the opposition of the personal to the impersonal. What had been discredited was not reason but the hubris of the great impersonal systems, whether the naturalistic reductionism of modern scientism or the dialectical sleight of mind of modern ­ideologies.

The central intuition of this theistic revival—this preemptive postmodernism—is the irreducibility of the person. The pathologies of modern life, from the enormity of total war to the banality of bureaucracy, had brought to light the exigency of personal existence. These theistic writers saw the human condition as an open universe of individuality, risk, and new creation. The end of modernity laid bare the radical reality of human freedom and dignity amid the attempts, practical and theoretical, at their annihilation.

Guardini’s reminder that there is no being without a master captures the two-fold character of the imago dei at the heart of the mystery of personal identity. Rooted in our own nature as created, incarnate beings, we are responsible for honoring that nature in all our works. The story of the modern world concludes on a note, not of cynicism and resignation, but of hope and responsibility.

Rein Staal is professor of political science at William Jewell College.

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift