The Crisis of Modernity
by augusto del noce
translated by carlo lancellotti
mcgill-queens, 336 pages, $110

There is no greater ideologue, nor any more earnest in his self-delusion, than the pragmatist who thinks he is free of ideology. Our liberal elite is full of people whose unshakeable confidence in their own correctness relieves them of the burden of self-knowledge. Yet pragmatism is the milieu in which we all now live, move, and have our being, the horizon beyond which we cannot see. To apprehend this, we need the perspective of an outsider.

This perspective comes to us in The Crisis of Modernity, a posthumous collection of essays composed between 1968 and 1989 by the Italian Catholic philosopher Augusto Del Noce. Del Noce was remarkably prescient, anticipating the eventuality of same-sex marriage when such things were barely whispered among the avant-garde. He was perhaps the first to grasp that we live in a technological society dominated by scientism and eroticism. Each disdains the natural order, reducing the environment and the human body to mere instruments. Del Noce’s metaphysical assessment of scientism and the sexual revolution provides a much-needed corrective to the American tendency to treat these problems discretely, and in the latter case, moralistically, but his real genius lies in recognizing the political form that these great changes assumed.

Like Wilhelm Reich, who popularized the term, Del Noce sees the sexual revolution as the culmination of “total revolution.” It is one face of a “new, more dangerous, and more radical form of totalitarianism” than any seen heretofore, “even though these new positions claim to represent the highest degree of democracy and anti-fascism.” Unlike previous authoritarianisms, it is not a positive political program bent on world domination, but a negative “totalitarianism of disintegration” aimed at the perpetual destruction of antecedent order.

The order marked for destruction can be summed up in one word: Europe—the intellectual and spiritual synthesis of Rome, Athens, and Jerusalem. The new totalitarianism proceeds by negating every form of transcendence, especially the religious truth and universal reason which Del Noce calls “Platonism.” It reconceives reality as “a system of forces, not of values.” Being and nature are dissolved into the flux of history. And truth is reduced to social and psychological “situations” to be administered by social scientists.

This totalitarianism is total because it does away with the idea of truth and universal reason, reducing the one to pragmatic function and the other to empirical analysis. This scientism ushers in what Del Noce, following Michele Federico Sciacca, calls “the reign of stupidity.” Argument becomes impossible because truth claims are attacked as expressions of class interest, bigotry, or psychosis. Ultimate questions can no longer be posed in a public way, much less answered. “Only what is subject to empirical observation and can be empirically represented . . . ‘is,’” and so thinking itself is reduced to the refinement of technique and the multiplication of means. After the negation of transcendence, politics itself becomes the transcendental horizon, and ethics, like truth, is subsumed under the form of war.

Del Noce describes how the defeat of Marxism as a viable political and economic program coincides with its ultimate triumph as a social and cultural force. Somehow, a philosophy championing global proletarian revolution and a workers’ utopia ended up as the philosophy of Nietzsche’s last men, the Western bourgeoisie. Del Noce chalks this up to the contradiction in Marxist thought between historical materialism (which leads to relativism) and dialectical materialism, which fuels the absolute demands of the revolutionary spirit. Classical Marxism denied traditional metaphysics and elevated becoming over being, but it at least retained a belief in an objective order of values reflecting the necessities of history. Over time, though, the teleology and eschatology of dialectical materialism could not withstand the “rebellion against being” latent in Marx’s thought. The “spirit of negation” thus eventually negates Marxism’s own eschatology. If utopianism were to survive, it would be “a utopianism in the modern sense, which first appeared when Bacon equated science with power.”

The transformation was brought about through the eventual merging of Marxism with psychoanalysis. “Class warfare” in the West was subordinated to a more generalized “warfare against repression” aimed especially at marriage and the family, the most deep-seated sources of “oppression.” It is only here, with the advent of sexual revolution, that Marxist revolution could truly become total.

Marxism was a much less viable political force in America than it was in Europe, but that did not make America immune to technocratic absolutism. Del Noce understands that the essential metaphysical presuppositions of technocracy—the reduction of form to force, being to history, substance to operation, truth to function, knowledge to engineering, and authority to power—were present in America long before the arrival of the Frankfurt School. He concurs with Reich that America is the most fertile soil for sexual revolution and quotes approvingly the words penned by Sciacca in 1954, when American anti-communism was strong.

Even if society in the United States calls itself Christian, American philosophy is essentially all atheistic. Not only that: it is marked by the idolatry of science, the tool that will radically change humanity by producing technical development, and will bring to mankind all the happiness that man by his ‘nature’ can desire.

Perhaps, then, technocracy exemplifies some sort of evolutionary “convergence.” The influence of any one strand of thought matters less than the mere fact of the technological unfolding of modernity.

Whatever the philosophical sources of our crisis, and they are legion, Del Noce has grasped its essence. And he warns that it will continue apace until we somehow rediscover an ethics distinct from politics, a truth distinct from function, an authority distinct from power. He approvingly cites the words of Erich Fromm: “for the first time in history the physical survival of the human race depends on a radical change of the human heart” and adds that “for the first time in history worldly survival is entrusted to religious conversion.” Yet Del Noce is no simple triumphalist. He maintains that progressive Catholicism (a category that for him would include both the Catholic left and elements of the Catholic right) has aided and abetted the new totalitarianism and made its home comfortably within it. We see this whenever the Church renounces her own inherent “Platonism” by speaking in the language of psychology, sociology, economics, and politics rather than in her native tongues of metaphysics and theology. If Del Noce is correct, then, deliverance from our civilizational crisis begins not merely with conversion to Christianity, but with the conversion of Christianity to the truth of its own Logos. In the cunning of providence, the crisis of modernity may yet provide the occasion to rediscover and embrace this truth.

Michael Hanby is associate professor of religion and philosophy of science at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at The Catholic University of America.

This is the first of your three free articles for the month.