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I recently spent a day with my dog, revisiting two remote mountain valleys in the Tuscan-Romagnolan Apennine Mountains of northern Italy. I had first visited them briefly about fifty years before. Though I had subsequently climbed some of the ridges and passes above the valleys (the highest pass, the Sambuca, is about 4000 feet), I hadn’t traversed the valleys themselves in the intervening years. It seemed like a good thing to do on a relatively cool day at the beginning of September after the frightful heat and drought of the previous several months.

This region is wild, sparsely populated, and hard of access, and it has been for many centuries: Before Italian unification, it was famously filled with brigands and exiles from other Italian states. Despite their serpentine character, its hard-surface roads are a great blessing and a great achievement, causing one to ask how people had ever lived in such places before trains, automobiles, and paved roads. The particular wildness of the area is augmented by the fact that over the last seventy-five years many peasants have left the land, deserting a life of subsistence farming for cities or other countries or even other continents. Nature has come back—the landscape is probably greener than it has been for a thousand years, which is good news for ecological reasons. The escape from rural poverty is almost certainly a good thing, though whether or not the ways of the new urban destinations are themselves good things is a question probably impossible to answer but also impossible not to ask.

The evidence of abandoned fields and hamlets and houses testifies to the end of a way of life that lasted for many centuries. Other noticeable visual features in the landscape are architecturally noble buildings—churches, monasteries, villas, harmonious squares, fortified town halls or palaces—in various states of repair. The design is very different from the slipshod, miscellaneous architectural character of the modern world, though the comfort and convenience of flush plumbing, clean water, electric light, effective heating, and hospitals cannot be doubted.

It is the physical difficulty of the old world that repeatedly strikes one in the high Mugello. Yet the great sociologist Peter L. Berger’s insights about the evils of modern “development” schemes in Pyramids of Sacrifice—and the occlusion, neglect, and frequent rape of the contemporary physical landscape that comes with them—have a haunting truth and pathos to them. There is a corollary in the mental landscape of contemporary life, in which a low culture of pornography, violence, extremity, exhibitionism, and triviality has prevailed since the 1960s. The great humanitarian dream that modern technology would create a civilizing “culture” has grown increasingly ironic and absurd, and even organized public educational endeavors end up having ambiguous effects never dreamed of by Horace Mann, Maria Montessori, or UNESCO director Sir Julian Huxley (though they certainly were dreamed of by his novelist-brother Aldous Huxley).

The decline of Christianity in the old western European heartlands has brought with it a decline in the belief in the “spirit” and in normative ethics and what, for lack of a better phrase, one can call a shared symbolic-cultural matrix. The voluble, inarticulate, but vastly influential intellectual John Dewey wrote about eighty years ago, in that ominous year 1939, that “It is quite true that science cannot [provide] moral values, ends, rules, principles as these were once thought of and believed in, namely, prior to the rise of science.” He went on to argue that a “culture which permits science to destroy traditional values but which distrusts its powers to create new ones is a culture which is destroying itself.” But communist “scientific socialism” and Nazi-Darwinian “racial science” were just such attempts “to create new ones”—“scientific,” modernist cultures and values to replace the religious ones that Dewey admitted science and technology were destroying. By 1939 he should have been able to see this modern reality: new “pyramids of sacrifice.”

In some public lectures about 140 years ago, Swiss historian Jakob Burckhardt spoke out against the secular, modern worship of political, technological, and commercial power so evident in the new German empire, where he had studied. He warned the earnest citizens of his hometown, Basel, that the new twentieth century ahead of them would not be a time of peace, plenty, and progress, but of murderous tyrannies and Caesarisms vastly more destructive than any that had ever been known in Western or world history. After the events of  1914–1990, especially in the heartlands of European civilization, who can doubt that he was right?

The remote valleys of the Tuscan-Romagnolan Apennines are now only remote physically: The airwaves and the internet have penetrated them, generating a new symbolic-cultural matrix that seems to be gradually replacing the old one. As William Butler Yeats wrote over a hundred years ago: “Of old the world on dreaming fed; / Grey truth is now her painted toy.” But the painted toys of 2022 are no longer gray at all, but alluringly vivid, mobile, colorful, fluorescent; and the inhabitants of the remote, mountainous northern Mugello valleys are probably in no condition to resist them. Entertainment personalities, advertising slogans, and pornography  have replaced saints, proverbs, and litanies.

The human person is inevitably a believer. But today there is an abyss of possibilities, and if he or she does not have inherited and reasoned beliefs, then alluringly false ones will take their place. The mountains, hillsides, and austerely remote towns of the high Mugello are quiet, but the minds of their inhabitants probably reverberate with the images, rhythms, and values of an increasingly idiotic and pagan “civilization.” Though all eyes seem wide open, a “great awakening” it is not.

M. D. Aeschliman is the author of The Restoration of Man: C. S. Lewis and the Continuing Case Against Scientism, recently published in new editions in English and French. 

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