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The Crisis of Modernity: A Recommendation of Augusto Del Noce

By Leander Harding

Augusto Del Noce (1910-1989) was an important Roman Catholic philosopher in Italy who is relatively unknown to English readers. Two of his works have recently become available in English, The Crisis of Modernity and The Age of Secularization. Both are collections of essays based on the premise that ideas determine political and cultural reality. Del Noce believed that our concepts regarding the relationship between God and the self are the most determinative for social, cultural, and political reality. His strength as a philosopher is an intuitive and immediate grasp of the consequences entailed by different concepts about God and human nature.

Writing in the 1960s, when the Soviet Union was at the height of its power and Marxism was the preferred perspective of European intellectuals, Del Noce predicted the collapse of the Soviet Empire and the triumph of Western materialism and consumerism in what he called, “the society of well-being.” Del Noce contrasted the affluent society of well-being, which is focused on this world, with the good society of traditional philosophy and theology. The good society seeks to understand the nature of the good, the true, and the beautiful, and to conform the self and society to these transcendent norms. In the society of well-being all transcendent norms have been deconstructed and relativized. Del Noce predicted that one of the characteristics of such a society would be the reduction of sex to a value-free commodity, resulting in a culture of eroticism necessitating the disappearance of all modesty, a social movement for same-sex marriage, and a metaphysical attack on the family.

The metaphysical attack on the family followed, in Del Noce’s view, from modernity’s understanding of freedom. In traditional thought, freedom consists of the ability to achieve the proper telos, or purpose, of human life, a life that is ordered toward God and the transcendentals of the good, the true, the beautiful. For modernity, freedom means autonomous self-creation, freedom from any and all constraints. Radical atheism is not a conclusion of modernity but a moral premise. God must not exist or else I cannot be truly free. Tradition is seen not as the handing on of soul-freeing wisdom, but rather a set of arbitrary constraints.

The most basic institution of tradition is the family. This is the place where ideas about God, human nature and the meaning of life are handed on. All utopians know that for the revolution to be successful, children must be saved from the malignant influence of their parents. For the society of well-being to replace the good society, the family must be deconstructed.

The reality of the West in the 21st century — declining fertility rates; the breakdown of the nuclear family, particularly among the working class; diseases of hopelessness including drug addiction; against the backdrop of the concentration of political power in the hands of an increasingly wealthy technocratic elite — was predicted by Del Noce in the middle of the 20th century.

What allowed Del Noce to predict these developments which were yet decades away from fruition? He perceived both the wide influence of Marxist ideas in the West and an inherent instability in philosophical Marxism. Del Noce had in view not so much the revolutionary writings of Marx as his earlier philosophical work. Del Noce focused on Marx not because everyone had read him, but because he is a representative thinker of modernity, whose ideas have become popularized to such a degree that they become part of the common vocabulary of contemporary ideas.

Del Noce identified two elements in Marx’s thought: historical materialism and dialectic materialism. Marx rejected traditional metaphysics. He famously said that the purpose of philosophy was not to understand the world but to change the world. Traditional metaphysics according to Marx was an artifact of bourgeois, capitalist culture. Religious faith, truth claims, ethics, aesthetics were the product of particular historical and cultural moments and served as the ideology for the ruling class. The historical materialism of Marx relativized and marginalized all philosophical truth claims save for Marx’s own claims about the dialectical materialism of history. Dialectical materialism expressed the romantic and revolutionary side of Marxism. There was even a religious quality to dialectical materialism which was recognizably the immanentization of the biblical kingdom of God. The secret dynamic of history which was revealed by Marx would be fulfilled by the revolution of the proletariat which would be the birth pangs of the utopia of communism.

Del Noce perceived that this combination of destructive skepticism and romantic optimism was unstable, and that skepticism and relativism were bound to defeat and consume the romantic and optimistic revolutionary side of Marxism. When the proletariat didn’t rise up in revolution but instead were able to buy toasters and refrigerators and automobiles that were not available in socialist countries, the doom of the Soviet Union was sealed. At one point Del Noce says Marxism was defeated in the East because it won in the West. In the West, the skeptical ideas that had been let loose in society by Marxism defeated traditional thought and created the intellectual culture necessary for the emergence of a hyper-bourgeois society, where the sphere of economics could be increasingly free from any traditional constraint. The inner contradictions of Marxism were bound to bring about a social situation opposite to the one envisioned.

But the romantic and revolutionary side of Marxism does not simply disappear. According to Del Noce, the fervor is transferred to the culture of eroticism. Del Noce takes seriously the writings of Wilhelm Reich, the eccentric Austrian psychoanalyst who literally wrote the book, The Sexual Revolution. Del Noce writes about Reich not because Reich is a serious thinker, but because he is a representative thinker.

Reich’s book translates Marx’s class struggle into sexual terms. Del Noce called The Sexual Revolution, published in 1936, the Mein Kampf of eroticism. The new humanity and the new society will appear not when the class system is overturned but when humanity achieves true sexual liberation. For Reich belief in God is the product not of economic oppression but of sexual repression. According to Reich, when sexual liberation is achieved, political and personal violence will disappear along with belief in God.

Though Reich died in a federal prison in 1957, discredited as a con man, his ideas remain powerful and explain the religious zeal that characterizes the sexual revolution. According to Del Noce, the sexual revolution will also produce the opposite result of its romantic and utopian vision because it suffers from the same metaphysical contradictions of Marxism. Rather than ushering in a new kind of humanity and a new and more humane society, it is bound to add to the nihilism and despair which constitute the crisis of modernity. The sexual revolution promises sexual happiness and delivers sexual misery.

In the meantime, Del Noce predicted that the perceived enemies of the sexual revolution would suffer social ostracism and be consigned to “moral concentration camps.” The inherent totalitarianism of the Marxist vision is bound, according to Del Noce, to be expressed in its latest reincarnation in the sexual revolution.

There is hope. The historical failure of both the socialist and the sexual revolution that is in its final stages creates a counter-revolutionary moment. The way out of the crisis will be to understand clearly the history of the ideas that have led to the present chaos, and, by God’s grace, for the Church to recover its mission to point humanity to the transcendent God and to the contemplation of that which is true, good, and beautiful. Del Noce is a profound guide to the diagnosis of the diseases of modernity and to their cure.

The Very Rev. Dr. Leander S. Harding is dean of the Cathedral of All Saints in Albany.


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