Imagine you had access to someone with the wisdom to guide you through the often-bewildering age we live in. And imagine that same wise guide predicted—more than sixty years ago—so much of what’s happening in today’s world.
Meet Romano Guardini, the twentieth-century Italian-born German philosopher-priest. This essay is adapted from his classic book The End of the Modern World.
Man is learning to control both things and people ever more fully. But how? He is free to use power as he wills, a freedom determined by his own attitude. But what is contemporary man’s attitude toward his responsibility?
Do the men and women we know, each of us in his own field, strike us as people conscious of their responsibility for what is happening in the world? Does their sense of responsibility affect their public as well as their private lives? Do our rulers impress us as people who know what their duties ultimately involve and who tackle them accordingly? Is every public servant’s measure of power counterbalanced by strength of character, adequate understanding of human existence, and a fitting moral attitude? Has an ethic of power evolved from a real coming to grips with the phenomenon of power? Are young people (and older ones too as far as possible) being educated to the right use of power? Does such education form a substantial part of both of our individual and our public endeavors?
I fear that honest answers to these questions would be most disquieting. We cannot escape the impression that the public is ignorant of what it is all about, and that most of those who do know are completely at sea as to what should be done, so they let things drift.
Let us try to pinpoint the dangers.
Man is acquiring ever more power over man, an ever profounder influence over him physically, intellectually, spiritually; but how will he direct that influence?
One of the most terrible lessons which those whose cultural roots reach back before World War I had to learn was that in concrete existence the spirit is much weaker than they had supposed. They were convinced that its influence was direct, hence that it must inevitably triumph over violence and cunning. “The human spirit cannot be suppressed for long.” “Truth will prevail.” “The real values will win in the end.” At the very least, this idealistic notion of the spirit’s immediacy and protective faculties was false. Those who entertained it had to learn the painful way how far the power of the state with its public-conditioning organs reaches, and to what terrifying degree it is possible to cripple the spirit, cow the individual, confuse the norms of the valid and the just.
Instead of “everything coming out all right,” what actually happened? Which value that modernity believed itself so secure in (in proud comparison with the “dark” Middle Ages) was not denied? Which of all culture’s achievements remained unscathed? The dignity of truth and the loftiness of justice; human dignity; the inviolability of man’s spiritual and physical being; freedom of the individual, of personal enterprise; the right to private opinion; freedom of speech; the trustworthiness of public servants, not only in regard to the letter of their instructions, but also to the spirit behind them; the freedom of science, art, education, medicine each to be answerable to its own deepest purpose—which of these was not destroyed? Have not violence and deceit become established practice? And let us nurse no illusions: these things took place not only in the temporary confusion of anarchy, but within the studied pattern of theoretical and practical systems carefully prepared.
Can, then, the spirit sicken? Not only its physiological organs of brain and nervous system, not only on the psychological level of sense-activity, the imaginative processes, and so forth, but the spirit itself qua spirit? On what does its health depend? First Plato and later in the fullness of Revelation St. Augustine made this clear: the health of the spirit depends on its relation to truth, to the good and the holy. The spirit thrives on knowledge, justice, love, adoration—not allegorically, but literally.
What happens when man’s relation to these is destroyed? Then the spirit sickens. Not as soon as it errs or lies or is guilty of an injustice; it is difficult to say just how many such “exposures” to disease the spirit can withstand before it succumbs to that inner blindness, that destruction of all proficiency, which are the symptoms of spiritual decline.
However, this much is certain: once truth as such loses its significance; once success usurps the place of justice and goodness; once the holy is no longer perceived or even missed, the spirit is stricken indeed. What then occurs is no longer a matter for psychology; then no therapeutical measures help; the only thing that can save is conversion, metanoia. Seen from this viewpoint, how heavily do they weigh, the twelve-year experiment in Germany [Nazism] and that almost four times as old in the East [Soviet communism]?
We dare not underrate the historical power of such experiments—still less, as the whole fabric of our present-day life, with its rationalization and mechanization, its techniques of forming public opinion, and its control of education, is a tempting preparation for outright imitation. It can be an effective temptation even when specifically accepted and expressed ideas apparently oppose it, for usually it is the enemy who dictates the methods, and methods are often stronger than ideas.
Romano Guardini (1885–1968) was the author of The End of the Modern World (ISI Books), from which this essay is adapted. The late Richard John Neuhaus wrote: “There are writers whom you read because you’re told you must read them. But then there are writers who catch you up short. They are personally disruptive; intellectually and spiritually disruptive. . . . Romano Guardini is such a writer.”
Complement this article with why you should study the history of Western civilization.