The evil roots of modernity



The crisis of modernity
Augusto Del Noce | McGill-Queen’s University Press | 2015, 260 pages

by Augusto Del Noce The crisis of modernitya compilation of essays and lectures originally published in Italian, is a scholarly work that examines the roots of discontent and disorder in Western culture in our time.

Del Noce, a much-loved 20th-century continental philosopher, only recently became more familiar in the English-speaking world through translations of his work by McGill-Queen’s University Press in 1914. Since then there have been regular reprints of The crisis of modernity.

Del Noce died in 1989 and many chapters of this compilation were written or delivered as early as the early 1970s, hence his foresight in identifying social patterns that continue to accelerate and take the forms of more more bizarre and oppressive than he pointed out fifty years ago. there is, is one of the most striking things about this book.

Search for autonomy

His careful and scholarly analysis finds the emergence of our cultural memes in the history of ideas dating back to Martin Luther. What was sown in the writings of the religious reformers was a relaxation of the idea of ​​”uncreated authority” and “uncreated values” towards an affirmation of man’s individual autonomy, a movement from classical understanding and Judeo-Christian approach to human identity as a search for “belonging” to a search for “being”.

Del Noce traces this ideological creep through the existentialist philosophers of the 20th century and through the influence of avant-garde movements in art. The latter is particularly interesting to him, as he says that the Catholic Church, which focused on the threat posed by communism at the time, missed the implications of developments in the artistic sphere, confusing “the rise of the eroticism with pornography”.

Del Noce observes that women’s freedom “is equated with absolute sexual freedom.” By way of insight, this observation would be considered insightful if written today, but, given that its observation is decades old, one might wonder why we are so slow to read the signs of the times? One might also wonder whether the Church today is not making an even more serious mistake by confusing an even more audacious “rise of eroticism” with a movement for equality and inclusion?

The philosophical and artistic ideas and socio-political revolutions of the 20th century combined to accelerate the model centered on the quest for freedom and personal autonomy. Del Noce foresaw how Marx’s materialism and atheism would endure even after the failure of the revolutions he inspired and how they would take on the new forms we are now experiencing.

enlightened tyranny

Del Noce lived just long enough to see the fall of the Berlin Wall which confirmed the first part of his analysis. The underlying quest of the revolutionaries and philosophers who paved the way was that of a freedom understood as “freedom from” rather than “freedom from”. It was about letting go of constraints and overthrowing elites and systems of power. Its prophets and leaders are invariably characterized as enlightened.

They believe they are on the right side of history. Those who oppose it are characterized as suffering from a “psychological condition”, if they have no interest in the status quo, which demands that they be “suppressed, cured or more generally ignored”. They must be kicked and shouted into a future that cannot be eluded because it represents humanity’s inevitable progress toward enlightenment.

Del Noce observes that getting rid of the constraints of authority does not lead to freedom but rather to totalitarian force, to “the falsification of language”, to the outright rejection of the past “even if it is as recent as yesterday “. The assumption is that ‘traditional values ​​are gone for good’.

Lines like that read as if their author knew about the ideological totalitarianism of the past decade. Yet Del Noce made these observations long before the Wokeist doctrines we know today took shape. He did not live long enough to witness the vast crusades of decolonization in our institutions, but he wrote that we “do” to ourselves what we have done to others in history, that is, “uproot people of their traditions.

Imaginary ideals

While the idea of ​​transcendence is anathema to the shapers of our culture, Del Noce notes that ideas of utopia, the possibility of a perfect human society, underlie all revolutions. The concept of original sin is either forgotten, overlooked or denied. But what Del Noce describes as the “messianic” quality of revolutions, particularly Marxist revolutions that envision a golden age of equality and sufficiency, inevitably flounders in disappointment, disillusionment, and the emergence of new elites who replace the authorities they supplanted with force and authoritarianism. .

The cultural and social movements of our time which, as Del Noce notes, replace the idea of ​​revolution with the idea of ​​progress, tend towards a milder form of totalitarianism. Ideological enemies are neutralized from within. Religions themselves cooperate to quietly abandon ideas of transcendence and the supernatural, or even deny them outright. “Christ is absorbed in philosophy.” Religion must submit to what Del Noce calls “scientism”: “The only admissible evidence is empirical.

In our time, it is becoming increasingly clear that empirical evidence is not the authority its defenders claim to be. It is driven by ideology rather than the reverse; as evidenced by reports of suppression of inconvenient research, the very suppression modernists accuse the Church of doing in the past.

It is not, Del Noce points out, that a new morality seeks to replace the old. “It is about the abolition of the idea of ​​morality.” What emerges is “an a-religious, technocratic spirit”, where “every sin is a sin against the meaning of history” and “morality is reduced to norms that ensure coexistence”. Moral arguments between right and wrong, right and wrong are now framed as ‘the permissive mind versus the repressive mind’.

The myth of progress towards a perfect human society is belied by reality, but today’s cultural engineers have at their disposal the endless novelties of the technological age which hides or seems to “hide the process of disintegration”. Man, cut off from his past and his future, “lives through a series of discontinuous moments”. Novelty “hides the immutable life, which does not develop”.

“The full satisfaction of one’s desires” suppresses man’s deep quest for truth and meaning, the deep needs of his being, the fact that he inhabits a moral desert. The hedonism, permissiveness and decadence of our time is the bread and circus which prevents the social fabric from disintegrating to the point of disintegrating for the time being.

Ironically, since one of the founding ideas of Marxism was “to free man from subjection to economic law”, the incessant consumption of the novelties of the time led to the re-establishment of the “primacy of the economic dimension and to consolidate his tyranny. Hence the alliance of strange bedfellows in our culture, described by Del Noce before the Silicon Valley phenomenon, as “the tech right and the cultural left.”

Again, anticipating Putin’s age, Del Noce notes that this very breakdown of moral authority, represented by Western decadence, is seen in the communist world as self-destructive, not self-preservative. If the enemy state is engaged in its own collapse, its adversaries have nothing to do but wait.

One has to wonder how Putin calculated that a complacent and disgusted West would not stand in the way of his expansionist goals when he invaded Ukraine last February. Maybe the fact that he miscalculated shows that the West thinks some things are still worth fighting for?

freedom with authority

Del Noce analyzes the odie in which the Catholic tradition is held by secular progressives according to their perception of the values ​​of the faith. Beliefs are seen as delusional or selfish or both, but values ​​are essentially about giving self-interest a cloak of justification to oppress the masses. It is because such values ​​are deemed “hollow and hypocritical”, constituting “repressive violence” that revolutionaries feel justified in engaging in “revolutionary violence”.

Del Noce suggests that the Church and the wider culture must reaffirm the “idea of ​​authority” and distinguish it from power and force. “Authority has a liberating character, power an oppressive character.” As the histories of social and political revolutions amply illustrate, the collapse of religions based on authority does not bring freedom but coercion and “authoritarianism based not on authority but on force”.

Authority is underpinned in Western culture by the Logos, by reason as well as by the revelations of faith. Classical thought, scripture and Christian tradition have shaped our civilization. Historically, the transmission of values ​​and beliefs was done through the Church and its institutions, but Del Noce also insists on the central role of the family as “transmitter of values”. This is why “the family must be feared” by the agents of social progress, he says.

If the Catholic Church is dying out, it will be because of “the disappearance of the idea of ​​authority”. Reaffirming the value of family and traditional sexual morality is at the heart of this task for Del Noce. With astonishing foresight, he writes “Christianity’s decisive battlefield could be played out today on the level of the Sexual Revolution.”

Del Noce did not live long enough to see the strange trajectory of the growing notion of sexual freedom in our time, but he could see that the rejection of authority has its own intrinsic logic that pushes it towards more and more more deviations and eventually disintegration.


The crisis of modernity is a seminal work in the sense that it predates many commentators on modernity who make similar arguments from a retrospective perspective that was not available to Del Noce. Being right without the benefit of hindsight gives his work added interest.

Many well-known names have made their mark with books on the subject. Writers like Jordan Peterson, Douglas Murray, Rod Dreher, JD Vance, Abigail Shrier, Tom Holland and Mary Eberstadt and many more have made this area a literary genre that generates book sales worldwide.

What distinguishes this lesser known Italian thinker, besides his extraordinary foresight, is the acumen of his perception, the breadth of his scholarship and the rigor of his scholarship which is much more than the research undertaken to tackle a stand-alone project.

There is something else too. His own unequivocal commitment to faith gives his style and argument a grounded confidence that is unparalleled among the growing cohort of analysts who follow him. In reading, this book is more demanding than its successors, but it is worth a careful reading, both for its content and for the questions it raises for the reader in the context of the more manifest disintegration of values ​​and beliefs. traditional in our own time.

Margaret Hickey writes on faith and social issues and has been published in The Irish Examiner, Human Life Review (USA), Position Papers, The Furrow, The Iona Blog and The Irish Times. More From Margaret Hickey

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