Book review: The End of the Modern World

The End of the Modern World
by Romano Guardini (1956)

Guardini does not predict the end of modernity.  He claims it has already happened.  The distinctly modern worldview he credits to Copernican astronomy.  Medieval man relied more than he knew on the picture of a universe finite in both space and time, circumscribed on every end by God.  From this picture of Earth at the center, God beyond the outermost sphere as well as hidden within the soul, the present bracketed between creation and the second coming, man derived his sense of place.  The world derived its meaning from what transcended it.  In an infinite universe, this sense of place cannot apply.  Men rejected transcendence, at least in practice, and turned to immanent principles, to internal authenticity, for guidance.  They found three such principles:  nature, individual human personality, and culture.  Each was thought to be self-directing and normative; its self-development according to its own principles to be good almost by definition.  This was the modern world, the world that ended sometime around the second world war.

Man then lost faith in nature, personality, and culture.  Nature as revealed by physics began to seem abstract and ill fit to human imagination, while nature as the ecosystem, the environment, began to appear delicate.  Now it relies on us, rather than vice versa.  The humanist romance of great personality was rejected by collectivist ideologies.  The self-actualization of group cultures no longer seemed a necessarily benign process.  And so we entered a new age, an age when man must come to terms with the power he has accumulated.  Although this is often taken to be a pessimistic book, Guardini clearly thinks the passing of the modern world is for the best.  Despite its great accomplishments, modernity was an abdication of responsibility.  Because nature abhors a power vacuum, Guardini claims that unregulated human pursuits have come to be controlled by demons.  (And by “demons”, Guardini doesn’t mean sociological phenomena like the reification of economic forces in Marxist analyses.  He means demons.)  The new age is an age of great danger:  man must master his world or be totally mastered by mass, inhuman, and ultimately demonic forces.

With the disenchantment of nature and human personality, man casts off the residues of the Christian worldview which had survived modernity.  For the first time, man must face what it means to live without Christ.  It will be a time of stark opposition between secularism and Christianity, but at least the stakes will be clear and the fight honest.  The age of sentimentality, of dishonest appropriation of Christian morals, will be through.  Tradition and cultural Christianity will be lost forever, leaving a clash of naked wills and rival dogmas.

For all his insights, a half century later, we can see that Guardini was too impressed with man’s mastery of nature and not enough with social power.  In fact, the advance of science and technology has slowed dramatically since the passing of the modern world.  Nature is as recalcitrant as ever, but the human mind has proven far more pliable.  What power could be greater than the power to control human perception and assign moral status?  No, the great age of sentimental dishonesty had just begun.  The Church might have responded manfully to accusations of sentimentality from pitiless collectivists, but she has been unable to bear the accusation of being mean.

One Response

  1. […] Even if she is not personally possessed, she is surely serving demonic forces, as Bonald reminds us in a recent post on one of the great books (and one of the first I read after my conversion to the True Faith) — Book review: The End of the Modern World: […]

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