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Modernity as Metaphysical Collapse

Fleeting amusement might be found in observing how international elites will account for their conflicting commitments if transgendered athletes compete in the Rio Olympics next month – i.e. men competing in women’s events, as has already happened in localized competitions. But there is no real consolation in realizing that people do not easily renounce their illusions. It’s still better to seek consolation in the love of wisdom.

I’ve been making my way through a collection of writings by the late Italian philosopher Augusto Del Noce (1910-1989), mainly from the early 1970s, available now in English for the first time in a compilation entitled The Crisis of Modernity. It is not an elementary book, not one that I, at any rate, glide through, but it’s studded with gems that orient the reader towards the sources of our current predicament.

Some of his themes are familiar and the direness of our situation isn’t a new revelation. But his depth and originality are helpful, not because his assessment of the Western soul is rosy, but because it rings true. He regards tottering modern society – variously termed: affluent, permissive, or technocratic – in bleak terms. It is “necessarily mendacious,” and like Marxism itself, presupposes rather than results in atheism.

What emerges, perhaps above all, is that our current crisis is fundamentally metaphysical in nature. Modernity is a grand project of negation: the very order of being – as classically understood – has been shunned for theories that emphasize right praxis in time; history has become the lens through which things are assigned value. Fulfillment “lies in front of us, not above us,” and whoever speaks of eternal metaphysical truths is branded a reactionary.

With a defining air of superiority to what came before, modernity necessarily entails a radical break with the past – which Del Noce stresses is viewed, baselessly, as irretrievable. There can be no going back to the old way of thinking because it has been surpassed. But going back to what, specifically? To the supernatural, to religious transcendence: this means that “the religious event of the Incarnation stops being regarded as the decisive turning point of historical existence,” as Sergio Cotta, one of his Italian contemporaries, put it.

He regards the “eclipse of authority” characteristic of our age as the greatest reversal ever to have befallen humanity. Authority, at root, means to make something grow, but today it’s understood mainly as a form of repression – indeed as something that impedes growth. The wholesale spurning of authority has only ushered in a mad dash for power – a dreadful substitution.

Augusto Del Noce

Ultimately, it can be boiled down to “the disappearance of the idea of the Father.” This in turn is closely linked to the repudiation of tradition, of handing down (tradere) what matters most – not any old regional custom, but “the order of eternal and metaphysical values” – to the next generation.

            We moderns are allowed only one source of real knowledge – science – and so the void caused by the ban on metaphysics has been filled with a scientism. Del Noce asserts that such scientism is based upon hatred for religious transcendence. Intrinsically totalitarian, scientism is “an unproven radical negation of traditional values” and so must rely upon subjugating the will of its adversaries (since it cannot prevail by reason), and upon confining them in “moral ghettos.”

And scientism’s “point of arrival,” he explains at length, is none other than the sexual revolution. To cut a long story short, here’s how you know if you are on the wrong side of history: it’s no longer a question of class warfare (bourgeoisie versus proletariat) but whether or not you are prepared to wage war upon sexual “repression.” History is the judge, Marx once said, and the proletariat its executioner. That role has now shifted to progressives urging the “repressed of the world” to unite.

            The social institution most culpable of transmitting repressive morality is, of course, the traditional monogamous family, and as Del Noce notices, “sexual liberation is not desired per se, but rather as a tool to break down the family.”

The obstacle to universal happiness, which allegedly is now within reach, is not a matter of class but of character. From this vantage point, it seems reasonable that those holding the wrong values should be isolated and ostracized. And this high-stakes radicalism would advance – as del Noce foresaw, with some flair, in 1972:

The remaining believers in a transcendent authority of values will be marginalized and reduced to second-class citizens. They will be imprisoned, ultimately, in “moral” concentration camps. But nobody can seriously think that moral punishments will be less severe than physical punishments. At the end of the process lies the spiritual version of genocide.

A century ago both Mussolini and Gramsci spoke of “socialism as the ‘religion destined to kill Christianity’.” But it later became apparent that total revolution could only be achieved if Marxist revolution became sexual revolution. Or as the Surrealists recognized: “the decisive battle against Christianity could be fought only at the level of the sexual revolution.” Emphasis in the original.) In sum, the ”erotic offensive” amounts to a “campaign of de-Christianization.”

Del Noce wouldn’t be shocked with the onset of the transgender phenomenon and the current mania for “self identifying” as something other – anything other (gender, race, species) – than what one is. It’s all part of what he saw as the secularization of Gnosticism (rather than of Christianity), whereby it is the self that creates, and freedom consists of negating “the given.” Add a touch of the Hegelian “elimination of the Divine image” and voila: you get the quest for liberation through the disintegration of every form of order, what he called the “great refusal” of 1968.

Given his diagnosis, it comes as no surprise that he doesn’t put much stock in political solutions to the real dangers we are facing. The remedy lies in restoring classical metaphysics, and yes, he says it, a “religious reawakening.”

Matthew Hanley

Matthew Hanley’s new book, Determining Death by Neurological Criteria: Current Practice and Ethics, is a joint publication of the National Catholic Bioethics Center and Catholic University of America Press.