The Gentleman from Verona

Romano Guardini (1885-1968) was born in Verona in Northern Italy, but while he was very young his family moved to Mainz in Germany, where his father was Italian consul. Except for regular trips to Italy, he lived in Germany during his formative years and wrote in German. For many thinkers, this history might be a mere biographical detail. In Guardini’s case, it has considerable significance.

He was a beloved figure among his students and had an enormous influence on the Catholic Church and European culture in the twentieth century – and beyond. He inspired later thinkers as diverse as von Balthasar, Pieper, Giussani, Ratzinger (Benedict XVI), and Jorge Mario Bergoglio (Pope Francis). His influence probably owes something to his dual heritage, which combines German academic rigor with a gentler Italian humanism.

Guardini’s greatest and best-known books – The End of the Modern World, The Spirit of the Liturgy, and The Lord –have remained in print and influenced generations. The End of the Modern World was particularly prescient. In 1950, Guardini could already write that it was easy to describe the modern age because, “in all crucial respects the modern world has come to an end.”

The two World Wars had released not only unbounded violence, but unprecedented human disorientation and rootlessness. More:

Monstrosities of such conscious design do not emerge from the calculations of a few degenerate men or of small groups of men; they come from processes of agitation and poisoning which had been long at work. What we call moral standards – responsibility, honor, sensitivity of conscience – do not vanish from humanity at large if men have not already been long debilitated. These degradations could never have happened if its culture had been as supreme as the modern world thought.

Guardini is a valuable figure for all of us who understand the need to recover the human things that were lost in what he acknowledges were gains in power and wealth – but which also led to the radical discontinuity and fragmentation of recent decades.  There’s no going back to some legendary, pre-modern Catholicism. A new way forward has to be created by using past materials in a new synthesis, which he began to develop.

Regnery Books has assembled a one-volume collection (687 pages!), The World and the Person and Other Writings, five lesser-known but equally insightful Guardini books (with my longish introduction), which will be published tomorrow.

Guardini called these books “reflections.” But they “reflect” his deep and internally consistent theological, philosophical, and – unusual among religious writers – literary culture. His books on Dante and Rilke, along with frequent references to Augustine, Pascal, Dostoyevsky, Heidegger, and even Nietzsche, present an eclectic but profound and coherent vision of the Church and the world.

Guardini had the kind of mind – the living virtue, as he puts it in his book on the virtues – that can range everywhere, flexibly but faithfully. His books are less like academic treatises than living conversations with a wise and trusted friend.

Several of Guardini’s characteristics as writer and thinker appear in his The Virtues: On Forms of Moral Life (included here). After a few years studying science and economics, he felt called to the priesthood and, in the early years of the twentieth century, turned to theology.

Thomism – with its roots in Aristotle – was undergoing a rich revival led by Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange, Jacques Maritain, Étienne Gilson, and many others. (I wrote about Maritain and that important Thomistic/Aristotelean side of modern Catholic thought a few weeks ago here.)

Guardini, however, chose to study St. Bonaventure, who more clearly draws from the other central intellectual current in the Church, the Platonic-Augustinian side. Bonaventure was also part of the 13th-century scholastic flowering, but as a Franciscan, his works lend themselves more readily to modern currents of personalism, communitarianism, and “nuptial mysticism.”

Thomists are notoriously rigorous philosophers and theologians, but the Franciscan tradition, in Bonaventure and Guardini (and Ratzinger), has its own intellectual precision and power – and living value for us today.

Guardini opens his study of the virtues by quoting Plato, who posited the union of the Good, True, and Beautiful in the divine. While he differs with Plato on whether the state should be “the protector of the moral order” – the experience of Germany in the first half of the twentieth century had shown the dangers – he affirms the importance of truth and the absolute moral principles that flow from it.

As he puts it in The End of the Modern World, “As long as men are unable to control themselves from within. . .they will inevitably be ‘organized’ by forces from without.”

At the same time, he warns that the virtues should not be regarded as “external limitations,” an imposition on human freedom, but something “living and beautiful” that perfects human nature from within. Without self-discipline, we remain slaves of ignorance, impulse, emotion, and external forces, never becoming true masters of ourselves.

Guardini not only describes this flexibility of living virtue, he embodies it in his work. In The Virtues, he examines two Cardinal Virtues – Justice and Courage – but most of the book explores more workaday virtues that are often overlooked, among them truthfulness, patience, loyalty, reverence, courtesy, and gratitude. As good virtue theorists do, he shows how all the virtues are interrelated. Kindness or loyalty toward others should always be guided by truthfulness and justice – as we still quite often forget – and vice versa.

In the concluding section, “Justice before God,” he explains how Christianity radically re-situates the virtues. From a Christian perspective, general ethical principles and virtuous habits, useful as they are, achieve their full purpose only in the graces that flow from Christ: “we must do what the Christian always has to do, change the order of things, give up the old starting-point and seek a new one, put away our old measures and learn to use the new.”

Regnery has done us a great service in retrieving these brilliant texts by this great and deep modern spirit.


You May also enjoy:

Msgr. Romano Guardini’s The Foundation of the True World

Rev. Jerry J. Pokorsky’s The Sense of the Faith

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.