Romano Guardini: Man and the World

You know, I felt a little bad about kicking Romano Guardini back in August. I said some stuff about how he comes off as a bit of a shithead, how he kinda just sounds like he hates poor people and, like, accessible art – and I decided that maybe I was reading something unrepresentative. Maybe Letters from Lake Como just has some iffy bits. So I thought I’d pick up his major work, probably his most well-known book – The End of the Modern World. Honestly, it’s not done much to change my opinion.

The End of the Modern World continues much of the thought of Letters from Lake Como. There’s an emphasis on the modern day as representing a break with the past – not an evolution or development, but a clean break. I’m not sure I’m going to talk that much about the ins and outs of his argument – I don’t think it’s all that interesting – instead, as with von Balthasar’s A Theology of History, we’re just going to skim past little bits of coastline. The End is a really particular kind of writing – it’s very big on grand sweeping statements about the nature of humanity or the nature of whatever else. There’s almost a sort of arrogance to it – there’s an easy assumption that the depths of the human spirit are all very straightforward and comprehensible – that we can lasso the breadth of human experience and contain it in a couple sentences. For example, this passage at the end of Chapter One:

“It is cheap and false to condemn the medieval use of authority as ‘slavery’. Modern man makes this judgement not merely because he enjoys the discovery of autonomous investigation but because he resents the Middle Ages. His resentment is born of the realization that his own age has made revolution a perpetual institution.”

If people today don’t like the medieval use of authority – that is, the way that everybody had to hop in line with the dictates of the church – it’s because we resent the Middle Ages, because we actually miss being ruled over. We miss being subjugated to church rule, and we translate that loss into resentment at the Middle Ages. That’s the reason why people critique authority in the Middle Ages – that’s the only reason. Everything comes back to our psychological need to be dommed by the church. It’s that kind of writing.

The specific thing we’re talking about today, though – I don’t even know how far Guardini is directly responsible for this. Guardini is a German Catholic, so obviously all of his stuff in English is translated – and without reading the original text, it’s hard to say whether the issue here lies with the translators or Guardini himself. You’ll have noticed above the use of the phrase “modern man”. Guardini, like many old-timey authors, uses the gendered term freely. Partly that’s just a characteristic of the time – The End was originally written in the 50s, and this English version translated in I think the early 60s – people back then didn’t always recognise that ‘man’ was quite a gendered term. There isn’t all that much effort put in with the more recent stuff either, though – the foreword, written by Richard John Neuhaus in 1998, talks about “the Great Story that ‘locates’ man in the working out of God’s purposes,” and the introduction, from Frederick D. Wilhelmsen, I think also in ’98, talks freely about medieval man, modern man, how “man will continue to exist in the new world” – I wouldn’t locate the issue entirely in the 60s.

And let’s be really generous for a moment, right. Let’s assume that it’s purely a miscommunication, that the gendered connotations are not part of the intended message. Let’s extend a bit of grace, beyond what we’re really required to, and mentally replace the word ‘man’ with a more neutral term like ‘people’ or ‘humans’. We’ll take it for a bit of a road test, and see whether the text still works. Let’s conscript this passage from early in the second chapter:

“As man discovered that the universe extended further than he had imagined in every direction, these contours were broken. The old passion for a universe limited in structure, the old desire for a world in which life was directed and channeled, disappeared. Man began to feel that expansion itself was a liberation … For the new man of the modern age the unexplored regions of his world were a challenge to meet and conquer. Within himself he heard the call to venture over what seemed an endless earth, to make himself its master.”

Even allowing for that gender-neutral replacement, there are still issues here. You might have noted, for instance, the description of “unexplored regions” of the world – in point of fact, those allegedly unexplored regions were quite often already populated. It’s clear that when Guardini says ‘man’, he’s really only talking about Europeans. His argument isn’t about the medieval world, or the modern world – it’s about Europe. The distinction isn’t incidental – the same groups that Guardini excludes from his definition of ‘man’ are also groups that Europeans historically saw as less than equal. In Guardini’s usage of ‘man’ and ‘world’, ‘man’ means Europeans, and all other racial groups are lumped in as part of the ‘world’ that Europeans set out to conquer and master. It’s Eurocentric in a way that’s disinterested in the lives and intellectual developments of non-Western civilizations, and which parallels the broader logic of colonialism.

And it’s not that there’s something wrong with focusing on European history, right. There’s nothing wrong with limiting the scope of your argument. But when your area of inquiry has strict geographical bounds, it’s not appropriate to use such universalist terms as ‘man’ or ‘mankind’. In the 2016 Oxford Handbook of European History, 1914-1945, there’s an essay by Nicholas Doumanis, titled ‘Everyday Life in Wartime Europe’. It demonstrates this comfortable capacity to move up and down between generalizations and specific historical examples. It’s not particularly remarkable in that regard, it’s a very standard expectation for historians today – but it’s interesting to see it in practice as an example of what Guardini is missing. For example, in a section on the compromises made by occupied people, Doumanis suggests that “Everyone was forced to make compromises, even those who eventually joined the resistance. People tried to find a modus vivendi with the occupiers which would make it possible to survive.” He then shuttles up and down between specific environments, justifying his claim with specific, close reference to different geographies and nations. Compromise worked more often in Western Europe, he suggests, while in eastern and southern Europe “many more people were killed in acts of collective retribution or just starved to death.” He talks about retaliation in France after the war: “French society ostracized all women who had had sexual contact with Germans.” Each of his generalizations rests on a host of historical examples. We understand the generalization as an overview, as a broad summary that can be peeled back to reveal the specific contours of the actual evidence, should we so desire. Even the term “everyone” in the first instance is understood as referring to everyone in Europe, to everyone under consideration. There’s no hint of denying the humanity of people in other areas. You might think that it’s unfair to set this contemporary historical analysis against what is essentially a work of prophecy, but I think it’s instructive to compare the principles at play in each: Guardini is writing about the end of the modern world, about the radical break separating us from everything that’s come before – when really, in my view, if anything’s changed, it’s that we’ve stopped going round referring to developments in Europe as if that was the sum total of the globe.

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