The Crisis of Modernity, by Augusto Del Noce. Edited and translated by Carlo Lancellotti. McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal and Kingston, 2014, xxiv + 312 pages, $34.95, paper.
Few if any of the readers of Ordained Servant are likely to have heard of Augusto Del Noce. An Italian political and cultural philosopher whose life spanned the years 1910 to 1989, much of his work was preoccupied with philosophical debates in his homeland, and little of it has been translated into English. Which is what makes this volume, translated by Carlo Lancellotti, professor of mathematics at the City University of New York, so important.
Del Noce’s interest was modernity, its causes, its pathologies, its impact. And the essays collected in this book are representative of that, dealing with such matters as secularism, revolution, psychology, and pornography. A certain amount of the material deals with thinkers who have had little influence outside of Italy, but many of his concerns and ideas have universal relevance to the modern West. Specifically, Del Noce saw that the collapse of classical metaphysics was lethal to theism and consequently to humanity’s self-understanding, and also therefore utterly destructive to the moral structure of life.
The central essay in the collection—and worth the price of the volume in itself—is his article from 1970, “The Ascendance of Eroticism.” This is a stunning piece of work. For a start, with prophetic insight he highlights the importance of gay marriage for the reconfiguring of traditional social structures and mores—long before anyone of any significance was talking about the subject.
I suspect many Christians are staggered both at the ferocity of the LGBTQ lobby and at the failure to carry any cultural weight of traditional arguments which we regard as setting our objections to gay sex in a broader ethical context (“We Christians don’t agree with sex outside of marriage, straight or gay, and so we should not be dismissed as homophobic”). Reading “The Ascendance of Eroticism” should help. What we need to understand is that the sexual revolution is deeply political at every level. Del Noce uncovers this politicizing of sex through the failure of classical Marxism and its rebirth through a fusion with some of the ideas of Freud. He highlights the writings of Wilhelm Reich and the cultural activism of the Surrealist Movement as key. Traditional sexual morality had to be destroyed because the Left regarded (and still regards) the family unit as inimical to political liberation.
As Del Noce points out, the family is the means by which morality and identity is passed on from generation to generation, and its very existence relativizes individual loyalty to the state. And the family depends upon carefully structured sexual behavior. The abolition of sexual morality is, in effect, the abolition of the family, and Reich and later the thinkers of the New Left, such as Herbert Marcuse, knew this. Here is how Del Noce describes the issue:
[W]hat is the repressive social institution par excellence? To Reich it is the traditional monogamous family; and, from his standpoint, certainly he cannot be said to be wrong. Indeed, the idea of family is inseparable from the idea of tradition, from a heritage of truth that we must tradere, hand on. Thus, the abolition of every meta-empirical order of truth requires that the family be dissolved. No merely sociological consideration can justify keeping it. (161)
In support of this thesis, Del Noce notes that Reich argued that the state should penalize those parents who would not enable the free sexual expression of their children. Sound familiar? What Reich desired in the 1930s and what Del Noce predicted in the 1970s has come to fruition in our day and generation. And it is surely interesting that, at the very moment Del Noce was arguing that the real agenda of the New Left was revolution via destruction of the morality that protected the family, the feminist theorist, Shulamith Firestone, was arguing that case explicitly. In her widely influential book, The Dialectic of Sex, she also called for the abolition of gender differences as being vital to the revolution’s success. The politicizing of sex was a self-conscious, strategic decision by the New Left which is now bearing much foul fruit.
There are other aspects of Del Noce’s work which are very thought-provoking. For example, he points out that the movement for sexual liberation does not aim at redefining the bounds of modesty. What it really wants to do is abolish the concept of modesty all together. That is a fascinating thought and explains much of what we see around us. Of course, Del Noce was mercifully spared the rise of Internet pornography, the normalization of perversion, and the pornification of pop culture. But it is hard not to see all around us the world exactly as he predicted it—nearly fifty years ago.
In the essay “The Death of the Sacred,” Del Noce raises the problem of secularism as the basis for any kind of political cohesion. Speaking of the West-Soviet conflict, he says this:
[W]e face the greatest paradox of contemporary history: whereas Russia’s official atheism “guards” an explicitly sacral myth—which must necessarily bear the mark of its origins and act accordingly, regardless of the intention of the rulers—the non-atheist West (at least officially) can stand against it only as a democracy “devoid of the sacred.” (119)
Again, this is a remarkably perceptive and prescient point. More recently, conservative commentator Rod Dreher has argued that the problem the West faces when confronted by militant Islam is that one cannot fight something with nothing. It is very clear that the lack of transcendent meaning upon which postmodern democracy is predicated is, to put it simply, not enough to inspire devotion or to imbue life with any meaning. Myths—whether Marxist or Muslim—have a power which the metaphysically empty consumerism of the West cannot command or, more significantly, resist.
Del Noce also ties this to the long war against authority in the West. In the fascinating essay “Authority versus Power,” he again focuses on Surrealism and argues that it was not so much an artistic movement as an assault upon traditional categories and as the establishment of new, totalitarian ones. Authority he sees as something historical, rooted in tradition and communicated from age to age by culture. In this, he sounds remarkably similar to Edmund Burke. Power is established, by contrast, on the basis of a break, a radical rejection of the past. Marxism and Surrealism represent two forms of the revolutionary phenomenon. And again, the family as the basic cultural mechanism for transmission of the past to the future is at the center of these two movements’ iconoclasm.
There is much more to this collection of essays than can be communicated in a short review. As an important thinker on the origins and fate of modernity, Del Noce has few peers. His writing is at times abstruse, but his conclusions are always thought-provoking.
Of course, some might ask why an Italian Roman Catholic philosopher should be of interest to an American Reformed audience. The answer is simple. First, he is trying to explain why the modern world is descending into moral and political chaos. Whether one agrees entirely with his analysis is beside the point: To follow the thinking of a great mind wrestling with the great issues of modernity is in itself a worthwhile and educative task. Second, in his identification of tradition, the family, and sex as three primary areas of confrontation between Christianity and modernity, he surely speaks truth. Those wanting to learn how we have arrived at our current cultural malaise and why things like militant Islam and resurgent nationalism are beginning to threaten the old liberal consensus can hardly do better than pick up Del Noce and read.
Carl Trueman is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and serves as pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Ambler, Pennsylvania, and as a professor of historical theology and church history at Westminster Theological Seminary in Glenside, Pennsylvania. Ordained Servant Online, November 2017.