The writings of German theologian, philosopher, and cultural analyst Romano Guardini (1885-1968), one of the most influential Catholic intellectuals in the 20th century, have come to the fore with the papacy of Pope Francis, well-known to be a great admirer of his. Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’ has spurred re-examination of Guardini’s apocalyptic writing The End of the Modern World (1950) by making it a crucial point of reference. In line with Guardini, Pope Francis diagnoses the root cause of the conjoined anthropological and cosmological crises of our day as a globally-institutionalized, monolithic “technocratic paradigm” that encourages a rationalistic, domineering attitude in the human race toward both physical nature and its own being.
The End of the Modern World and its successor essay, Power and Responsibility (1951), were written in the wake of two World Wars, of national and international devastation wrought by the citizens of Guardini’s own adopted homeland, where he lived his whole life after his parents moved to Mainz from Verona in Italy when he was one-year-old. They exude the air of post-war existential and social crisis. The specter of Friederich Nietzsche hangs over them. Guardini set a path to transcend the prerogatives of this infamous 19th century smasher of bourgeois idols by rendering a realistic portrait of a possible, soon-to-emerge Christian Übermensch (a word that Guardini does not use in this context) who would be an alternative to Nietzsche’s Overman or Superman and would alone be able to lift us from the condition of technological self-alienation and powerlessness into which we have plunged in late modern capitalism and industrialism.
The key to understand Guardini’s thought in its apocalyptic register is to recognize the nature of his Christian transgression of modern and contemporary notions of power. It is illuminating in this regard to contrast his construal of power with Nietzsche’s libido dominance or “will-to-power”. Both men lament the growing presence in Europe of a type of “un-free” personality or anonymous person. Nietzsche projected the outcome of this growing presence into the condition of the “Last Man,” concerned only with comfort and security, the endpoint of Western civilization if it continues on its egalitarian course. Guardini, for his part, puzzled over the emergence in his day of a “non-human man,” “Mass Man,” who is “absorbed in technology and rational abstraction.”
Nietzsche, in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, presents the Last Man as the antithesis of the Superman. If the condition of the Last Man should prevail, humanity would be trapped in nihilism, in a world without values. Only the Superman, Nietzsche holds, can renew human life after the death of God by creating values. The Superman would recognize that power, or, more precisely, the will-to-power, is the one motivating principle in life. He would master himself, in a non-ascetical way, and gain power over his power, so that it may flourish without constraint, without the inhibitions of fear of danger and the “slave morality” of Christian humility—a condition, he thinks, of weakness and lifelessness that alienates or estranges man from himself by projecting life and power externally into an illusory, otherwordly, heavenly realm. The Superman would pull back power into his own being and live in perfect joy only for this world. For Nietzsche, Christian self-alienation is the historical pre-condition of possibility for the emergence of the Last Man.
Guardini, too, hopes for the emergence of a new man, one who can master the depths of human power, and he, too, thinks that self-alienation increasingly is the mark of our cultural condition, of Mass Man. Mass Man no longer seeks to cultivate the great and glorious personality esteemed by modern humanity. He no longer abides by the dictates of a physical nature presumed to be infinite and good as modern man did. Instead, he is satisfied to be fashioned anonymously by the standards of the machines that he has made. He objectifies himself, turns himself into a thing. Mass Man would inhabit, Guardini thought, barracks and factories, but we might just as well find him in-dwelling the contemporary bubble of social media or technological self-isolation, where oftentimes neither virtuous personality nor personhood can be effectively cultivated. It is not, then, for Guardini, the doctrine of an illusory heaven that estranges Mass Man from himself but technological objectification whereby he lets technology push him in whatever direction it will go.
Yet, in spite of all this, Guardini sees the condition of Mass Man as one of unprecedented opportunity and challenge. It offers to all humanity the soil to develop “an inner freedom and strength of character” hitherto inconceivable. This opportunity is especially great for Christians. The objectivism and powerlessness of the masses will eventually, he thinks, strip away from public culture even the goods of natural law enlightened by Christian revelation, such as a sense of the inviolable dignity and uniqueness of the person. This will cast out the vestigial and incoherent Christianity of the modern age. It will enable Christians to see clearly their need to make a decisive choice to be exemplars, in co-operation with Christ, of the reintegration of power and freedom that is required to save humanity from the dangers posed by unfettered technoscientific abstraction. They will have to live by greater sacrifice and humility, which are signs not of “slave morality” but of genuine boldness and self-mastery, qualities that image the glory and majesty of the incarnate Son of God. It is not self-assertion or the “will-to-power” that can overcome the alienation of freedom and power that threatens to absorb the person into the objectified masses but life lived more fully and consistently in obedience to Christ, the Lord of Being, who humbly emptied himself and took the form of a slave. The Christian “Superman” will gain self-control only through radical receptivity to grace and the rediscovery of the virtue of asceticism. This will enable him to become detached, at least in spirit, from the control of “technics and gadgets.” He will indeed live more dangerously than his modern liberal Christian counterpart, in that he stays truer to the Way of the Cross.
Guardini provides a forceful awakening, for Christians and non-Christians alike, to the demands of the Gospel, to the responsibilities called forth by our troubled age, and even to the personal foundation of Catholic social doctrine. Many people recognize the danger of power, either in its totalitarian manifestations or in regimes of utilitarian decadence. However, the problem is not often probed deeply enough, and an adequate remedy is not found. If we do not locate the problem in alienation or self-enclosure from the personal God, whose good news includes the dignity of our personhood and the ontological majesty of humility and love, we end up in fact evading the problem of power, succumbing to the abstract, objectifying culture of the technocratic paradigm, in the manner of economic or political wonks, or even embracing power in its corruption through the glad sanctioning of unjust acts of coercion and violence. We fail to address squarely the problem on the level of virtue, freedom, and their absolute safeguard, that is to say, on the level of the person as both an image and child of God.