Saturday, January 08, 2005 +

Guardini: The Birth of the Modern World

From Romano Guardini, The End of the Modern World, “The Birth of the Modern World”:

Insofar as modern man saw the world simply as “nature,” he absorbed it into himself. Insofar as he understood himself as a “personality,” he made himself the Lord of his being, and insofar as he conceived a will for “culture,” he strove to make of existence the creation of his own hands. . . . [Nature, subject-personality, Culture] belonged together, they conditioned and perfected one another. They created a unified framework, a finality beyond which man could not venture. That triple unity needed no verification from any other source nor did it permit the existence of any standard above itself.

A curious religious problem emerged when the limited world picture of the Middle Ages was canceled out by the modern picture of a limitless world. To speak precisely, God lost His dwelling place; thereby man lost his proper position in existence.

The problem of man’s place in being throws light upon the trial of Galileo. Although the negative aspects of the trial should not be excused, evidence does not prove that the trial itself resulted from spiritual obscurantism. At bottom the whole business was rooted in an anxiety about the existential foundations of being, about the place of God and of man in the economy of existence. Granted that these “places” were symbols it still holds true that a symbol is as real as a chemical or a bodily organ. Modern psychology has begun to regain a proper insight into the nature of symbolism which was self-evident to medieval man. Indeed, we may ask whether man ever recovered from the shock that racked his soul as his world turned upside down at the time of Galileo. It seems he has not recovered! Although the scientific picture of the world has become increasingly exact, man no longer finds a home within it. Insofar as man’s feelings are concerned God is not at home in it.

Most intensely modern man sought for answers within his own soul. . . . Every fundamental question shook man with a new intensity: salvation and damnation, man’s just relation to God, the true ordering for human life. As time passed the tensions within man’s soul between the will to truth and the drive toward error, between good and evil, increased and weighed down his spirit. . . . These inner tensions of spirit spread into the outer world, into history, and set in motion the great religious upheavals of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation. Although these struggles were first linked with questions proper to theology, with the sterility that had invaded life at large, they also attested to the fact that the Christian life itself was to undergo a universal change.