Thursday, January 13, 2005 +

Guardini: Possibilities of Action

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

“What can be done?”. . . Man must accept the full measure of his responsibility; but to be able to do this, he must regain the right relation to the truth of things, to the demands of his own deepest self, and finally to God. . . . Everything that exists is shaped in a meaningful form which provides acting man with the norm from which to draw the possible and the right. Freedom does not consist in following our personal or political predilections, but in doing what is required by the essence of things.

Let us be explicit. Have we ever stopped to consider exactly what takes place when the average superior assigns a task to a subordinate . . . when the average school teacher teaches a class or maintains discipline . . . judge decides a case . . . priest champions the things of God . . . doctor treats a patient . . . industrialist directs his firm . . . merchant supplies his customers . . . factory-worker tends his machine . . . farmer runs his farm? Is it really clear to us in each concrete process what the decisive intention and attitude was, and what its direct and indirect results? Was the truth in each case protected? Its particular validity trusted? Did the person encountered go away feeling that he had been treated with dignity, that he had been received as a person by a person? Did that other appeal to his freedom, to all that is vital and creative in him? Together did they reach the heart of the matter, broaching it as it was meant to be broached, essentially?

The objection that these are private matters of no historical importance does not hold. Every historical process, even the most dynamic, is made up of just such situations, and the way they are dealt with is what gives each phase of history its particular mold.

Elementary things, which we ought to be able to take for granted, we can no longer take for granted.

The lack of human warmth and dignity in our contacts with “the world” is what chills the heart, and what lurks at the bottom of the growing feeling that things are no longer “right.” The fact must be recognized and accepted that even the most commonplace “public relations” are not a matter of private morality, but the life blood of every historical process and public policy, and that on them will depend the health or death of our political and cultural existence.

Let us attempt the difficult and thankless task of suggesting a few practical points of view. . . . First, we must try to rediscover something of what is called the contemplative attitude, actually experience it ourselves, not just talk about it interestingly. . . . In a word, man must learn again to meditate and to pray.

Next we must pose the elementary question as to the essence of things. . . . One look is enough to reveal how schematic is our attitude to things; what slaves of convention we are; how superficially—from the criteria of mere advantage, ease, and time-saving—we approach things. Yet each thing has an essence. When this is ignored or abused, a resistance is built up which neither cunning nor violence can overcome.

The elemental realities we live from, for, with. . . . We deal with them constantly, arrange and reshape them—but do we know what they are? Apparently not, or we would not treat them so casually. So we had better find out what they are, and not merely with a detached rationality, but by penetrating them so deeply that we are shaken by their power and significance.

Further, we must learn again that command over the world presupposes command of self. For how can men control the growing monstrousness of power when they cannot even control their own appetites?

There has never been greatness without asceticsm, and what is needed today is something not only great but ultimate: we must decide whether we are going to realize the requirements of rule in freedom or in slavery.

An ascetic is a man who has himself well in hand. To be capable of this, he must recognize the wrongs within himself and set about righting them. He must regulate his physical as well as his intellectual appetites, educate himself to hold his possessions in freedom, sacrificing the lesser for the greater. He must fight for inner health and freedom—against the machinations of advertising, the flood of loud sensationalism, against noise in all its forms. He must acquire a certain distance from things; must train himself to think independently, to resist what “they” say. Street, traffic, newspaper, radio, screen, and television all present problems of self-discipline, indeed of the most elementary self-defense—problems we hardly suspect, to say nothing of tackling. Everywhere man is capitulating to the forces of barbarism. Asceticism is the refusal to capitulate, the determination to fight them, there at the key bastion—namely, in ourselves. It means that through self-discipline and self-restraint he develops from the core outward, holding life high in honor so that it may be fruitful on the level of its deepest significance.

Further, we must weigh again, in all earnestness, the existential question of our ultimate relation to God. . . . Man is not so constructed as to be complete in himself and, in addition, capable of entering into relations with God or not as he sees fit; his very essence consists in his relation to God. The only kind of man that exists is man-in-relation-to-God; and what he understands by that relationship, how seriously he takes it, and what he does about it are the determining factors of his character.

Finally, Do everything that is to be done with respect for the truth, and do it in freedom of spirit, in spite of the obstacles within and without, and in the teeth of selfishness, sloth, cowardice, popular opinion. And do it with confidence!

By this I do not mean to follow a program of any kind, but to make the simple responses that always were and always will be right: Not to wait until someone in need asks for help, but to offer it; to perform every official act in a manner befitting both common sense and human dignity; to declare the truth when its “hour” has come, even when it will bring down opposition or ridicule; to accept responsibility when the conscience considers it a duty.

When one so acts, he paves a road, which, followed with sincerty and courage, leads far, no one can say how far, into the realm where the great things of Time are decided.

It may seem strange that our consideration of universal problems should end on the most personal level possible. But as the subtitle [to the second part of The End of the Modern World] of Power and Responsibility indicates, it is an attempt to set a course. What would be the sense of developing ideas while ignoring the point from which they can be realized or fail to be realized? It cannot have escaped the reader that in these pages we have not tried to present programs or panaceas, but to free the initiative for fruitful action.

Guardini: Reality Radio (1950)
Guardini: The New Concept of the World and of Man
Guardini: The Dissolution of the Modern World
Guardini: The Birth of the Modern World