The subject of modernity is a well-worn saw among traditionalists and right-wingers. Modernity is the second greatest villain in the trad panoply of baddies after only Satan himself. And not without reason. Once the periodization scheme of antiquity, medieval, and modernity—with the latter being inaugurated by the Protestant Reformation and Enlightenment—is delineated, it’s fairly natural and obvious that it would be seen as the bane of traditionalists. While the broad strokes of the historical Fall into the modern world are well known, the Italian political philosopher Augusto Del Noce sought to reform the Right’s understanding of the significance of modernity in light of the political calamities and philosophical trends of the 20th century.1
Del Noce first of all questions the value of the periodization scheme itself as a framework (while not necessarily being able to escape its horizon fully himself). For him, the scheme is the product of a founding Revolutionary mythology which reactionaries have simply inverted the value of. Where the revolutionary sees a steady ascent out of patriarchal, traditional, religious darkness of the past into the light of reason and criticism, the reactionary (in Del Noce’s sense) sees the same basic trajectory but ascribes it negative value. Rather than a growth “from childhood to maturity, from myth to criticism”, a descent into nihilism. Better, perhaps, to see the unitary periodization scheme itself as optional and rather conceive of history in Augustinian terms of the City of God and the City of the World, perpetually at odds until the eschaton.
Rather than jettison modernity entirely, Del Noce wants to redefine it. Instead of defining it unidirectionally as a point beyond which we collectively can’t return, he sees “the age in which the phenomenon of atheism manifested itself.” The predominant outcome of this, the trajectory “from Descartes to Nietzsche,” is indeed nihilistic. But he proposes that within modernity there is an alternate line of development of philosophy, “from Descartes to Rosmini,” where atheism’s historical manifestation instead acts as a nemesis against which traditional metaphysics purified itself. Modernity should not be seen simply as a tendency towards catastrophism, but also to hold potential for the traditional spirit to advance as a sub-development of the predominant one. Would this counter-development really constitute modernity, though? Isn’t modernity defined precisely by the predominant contours of development (“Descartes to Nietzsche”) which Del Noce sketches? He seems to suggest it need not be, but I remain unconvinced that it would be accurate to categorize this alternative as anything other than “anti-modern” or at least “non-modern.”
Where Del Noce is particularly riveting is not here, where he somewhat dissents from a more standard line of reactionary analysis, but in an area where he isn’t that novel. Namely, in the development of Eric Voeglin’s analysis of modern progressive ideology as forms of neo-gnosticism. Marxism and progressivism are Gnostic insofar as they conceive of a perfect “other world”, as did the Gnostics of old, but rather than another metaphysical realm beyond our own, the “other world” is immanentized to a future utopia. In both sorts of gnosticism, an esoteric gnosis revealed to an elite group is the means of salvation. Gnosticism, in its various guises, then as now, constitutes the main alternative to the Christian and classical view of the world.
Because Marxism and revolutionary progressivism are predicated on a historicism and immanentism which exclude metaphysical ends—whether classically religious or Kantian—a priori, and are thus inherently atheistic, Del Noce renders asunder the naive attempts by Left Catholics of his day to seek a rapprochement between Marxism and Christianity. The logic of revolutionary thought includes a necessary absorption of religion, especially Christianity, by politics. Transcendent order is precluded as the march of history becomes its own criterion of justice. When this happens the denunciation of violence, for example, becomes impossible as revolutionary ends are justified by the means. The atheism of the system is not a feature which can be abstracted from the rest, as to separate the chaff from the wheat, but is fundamental and essential to each part.
Del Noce doesn’t intend to thereby dismiss the possibility of fruitful engagement with revolutionary thought, but thinks it is most fruitful to engage it by way of focused and intense opposition.
This gets particularly interesting when Del Noce unmasks the underlying continuity and affinity between what he calls “the technological society” of the West (neoliberalism, essentially) and Marxist totalitarianism. This isn’t a new idea for those familiar with reactionary thought—think of Moldbug’s “America is a Communist Country” or Ryszard Legutko’s Demon in Democracy which recently advanced the same thesis—but is notable because Del Noce was writing in the 1970s and 80s in the midst of the Cold War. A time when these two apparently diametrically opposed forces were locked in existential conflict. Beneath the surface, Del Noce perceptively detects the reality of a deep continuity. The same logic of total immanentization, of a system predicated entirely on materialistic presuppositions and oriented toward material and revolutionary ends, is not only still present in “the technological society” of the West, but magnified and perfected.
Some of the key features of the West’s technological society are its positivism and scientism. Del Noce is insistent that this stance, elevating Science™ as the sole arbiter of truth, is not derived as a conclusion of some set of propositions, but is instead chosen arbitrarily from the start. This despite the impossibility of grounding this stance, given that the proposition itself (science is the sole arbiter of truth) is not scientifically verifiable. It is thus simply assumed and the alternative traditional means of acquiring knowledge are dismissed rather than debunked. This scientism necessarily results in a sort of pragmatism (toward the ends of ever greater ability to “master” the material world), which eventually relegates humans to the realm of means.
This dehumanizing infects the realm of sexuality where humans-as-means implies sexual libertinism. Sex is no longer ordered toward the end of procreation and family life, but becomes an end to itself and opposition to its absolute free expression becomes a hostile act by the forces of “repression.” Here we have seen Del Noce’s prescient views verified, as the technological society has increasingly “liberated” sexuality (via the pill, porn, and feminism), while growing progressively intolerant toward any forces that would dare oppose “liberation.”
Del Noce also articulates his own version of the Puritan Thesis, noticing the Gnostic nature of Puritanism and how it acted as the seedbed for later progressivism. While claiming to be simply scriptural and Christian, Puritans were more essentially revolutionary in their aims of worldly transformation, and when they encountered aspects of Scripture that didn’t cohere with this program they appealed to special illumination of the Holy Spirit (a form of esoteric gnosis). “But,” asks Del Noce:
are the Marxists doing anything different, when they place a taboo on the arguments of their adversaries by calling them “classist”? Is the nature of the relationship between the leading elite and its followers not the same in both cases? Is the appeal to the masses – which have been indoctrinated, even if later they are described as the voice of God or of history – not identical as well? In all its forms, the new Gnosticism must reject the universality of reason and its foundation in the theory of the Logos.
The spirit of revolution is a rebellious spirit, ultimately against being itself. First taking the form of prioritizing becoming over being (inverting the traditional hierarchy), and developing towards nihilism. Understanding that all of the alternatives to traditional religion and metaphysics possess these similar underlying characteristics, although at different points along the trajectory and with different dimensions, is critical to Del Noce’s project. The apparent proliferation of ideologies are collapsed and revealed as emanations of one spirit, set against the Logos:
[O]n the one hand, the followers of degenerate gnosis replace religion with politics as the road to human liberation; on the other, they cannot hope to succeed through persuasion because the immanentization of the eschaton is a theoretical fallacy. No matter what form of Gnosticism will prevail, believers in the ancient values will be ostracized and sentenced to the hell of social oblivion, precisely because of their morality and sincerity. And the sentence will be pronounced in the name of a new religious interpretation or of an unverifiable meaning of history (or of both at the same time).
Another axis along which to break down and understand this dichotomy is the opposition of Authority and Power. While the narrative of history our Prog leaders feed us is that the rise of totalitarianism (especially in the Fascist variety) is just the most psychotic and exaggerated form of authority itself, Del Noce sees in totalitarianism the complete eclipse of authority by power. Sociologically, authority begins at the level of the family, with parents as true auttori or “authors” of their children, responsible for their physical and spiritual generation. And it is connected to the idea of tradition, what is “handed down” from parent to child.
The nature of authority is interior self-mastery, self-evident to inferiors which is naturally recognized and submitted to. This superiority-inferiority dyad is natural in the parent-child relationship, and is reflected in the realms of church, education, and government in traditional societies. Hierarchy develops naturally out of the natural fact of inferiority and superiority. Power, on the other hand, is essentially the wielding or application of exterior physical force. Authority can justly wield power, but nothing else can. And the crisis of authority in the modern world is precisely that those who wield power in our society have no authority, having severed its metaphysical basis:
[T]he confusion between authority and power arises whenever the idea of authority is not linked to the primacy of being over becoming and, as a consequence, the super-human foundation of authority is not taken into account.
Whether it is the confusion of authority for power, the eschaton for utopia, freedom for repression, or being for becoming, a singular pattern emerges. Del Noce sees the theological analog (and one source) in “death of God” theology, which was both an engine for, and post facto justification of, secularization. This theology re-interprets the Gospels as the last act in an historical movement from the transcendent, patriarchal, authoritarian Father, through Christ, to the Spirit of God being dispersed into individuals and history, liquidating all transcendence from reality. The connection to the other phenomena we’ve outlined should be apparent.
Del Noce provides a thorough map of the territory of the modern world, with its various regions. Though he sets himself against “reactionaries” in the sense of thinkers who naively idealize the past and commit to the same historicism as progressives, he is very much a reactionary in the better sense of the word: someone committed to the eternal verities of classical metaphysical and religious thought against the disintegration of modernity. Some of the influences he holds with highest regard are men like Voeglin, de Maistre and Guénon, who are staples in the traditionalist canon. He also sees in Russia and particularly the Orthodox Church (though he is Catholic) a unique bulwark against the modernism plaguing the western world, and an example to look toward. Mostly unknown in the Anglophone world until recently, his analysis presaged much that has followed after him and provides the Right with a fairly rigorous and complete framework for grasping our crisis and how to combat it.
- A volume of essays and extracts from other works has recently appeared in English (translated by Carlo Lancellotti) under the title The Crisis of Modernity, exposing his thought to the Anglophone world for the first time. ↩