The late Italian philosopher Augusto Del Noce comes bearing gifts for those who wish to delve deeply into understanding the crisis of the West and the moral and spiritual passivity that consumes us. Three works of Del Noce’s—The Crisis of Modernity, The Age of Secularization, and, now, The Problem of Atheism—have been lovingly translated by Carlo Lancellotti, a mathematics professor at City University of New York. Del Noce’s analysis of the modern project should slowly emerge in the minds of English-speaking conservatives as a definitive understanding of what ails the West.
In The Problem of Atheism, Del Noce’s self-described foundational work, we are in the hands of a master philosopher whose analysis of Enlightenment rationalism and late modernity rivals those of Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin. This is a forbidding tome, one that requires close, repeated study and a return to a range of thinkers—Descartes, Pascal, Hegel, Marx, to name a few—but one that will offer dividends for scholars and thinkers grasping at the why of Western irreligion and spiritual exhaustion.
What makes Del Noce’s book an almost prophetic work is that it was first published in Italy in 1964. It traces his philosophical journey, which was consumed with confronting the Marxist and fascist challenges to the liberal order. The essays in the book appear in chronological, not thematic order. Initially, Del Noce’s opposition as a young man in the 1920s to the Fascist takeover of his native Italy led him to a socialist-Marxist course of belief and study, which he rejected once he came to terms with the radical core of Marxist revolutionary belief. Del Noce’s penetrating thoughts and insights emerge as he grasps that Marxism is the definitive conclusion to the rationalism of modern thought. The more challenging claim that Del Noce makes is that Marxism remains unsurpassed in the modern Western mind and continues to shape our civilization in its present course.
The book provides a robust philosophical understanding of political revolution in Europe from 1917 to 1945. Some of Del Noce’s essays were written before the Cold War’s onset, yet his evaluation of Marx and Lenin help make sense of the ideological style of statecraft the Soviet Union pursed. Strikingly, though the book’s essays were written before both the sexual revolution and the dismal year of 1968, he has their number also. The book predicts the long-term destructive influence of those upheavals on Western institutions. Del Noce indicts the sweeping changes of secularism, eroticism, and relativism as the inevitable outcomes of Marx’s dialectical victory over religious and liberal foes.
Appropriating the term “the affluent society” from the economist John Kenneth Galbraith, Del Noce unpacks “Western irreligion,” our methodological atheism, as the tainted fruit of the decomposition of Marxism in the 20th century. Here is where things get interesting. Marx subverted the Greek-Christian anthropology of the human person as a being of reflection, comprehension, and interiority for whom society is one part of the person’s existence. That is, we live under God and in philosophical thought foremost, and then we find ourselves in relation with others. Marx undermined this interiority of man that had shaped the Western mind, even the mind of the German philosopher Hegel, who is the cornerstone of Marx’s philosophical endeavor but one that Marx strived to surmount.
Del Noce’s assessment of Marx as a philosophical progenitor of the deathworks of modernity will not strike the informed reader as necessarily new. After all, many hold Marx’s ideas responsible for the totalitarian states of the 20th century. What is new and marks Del Noce as a thinker of considerable wisdom is how he announces Marx’s capture of the modern rationalist spirt of the Enlightenment. Marx made rationalism the point of departure for his philosophy, whose truth was to be judged not by the traditional tools of logic and argument, but by its effectiveness in making its vision a reality. Philosophy had to become action, and in the process to become history. It lost its old commitment to understanding the nature of things or the structure of reality.
Del Noce argues that Marx took Hegelian rationalism to new heights by extending its anthropology to the deliberate forcing of revolutionary consequences. At the heart of “the rationalist attitude,” he writes, “is nothing but the simple assumption that man’s present condition is its normal condition” (emphasis original). Rationalism rejects the biblical view of original sin and man’s need for grace in an imperfect world. Rationalism inherently calls for the elimination of the supernatural. And this opens the door to revolution, first realized in Rousseau’s political thought. If man is good and complete on his own, then how do we make this true across the entire social and political order? This quest, Del Noce argues, is behind Marx’s call for “the liberation of man, via politics, from the ‘alienation’ imposed on him by the social orders that have been realized so far, and rooted only in the structure of these orders. Therefore, it implies the replacement of religion by politics for the sake of man’s liberation.” The effect of which is to negate both politics and religion.
Marx meant to eliminate from human understanding the very notions of conscience, thought, and comprehension. Such comprehension was still present in Hegel, who attempted to reunite the rational and the real in a kind of universalism “by forgetting himself” as a particular person in contemplating the providential spirit of history. For Hegel, this unity of the truth of history and the person would be concretized in the well-ordered and administered German state. This was a predictable conservative outcome of Hegel’s method, per Marx. Marx, contends Del Noce, meant to abolish reason as the universal measure of man by making man “the measure of reason” (emphasis original). Such a move doesn’t sound so radical to contemporary minds. We are always seeking to put ideas into action. We want to shape the direction of history. And perhaps that too is a residue of Marx.
Marx’s project was to separate us firmly from Jerusalem and Athens’s confirmation that man participates with his reason in a higher order of truth, a logos, that measures his thought and can lead him to faith in God. This notion should, according to Del Noce’s reading of Marx, be relegated to the forgotten past so that “philosophy will no longer express itself in the form of a book or a system (comprehension, self-consciousness, etc. of a realized totality) but in the realization of a totality” (emphasis original). If philosophy has been theologized to liberate man from alienation and usher him into the fullness of existence, what need for contemplation?
Marx’s introduction of a sweeping anti-Christian understanding of human beings made possible the salient aspect of his atheism, which was to make God disappear altogether. He buried the problem of God by “denying philosophical rationality,” or the means by which man comes to know and believe in God. Atheism as a response to religious faith becomes unnecessary as a positive atheism takes hold and supports man’s liberation from preexisting categories of belief and thought. Politics becomes philosophical, the means by which the truth of history is realized. Marx’s dismissal of conscience also explains his related dismissal of private property, civil society, and the family. Man’s liberation is realized in totality with others from oppressive structures of society. Every private thing is illusory, false, an instrument of control by capital. Such a position is totalitarian in theory and practice.
All this culminates in Del Noce’s claim that “contemporary history is philosophical history.” Here we get to the business end of the book. Marx proposed that philosophy is nothing but revolutionary action. Del Noce notes that only Lenin properly grasped this Marxist truth, and it is Lenin’s revolution that the major political movements of the 20th century either respond to or aim to continue. Those movements that respond to Leninist Marxism—fascism, Nazism, the affluent society—respond only in a counterrevolutionary direction and crucially fail to question the presuppositions of Marxism. Del Noce observes that our contemporary society exists in and through Marx’s modern philosophical triumph, his revolutionary or activist appropriation of philosophy.
This claim will surely strike readers as false. The modern West rejected Marx and defeated the Soviet Union. We have an economy that generally turns on profit and loss, private property, and the price system. Marxist economics has never succeeded in the West and obviously failed where its implementation was attempted. Del Noce concedes these points but adds that Marxism succeeded as well as failed. And it’s the success whose footprints mark our path.
The comprehensive Marxist goal was liberation for each human person through reuniting man with his work and his freedom by eliminating his alienation from his true collective identity. Lenin’s state achieved something of the opposite, however. The Soviet Union quickly became a party dictatorship ruled by a narrow elite whose murderous oppression cannot be compared to anything the bourgeoisie had done. And so Marxism’s ultimate efficacy was not in liberation but in the statist power it opposed to the capitalist West, a power that many Western intellectuals were and remain fascinated with on multiple levels.
The modern West chose to contest Marxism, Del Noce observes, not by pulling apart the materialist and atheist categories of the philosophy. Western thinkers and their societies did not return to classical metaphysics to understand their predicament. Rather, the West emphasized its own revolutionary technological contributions to the good life and the incredible increases in material standards of living it made possible. In short, to combat a materialist philosophy the West looked to a form of technicism and comfort that its system guaranteed. It fought Marxism on its own materialistic and reductionist planes.
The post-war West quickly cut ties with Christian humanism and accepted much of the Marxist critique of bourgeois society regarding education, religion, and the family. This meant that the Marxist annihilation of philosophy, as described by Del Noce, had the effect of emptying the truth claims of Western culture via “sociologism,” which undergirds the notion that every argument and conclusion is ultimately in defense of some interest or group to maintain power. Power and domination are in this view the alpha and omega. And the fallout from sociologism, i.e., relativism, remains evident across Western nations, as comprehensive claims about the true and the good are reduced to race, class, and gender. Only technological and economic realities, which unfold in front of denizens of modernity and which they have a hand in producing and consuming, are accepted as true. In this manner, real power comes to rest with experts, technocrats, academics, and scientists, who direct Western nations to largely planned ends.
We are living in the latest iteration of this Marxist footprint in the form of critical race theory, whose stated aim is to separate us from our country’s Constitution and history. In this manner, the Western mind accepts Marxism in its nihilistic aspects and remains, as Del Noce observes, incapable of surpassing it with a school of thought that recovers the old language of classical metaphysics and the religion of the Bible. Thus, Western irreligion defines a society whose members are unable to approach or wonder about God and the truth about themselves because religion and faith don’t seem real or possible. So palpable is the power of atheism and the irreligious mindset it supports that Del Noce at one point observes that Western societies are no longer “Christianizable.” Surely, he goes too far in this judgment. But he is surely right that ours are in decisive respects post-Christian societies, and much more so than in 1964.
This reviewer found much of this critique incredibly perceptive of the course the late modern West has taken. Our civilization is nearly exhausted and seemingly without the will to perpetuate itself, glaringly manifested in the sub-replacement birth rates across virtually every country in Europe and North America. The pervasive secularism of our civilization has resulted in a complacency and willingness to passively endure life. Our economies remain productive and creative, featuring incredible standards of living and unparalleled technological development. But this abundance is coupled with welfare states that encompass almost every domain and aspect of human existence, attenuating personal freedom and virtue. Intensely divided political and social conditions are another feature of contemporary existence. The Western citizen is confused, a slumbering giant vastly unaware of anything beyond the present moment, another consequence of the radical secularism that Del Noce so suggestively diagnoses.
That said, Del Noce never descends into despair. He tries to limn a way forward through two 17th-century philosophers, Nicolas Malebranche and Giambattista Vico. Both understood the dangers of Enlightenment rationalism and articulated a school of thought called “ontologism,” which builds on an intuitive knowledge every person has of God and which can provide a bridge to classical metaphysics. The high calling that Del Noce leaves us is to break through this impasse and once again think and live in truths about God and man that transcend materialism, scientism, and an unexamined secularism.
This piece originally appeared in The National Review