“Mark You, Something Decisive Has Been Lost”: Reading Romano Guardini Today

A pivotal figure of Ressourcement, the spiritual and intellectual movement that rose within French- and German-speaking Catholic academia between 1930 and 1950, was the Italian-born German Catholic priest Romano Guardini (1885-1968). One of the most important Catholic intellectuals of the twentieth century, Guardini served as a professor of Christian philosophy at the universities of Breslau, Berlin, Tübingen and Munich and is considered a precursor of the Second Vatican Council.

Although he was an intensely private man, Guardini could draw thousands of listeners to his eloquent lectures. He was known for his studies on literary and philosophical figures like Socrates, Dante, Pascal, Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. He was a priest but did not “preach,” a theologian but did not “theologise”; he was known more for his musings on the human condition in the light of faith in God.[1]

Between 1923 and 1925, Guardini produced writings that would eventually form a slim volume entitled Letters from Lake Como: Explorations in Technology and the Human Race, a set of nine letters along with an address delivered at the Munich College of Technology.

The name of God, the ultimate subject of Guardini’s deliberations, directly appears only at the end of the text. This pronouncement is delayed because Guardini, it seems, before all else, wanted to ‘recover a sense of the sacred’ and aimed at ‘regaining an attitude of respect for the given inwardness of things’ (xv). He avoids resorting to any kind of impassioned sermonising straightaway because he is committed to first establishing the condition within which genuine religion could be practised in earnest – a situation wherein man lives with nature in harmony.

Guardini’s letters are simple but deep reflections on the modern world. They confront and engage with a culture that is increasingly being dominated by the machine and coming to be characterised by smoke, electricity, concrete and the assembly line.

In the second of the nine letters, ‘Artificiality of Existence,’ Guardini meditates on the relationship between nature and culture. I summarise his argument in three points:

1. All human culture requires a REFASHIONING of, or a breaking up of nature. Our human work can begin only when nature is slightly softened and thinned. A certain measure of control and mastery over the elements is imperative. In ‘untouched nature’, which is inhabited by animals, human beings have no place.

2. That being said, we must ensure that our inventions and activities still remain BREAST TO BREAST with the forces of nature. Culture must, to an extent, be remote from nature yet elastically tied to it in a manner that maintains a level of ‘intoxicated kinship’ between the two.

3. When we snap that precious link of kinship, an ARTIFICIAL SITUATION is created. Guardini describes this situation as barbaric.

It is this ‘artificial situation’ which Guardini laments as the condition within Italy in the 1920s. “Mark you, something decisive has been lost”, he writes forebodingly, ‘a fluid line has been crossed that we cannot fix precisely but can only detect when we have long since passed over it – a line on the far side of which living closeness to nature has been lost.’[2] He goes on to give examples of inventions and activities on both sides of this ‘line.’ He contrasts wooden sailing vessels with steamboats, candlelight with electric bulbs, and finally, ‘an order of living depending on the times of morning and evening, day and night, weekday and Sunday, changes of the moon and seasons’ with ‘an order of living fixed by clocks, work and pastimes’ (17).

It may be easy to dismiss Guardini’s ruminations as the stuff of impractical romanticism and to call him an insular scholar living a life of comfort and plenty, ignorant of the needs of the common man. But it is not that he couldn’t accept the value of technological advancement’ rather, he just did not want to ignore the destruction that had accompanied progress.

In the twenty-first century (where we have gone way beyond steamboats, bulbs and coal stoves), Guardini’s words should move us to reflect upon what we might be missing. We needn’t altogether relinquish those marvels of science which have made our lives genuinely better and so revert to some archaic lifestyle. But we could certainly, from time to time perhaps, find small ways to disentangle ourselves from our synthetic surroundings. We can loosen, if not tear apart, the straightjackets that we have fastened around ourselves and recover at least a taste of that ‘intoxicated kinship’ Guardini sought to salvage in his own time.

[1]. ‘Introduction,’ Louis Dupré in Romano Guardini’s Letters from Lake Como: Explorations in Technology and the Human Race, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, (Grand Rapids, MI and Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans, 1994), xii.
[2]. Romano Guardini, Ibid., 13.

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