the imaginative conservative logo

Modern man is an empty, soulless husk, a shadow of humanity. He looks the part, and he goes through all the motions, but he does nothing of his own volition…

“Man himself faces this same question of ‘place.’ Where is the place of man? The question seeks answer not merely as to the place man shares in nature with all corporeal things but answer above all as to his existential place. Where is man’s place in being?”

Romano Guardini

As I stood in the small lobby awaiting the elevator to signal the end of the workweek, a colleague approached. Clutched at my side was my newly-acquired copy of Romano Guardini’s The End of the Modern World, which I was just opening before she approached. Politely she asked, “What are you reading?” I held up the cover and recited the title. She gave an uncomfortable half-smile and asked, “Oh, so today?” “Yeah,” I replied, “and it was written sixty-one years ago, so really yesterday.” Then she asked a question more interesting than perhaps she realized.

“Why did so many people write about how bad the world was back then?”

That, I thought to myself, is a fine question. As I have progressed through the pages of Guardini’s masterpiece, I find that her question was remarkably apropos. The first third of the book is dedicated to a thorough explanation of, among other things, the various stages of the human being, past, present, and future. While the author would prefer to dwell on each at length, he will limit himself to stages—the homeless man, the technological man, and the mass man—before offering some concluding connections and thoughts.[*]

The Homeless Man

In a relatively few pages, Guardini traces the evolution of human nature itself from being focused on God and His order, to being about man and his disorder. In his furious attempt to transcend his own natural limits, man has imposed upon himself a metaphysical exile. He is adrift in the cosmos, having repudiated his natural home, which is to say his very nature. Living in discord and disharmony, believing himself to be master over nature, man walks upright with a false air of freedom and liberation. As Guardini writes,

This positive experience, however, was countered by man’s loss of his objective sense of belonging to existence. With the breakdown of the old world picture, man came to feel now only that he had been placed in a life of strange contradictions…. Modern man awoke to that anxiety which menaces him to this day, an anxiety never found in the medieval world.

While the tide of medieval man’s anxiety was turned easily enough away, owing to his awareness of his place in a limited universe, a belief in transcendence, and a still higher order than his own, modern man has since divested himself of all such beliefs. Guardini continues,

Modern anxiety… arises from man’s deep-seated consciousness that he lacks either a ‘real’ or a symbolic place in reality. In spite of his actual position on earth he is a being without security. The very needs of man’s senses are left unsatisfied, since he has ceased to experience a world which guarantees him a place in the total scheme of existence.

Man, in other words, has by his own choosing entered into a self-imposed existential exile. His view of what was natural shifted with his view of himself. No longer was nature something within which man lived by which he was defined; rather it was now something man created, directed, and to which he offered definition. What was once his highest faculty was now his contempt. What was “natural” was “whatever was given immediately to the mind and sensibilities of man… all those things which existed in the world prior to anything man did to them.” Thus, man’s more basic drives were taken as natural, and therefore as good, by simple virtue of being natural.

Writes Guardini,

Although man is intrinsically bound to nature in both body and spirit, as soon as he disposes of nature by coming to know nature he rises out of his natural milieu. He then places nature opposite himself as something completely ‘other.’ In the process of separating himself from nature, man underwent that second experience crucial for understanding the import of modern life. He underwent the experience of subjectivity.

Having placed himself in opposition with nature, man now opposes himself, the result of which is an incurable anxiety never to be solved save by a return to the old order, from which he so desperately wants to be free. Man is now homeless in the cosmos. 

Guardini’s Diagnosis

Sometime during the Middle Ages, man became aware of himself, and from this self-awareness arose an inflated sense of self-importance. Note how similar is Guardini’s diagnosis to the biblical account of The Fall. There as here, man is made aware of himself, and like Narcissus staring at his reflection, man fell in love with the description he was given about himself. So too does Guardini see late-medieval man, the proto-modern man, falling in love with himself, in the sense that he is taken by the notion that he is wrongly or unjustly enslaved by this thing the learned call nature. Modern man looked into the pool and saw not his own reflection, but a lie: himself unbound from the chains he believed held him firm.

Man’s autonomous way is inherently disordered, as it is naught but an attempt to separate himself from God, whose language is the essence of order and beauty. Nature was the Work of the Sovereign God,” writes Guardini, “Man was the subject, being of the order of nature, was first the creature of God and the steward of His Will.”

Where once man viewed himself objectively, i.e., man-as-purpose-laden-being, he now began to focus on himself subjectively, i.e., everyone chooses his own meaning, purpose, and truth. According to this new worldview, nothing is higher than the individual; thus each individual is the arbiter of meaning and truth according to his own preferences. To wit, in Guardini’s words,

With the new consciousness of self, however, which arose late in the Middle Ages and especially in the Renaissance, man became important to himself… The I… became the measure by which all human life was judged… Autonomous and self-existent, the subject became the very ground for meaning in spiritual existence.

Man attempts to extricate himself from the natural order of which he is indelibly a part. Man, being a natural being, is, as he always has been, very much at home in nature. He is no more subject to nature than he is master thereof. Instead, man is at peace both within himself and with his neighbor when he lives in accordance with the natural order, the rules of the natural world to which he belongs. Along the way, man took to the notion that he was somehow above the natural order.

Now homeless in the universe, having eschewed his natural home at the foot of the Divine, man suffers from the unavoidable existential anxiety resulting from occupying a universe in which one has no place. What is man to do? He is to find his own solutions, born from his own creativity, which is now completely other from that supplied by nature.

The Technological Man

Prior to the twentieth century, technological advancement was slow, gradual, and controlled. That which was created by man was created purely to serve, to fill a need. No farmer was ever ruled by his plow, nor a carpenter by his jig set. Modern man, however, is not connected to his work, unlike his ancestors. He does not experience his work because his work is largely unnatural. Unnatural work requires unnatural tools. Sadly, with the twentieth century came war upon war, and with war came by regretful necessity technological advancement at a rate unimaginable mere decades before. A mere forty-two years separate Kitty Hawk from Hiroshima. Man became motivated by technology, and thus the technological man broke into history and took possession.

The technological man “experiences nature neither as a standard of value nor as a living shelter for his spirit.” How, then, does he experience nature? Or rather, for what purpose does he pursue interaction with the natural world? According to Guardini,

The technological mind sees nature as an insensate order, as a cold body of facts, as a mere ‘given,’ as an object of utility, as raw material to be hammered into useful shape; it views the cosmos similarly as a mere ‘space’ into which objects can be thrown with complete indifference. Technological man will remold the world.

With this new vista open to his gaze, man once again sat beside Narcissus’ pool and lost himself in what he beheld: power. Power, no less, over the very nature against which he has so long struggled—power over the natural world and over his own natural “limitations.” As Guardini writes,

The man engaged today in the labor of ‘technics’ knows full well that technology moves forward in final analysis neither for profit nor for the well-being of the race. He knows in the most radical sense of the term that power is its motive—a lordship of all, so that man seizes hold of the naked elements of both nature and human nature.

The Mass Man

Technological advancement was not limited merely to the overtly destructive—it also destroyed through the creation of a new human type that Guardini terms the “Mass Man.” Defined as “the man who is absorbed by technology and rational abstraction,” the Mass Man is the logical progression from the technological takeover. He is also, as it happens, the man of our own time. Guardini, not one to mince words, describes him thusly:

  • he has, “entered history with no traditions of his own; in fact, it must assert itself against those traditions which until now have held the day”;
  • he “has no desire for independence or originality in either the management or the conduct of his life. Nor does he seek to create an environment belonging only to himself, reflecting only his self”;
  • the technological distractions and abstractions forced upon him “by the patterns of machine production… mass man accepts quite simply; they are the forms of life itself”;
  • there is no desire within the mass man “to live his life according to principles which are uniquely his own. Neither liberty of external action nor freedom of internal judgment seem for him to have unique value”;
  • he will unite himself with “any ‘organization’ (in our time, a movement or a cause) modeled after the mass itself; there he obeys whatever program is placed before him.”

Modern man should sound familiar; he is our man. Having divested his soul of its natural longing for the natural world and nature’s God, what a man is left with is himself sans any animating quality. Modern man, then, is an empty, soulless husk, a shadow of humanity. He looks the part, and he goes through all the motions, but he does nothing of his own volition.

Closing Remarks

As my colleague pointed out, there were quite a few books, both fiction and non-fiction, that attained a certain notoriety around the time of Modern World’s publishing. It would thus behoove author and reader alike to consider briefly a chosen few.

When writing about the technological man, it was pointed out that while he labors under the insistence that his machinations are for the betterment of mankind, the truth is that his true motivation is power, as it should be for any self-respecting villain. Readers of C.S. Lewis will recognize this line of thought, as it shares the closest kinship to that most important volume of the library of Lewis, Abolition of Man. Therein, Lewis makes the very same point as Guardini, albeit thirteen years prior—that man’s mastery over technology has increased to dangerous and previously unimaginable levels, while man’s nature, which contains within it the libido dominandi, remains ever unchanged. As Churchill would put it, man is now more capable than ever to sow the seeds of his own destruction. The conclusion reached by Lewis is the same wrought by Guardini: that man’s pursuit of power through technological advancement and mastery will eventually lead to the end of human nature, and thus the abolition of man.

I pointed out above that mass man “will unite himself with any ‘organization’ modeled after the mass itself; there he obeys whatever program is placed before him.” The use of the quotation marks around “organization” denotes a more liberal definition of organization, such that what the still more modern man might call a “movement” or a “cause” (words and ideas largely devoid of any meaningful meaning, but such is the time); that there he will do as the given program dictates. This calls to mind an essay written in 1978 by Czech dissident-turned-statesman, Vaclav Havel. The essay is titled, The Power of the Powerless.

In short, Havel discusses how totalitarian regimes are allowed to take root and flourish and how they may be brought down and vanquished. In both instances, the people—the powerless—are absolutely crucial. He presents a proverbial Green Grocer who chooses to display a sign in his storefront window reading a party slogan. He does this not because he agrees with or supports the party, but because he knows that if he does not he will incur the wrath of either the state or the society, if not both. Thus, he falls in line in order to avoid being put into conflict, thereby enabling the system he may well hate. The Green Grocer lives according to a lie.

Conversely, this same Green Grocer may choose to side with his convictions against the state, and thus not display the sign. By so doing, the Grocer has instead chosen to live within the truth, and his living within the truth sends a message to the larger society—it communicates a truth that must now be confronted by every man and woman in the society. As Havel puts it, the Grocer has pointed out that the emperor is naked, and all must now choose whether they want to live within a lie, or live within the truth. Will they feed the beast, or will they starve it?

Put very simply, the future written about by Lewis, wherein man works to radically change his nature, thereby removing himself from the natural world, that one class of non-man may have power and control over the rest is naught but Guardini’s technological man. As well, the Green Grocer of Havel’s imagining, the first iteration who chose to tow the line of the party he despised, is Guardini’s mass man. He lacks an awareness of who he is aside from being a faceless member of a soulless mass. He does as he is told, consumes what he is given, and mistakenly, almost cynically, calls this manufactured subsistence “life.”

As one looks at the modern landscape, one sees that each of these men is still with us. Man is no less lonely, less technologically-minded, or less oriented towards the mass than he was in Guardini’s time. Quoting the late, great Solzhenitsyn from his excellent Templeton Address, “Man has forgotten God. That is why this is happening.” Man fell for the lie that he always has fallen for: namely that he can do better than God, create better than God, that he deserves better than God has provided for him. When men and women of greatness still spoke of virtue and vice, they would call this pride. Guardini puts it thusly: “To speak precisely, God lost His dwelling place; thereby man lost his proper place in existence.” Man believed he had dominion over nature, and so proceeded to act as a ruler thereof, but it is a poor ruler indeed who destroys that over which he is supposed to govern.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

Note:

[*] It would be all too easy to lose oneself in contemplating on Guardini’s diagnosis for the modern man, but to do so would produce a volume of immense length, and certainly too far beyond the intended scope of this essay.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
4 replies to this post
  1. Fascinating article, Mr. Kee. As an engineer involved in technology throughout my adult life, I don’t know how to take the message. Am I partly to blame? What are we to do, not develop new technology that makes our lives easier and actually extends our lives? Could it be that the technology is not the issue, but man’s loss of faith is the issue? Could it be that man staring at his reflection would have come to the same narcissist conclusion without modern technology?

  2. I found it striking that you mentioned in your essay that if the Grocer were to side with his convictions against the power of the State/Society and “live in truth.” I read a passage in Jacques Barzun’s “From Dawn to Decadence,” within which he mentions a French marquise who, when given the opportunity to avoid the guillotine (more than likely by swearing allegiance to the new order in France), she instead declined, saying “No. Life is not worth a lie.” What courage, what conviction, so lacking today!

  3. This is a really good expression of key points in _End of the Modern World_, though I do think it’s also important to stress that the book is not any kind of decline/fall narrative, and that for Guardini the age of “mass man” is unprecedented not only in its dangers but in its prospects for hope. He writes, for example, that “the very mass which carries the danger of utilitarianism and totalitarianism also offers the fullest range of spiritual maturity to the human person” (p.65 in the 1998 ed.) Also, for Guardini there is a real sense in which it’s proper to authentic human personhood to go “beyond” nature; he states that “true culture rests upon the ability of the human spirit both to distinguish itself from and to stand opposite to the natural order of things surrounding it” (p.78), and writes that “natural being,” dangerous on its own, actually “demands” to be “elevated by man … into the order of the personal and the moral” (p. 86), of course not in terms of modernity’s false ideal of autonomy but in service to God. I find the last section of the book especially hopeful, e.g., in its argument that there’s a positive element to the diminishing of religious experience, in that Christian faith thereby “becomes leaner but purer and stronger” (p.113 note 7). Guardini is a very non-linear thinker, a thinker of “polar opposition” and preserving healthy tensions (the key theme of his early work _Der Gegensatz_), so alongside your excellent pointers to his negative assessments of modernity and what has come after it, I find it important to stress his positive/hopeful ones as well.

  4. Jose Ortega y Gasset says very much the same thing in Revolt of the Masses. He uses the same term “Mass Man”. Revolt of the Masses was published in 1930.

Please leave a thoughtful, civil, and constructive comment: