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Power and Responsibility

Fifty years ago, Romano Guardini—one of the twentieth century’s most important Catholic thinkers—anticipated how technology would change our world, and recommended a course of action for the post-Christian era.

Romano Guardini (1885-1968)

Modern man likes to consider history as the unreeling of a necessary process. This view is an after-effect of the modern conception of nature as the basic data of that which is. If this is true, then it must follow that all that takes place in nature is natural, hence right. Now actually, history is determined by the spirit, but according to the above theory, even the spirit is a mere part of that universal whole whose "rightness" finds expression within the framework of nature. Therefore, all the mistakes, abuses, violence of individuals in history are scrupulously ignored: the process of history is a "natural" process, hence right and trustworthy.

Man must examine the basic facts of his existence. If he does not, events will pass him by, leaving him an ever greater stranger on earth.
One of the main decisions which future man will have to make will turn on his realizing or failing to realize the error of this concept. Man is determined by the spirit; but the spirit is not "nature." The spirit lives and acts neither by historical nor by metaphysical necessity, but of its own impulse. It is free. It draws its ultimate life and health from its right relation to the true and the good, a relation which it is also free to deny or destroy. Man does not belong exclusively to the world; rather he stands on its borders, at once in the world yet outside it, integrated into it yet simultaneously dealing with it because he is related directly to God. Not to the "Spirit of the Age," not to the "All-Mysterious One," not to any First Cause—but to the sovereign Lord, Creator of all being, who called man into existence and sustains him in that vocation, who gave the world into his keeping, and who will demand an account of what he has done with it.

Thus history does not run on its own; it is run. It can also be run badly. And not only in view of certain decisions or for certain stretches of the road and in certain areas; its whole direction can be off course for whole epochs, centuries long. This we know or at least suspect, for all our confidence in our experimental and theoretical precision. It is this "suspicion" which gives our situation its special poignancy.

Man is being given ever more power of decision and control over world reality, but man himself is removing himself farther and farther from the norms which spring from the truth of being and from the demands of goodness and holiness. Thus his decisions are in danger of becoming increasingly fortuitous.

For this reason the basic answer to the question "What can be done?" must run something like this. First of all, man must accept the full measure of his responsibility; but to be able to do this, he must regain his right relation to the truth of things, to the demands of his own deepest self, and finally to God. Otherwise he becomes the victim of his own power, and the forecast of "global catastrophe" ... will really become inevitable.

When we said that the spirit is not determined by natural necessity but must act in freedom, we did not mean that man himself must establish the meaning of events. It is worth noting that both extreme existentialism and the totalitarian state believe that he must, thus proclaiming themselves opposite poles of the same basic will: to use power arbitrarily, which means to misuse it as violence. In reality, 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.

What the sick world needs is a metanoia, a conversion, a reappraisal of our whole attitude toward life.
All this means first of all that we must know where the historical changes discussed above are leading; we must ascertain their underlying causes and face the problems they involve. This is the task to which school and university must apply themselves if they are not to fall by the wayside of time. Important too are those forms of research and effort which have developed along with the pedagogical labors of the last fifty years and which have consolidated in vocational workshops, holiday conferences, academies, and various special institutes. The sociological "place" of such attempts at better understanding lies between school and university, between the individual quest and consolidated research efforts of the profession. Thus they are well suited for the task of tracing forces in the making, and responsible authorities have good reason to encourage them. Not to influence them, for that would only destroy the opportunities peculiar to lice experiment; but to allow for them, to support them and to cooperate with them in a form which remains to be found.

The modern age was inclined to grapple with necessary innovations by means of rational intellect and organization. The problems which face us today are so gigantic that we must reach for a deeper hold.

Now that science has begun to break up the natural elements, something analogous must take place on the human level: man must examine the basic facts of his existence. If he does not, events will pass him by, leaving him an ever greater stranger on earth. In the main, men agree that technology, economics, politics must be directed "realistically," but what they mean is in a manner which totally disregards ultimate values: man's personal destiny and all that is God's due. This lopsided attitude is just as unrealistic and out-of-date as that which regards the phenomenon of illness only physically, ignoring its psychological-biological aspects. Medicine is coming to realize ever more clearly to what extent the soul determines the body's health or illness, and that only the diagnosis which encompasses the patient's whole reality, including his spiritual-intellectual life, can really claim to be realistic. The same is true here. Already not a few people listen with neither derision nor skepticism when the pains of our age are diagnosed clearly: what the sick world needs is a metanoia, a conversion, a reappraisal of our whole attitude toward life, accompanied by a fundamental change in the "climate" in which people and things are appraised. It is to them, those in search of a genuine realism, that the following is addressed.

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...bureaucrat deals with the public in his office...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 to 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. It is exactly here that the shoe we are wearing pinches: these elementary things, which we ought to be able to take for granted, we no longer can take for granted. Of course, in earlier epochs also truth, justice, personal dignity, and contact with others' central creativity were not always, possibly not even generally, protected; but they certainly were acknowledged and at least in theory taken seriously. The tendency to respect them was there, and the man of good will could easily, at any time, step from the general acknowledgment of their importance to his own particular realization of them. This has changed—to our culture's growing uneasiness. 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.

Essential to any really practical suggestion is its workability, so let its try to get down to brass tacks, even at the risk of sounding "moralistic." Actually, many people, the most dispassionate and unbiased realists included, continue to live according to much-abused "morality," and it is they, not the "free spirits," who uphold existence.

How can men control the growing monstrousness of power when they cannot even control their own appetites?
First, we must try to rediscover something of what is called the contemplative attitude, actually experience it ourselves, not just talk about it interestingly. All around us we see activity, organization, operations of every possible type: but what directs them? An inwardness no longer really at home within itself; which thinks, judges, acts from the surface, guided by mere intellect, utility, and the impulses of power, properly, and pleasure. An "interiority" too superficial to contact the truth lying at life's center; which no longer reaches the essential and everlasting, but remains somewhere just under the skin-level of the provisional and the fortuitous.

Before all else, then, man's depths must be reawakened. His life must again include times, his day moments of stillness in which he collects himself, spreads out before his heart the problems which have stirred him during the day. In a word, man must learn again to meditate and to pray. How, we cannot say. This depends largely on his basic beliefs, his religious position, his temperament and surroundings. But in any case, he must step aside from the general hustle and bustle; must become tranquil and really "there," opening his mind and heart wide to some word of piety or wisdom or ethical honor, whether he takes it from Scripture or Plato, from Goethe or Jeremias Gotthelf. He must accept the criticism which that particular word suggests to him, examining some related aspect of his own life in its beam. Only an attitude this deeply grounded in truth can gain a stand against the forces around us.

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-savingwe 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. Then reality bolts its doors against man's grasp. The order of things is destroyed. The axles of the economic, social, political wagons run hot. No, man cannot use things as he pleases, at least not generally and not for long. He can use them only essentially, as they were meant be used, with impunity. Otherwise he invites catastrophe. Anyone who uses his eyes can see the catastrophic results of mishandled reality.

Therefore we must return to the essence of being and ask: What is the connection between a man's work and his life? What must justice and law he like if they are to further rather than hinder? What is property, its rights, its abuses? What is genuine command and what makes it possible? What is obedience, and how is it related to freedom? What do health, sickness, death really signify? What friendship, comradeship? When may attraction claim the high name of love? What does the union of man and woman known as marriage mean? (At present something so seedy, so choked with weed, that few people seem to have any serious conception of it, although it is the bearer of all human existence.) Does such a thing as a scale of values exist? Which of its values is the most important, which the least?

These are the elemental realities we live from, for, with. We deal with them constantly, arrange and reshape thembut do we know what they are? Apparently not, or we would not treat been 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? How can they shape political or cultural decisions affecting countless others, when they are continually failing themselves?

It is dangerous to ignore realities, for they have a way of avenging themselves.
There was a time when philosophers, historians, and poets used the word "asceticism" as an expression of "medieval hostility to life," and advocated instead a life lived in search of "experience," of immediate sensation. Today much of this has changed, at least with those whose thinking and judging stem from responsibility. At any rate, we do well to realize at last that there has never been greatness without asceticism, and what is needed today is something not only great, but ultimate: we most 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 freedomagainst 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 he 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 him-self 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. This is so, and no philosopher, politician, poet, or psychologist can change it.

It is dangerous to ignore realities, for they have a way of avenging themselves. When instincts are suppressed or conflicts kept alive, neuroses set in. God is the Reality on whom all other realities, including the human, are founded. When existence fails to give Him His due, existence sickens.

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!

We must try to rediscover the contemplative attitude, actually experience it ourselves, not just talk about it interestingly.
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 he 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 a 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 sincerity 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 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 he 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.

February 24, 2006

FATHER ROMANO GUARDINI taught at the Universities of Berlin, Tübingen, and Munich. He died in 1968, leaving a legacy of writings focused on Catholic spirituality, faith and morals in light of contemporary issues.

Excerpted with permission of the publisher from 'The End of the Modern World,' by Romano Guardini, published by ISI Books.

©1956, Translated by Joseph Theman and Herbert Burke, Sheed & Ward, Inc. Revised Edition, 1998, ISI Books. All rights reserved.

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03.06.06   Godspy says:
Fifty years ago, Romano Guardini—one of the twentieth century’s most important Catholic thinkers—anticipated how technology would change our world, and recommended a course of action for the new post-Christian era.

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