There’s a great tradition of Italian philosopher-historians who work by reverse engineering the present moment. Their lineage stretches at least from Giambattista Vico’s “corsi e ricorsi” cycles of history in The New Science to Giorgio Agamben’s comparatively recent explorations of ancient Roman law. What makes this tradition of Italian thinkers cohere as a lineage is an emphasis on how ideas change through time. The mental environment in which we live is deconstructed to reveal, not only how it functions, but how it came into the world. In fact, you could make the case that these thinkers collapse the difference between function and historical context, showing them to be inseparable. You cannot fully understand how a machine works until you have a sense of why it was created.
This is the tradition to which Augusto Del Noce belongs. Del Noce carries less renown in the Anglosphere than Vico or Agamben, but as his works are slowly translated into English—The Crisis of Modernity in 2015 and The Age of Secularization this year—it’s apparent that his name deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as theirs.
Del Noce (1910–1989) was born in Tuscany to a family that was minor aristocracy. He was later raised and began his formative education in Turin. The intellectual ferment that Del Noce came into was dominated by the figures of Benedetto Croce and Giovanni Gentile. Occupying opposite ends of the political spectrum, they were united by an Idealist philosophy that fell mostly out of favor after the Second World War. And though Idealism was in the air, Del Noce finished his own education in France where he became steeped in the Neo-Thomism of Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson. He avoided becoming a Thomist himself, but from them Del Noce developed a line of thinking that provided an alternative to both political progressivism and reactionism. A sort of third-way Christian philosophy gave him the perspective from which to view the arc of history. As translator and CUNY mathematics professor Carlo Lancellotti writes in the introduction to The Age of Secularization, Del Noce believed that “metaphysical ideas (what he often calls essences) exist a-temporally but also manifest themselves historically; they can be observed in action, as they shape the lives of individuals and societies.” Belief in the eternal gives Del Noce’s thought a solid structure to orbit around, a first principle to act as a springboard.
And if Del Noce is an Italian philosopher-historian with a Thomist inflection, he’s also a master essayist. When we think of philosophers we tend to imagine them writing massive and impenetrable tomes. Hegel’s The Phenomenology of Spirit or Heidegger’s Being and Time come to mind. But Del Noce’s voice is more pointillist and disarming. The bulk of his work is collected in essays he wrote and published to assist an educated public in better understanding themselves and their moment, not necessarily as dense technical manuals for professional philosophers. The Age of Secularization is no different. Basically a collection of essays written in the mid to late sixties meant to expand upon his first book, The Problem of Atheism, as well as respond to social upheavals of the decade, The Age of Secularization is anything but a single definitive and unified argument. Instead, Del Noce writes like a modal jazz musician plays. He repeats phrases, echoes melodic lines from the past, makes the abstract seem anodyne and the anodyne seem abstract, and provides the sweet sensation of returning to an old line of thought that you now have the context to experience in a new way. His essays move in wide and varied orbits, but they never stray too far from a set series of themes. Instead, they sort of communicate with and through one another in a harmonizing accumulation of thoughts.
And so what are the fixed themes that Del Noce weaves his essays around? The inherent instability of Marxist thought. The rediscovery of Enlightenment values as a response to Marxist revolutionary ideology. The creation of the “affluent society” that springs from that rediscovery. And, perhaps most importantly, modernity as a cyclical process of secularization. These themes are scattered throughout his essays, tying them together thematically but providing enough of a sense of variety that we feel we’re observing them as the same constellations from the surface of different planets. We see the failures of Marxism through the lenses of the student rebellions of the late sixties. We see the cyclical return of secularism through the life and thought of Simone Weil. We’re offered a sketch of the nascent affluent society through an analysis of the liberalizing Catholic Church.
Del Noce combines these themes and subjects into a unified analysis of the moment. But his moment is not our moment. Del Noce inhabits the immediately post-war world, still smoldering with the experiences of Leninism and Fascism. And so it makes sense when Lancellotti writes in his introduction that “the decomposition of Marxism [is] the key to understanding contemporary history” for Del Noce. His critique of Marxism appears almost postmodern at first glance. Basically, Del Noce draws out the inherent contradiction between combining historical materialism and the dialectical process. Simply put, if every truth is positioned to be coherent only in a specific historical context, every truth belongs to a certain time. And if there is no transcendent truth or immortal value, then what, exactly, is the revolutionary spirit pushing toward? In order to be coherent, Marxism has to detach itself from its Messianic impulse. And without it’s Messianic impulse, do we recognize it as Marxism?
This decay of Marxist thought leads Del Noce directly to the rebirth of Enlightenment values as what he describes as a negativist millennialism in the essay “Tradition and Innovation”:
To convince ourselves that this attitude exists and dominates, we only need to think of two statements that are common today. The first is that we need to ‘start from scratch’, thus rejecting the old ideals without any nostalgia. The second is that the mutation that is supposedly taking place today, unprecedented in the history of civilization, should be accompanied by the awareness that every affirmation is the expression of a particular age, not of some timeless and intrinsic value. By combining these two statements, we have the precise definition of today’s situation: death of the old ideals, but simultaneously the confession that new ideals cannot be born.
And so the afterlife of Marxism is morally impotent and metaphysically dead. Everything spreads out into a cool puddle of irony and market capitalism.
In “Notes for a Philosophy of Young People,” De Noce writes that “The final act” of the revolution as the replacement of religion by politics for the sake of man’s liberation “was Marxism, which by realizing itself in history gave rise to its opposite: the society of well-being, which cannot be surpassed through a revolution, but only by restoring the religious dimension and the moral authority of values.” In other words, the affluent society that springs from the corpse of Marxism can’t be outrun horizontally, but only transcended vertically. This is because the affluent society is an apotheosis of materialism. The concrete eclipses all metaphysical, and ultimately moral, considerations.
Evidence of the depth of the affluent society’s self regard is seen in its rediscovery of the Enlightenment notion of mankind having finally entered adulthood. Kant wrote that Enlightenment is “the human being’s emergence from his self-incurred minority,” with minority of course meaning childhood. After the defeat of fascism, Del Noce tells us, it became popular to understand its rise as the political expression of bien pensants unable to intellectually or morally accept historical transformation. It was a dystopia to counter a truer, and more enlightened, mature Leftist utopia.
Del Noce explains in “Notes towards a Historical Definition of Fascism,” a fascinating deep dive into the history of mostly Italian Fascist thought, that we should really understand Fascism as a form of Leninism, which itself represents a specific epoch of secularization in the long running attempt to remove metaphysics from social thought. We should really call Fascism “the Fascist phase of the age of secularization,” says Del Noce, describing Fascism as “Marxism separated from materialism”—the pure, revolutionary spirit completely denuded of historical class concerns but nevertheless moving along a dialectical spirit towards a more perfect unity of energy and life. The fact that Fascism was fundamentally anti-traditional was conveniently ignored by subsequent generations. The popular misunderstanding of Fascism as “conservative” is succinctly dispatched by Del Noce with the realization that fascists themselves thought of their ideology as “the first movement that fought Marxism and Communism from a non-reactionary standpoint.”
This basic misunderstanding of Fascism by the Enlightenment-embracing members of the affluent society would create “the two poles that ultimately define all of today’s conflicts,” as Del Noce writes in “Notes towards a Historical Definition of Fascism,” “traditionalists versus progressives, and all positive values reside with the progressive cause.” This is also the fulcrum along which the illusions of the student rebellions of the sixties turned. While being sympathetic to many of the students’ complaints, he questioned their diagnosis. Lancellotti puts it succinctly when he writes in the introduction that “the students confused the affluent society in which they had grown up with ‘tradition’, and thus rejected the very institutions (the family, the church, liberal education) that still resisted the technological mindset. This tragic misunderstanding led them to extremism, that is, to a from of revolutionary utopianism that fails to critique the society of well-being ‘because it supinely accepts, as a fragmentary mush, the ideal principles that started the process that led to the current system, the system it would like to oppose.’”
The parallels between Del Noce’s time and our are obvious. But just as obvious is the expanse of time that separates us. The translator Carlo Lancellotti is performing a Herculean task in almost single-handedly dragging so much of Del Noce’s though into the English language. His work is phenomenal. But his heavy lifting suggests the vast scope of the work that still remains to be done. Not only does much of Del Noce’s writing remain to be translated, but it’s still waiting to have the impact it deserves on conservative Anglo thought, which means there are still decades left of analysis and interpretation waiting to be done. We’re still a ways off from conservative scholars in America applying a “Del Nocean” analysis to contemporary politics and culture, but with the publication of The Age of Secularization, the journey has at least begun.
Scott Beauchamp is a writer and infantry veteran whose previous work has appeared in the Paris Review, The American Conservative, and Bookforum, among other places. He lives in Maine.