By Carolina Riva Posse.

“Augusto Del Noce will be a great loss to order, freedom and justice in Italy,” wrote Russell Kirk to Mario Marcolla in March 1990, shortly after the Italian philosopher’s death. Del Noce, probably the most important Italian Catholic thinker of the twentieth century, died in Rome on December 30, 1989. With his transcendent vision, Del Noce predicted the fall of Communism at the moment when many intellectuals and politicians were being seduced by it. But Del Noce is increasingly gaining relevance in our day because of his warnings on the characteristics of technocratic society and the new totalitarianism that threatens us today as Communism did the prior generation. He has captured the American educated public thanks to the translations and presentations to various audiences carried out by Professor Carlo Lancellotti. 

The link in the chain that unites Russell Kirk and Del Noce is the Italian textile laborer and self-taught intellectual Mario Marcolla. Marcolla worked in the suburbs of Turin, and despite his lack of formal education became a serious philosopher familiar with the classics and developed a discriminating eye for the truth hidden by contemporary controversies.

In post-war Italy, although Communism was not in power, Marxism became culturally hegemonic. As Marco Respinti describes it, the Democrazia Cristiana was in the government, but the real influence was in the hands of communists. The Italian Communist Party (PCI) was the greatest communist party in the world, with direct connections with the USSR. An accelerated process of de-Christianization was taking place, somehow paradoxically enabled by a way of running power by the Catholics in office. 

A flawed interpretation of Fascism was responsible for the expansion of an immanent mindset, associating any assertions of truth to “Fascism.” Anti-Fascism was supposed to be carried out by the enlightened liberal modernists, led by Benedetto Croce. Secularization seemed to be the way out of violence and authoritarianism. Meanwhile, Marxism was spreading an unrestricted bourgeois way of life in negation of all absolute moral values and showing its destructive force and its lack of a positive political and cultural way out of man’s alienation. A philosophical elucidation of a crisis was much needed.  

Answers to Faithful Intellectual Inquiries

Marcolla proves to be faithful to a restless search for truth in his life. In his quest for a cultural alternative, he visits the Centro Studi Americani to read American authors. There he is startled by Kirk’s The Conservative Mind in its fifth edition. He wonders how someone would condemn himself with such a disqualifying title—”Conservative” in Italy would be in those days practically a confession of Fascism. This exclusive disjunction set by the intellighentsia would divide the fascists and the left. There was a determination to erase religious thought or philosophy open to transcendence out of rationality and topicality. Religion, tradition, and family were idols of the past to be left behind as archaic and overcome. Through Kirk, Marcolla was finding a different course of action from that of recent years of radical propaganda. 

In a letter to Kirk, Marcolla tells him how he came to know Del Noce. “In 1961 in Turin, Del Noce looked for me after having read a report of mine about American Conservatism published in an important weekly magazine.” Marcolla would remain close to Del Noce from then on. 

On Kirk’s second visit to Turin, Marcolla fulfills his dream when he takes Russell Kirk to finally meet Del Noce at his home. Aldo Rizza, one of Del Noce’s disciples, remembers the meeting, in company of Ennio Innaurato and Marcello Croce. 

In Marcolla’s abundant correspondence to Kirk, the name Del Noce does not cease to appear. Marcolla even translates parts of Del Noce’s books in these letters. He is called “the best Catholic political thinker in Italy today” (1962), “an enemy of individual liberalism” (1962), “he is our best Catholic philosopher” (1981), and the “philosopher of Communion and Liberation” (1990). His enthusiasm to unite what he perceived as an especially meaningful task is manifest in all his missives. 

Marcolla dedicated a long letter to Kirk in October 1989, after the meeting per l’amicizia fra i popoli, which was organized by Communion and Liberation, the movement founded by Luigi Giussani: “It is the first time, in the last decades, that I have met so vast a group of men who are proud to state to be Catholic and to live in communion with the Pope…. [T]hese young people are rooted in the deepest tradition of the Church and gather together in large groups everywhere to pray and face in every field of life the evils of modernity in the name of the real Christ they meet in their daily experience…. [F]or them the future of Christian faith is a white page all to live.” Enthusiasm for a new beginning is perceived in Marcolla’s lines to Kirk. In spite of the too evident dangers of the world, and the even more evident shortcomings of human beings, he bears witness to a people who, as Eliot put it, “Often halting, loitering, straying, delaying, returning” follow no other way.

Common Concerns: Authority and Order as Affirmations of Freedom

There is still work to be done to discover the convergences between Del Noce and Kirk. A return to an order not imposed by men, but discovered in human nature and in the Lógos present in creation, as well as the adherence to a transcendent reality that liberates—and does not oppress—man from inferior pressures, are common interests that point Del Noce and Kirk in the same direction. 

“The eclipse of the idea of authority is one of the essential traits of the contemporary world,” writes Del Noce in Rivoluzione, Risorgimento, Tradizione. The “disappearance of the idea of the Father” is the phrase that condenses this phenomenon that destroys all authority in the pathos of a liberation that never comes. The “total revolution” does not overcome its pars destruens and only leaves behind the negation of all values, the breaking down of the relationship between generations, the crisis of education, the “death of God” in theology. 

Kirk writes at about the same time as a critical witness to the radically anti-authoritarian turn taken by the intellectual elite in the post-war world. He aims at the recovery of order, the inner order of the soul, not devoid of beauty, as in the classical idea of kosmos. “Order is the first need of all”, says Simone Weil, quoted by Kirk in Roots of American Order. The human condition is insufferable unless we perceive a harmony, an order, in existence. Weil wanted the French to live together in peace and justice, and was urged to find anew the roots of their order, far from violence and arbitrary imposition.

Both Kirk and Del Noce summon Plato to their respective dialogues, and reflect upon belonging to an order in Being, a metahistorical truth that is the foundation of tradition, a re-actualized transmission of permanent truths in human encounters. A metaphysical search is needed because the deep roots of order are not of human origin. “The affirmation of the eternal in man, of the point of coincidence between the foundation of the human order and the foundation of being; that is ‘authority,’” writes Del Noce. Reason as participation in the Lógos is again reaffirmed as the possibility of knowing truth and guaranteeing real freedom from human beings imposing not real authority, but arbitrary power. The affirmation of the super-human will be in Del Noce’s view the only possibility of freedom.

Connections through History

Del Noce and Kirk are both philosophers formed by their study of history. In the midst of the primacy of praxis, they re-propose the permanent things that respond to the longings of the human heart and struggle for a political vision that is not reduced to practical techniques of sociological efficiency.

Del Noce usually underlines the triumph of Comte over Marx in the outcome of the revolution. In spite of the apparent opposition between those two figures, technocratic society erases the transcendent dimension and affirms a radical materialism as the sole reality. The messianic aspect of Marxism dies away, but its deep atheism, shared with Comte’s positivism, expands in a brave new world that cannot be anything other than totalitarian.

Del Noce notes that observing history leads people to discover similar ideas. That may explain the familiar approach that can be outlined between him and Kirk. Their shared appreciation of minds such as Eric Voegelin, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, and Simone Weil, just to mention a few, provides a further hint to understand their solicitude. 

Rocco Buttiglione insists on the value of bringing Del Noce and Kirk’s philosophies into a continuing dialogue. Buttiglione says that “in some sense Kirk completes what is missing in Del Noce’s reconstruction of the history of modern philosophy.” In his magnum opus, Il problema dell’ateismo, now available in English as The Problem of Atheism, Del Noce focuses on European continental philosophy without considering British and American philosophy, an omission filled by Kirk’s work on the two.

Buttiglione highlights their method of reading through history. They both oppose positivism, ideological individualism, and spinozism. They aim at purifying liberalism from its desire for utopia. They cannot be reduced to a nostalgic attachment to the past. They offer an alternative view to progressivism. History is not the ground of inexorable improvement, nor of ever growing decadence. History is for them the ground of human liberty where fallen man lives out the tensions between freedom in the soul and freedom in the commonwealth. 

The connections between Del Noce and Kirk provide fresh insights to wade through today’s cultural, philosophical, and political upheavals. The work ahead is certainly great, but the contemplation of the value of such a task will provide the necessary energy for the endeavor.

Carolina Riva Posse writes from Argentina.

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