Conservatism in Translation: Discovering the Work of Augusto Del Noce

 
 

A newly published translation of “the Italian Russell Kirk” offers important insights into the philosophical roots of our culture’s nihilistic impulses—and how we might fix them.

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It’s unfortunate but not entirely shocking that so few translated works are published in America. Only 3 percent of books published each year are translated from another language. That’s a pretty small number, especially in a nation that doesn’t read much to begin with. And as someone who once worked editing translated texts, it’s my guess that most of the measly 3 percent consists of books you’re probably already familiar with. Our superficial society may refuse to absorb the wisdom of the classics, but, for the moment at least, it does provide a somewhat reliable market for their sale in classrooms.

Where the small but dedicated community of American readers suffers most is in being exposed to thinkers, novelists, and poets, especially conservative ones, who are sort of “classics in waiting.” Maybe these writers already have an established reputation in their home country, but are still waiting to seep into Anglo-American consciousness. In Donald Rumsfeld’s useful categories of epistemology, they are the “unknown unknowns,” writers whom we are guilelessly unaware that we’re missing out on. We’re fortunate that the late Italian philosopher Augusto Del Noce (1910-1989) was recently removed from this classification with a translated selection of essays and lectures published as The Crisis of Modernity.

Translation is an exercise in creative liberation. Walter Benjamin wrote that “It is the task of the translator to release in his own language that pure language that is under the spell of another, to liberate the language imprisoned in a work in his re-creation of that work.” Judging by his curriculum vitae alone, it might seem that Carlo Lancellotti, mathematics and physics professor at the City University of New York, Staten Island, is an unlikely translator of the author known as the “Italian Russell Kirk,” but Lancellotti masterfully liberates the “pure language” hidden under Del Noce’s Italian. What’s revealed is Del Noce’s penetrating insight into contemporary Western secular society, and the affable voice of the author himself.

The Metaphysician as Historian

Del Noce was born into a minor aristocratic family in Tuscany and raised in Turin. The intellectual milieu in which Del Noce was born was dominated by the Idealism of Benedetto Croce on one end of the political spectrum and the “philosopher of Fascism,” Giovanni Gentile, on the other. Spending many of his formative years studying in France, Del Noce was influenced by the mid-century revival of Thomism, especially as articulated by Jacques Maritain and Étienne Gilson. While he was not technically a neo-Thomist himself, Del Noce, like his hero Maritain, “developed a deep and original non-reactionary interpretation of the trajectory of the modern world in the light of the classical and Christian tradition,” as Lancellotti writes.

Del Noce was unique: a metaphysician who used the history of recent philosophy to articulate his thoughts. As Lancellotti explains in his indispensable introduction,

At a time when Western academic culture was starting to be dominated by schools of thought that favoured prepolitical explanations—by which I mean . . . approaches based on methods borrowed from the human sciences: economics, sociology, psychology, socio-biology, etc.—Del Noce advocated . . . a transpolitical interpretation of contemporary history, in which people’s conceptions of the world and of themselves play a significant role.

Del Noce was interested in how our philosophies interact with what we think of as the “non-philosophical” world of objectivity and fact, and how our philosophies create the boundaries of what we consider truth itself, specifically with respect to post-Cartesian rationalism and the wholesale rejection of transcendence.

Rather than accepting modernity as one single and unified development, Del Noce sees atheism, embodied in Nietzsche, as “a protagonist in the development of modernity, which appears at the end of every major cycle of European thought: Bruno at the end of the Renaissance, the libertines at the end of Cartesianism, de Sade at the end of the Enlightenment . . .” Del Noce doesn’t consider atheism an inevitable outcome of modernity, but a dangerous and avoidable pitfall that leads to nihilism. He suggests an alternative course of thought that avoids the dead end of Nietzsche by tracing a different path from Descartes through Pascal and then to Rosmini, thereby keeping the metaphysical foundations of ethics alive. In this way, he shows that the history of philosophy doesn’t have to be a secular drift terminating in inchoate nihilism.

The Revolution Demands Violence

There’s a lot to chew on even in just an overview of Del Noce, but a few examples of how his metaphysical histories are put to work in The Crisis of Modernity should be useful. Most American conservatives are familiar with the idea of ideology as a kind of inverse-religiosity—the transformation of the transcendent into the immanent, or the assertion that Utopia can only exist in the world in chronological time. Del Noce writes in the essay “Violence and Modern Gnosticism” that the modern process of secularization is as much a secularization of gnosticism as anything else: the “‘totally other’ reality . . . which for a gnostic lay beyond the empirical word, for the revolutionary lies instead in the future.”

Del Noce explains that the revolutionary immanentization of the eschaton (whatever name it goes by—Utopia, heaven, ultimate truth) leads to the “eclipse of ethics.” In the rush to create heaven on earth, anything is permitted. People are used as objects, means to the end that, obviously, never materializes. Del Noce writes,

nihilism, instead of being the preliminary stage of the revolution . . . becomes its result. At that point violence is no longer accepted as necessary, or revolutionary violence exalted as divine. Rather, it is accepted as normal because ethics comes to an end. Ethics is replaced by rules of coexistence imposed by the strongest side . . .

Look to the history of any empire founded on ideology for confirmation of that observation.

In the related essay “Revolution, Risorgimento, Tradition,” Del Noce analyzes what he calls “total revolution”: “the replacement of religion by politics as the source of man’s liberation since evil is a consequence of society . . . and not of original sin.” Interestingly, Del Noce sees most conservative responses to “total revolution” lacking, consisting of mere ad hoc assertions that tradition creates value instead of the other way around. Del Noce is interested in a more profound response. In his view, “nations can rise again only by exploring more deeply their tradition, and by criticizing the historical order from the standpoint of an ideal order.” He fears that conservatives will get sucked into the same banal political games as progressives, unable to clearly articulate problems or imagine solutions.

The Totalitarianism of Science and the Ascendancy of Sex

It probably won’t come as a surprise that Del Noce groups “scientism, eroticism, and theology of secularization” together as defining elements of progressivism. By scientism, he doesn’t mean the empirical method, but a totalizing concept in which science is regarded as “the only true form of knowledge.” Knowledge—whether religious or metaphysical—that seems to contradict scientism is explained away by “extending science to the human sphere” through psychology or sociology. Examples might include Marx’s sociological interpretation of religion as the “opiate of the masses,” or Freud’s interpretation of religious art as a manifestation of psycho-sexual desire. The result of this process is progressivism negating all tradition.

In “The Ascendance of Eroticism,” Del Noce focuses on the permissiveness of the “technological society” ruled by scientism. Quite simply, without a metaphysical foundation of truth, sex replaces love. Eccentric German expatriate Wilhelm Reich is presented as the philosophical forefather of contemporary permissiveness. In Reich’s work—a heady combination of Freud and Marx—the class struggle is replaced by a permissiveness struggle, the nuclear family is enemy number one, and tradition is something to escape from. The idea of monogamous marriage is, after all, Del Noce writes, “linked to the idea of tradition, which in turn presupposes (since tradere means to hand down) the idea of an objective order of unchangeable and permanent truths . . .” Since only scientism can express truth, and no tradition can justify itself by sociology or psychology alone, all traditions are rendered suspect.

To Find Solutions, We Must Understand the Root of Our Problems

The problems Del Noce articulated are still with us, because the philosophical underpinnings of our world have not greatly changed since last century. Del Noce’s work reminds us that, to find solutions to the nihilism we confront, we must first understand how we got where we are. Del Noce gives us that understanding in detail, and in language that any educated person with access to an online dictionary can understand.

In fact, it’s the responsibility of any educated person to understand the things that Del Noce writes about. The Crisis of Modernity isn’t light beach reading, but it’s necessary, especially for conservatives.

Its publication should also serve as a reminder of how important translation is to the cultivation of tradition. Translation of near-contemporaries has been underemphasized since the high-water mark of Modernist thought in the middle of last century, but without an open-armed embrace of the depth and breadth of the common concerns of contemporary conservatives, we’re that much weaker. Reading Del Noce is like finding correspondence from a long-lost relative. Through him, we rediscover our intellectual roots and reaffirm our shared truths.

Scott Beauchamp is a veteran and writer who lives in Maine. His work has appeared in The American Conservative, the Paris Review, and Rolling Stone, among other places.

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