Explaining the totalitarianism of disintegration
by Ken Myers
In a recent article in Communio (Fall 2021, Volume 48.3), Michael Hanby presented a sketch of some of the fundamental ideas in the work of philosopher and public intellectual Augusto Del Noce (1910–1989). Del Noce’s analysis of the various cultural dislocations experienced in the modern West centered on the consequences of Marxism’s rise and inevitable fall — “inevitable,” because of (in the words of Hanby’s summary) “an inner conflict deep within the heart of Marxism itself.”
Hanby offers a summary of Del Noce’s understanding of this conflict:
Classical Marxism elevated becoming over being, substituting horizontal for vertical transcendence, and attacked traditional religion, metaphysics, and morality, denying the good and the true of traditional metaphysics as enduring “values.” Even so, there remained what Del Noce calls a residually Platonic dimension to Marxism. Early Marxism retained a residual belief in an objective order of values derived from the necessities of history and its emancipatory destiny, the residuum of eschatology that Marx inherited from Christianity. . . . Over time, however, the teleology and eschatology of dialectical materialism could not withstand the “rebellion against being” latent in Marx’s thought. The “spirit of negation” that Marxism unleashes thus eventually negates Marxism’s own eschatology, leaving only perpetual revolution, the interminable war against every form of antecedent order.
In an essay written just before his death, Del Noce sketched out the results of this revolution:
Marxism has been the culture of the transition from the Christian-bourgeois society . . . to the bourgeois society in its pure state. We could even say that Marxism represented the “transition to the worst” in the sense that, through Marxism, bourgeois society has shed every residual moral and religious sense, unburdening itself of all “impurities” that still tied it to traditional society, thus presenting itself as full materialism and full secularism. The West has realized everything of Marxism, except its messianic hope.
Hanby’s recent article is titled “American Revolution as Total Revolution: Del Noce and the American Experiment.” He begins by noting: “The ‘totalitarianism of disintegration’ that Del Noce foresaw seems to have reached its most perfect expression thus far in the present-day United States.” Hanby observes that “Del Noce saw something in America that made it uniquely susceptible to revolutionary thought. He regarded America as ‘the wellspring of disintegration.’” Furthermore, Del Noce asserted that “the poisoning of America has largely been the work of Europeans.” Hanby’s article argues that Del Noce failed to assess adequately that long before coming under the sway of European Marxists, America possessed fertile ground for the cultural subversion Del Noce lamented.
[T]he revolutionary elements Del Noce associates with Marxism are already present, sometimes implicitly and at other times more radically, in the so-called American experiment. Indeed, we wish to go further and say that America, unlike the nations of Europe, is the essentially modern nation and that the American experiment is thus essentially revolutionary — perhaps, in the final analysis, more revolutionary than Marxism.
Central to Hanby’s argument is a theme he has been developing in numerous previous essays and in his book No God, No Science? Theology, Cosmology, Biology (discussed on Volume 121 of the Journal). Like Hans Jonas, George Parkin Grant, and others, Hanby maintains that the metaphysical assumptions that propelled the advance of the modern scientific worldview — assumptions held without question within the intellectual climate of the eighteenth century — are deeply at odds with classical and Christian understanding of God, Creation, reason, freedom, and other key concepts central to the formation and self-understanding of the quintessentially modern nation. Because thinkers whose work helped define the American experiment used language reminiscent of classical and Christian philosophical commitments, many citizens then and now have assumed an essential continuity over 2,500 years of political and cultural thought in the West. Hanby believes this is naively mistaken, and that our cultural confusions will not be understood or addressed without a more adequate grasp of how revolutionary the American experiment really is.
For example, American society didn’t have to wait for atheistic materialists from Europe to undermine their confidence in transcendent realities. Skepticism about classical metaphysical claims was present at our national birth.
Jefferson made the extinction of Platonism, which he regarded as a mere instrument of priest-craft, into something of a personal vendetta. He wrote often of his disdain in his correspondence, and he created the Jefferson Bible, a collection of bare historical and moral teachings from the synoptic gospels shorn of everything mystical, miraculous, supernatural, or symbolic, in the hopes that it would “prepare the euthanasia for Platonic Christianity,” fittingly symbolized by its concluding verses: “Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden; and in the garden a new sepulchre, wherein was never man yet laid. There they laid Jesus. And rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulchre, and departed.” The epitaph for Platonic Christianity can be found in a letter Jefferson wrote in 1813 to his old friend, the second president John Adams:
In extracting the pure principles which [Jesus] taught, we should have to strip off the artificial vestments in which they have been muffled by priests, who have travestied them into various forms, as instruments of riches and power to them. We must dismiss the Platonists and Plotinists, the Stagyrites, and the Gamelielites, the Eclectics the Gnostics and Scholastics, their essences and emanations, their Logos and Demi-urgos, Aeons and Daemons male and female with a long train of Etc. Etc. Etc. or, shall I say at once, of Nonsense.
Jefferson’s devotion was to “our master, Epicurus,” and to the “creed of materialism,” which he took to be the doctrine of Locke, Tracy, and Stewart, as well as compatible, in his mind, with the “Supreme Workman.” “To talk of immaterial existences,” he confided in an 1820 letter to Adams, “is to talk of nothings.” Jefferson’s was what Robert Faulkner calls the “useful and active materialism” of Francis Bacon, whom Jefferson regarded, together with Locke and Newton, as “the three greatest men that ever lived, without any exception, and as having laid the foundation of those superstructures which have been raised in the Physical & Moral sciences.” As he wrote near the end of his life in 1825, “The business of life is with matter, that gives us tangible results. Handling that, we arrive at knowledge of the axe, the plough, the steam-boat, and everything useful in life, but from metaphysical speculations, I have never seen any useful result.”
You can download a pdf copy of Michael Hanby’s article here.
For many years, Augusto Del Noce’s work was unavailable in English. Since 2014, physician and mathematician Carlo Lancellotti has graced those of us who don’t read Italian with translations of three volumes, published by McGill-Queen’s University Press: The Crisis of Modernity (2015), The Age of Secularization (2017), and The Problem of Atheism (2021).
Carlo Lancellotti talked about Del Noce’s ideas on Volume 128 of the Journal, noting that the Italian philosopher’s reading of Marx was “very theological. He’s not interested in Marx as a political thinker or a political economist. He’s interested in Marx as a metaphysician, as a fundamental philosopher.”