Augusto Del Noce.
Twenty years ago, on 30 December 1989, Augusto Del Noce, one of the greatest Italian post-war intellectuals, and a regular contributor to 30Days, died in Rome. The anniversary, to be followed by that in 2010, the centenary of his birth, offers an opportunity to reflect on the philosopher’s conceptual career
by Massimo Borghesi
Thinking with a leitmotif
Augusto Del Noce [© Grazia Neri]
Twenty years ago, on 30 December 1989, Augusto Del Noce, one of the greatest Italian post-war intellectuals, and an assiduous contributor to 30Days, died in Rome. The anniversary, to be followed by that in 2010, the centenary of his birth, offers an opportunity to reflect on the conceptual career of a philosopher, interest in whom, in Catholic and secular circles, has never faded. A complex author, brilliant in pointing out genealogies and unexplored conceptual paths, Del Noce looks misleading to those who might seek to delineate the unity of his thinking. Allow me here to make a hypothesis, unusual as far I know. The basic element in Del Noce’s thinking, his inspirational spark, does not lie, as he repeated about every philosophical doctrine, in the desire to know, in a gnoseologia, but in a moral claim, in his case in rejection of “any complicity with evil”1. It is this position that led him to the meeting and friendship, in 1935, with Aldo Capitini, a noble anti-fascist, theorist of non-violence. To the point of declaring, many years later, “that it is precisely the sensitivity to the problem of violence... that distinguishes genuine philosophers from academic philosophers”2. In correspondence with Norberto Bobbio, shortly before his death, he wrote that “a shared aversion we had from early youth, that for the rule of force”3. It is this “aversion” that enables one to scan Del Noce’s existential, theological, political, philosophical path4. From moral opposition to Fascism after the war in Ethiopia in 1936, to the extent that “what Fascism affirmed was a universal reign of force, the elevation of pure violence as value”5. To disappointment with the Resistance (initially seen as a new springtime) since it betrayed what was for him the fundamental identity of “anti-fascism” and “non-violence”6. To opposition and criticism of Marxism, for the resolution of ethics in politics and its justification of violence. Going through the philosopher’s various stages it is thus possible to trace a kind of leading thread: the rejection of violence, non-complicity with evil, as the basic tenet of his thinking. This moral conviction is the baseline from which the path of his thinking branches off. From here comes, and it is the aspect that I would like to stress in so far as it is neglected in studies on the author, the encounter with the categories of Gnostic thought, as those best suited for an understanding of the new form that violence takes in the twentieth century.
From the Manichean rejection of history to active Manichaeism. The problem of Marxism: Gnosticism or anti-gnostic therapy?
Ambrose baptizing Augustine, Pinacoteca Vaticana, Vatican City
Del Noce’s familiarity with Gnostic concepts dates from the mid-thirties, when his conceptual opposition to Fascism coincides with his frequentation of the philosopher Piero Martinetti. Martinetti’s thinking, modeled on a deeply pessimistic Kantian dualism, led to an irremediable conflict between inner and outer, between morality and power, spiritual life and history7. The outside world, dominated by Fascism, was opposed to the inner world in a kind of confrontation between the kingdom of darkness and the kingdom of light which gave new life, indirectly, to a Gnostic-Manichean “Cathar” framework8. “The Manichean mentality was, in the last years of Fascism,” Del Noce wrote in 1944, “a very strong temptation (and found, even philosophically, in the last works of Martinetti and Rensi, its interpreters). The progress of Fascism could not seem any other than that of a pure force (and not of a value, but against values) that could be stopped only by the clash with a more powerful force... But in 1938 in Italy the Manichean mentality was a desperate state of mind... – even on my part”9. Del Noce here confesses his temptation in those years, which was such as to put him into serious crisis even about the Catholic faith. “This opposition between ethics and violence was experienced by me in lacerating fashion in the years between 1930 and 1940... I suffered this contradiction in exasperated manner in those years, dramatically because the various philosophies that had success then, seemed to me attempts to live on good terms with it; the only certainty was the moral certainty of having to testify for morality against violence (hence my friendship with Aldo Capitini). Nor do I hide the fascination exerted on me then by religious forms based on Gnostic dualism”10.
The “Gnostic-Manichean” Del Noce came out of the spiritual crisis which tormented him in 1943 with the fall of Fascism, the rethinking of the work of Jacques Maritain, the Catholic-Communist experience of late 1943 and early 1944. The fall of the regime opened the possibility of thinking of a different relationship between ideals and history, a history no longer abandoned to the realm of violence and evil. The Manichean mentality, Del Noce said in 1944, “is no longer mine”11. The problem that the historical moment imposed on Catholics now was the determination of the nature of communism: is it an ally in the creation of the new society or an opponent, irreconcilable with the Christian position? In Maritain’s Integral humanism Del Noce could find both an indication of a possible practical alliance with the Marxist left and that whereby Marx’s humanism was a “Manichean” humanism that “forces one to push back into the darkness an entire part of human inheritance, in that it was religious”12. The use of the term “Manichean” is used by Del Noce in relation to Marxism inasmuch as, for it, “evil lies in the structure of reality”13. History, seen as a dialectical opposition between the classes, one negative the other positive, reproposes a dualism in which the hegemony of one of the two sides coincides with the lost, alienated world, proper to Gnostic cosmologies. The problem Del Noce meets here, however, is the use of a concept – that of Manichaeism – which seems to refer, without warning, to diverse phenomena. On the one hand, it described, at the end of the ’thirties, Martinetti’s opposition between ethics and history, and on the other hand seemed now to refer to a doctrine which embraced ethics in history and sanctified violence. Did Manichaeism, this was the problem, dismiss or entail violent action? Can the same category relate to antithetical conceptual positions? In addition, the fact that the Catho-communism view, expressed by Franco Rodano, and Felice Balbo, Marxism, far from finding the Gnostic position, as Eric Voegelin and Ernst Topitsch later claimed, was, on the contrary, its corrective, the reagent to the idealistic-Gnostic tendencies of a certain Platonizing-Augustinian Christianity, pessimistic and powerless in the face of history. Marx appears here as a redivivus Aristotle who had need of a new Aquinas to be incorporated into Catholic thought14. In an article published by Il Mulino in 1958, devoted to the work of Felice Balbo, Del Noce took the work of Claude Tresmontant, Études de métaphysique biblique (Paris 1955), as a paradigmatic example of this interpretation. For Tresmontant, Marx in his critique of Hegel, repeats Aristotle’s criticism of Plato, enabling Christian thinking to repudiate Gnostic influences and regain contact with Biblical, realistic and anti-Platonistic thought. This reading of Marx explains Del Noce’s closeness to the experience of Catholic Communists in 1943, when the author freed himself, at last, from his idealistic escape from history. In 1958 Del Noce observed that “Tresmontant sets out the thesis, which I think true, according to which history offers, and are in themselves possible, two basic types of metaphysical thinking, the Gnostic and the Christian, marked by differing conceptions of evil: for Gnosticism (which has its culmination in Hegelian thought) evil belongs to the structure of reality, its link with finite existence is necessary; for Biblical and Christian thought evil was introduced into the world by sin, the breaking of the covenant between man and God”15. This dualism became clear to Del Noce through reading the work of Lev Chestov, for whom he had written in 1946 the prefaces to two papers published by Bocca. The Russian thinker, even among many ambiguities, made possible the understanding of an important point. Modern rationalism, culminating in Hegel, is a philosophy that justifies the negative, it considers it necessary in the framework of nature and history. Evil belongs to the structure of finite existence, is co-natural with it. For Biblical faith, on the contrary, evil is accidental and as such, one day, can be vanquished. Rationalism, in its Hegelian version, is close to the Gnostic understanding of the world: the finite, as finite, is evil.
Tresmontant’s mistake. Old and new Gnosticism
Del Noce therefore agreed with Tresmontant in opposing Gnosticism and Christianity. He did not agree with him, however, on the dissociation between Platonism and Judaism, between Greek thought and Christian thought: so-called dehellenization. The identification of Greek thought with Gnosticism, as opposed to Christian thought, was a serious mistake which did not take account of the fact, as shown by the Kabbalah, and modern Jewish mysticism, that “Gnosticism found a way to take root in Jewish thought as well as in Greek”16. For Del Noce “it seems infinitely more in keeping with historical truth to say that Christianity saved Judaism just as Greek thought from Gnostic involutions”17. What escapes Tresmontant is the fact that if one sees “in Hegel’s thought the culmination of Gnosticism, Marx having freed Hegelian thought from its Platonic aspects does not at all mean that he freed it from the Gnostic aspects”18. Marx in fact rejects the Platonic traits in Hegel and preserves the Gnostic: the philosophy of history based on the dialectic of unity (primitive communism) – split (capitalist alienation) – reconciliation (final communism). The achieving of the good passes here through the great catastrophe (the revolution), which by overturning the lost world, enables exit from alienation and the establishment of the new Aeon. The correct understanding of the Marx-Hegel relationship becomes an issue of the utmost importance. If one reads, with Tresmontant, Marxism as opposed to Hegelian Gnosticism, then Marx’s philosophy becomes the best ally of the faith in the fight against Gnosticism, the support that allows for full rehabilitation of the natural world. “The logical end point is the Incarnation without cross and without redemption from sin”19. It is the naturalistic Catholicism of Balbo and Rodano, in which an Aristotelizing Thomism opposes any possible encounter with the “Augustinian” position. Conversely, if it is ascertained that the “Gnostic” Hegel continues in the Marxist dialectic, then the Marxist therapy for Gnosticism does not hold up.
The point, according to Del Noce, was given by “a very serious mistake, that which is the basis of neomodernism: the idea of the unity of Gnosticism, of the pre-Christian and post-Christian”20. Tresmontant, and with him Rodano and Balbo, do not distinguish between possible variants on the same pattern, between ancient Gnosticism and modern Gnosticism. “Ancient Gnosticism atheizes the world (by denying its creation by God) on behalf of divine transcendence, the post-Christian sort atheizes it on behalf of a radical immanentism. One can certainly find a shared characteristic in the quest to escape the evils of existence, but stressing the common element serves to underscore the substantial difference: that of pessimism and optimism”21. Hegelian Gnosticism, found at the culmination of a process in which religion is resolved into philosophy, is a new Gnosticism, “post-Christian”, which sees in history not the place of evasion, but of the fulfillment of man who, in overcoming the alienated world, accomplishes in Promethean fashion his godlike nature. What Marxism, following Hegel, is fighting is the ancient form of Gnosticism, the one that abandons the world and matter to the fate of iniquity. It does so, however, within a model that recreates itself in the framework of modern, post-Christian atheism. “Within the new Gnosticism the activist and revolutionary form is bound to prevail over the contemplative form”22. With that one cannot say that the old Gnosticism disappeared. It survived in pessimistic strands of modern thinking in Martinetti and Simone Weil, for example, in whom a rationalistically configured pessimism, struggled dramatically with Christianity23. This religious anxiety is denied in the optimism of the new Gnosticism for which the evil and the pain of the world are not a problem, a gaping wound, but just an obstacle necessary to the achievement of progress.
By distinguishing the two perspectives, the old and new, Del Noce could thus reply to the implicit question of the ’forties: how was it possible to bring together two attitudes so far apart – that of Martinetti and the Marxist one – under the single category of Manichaeism? In reality, the spiritual attitude of the ’thirties, shared by Martinetti, presented analogies with the pessimism of the ancient Gnosticism. Whereas the new activism of the Resistance (Catho-communist), which entailed the legitimization of violence, was part of a new version of Gnosticism, the typically modern sort. However it be, the theme of violence, as was evident, merged every time with that of Gnosticism. Modern violence, the sort that became rife in the twentieth century, is not a “natural” violence. It is the outcome of the post-Christian context in which, for the first time, it was justified as “creative” violence, the necessary painful birth of the new world that had to be produced. Violence and secularization of Gnosticism, the title of the 1979 essay, linked the two terms of the problem. Post-Hegelian paranoia lay in the paradox of a perspective that broadens the sphere of the negative, of evil, of pain, in order to be able to resolve it into an era of pure positivity. Violence is justified by a theodicy that draws, mythically and gnostically, the lines of the new world.
The rediscovery of Augustine
In his struggle against the “violent” thought, in a form much more subtle than that imposed by Foucault, Del Noce conceptually encountered an author, in whom in some way, he recognized a career similar to his own: Augustine. Having passed through the mists of “Manichaean” temptation in the years 1936-1943, having found in Christianity the answer, gratuitous and mysterious, to the evil of the world, certainly make him close, even existentially, to the perspective of the saintly Bishop of Hippo. Not by chance in 1944, after having rid himself of the Manichean temptation, he wrote: “We find ourselves today in the best situation for understanding the Manichean mindset in its intentionality and in its eternal essence. I think that anyone who was to conduct such studies would reach an unexpected philosophical conclusion: that Manichaeism is always related to a defect in the critical ability of moral consciousness, to insufficient human pessimism, that is, regarding as absolute good forms of good that are human and always relative. And along that path one will be able to free Saint Augustine of the accusation that so many historians have brought against him of having gone back in his last years with the theory of the splendida vitia to a position close to Manichaeism. Where the criticism of Mani has its roots perhaps in the pessimism that later led him to criticize Pelagius”24. Manichaeism is an imperfect pessimism that does not involve the divine soul and its capacity for self-elevation. Hence its revival in that deification of humanity which is the leading thread of modern Gnosticism. Augustinian disenchantment opposes utopia, even the Manichean one, starting from a new dualism between civitas Dei and civitas mundi the difference between which is the work of God and not man. The consequence is the end of any possible political theology25. As Del Noce wrote in his response to Balbo, in perfect Augustinian language, “either one poses the origin of evil in the very will of man, or one poses it in the injustice… of a social structure, which when removed evil will also be removed. The first argument entails a more precise distinction of religion from politics; in the second thesis, politics replaces religion in the fight against evil. Each man may opt for one or the other, but it is not permitted to mix them together. Certainly, the saints have transformed the world but without taking that as their purpose; the transformation is a “surplus”, given to those who sought above all the kingdom (non temporal) of God: it follows on the irradiation of a genuine religious experience. This distinction also marks the limit that the Christian conception leaves to strictly political action: the search for the minimization of evil... but without the direct claim to a transformation of man”26.
Augustine, a critic of millenarianism, here becomes the model of non-conservative but realistic thinking. There is further evidence in the reading Del Noce offers of modern Christian Augustinianism, a reading that does not stop at Pascal, who in his pessimism verges on Machiavellianism, nor Malebranche, with his “anhistoricism”, but, through Vico, recovers the positive relationship with the history to conclude then in Rosmini, where Catholicism meets modern freedoms.
Modern Augustinianism, which Del Noce contrasts with the immanentist, Gnostic current of modernity, is not a linear path. It is rather the outcome, in the original historical reconstruction made by the Piedmontese thinker, of a series of corrections, of supplements. Del Noce, that is, is perfectly aware that the modern Gnosticism, of the Hegelian sort, has imposed itself because modern Christian thinking, in strange accord with ancient Gnosticism, has lost its relationship with history. This is the element of truth in the thinking of Balbo and Rodano, an element that Del Noce adopts. Modern Augustinianism, that comes out of the Cartesian tradition, appears powerless against the new Gnosticism, the sort that uses history as a legitimation of its truth. This weakness is evident in Nicolas Malebranche, one of the most important philosophers of modern France, whose thought, however, as von Balthasar says, gives rise to a “realm of ghosts, devout and world-empty” which “succumbed to the judgment of the French Revolution, and there succumbed with the same necessity with which the realm of ghosts of Hegel was to fall victim to Feuerbach and Marx”27. Likewise, for Del Noce, Malebranche “represents a crossroads from where one can redescend to Cathar thinking or go forwards towards Rosmini”28. The second direction is assured if the Augustinianism, getting out of the Cartesian rut, meets with the Thomistic tradition, beyond the artificial oppositions between the philosophy of interiority and the philosophy of exteriority that have marked modern Christian thought. The work of Étienne Gilson, with his “Augustinian Thomism”, was a paradigmatic example of this encounter29. Del Noce shared with him the idea that, in the relationship between faith and reason, “the process must go from faith to reason, because the God of faith is not the God of reason plus something. There’s a leap, because all philosophical knowledge about God put together cannot make us reach God the Redeemer. Because of this, instead of talking about a faith that overlaps rational knowledge, we must speak of a faith that saves reason, freeing it from the idolatry of itself, from rationalism30. This was a considerably different perspective from that of Scholasticism. Nevertheless, the response to Hegel called for the meeting of Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, of the Platonic metaphysics of participation and of gnoseological realism, the only sort capable of restoring to Christian thought the awareness of its task31. “If Christian philosophy has a history, it is not of the coming true of opposing positions, much less that of dehellenization, but that of its purification from rationalism, or, if one wants to use this term in reference to the opponent that Christianity has faced from the beginning, from Gnosticism”32.
1 A. Del Noce, Pensieri di un uomo libero, appunti dal diario, supplement of Il Sabato, no. 13, 30 March 1991, p. 15.
2 A. Del Noce, Violenza e secolarizzazione della gnosi, in Violenza. Una ricerca per comprendere, by various authors, Morcelliana, Brescia 1979, p. 205.
3 A. Del Noce – N. Bobbio, Dialogo sul male assoluto, in Micromega, no. 1, 1990, p. 232. Del Noce’s letter is dated 4 January 1989.
4 For the development of his ethico-political thinking in the period 1930-1946: cf. M. Borghesi, Modernità e democrazia in Augusto Del Noce, 30Days insert, no. 10, October 2004, pp. I-XXIV, now in Le radici storico-filosofiche della democrazia, by various authors, edited by R. Scalon, Trauben, Turin 2006, pp. 183 -229.
5 A. Del Noce, La prima sinistra cattolica italiana postfascista, in Modernismo, fascismo, comunismo. Aspetti e figure della cultura e della politica dei cattolici nel ’900, by various authors, edited by G. Rossini, Il Mulino, Bologna 1972, p. 463.
6 A. Del Noce, Storia di un pensatore solitario, interview edited by M. Borghesi – L. Brunelli, in 30Days, no. 4, April 1984, now in M. Borghesi, Maestri e testimoni. Profili filosofico-teologici del ’900, Edizioni Messaggero, Padua 2009, p. 115.
7 On the thinking of Martinetti: cf. G. Colombo, La filosofia come soteriologia. L’avventura spirituale e intellettuale di Piero Martinetti, Vita e Pensiero, Milan 2005.
8 A. Del Noce, Martinetti nella cultura europea, italiana e piemontese, in Giornata martinettiana, by various authors, Edizioni di “Filosofia”, Turin 1964, now in Filosofi dell’esistenza e della libertà, edited by F. Mercadante – B. Casadei, Giuffrè, Milan 1992, p. 436.
9 A. Del Noce, La volontà morale nella situazione politica presente, typescript, probably of 1944, now in Scritti politici 1930-1950, edited by T. Dell’Era, Rubbettino, Soveria Mannelli 2001, pp. 214 and 215. My italics.
10 A. Del Noce, Violenza e secolarizzazione della gnosi, op. cit., p. 206.
11 A. Del Noce, La volontà morale nella situazione politica presente, op. cit., p. 215.
12 J. Maritain, Umanesimo integrale, tr. it., Borla, Turin 1962 , p. 134.
13 A. Del Noce, Principi di una politica cristiana, typescript of 1944-1945, now in A. Del Noce, Scritti politici 1930-1950, op. cit., p. 232.
14 On the anti-gnostic critique in Balbo and Rodano: cf. M. Borghesi, Contemplazione e/o azione?, in Atlantide, no. 1, 2009, pp. 56-62. For a critical survey of the relation between Greek anthropology and Christian anthropology in Franco Rodano: cf. C. Napoleoni, Cercate ancora. Lettera sulla laicità e altri saggi, Editori Riuniti, Rome 1990. For the relationship between Del Noce, Rodano and Balbo: cf. M. Musté, Franco Rodano, Il Mulino, Bologna 1993, pp. 131-143; V. Possenti, Cattolicesimo & Modernità. Balbo, Del Noce, Rodano, Edizioni Ares, Milan 1995; N. Ricci, Cattolici e marxismo. Filosofia e politica in Augusto Del Noce, Felice Balbo e Franco Rodano, Franco Angeli Publishing House, Milan 2008.
15 A. Del Noce, Pensiero cristiano e comunismo: “inveramento” o “risposta a sfida”?, in Il Mulino, no. 5, 1958, then in F. Balbo, Opere 1945-1964, Boringhieri, Turin 1966, p. 982. My italics.
19 A. Del Noce, Eric Voegelin e la critica dell’idea di modernità, introduction to E. Voegelin, La nuova scienza politica, Borla, Turin 1968, p. 24.
20 Ibid. p. 22.
21 Ibid. p. 19.
22 Ibid. p. 21.
23 On Weil: cf. A. Del Noce, Simone Weil interprete del mondo di oggi, in A. Del Noce, L’epoca della secolarizzazione, Giuffrè, Milano 1970, pp. 137-177.
24 A. Del Noce, La volontà morale nella situazione politica presente, op. cit., pp. 214-215.
25 Cf. M. Borghesi, Da Peterson a Ratzinger: Agostino e la critica alla teologia politica, Ritorno della religione? Tra ragione, fede e società, by various authors, edited by V. Possenti, Guerini e Associati, Milan 2009, pp. 165-186.
26 A. Del Noce, Pensiero cristiano e comunismo: “inveramento” o “risposta a sfida”?, op. cit. , pp. 980-981.
27 H.U.von Balthasar, Nello spazio della metafisica. L’epoca moderna, vol. 5 of Gloria. Una estetica teologica, It. tr., Jaca Book, Milan 1978, p. 429.
28 A. Del Noce, Simone Weil interprete del mondo di oggi, op. cit., p. 162.
29 On the conceptual comparison of Del Noce and Gilson: cf. M. Borghesi, Caro collega ed amico. Lettere di Étienne Gilson ad Augusto Del Noce, Cantagalli, Siena 2008, pp. 5-57.
30 A. Del Noce, Gilson e Chestov, in Esistenza, Mito, Ermeneutica, by various authors, 2 vol., Cedam, Padua 1980, vol. I, p. 316.
31 Cf. A. Del Noce, Agostino e Tommaso, in Il Mulino, no. 6, 1959, pp. 509-521.
32 A. Del Noce, Gilson e Chestov, op. cit., pp. 325-326.