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from issue no. 07/08 - 2011

It was the secular Bologna publisher, Il Mulino, that confirmed Augusto Del Noce as author at a national level demonstrating the fertility of his point of view. In the direction of the critical openness to the modern world that anticipated Vatican Council II. An interview with Massimo Borghesi, Professor of Moral Philosophy  at the University of Perugia

Modernity is not the ‘enemy’

Interview with Massimo Borghesi by Gianni Valente

Massimo Borghesi, <I>Augusto Del Noce. La legittimazione critica del moderno</I>, Marietti <I>1820</I>, Genoa – Milan 2011, 368 pp., 26€

Massimo Borghesi, Augusto Del Noce. La legittimazione critica del moderno, Marietti 1820, Genoa – Milan 2011, 368 pp., 26€


The critical work of Massimo Borghesi Augusto Del Noce. La legittimazione critica della modernità [Augusto Del Noce. The critical legitimation ofmodernity] (Marietti 1820), 370 pages that trace with unflagging rhythm the intellectual adventure of the great Catholic philosopher, has recently arrived in Italian bookshops.

Massimo Borghesi is titular Professor of Moral Philosophy at Perugia University.


Professor, more than twenty years after his death books continue to be written on Augusto Del Noce (1910-1989), one of the greatest Italian intellectuals of the twentieth century. What is new in this volume just published by Marietti?

MASSIMO BORGHESI: Two things are essentially new. From the historiographical point of view there is an attempt for the first time to try to organically reconstruct the development of Del Noce’s thinking, over a period ranging from 1943 to 1978, in the deep connection between the philosophical and historical-political aspects. The usual approach to him favored the treatment of distinct thematic blocks without making clear the relationship between them. The second novelty lies in the interpretation. The purpose of the volume, as the subtitle makes clear, is to highlight “the critical legitimation of the modern” performed by Del Noce. This is a reading that in fact frees the philosopher from the stereotype of the certainly brilliant thinker but looking to the past, a conservative, a critic of the present. A label that has long weighed on Del Noce’s reception, acritically accepted by many Catholics.

How does your reinterpretation achieve its purpose?

First of all by clarifying the genetic point of Del Noce’s thinking. For Del Noce the true point of departure, in a speculative sense, is 1943, the year of the fall of the Fascist regime, an event that provokes him to think of time historically. It’s here that the work of Jacques Maritain, the great French Catholic philosopher, proved decisive. Del Noce, as he recalled in an interview in 30Days in April 1984, had read Maritain’s Humanisme intégral on its publication in France in 1936. That is the year of the Italian war against Ethiopia, an event that will mark the period of maximum consensus to the Fascist regime, and that stirred in Del Noce, on the contrary, a sense of disgust and moral opposition to Mussolini and Fascism, regarded merely as a reign of force, a brute force without justice. It should be said that this opposition found in Aldo Capitini – the future organizer of the peace marches from Perugia to Assisi, whom Del Noce met in 1935, precisely in Assisi – an important point of reference. Read in that context, Maritain’s book made clear to Del Noce the conceptual incompatibility of Catholicism and totalitarianism. It in fact freed Catholics from the “medievalist”, anti-modern utopia that drove many of them to adhere to fascism, understood, wrongly, as a conservative force, a sort of valuable ally in the fight against modernity.

But did Del Noce’s reading of Maritain serve only as an antidote to clerico-fascism?

Maritain was the thinker who, between 1943 and 1945, rid Del Noce of the Benedetto Croce “complex”, according to whom Catholics, as Catholics, could not, because of their faith (fundamentalist and authoritarian), be liberal and anti-fascist like secularists. Maritain showed, on the contrary, that only the religious perspective could safeguard freedom and human rights. For the purpose it was necessary, however, to distinguish between Christianity and Christendom, between faith and its historical embodiment, always contingent. Including medieval Christendom assumed as model for those Christians who looked askance at the whole modern world and set truth and freedom apart, eventually espousing every possible clerical authoritarianism. For Maritain, followed in this by Del Noce, modernity, that comes after the wars of religion and the split of the Church, can no longer assume the faith as an ‘a priori’, as a shared paradigm already settled and peacefully accepted. The modern age is the time when the truth can and must be sought and proposed in freedom. This conviction is the key point that lies at the origin of Del Noce’s ‘critical legitimation of the modern’. In his writings of 1943-1946, there are statements that anticipate, with great clarity, the conclusions of Vatican II on religious freedom. The significant thing is that Del Noce puts his affirmations in a perspective that takes up Saint Augustine: if faith is, according to Christian doctrine, the working of grace, then it cannot be imposed in coercive form. The priority of grace leads to the recognition of the irreplaceable import of freedom, also in a political sense. Hence the superiority of democracy conceived, along with Capitini, as locus of ‘persuasion’ and non-violence.

Augusto Del Noce

Augusto Del Noce

How was Del Noce’s aim to formulate a positive encounter between Catholicism and modern freedom structured?

It is set out on two levels: the political and the philosophic. On the political level he was committed throughout the ’fifties to giving theoretical shape to the Christian Democrat project as formulated by Alcide De Gasperi, to his conception of the democratic framework revolving around the alliance between Catholics, secularists, democratic socialists. Del Noce nourished the secret ambition to be the ‘philosopher of De Gasperi’. To give breathing space to the political project of the statesman from Trent it was necessary to come out of reactionary fundamentalism and its mirror image, modernism, the one and the other heirs of nineteenth-century philosophy of history, marked, for Catholics, by medievalism and anti-modernity. Only in that way could the Christian Democrats attune democracy and Christianity. To do this, and this is the second goal of Del Noce’s intense reflection, the whole framework of modern thought had to be deconstructed: the scheme codified by Hegel and idealism, taken over by Marxism and shared, even though in the opposite camp, with Thomistic neo-scholasticism. According to it modernity is the time of secularization (or of atheism) in which the emancipation and freedom of man move in tandem with his estrangement from God and faith. Between 1954 and 1958 Del Noce turned this perspective on its head.

In what way?

By recognizing that modernity is not single, it’s ‘double’. From Descartes comes not only the strand of rationalism culminating in Hegel and Marx. From Descartes also an Augustinian, Christian-modern strand, which passes through Pascal, Malebranche, Vico, and culminates in Antonio Rosmini, the thinker in whom Catholicism and freedom find their synthesis. It was the personalist strand of the modern, which links human freedom to the existence of God, as opposed to the Spinozan-Hegelian, in which pantheism and atheism culminate in political totalitarianism. It was a true and proper discovery whereby the reactionary position was finally gone beyond and the encounter between Christianity and liberal and personalist democracy could finally get its legitimation.

An entire chapter of your book is devoted to the relationship between Del Noce and the Il Mulino publishing house. It’s certainly an original chapter.

Del Noce worked assiduously with Il Mulino of Bologna from 1957 to 1965. With them he published, apart from numerous essays in the magazine of that name, two of his most important books: Il problema dell’ateismo [The problem of atheism] in 1964, and Riforma cattolica e filosofia moderna, volume 1: Cartesio [Catholic Reformation and Modern Philosophy, Volume I: Descartes], in 1965. Il Mulino was then the Bologna publisher that had arisen out of the dialogue and debate among Catholics, secularists and socialists. Del Noce frequented particularly Nicola Matteucci and Luigi Pedrazzi. The points of contact were the making the most of the De Gasperi four-party coalition, the getting beyond the fundamentalist tendencies present among Catholics and secularists, and also the shift from ideological anti-Fascism – favored by the Communist Party – to post-Fascism. The Il Mulino period was a very fertile season. Not only did the publisher confirm Del Noce as an author at national level, but he was able to test the fertility of his point of view that Catholicism is original only when it is not subaltern, when that is it does not start from opposition to an adversary in defining itself. That is why the reactionary position, like the modernist one, fails. As he wrote in 1968: ‘Opposition to the affluent society cannot be conducted from the reactionary point of view, and that simply because the opposition of progressive and reactionary is internal to its language’.

What does this mean in detail, in the relationship between Christianity and modernity?

It means, for Del Noce, that it isn’t possible to make the most of the tradition, whether the philosophical or the religious, while remaining within a reactionary perspective. Making the most of tradition, of what Del Noce following Newman calls its ‘virtualities’, enables one, on the contrary, to meet the most authentic demands of modernity. It is in this precise sense that his view coincided with that of Vatican II.

Franco Rodano

Franco Rodano

In the ’sixties Del Noce, and this is a novel and interesting aspect of your book, also renews his ties with Franco Rodano, with the author, that is, with whom he had shared the Catholic-Communist experience during the ‘resistance’ phase between the autumn of 1943 and the spring of 1944.

Certainly. Here, too, the emphasis is always, and rightly, on Del Noce’s criticism of Rodano in Il cattolico comunista [The Communist Catholic], published in 1981. People forget, however, to point out that from the early ’sixties up to the Conference of Lucca in 1967 Del Noce and Rodano renewed their relationship in a correspondence, unfortunately still unpublished. The concept of ‘opulent society’, which is at the heart of the 1963 essay Appunti sull’irreligione occidentale [Notes on Western irreligion] collected in Il problema dell’ateismo [The problem of atheism] derives from Franco Rodano. 1963 marks the beginning of a new phase in Del Noce’s thinking. He is aware, in fact, that an era is ending: the era of postwar reconstruction, the Croce-De Gasperi era marked by the coming together of the liberal-secular components and the Christian ones. The new affluent society no longer needs religious forces to oppose communism. The new West was now in a position to win through the spread of the affluent society. A society marked by the primacy of instrumental reason, more irreligious than communist atheism, victorious on the very battleground of communism itself, that of materialism. In 1963 Del Noce foresaw, thanks also to Rodano, the new enemy of the faith in the post-Marxist era. He glimpsed the time when the relativization of every ideal would meet with a technocratic vision of the world. It was that perspective that enabled him, in 1975, to prize Pier Paolo Pasolini as the most lucid interpreter of the new totalitarianism of dissolution.

Did the Del Noce of the ’sixties glimpse a way out of that dramatic situation?

He glimpsed possibilities without, however, being able to indicate positive outlets. The historical moment set him in front of two instances that conflicted with each other. On the one hand, the crisis of Marxism – which was to find an unexpected revival after the events of 1968 – posited a conceptual return of the pari, of Pascal’s wager: in the very moment in which atheism was losing its scientific guise, the possibility of a revival of the religious option looked relevant. But it was a matter of a possibility, not necessarily an actuality. Del Noce never philosophically deduced the need for the religious option. On the other hand, the triumph of the affluent society, and hence of western irreligion, over Marxism, took the wind out of any possible religious revival. Two conflicting dynamics that the Del Noce of the ’sixties could not nor wanted to resolve.

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