Selections from Romano Guardini’s LETTERS FROM LAKE COMO

220px-Romano_Guardini_stamp“In truth, nature beings to relate to us only when we begin to indwell in it, when culture begins in it.  Culture then develops and, bit by bit, nature is refashioned.  We create our own world, shaped by thoughts and controlled not merely by natural urges but by ends that we set to serve ourselves as intellectual and spiritual beings, an environment that is related to us and brought into being by us.” (10)

“All intellectual and spiritual activity presupposes a kind of asceticism, of break up of nature, of dissolving and dematerializing it.  Only then can we do our human work.” (11)

“In this new sphere things are no longer directly detected, seen, grasped, formed, or enjoyed; rather, they are mediated by signs and substitutes.” (20)

“The one sinks into a things and its context.  The aim is to penetrate, to move within, to live with.  The other unpacks, tears apart, arranges in compartments, takes over and rules.” (43)

“The other form of knowledge and its mastery is very different.  It began to emerge already during the Renaissance but has really come into its own very recently.  This knowledge does not inspect, it analyzes.  It does not construct a picture of the world, but a formula.  Its desire is to achieve power so as to bring force to bear on things, a law that can be formulated rationally.  Here we have the basis and character of its dominion: compulsion, arbitrary compulsion devoid of all respect.” (44)

“We see the same phenomenon in politics.  Here statistics provides the basis.  A host of bureaucrats makes use of statistics and governs by this means.  Newspapers, put in the service of goal-directed slogans, mold public opinion; so do posters and films.  Similarly, the monstrous organization of economic life works rationally and arbitrarily like a machine.  It both serves politics and controls it.  It has a profound impact on cultural life by means of the radio, the control of the press, theater, music, and travel.” (47)

“a technique of controlling living people is developing.” (47)

“At all events, the anxious question arises: What will become of life if it is delivered up to the power of this dominion?  Living events go their own ways, ways of development, sensitive, deep-rooted ways.  They have their own profound sureness.  They are infinitely tender but also inconceivably strong and invincibly powerful so long as they remain in their own essential courses.  But these courses are now heading for the dark.  The creativity is now unconscious.  Things seem to be following no rule, to be taking place simply at will.  What will happen when these events become subject to the harsh consciousness of rational formulas, the power of technical compulsion?  A system of machines is engulfing life.  It defends itself.  It seeks free air and a secure basis.  Can life retain its living character in this system?” (49)

“Rankings formed.  Individual vocations had their own value and dignity, but did not prevent recognition of higher and lower vocations.  Similarly, final equality before God did not prevent the formation of classes on a scale and intellectual ranking.  Life was strongly grasped, and vocational work was done.  But that did not involve any confusion on the everyday with the sublime, of the profane and the sacred.” (55)

“Tradition was in time what air and water and soil are in space.  We thus have two things.  On the one hand, a developed humanity has slowly achieved clearly evolved forms and has developed powers of seeing, owning, living, thinking, ruling, and creating.  On the other hand, we have appropriately formed work, mature and full creation-not a numerical but an intensive fullness.  Life pulses through it down to the last member.  The multiplicity of life finds expression in a thousand details.  Every gate, lattice, and staircase, every proverb, custom, office, and tradition has been vitally formed and produced.  So flexible is the creative work!  It divides into different types, classes, human ranks, and seasons of the year.  And all of it, material, work, content, is authentic.  But the masses have changed all this.” (57)

“Unlimited production means that every art of force and cunning must be used to produce unlimited consumption!” (59)

“Everywhere we find hybridization.  All rankings are lost. We all think we are justified in whatever we do.  We are no longer tied to the essence of content or the historical or social dignity of form.” (59)

“How vulgar life has become in every sphere, even in religion.” (59)

“But here everything is made showy and trashy-and the more hopelessly so, the greater the technical perfection.  So it is with everything. . . . They bring them all into the trashy sphere, that is, within reach of the masses.” (61)

“Take religious drama, the ordinary mysteries.  Just a few more of them, a few more years of legends and religious lyrics, and our life of faith will no longer be healthy.  What is the Christmas event when it is reduced to sweet nothings in a hundred nativity plays?” (61)

“People did, of course, use tools and aids in great numbers and with great delicacy.  But these were only supports, extending the range of activity of natural human organs, making possible more acute and accurate seeing and hearing, working, understanding, and controlling.  The means were always integrated into the interplay of the human unit, and a limit was always set to make possible direct and living execution.” (66)

“Individual forces such as steam, electricity, and chemical energy have been taken out of their natural context.  We know their rational laws, and on the basis of this knowledge we can unleash their power.” (71)

“Our age is different from what has come before it.  It is not different merely as the Renaissance is compared to the Middle Ages.  The difference goes incomparably deeper.  It often seems to me that the period from 1830 to 1870 is the watershed.  All things before that, however different,  belong together.  They rest on a similar basic attitude, share the same human standard, are integrated into nature and its proportions.  What has come since seems to be governed by a different basic attitude, by the desire to set goals independently of organic connections and on the basis of rationally emerging forces that are mechanically put in the service of this desire and its goals.” (75)

“It is destructive because it is not under human control.  It is a surging ahead of unleashed forces that have not yet been mastered, raw material that has not yet been put together, given a living and spiritual form, and related to humanity.” (79)

“Our age is not just an external path that we treat; it is ourselves.  Our age is our own blood, our own soul.” (81)

“God is at work.  History is going forward in the depths, and we must be ready to play our part, trusting in what God is doing and in the forces that he has made to stir within us.” (96)

Source: Romano Guardini, LETTERS FROM LAKE COMO (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman’s, 1994).

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