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Learning to See

Pieper, Dante, and Del Noce on contemporary cultural blindness

From the philosopher Josef Pieper, in his great little book Only the Lover Sings: Art and Contemplation, a gift to me from The Covenant School:

Man’s ability to see is in decline. Those who nowadays concern themselves with culture and education will experience this fact again and again. We do not mean here, of course, the physiological sensitivity of the human eye. We mean the spiritual capacity to perceive the visible reality as it truly is.

To be sure, no human being has ever really seen everything that lies visibly in front of his eyes. The world, including its tangible side, is unfathomable. Who would ever have perfectly perceived the countless shapes and shades of just one wave swelling and ebbing in the ocean! And yet, there are degrees of perception. Going below a certain bottom line quite obviously will endanger the integrity of man as a spiritual being. It seems that nowadays we have arrived at this bottom line.

He continues:

To see things is the first step toward that primordial and basic mental grasping of reality, which constitutes the essence of man as a spiritual being.

In a short meditation on Pieper’s insights, Daniel McInerny writes:

So, in order to recover our moral sight Pieper urges us to become, in whatever small way, artists; Haldane proposes that we at least partake of the fruit of literary and artistic imagination. The artists, indeed, have anticipated our cultural problem. To take just one example, the critic Hugh Kenner characterizes James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) as “the voice of the machine.” We may think of it as “stream of consciousness,” but the thoughts that swirl through the mind of Joyce’s hero, Leopold Bloom, make up not so much a stream but a whirring mechanism of stimulus and response. As Kenner suggests, Bloom’s thoughts parody the image of the mind as super-computer”that is, the mind as the processor of ways and means, but utterly blind to the perception of ends.

Joyce, nearly one hundred years ago, saw something about how Western European culture was misperceiving the human being, as did, after him, Eliot and Waugh and Greene and O’Connor and Percy. But then something happened. To be sure, it was already happening. Writers and artists began to lose the ability to see the human person aright, and the institutions devoted to forming young artists also became like the blind leading the blind.

It is time for those in our culture still blessed with the eyes to see to pay heed to the Platonic insight that moral, intellectual, and political formation depend upon the right cultivation of the arts. To the ancient Athenians, the theatron , the “seeing place,” was the chief source both of entertainment and moral enlightenment. For us today, the traditional theater has (unfortunately) only a marginal impact. Our public seeing places are, instead, television and music, the cinema and the popular novel. We cannot afford to abandon these sectors of culture. We cannot castrate, as C.S. Lewis advises, and then bid the geldings be fruitful.

We need new “seeing places” to help us perceive “the visible reality as it truly is.”

Boy, does all of this resonate with me as a reader of Dante. My upcoming book How Dante Can Save Your Life talks about how reading the Divine Comedy helped me to see myself and my own life in a radically new way. And this is appropriate, because the nature of the pilgrim Dante’s journey through the Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise is a progression in learning to see things as they are. This is most explicit in Paradiso, where the pilgrim’s progress toward God is measured by his ability to take in more light. From Paradiso XIV, these words from an unseen voice in heaven (it turns out to be King Solomon’s):

“Long as the joyous feast of Paradise

shall last,” it said, “so long our burning love

shall clothe us in this radiance you see.


Our brilliance is in ratio to our love,

our ardor to our vision, and our vision

to the degree of grace vouchsafed to us.


When our flesh, sanctified and glorious

shall clothe our souls once more, our person then

will be more pleasing since it is complete;


Wherefore, the light, generously bestowed

on us by the Supreme Good, is increased —

the light of glory that shows Him to us.


It follows, then, that vision must increase,

as must the ardor kindled by the vision,

as must the radiance the ardor gives. …”


The translation is Mark Musa’s. Later in Canto XXI, Beatrice warns Dante that if she were to smile at him, the light that would issue forth would destroy him. He is not spiritually prepared to see reality at that level. The idea is that Reality is something that we must learn to see — and that we cannot hope to see everything at once, certainly not in this life. Our capacity to see increases with our progress in love, which is only possible when we make room within ourselves for the operation of divine grace.

I bring this up in context of the post from earlier today about “Silicon Valley Mordor,” and the rapid loss in our time of what it means to be human. Setting aside Dante’s theological vision, his metaphysical vision is what’s at issue. I quote here from an essay titled “The Ascendance of Eroticism,” collected in the book The Crisis of Modernity, by the late Italian philosopher Augusto Del Noce. The book recently appeared in an English version translated by Carlo Lancellotti, a reader of this blog. Del Noce died in 1989, but his vision was extremely prescient. He says, for example, “One is not surprised by the most advanced ideas, including marriage between homosexuals.” Why not? Because del  Noce realized that the metaphysical underpinnings for traditional sexual morality were gone.

Del Noce points out that the ideas behind the Sexual Revolution were completely worked out in the 1920s, but Fascism, Nazism, and Stalinism put them on hold. They returned after the war, and became dominant in the 1960s. Del Noce, writing about the psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, an avatar of the Sexual Revolution, says Reich was correct to say “that no compromise is possible between traditional morality, taken in its entirety and without modifications, that is, fully recognizing its first premises, and thus without emphasizing unilaterally any particular aspect, and sexual liberation.” Del Noce, describing Reich’s vision:

Having taken away every order of ends and eliminated every authority of values, all that is left is vital energy, which can be identified with sexuality, as was already claimed in ancient times and is actually difficult to refute. Hence, the core element of life will be sexual happiness.

More Del Noce:

At the cost of repeating myself, I should insist on some truths that have been almost completely forgotten. The idea of indissoluble monogamous marriage and other ideas related to it (modesty, purity, continence) are 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 (the Platonic True in itself and Good in itself). On top of everything else, the affirmation of these themes is one of the glories of Italian thought, because what else is Dante’s Comedy if not the poem of order viewed as the immanent form of the universe? …

But if we separate the idea of tradition from that of an objective order, it must necessarily appear to be “the past,” what has been “surpassed,” “the dead trying to suffocate the living,” what must be negated in order to find psychological balance. The idea of indissoluble marriage must be replaced by that of free union, renewable or breakable at any time. It does not make sense to speak of sexual perversions; on the contrary, homosexual expressions, either masculine or feminine, should be regarded as the purest forms of love. Therefore, at the scientistic-materialistic level, on which Freud also operated, Reich is undoubtedly correct.

Del Noce draws three important conclusions:

1. The question of eroticism is first of all metaphysical. Only a restoration of what for brevity I will call “classical metaphysics” can truly dismantle the framework of judgments that make up eroticism.

2. Politically, eroticism is linked with “democracy devoid of the sacred,” which today has manifested itself as never before. …

3. Any “dialogue” with the advocates of sexual liberalization is perfectly useless, simply because they start by denying a priori the metaphysics that is the source of what they regard as “repressive” morality?

Del Noce first published this in 1970. He appears to be every bit as visionary as Philip Rieff was. This is not the place to go more in-depth on his essay, but it will have to suffice to say that Del Noce argues that overturning of the older sense of metaphysics by the sexual revolutionists was advanced through the arts. In other words, it was the poets (meaning novelists, filmmakers, and all artists) who taught the world to see things differently (to use the most neutral phrasing). Whether you think they enlightened the world or endarkened it depends on what you think about the Sexual Revolution.

Del Noce points out — remember, he was writing in 1970 — that the Sexual Revolution serves the interests of power elites, because if people make maximizing sexual liberty and pleasure the summum bonum, they don’t question things like economic inequality. But that’s an argument for another day.

Anyway, Del Noce’s thought is consonant with Pieper’s point: the only way to recover from this crisis is to learn to see clearly. You cannot see clearly until and unless you are convinced that there is something to be seen — that is, that there is a reality independent of yourself that must be discovered. This, as I have said before, is the true source of the irreconcilable division between orthodox Christianity and the modern world, including liberal and liberalizing Christians.

It would be incredibly misleading to draft Dante as a general in the culture war. Do not read me as saying that. The Divine Comedy is not a right-wing or a left-wing document, in our understanding of the term. There is enough in it to shake the foundations of both liberals and conservatives of our present day. Nobody gets out of the Commedia unchanged by its vision. The point I wish to make here, though, is that by reading Dante, we learn to see in a way we have not seen before.

Dante was a poet without peer in Western civilization. If you want to hold on to the heart of the West’s greatness at a time when the foundations of Western civilization are rapidly eroding, read Dante. The book I have written about encountering Dante is not a work of philosophy or theology, and in no way a work of politics, cultural or otherwise. It is a story of a personal pilgrimage toward the light, and the peace and healing that followed followed learning to see myself and the world with Dante’s vision. In the year that followed that healing, I have come to appreciate in many unanticipated ways how radical Dante’s vision is in our contemporary world, and how much it challenges what all of us — liberals and conservatives, seculars and Christians — think we know. Pieper, again:

To see things is the first step toward that primordial and basic mental grasping of reality, which constitutes the essence of man as a spiritual being.

This is how Dante helped me recover.