Visiting a place with deep cultural roots can teach us something even if such culture seems unattainably remote. Romano Guardini in his Letters from Lake Como attempts in the 1920’s to capture the essence of the older culture progressively upended by the industrial revolution:
As I see it, all that these people created, all that they surrounded themselves with, all that they did, all their works and achievements, the whole tempo of what happened—all these things were governed by the nature and law of their living constitution.
Guardini’s examples are powerful; in some sense they must be seen to be appreciated. He writes of walking through the lake region near Milan:
“Everywhere it was an inhabited land, valleys and slopes dotted with hamlets and small towns. All nature had been given a new shape by us humans… The lines of the roofs merged from different directions. They went through the small town set on the hillside or followed the windings of a valley. Integrated in many ways, they finally reached a climax in the belfry with its deep-toned bell. All these things were caught up and circled by the well-constructed mountain masses. Culture, very lofty and yet self-evident, very naturally—I have no other word.”
Then he writes of a small sailing vessel:
“Though it is of considerable weight, the masses of wood and linen, along with the force of the wind, combine so perfectly that it has become light. When it sails before the wind, my heart laughs to see how something of this sort has become so light and bright of itself by reason of its perfect form.”
And then he points to the hearth in a home:
“We have here something that is bound up with the deepest roots of human existence… We still have here a flaming fire that people have kindled and keep burning. We note the situation of the hearth, the enclosing and protecting chimney walls, the living air current, the hearth’s organic integration with the room and the house. This is human living.”
To encapsulate what culture is and how it has been undermined is a difficult task. I think that Guardini has striking insight. Here is a smattering of few other of his reflections (again, from the early 1920’s):
“Medical thinking and action today so often move only in the pharmaceutical and mechanical sphere of formulas, preparations, and prescriptions. Our foods have largely been made artificial. We have now broken free from the living order of times: morning and evening, day and night, weekday and Sunday, changes of the moon and seasons.”
“A dreadful confusion of forms has emerged. These forms no longer have roots in life and its essential content. We build theaters in the form of temples, banks in the form of cathedrals…”
“The new desire for mastery does not in any sense follow natural courses or observe natural proportions.”
“The human measure has disappeared.”
“All of this—and I stress this point—is not a special inclination of individuals but the general attitude of our age. It is the acknowledged goal that we find in fixed approaches, in measures and efforts that are irrefutable and have become our natural bent, hardened intro structures of cultural life that are all-determinative.”
We are in deep waters here, and a path forward might seem remote. There are many interwoven strands in human life, and right now we have quite a tangle. To achieve right order will require a holistic approach. But I think one thing emerges from Guardini’s reflections, and also from our own experience a whole century later, on which we can focus and act right now.
The human measure—with all the limitations it implies—is a profound gift. One key to the way forward, then, is to rediscover this gift, and to reassert it. This will be to fly in the face of what became ‘hardened into structures of cultural life’ already a century ago! It demands just saying no to many ways our technologies alienate us from our bodies, our families, and our homes.
But what am I suggesting here, is there some concrete point? One way of expressing it is that common practices today, fueled by ‘advanced’ technologies, consistently push us to exceed the limitations of life on a human scale.
Examples are many. We think it normal and desirable to have a large number of friends, meanwhile struggling to go deeper with any of them. We think it normal and desirable that our children excel in this, that, and everything, meanwhile they struggle to find their place at home and in the most important relationships in their life. Overall, we try to do too much, we try to ‘communicate’ too much, we try to ‘work’ too much, while often omitting simple things such as common meals, common work, and common leisure.
I know this calls for nuanced treatment and reflection. Having just returned from a remarkable trip to southern Germany and Austria (on which I read a bit of Guardini!), I am asking myself some hard questions. Hosted by a wonderful local family I met in Salzburg when learning German over thirty years ago, I saw once again with my own eyes real remnants of a once vibrant culture. Deeply imbued with the primacy of spiritual realities, a rich and beautiful way of life once flourished there in architecture, food, music, work, and a host of other physical manifestations.
In our opening quotation Guardini suggests that “all these things were governed by the nature and law of their [i.e., the human] living constitution.” He goes on: “The body with its organs and parts, the soul with its patent and latent powers—these governed it all.” In other words, real culture must be rooted in a rich understanding of human nature. And human nature is marked especially by the profundity of its spiritual powers, as well as by very specific ways that the body with its needs and limitations can serve and embody spiritual goods.
Again, a renewal of culture—and here I mean a renewal of human life in its intended richness—will require much. Yet we do well to start with certain specific approaches, rooted in human nature itself and expressed throughout history in various rich cultures. And we can start with simple things, indicated by the needs and limitations of the human body. My wife and I have taken to asking one another in numerous situations, “What does life on a truly human scale call for?” When it is hard to discern the answer, I should remind myself of what I tell my students: be grateful that now at least we are asking the right question.
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Image: the stunning St. Bartholomew’s church on the Koenigsee in the southern tip of Germany near Berchtesgaden.
Romano Guardini (1885-1968) was a Catholic priest, who wrote extensively on philosophical and theological topics.
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