De Mattei: In Memoriam: The French Historian and the Italian Philosopher

The French historian, Jean de Viguerie departed this life on December 15th 2019. Two weeks later, on December 30th , there was the 30th anniversary of the death of the Italian philosopher Augusto del Noce. What did these two figures of 20th century Catholic culture have in common?

Jean de Viguerie, born in Rome in 1935, followed a brilliant academic career, becoming Professor emeritus at the University of Lille-III, without ever making compromises to the dominant culture. «La foi irriguait toute la vie de Jean de Viguerie et nourrissait sa vie de professeur» wrote his disciple, Philippe Pichot Bravard.

Viguerie had a thorough, deep knowledge of the 20th century. In my opinion, his fundamental work is Christianisme et Révolution. Cinq leçons d’Histoire de la Révolution française (Nouvelles Editions Latines, 1986). The reading of this book, alongside La Révolution française by Pierre Gaxotte (Edition by Jean Tulard, Complexe, 1988) offers us a synthetic, but illuminating picture of what happened in France between 1789 and 1795. His most original work though, is Les deux patries. Essai historique sur l’idée de patrie en France (Dominique Martin Morin, 1998). The French historian demonstrates how in the 19th century, a new concept of « patria » superimposed itself on the traditional one, rooted in a concrete place and a precise historical memory. It was in the name of this ideology that France went into the First World War. The Union Sacrée of 1914, between nationalists of the left and the right, was a continuation of the call to arms launched in 1792, when the National Assembly declared “La Patrie en danger!” [The Homeland is in danger!].

The French Revolution invented the slogan “annihilate the enemy”, both internal and external, as happened with the “Infernal Columns” which wiped out the insurgents at the Vendee between 1793 and 1794. The First World War cost France one million, three-hundred thousand dead. The attack alone between Soissons and Compiègne on April 16th 1917 - Viguerie points out - counted one-hundred and sixteen dead, to gain five kilometers; three hundred and seventy thousand were the victims in the first battle attack at Verdun in October 1916. These victims were offered to the Revolutionary Moloch as the price for the destruction of the Austria-Hungarian Empire, the last Catholic bastion against the work of the French Revolution’s political and cultural destruction.


Viguerie was the biographer of Louis XVI and his sister Elizabeth of France, to whom he dedicated the study Le sacrifice du soir (Cerf, 2010), which will certainly benefit the process for the French princess’s beatification. He is also author of many other works, some autobiographic, like the ’Itinéraire d’un historien (Dominique Martin Morin, 2000) and Le passé ne meurt pas (Via Romana 2016), rich in episodes and anecdotes which help us understand not only his private life, but also 20th century France.

Augusto del Noce, of a Piedmont family, was born in Pistoia in 1910, but studied in Turin after the First World War. His intellectual production can be considered speculatively opposed to the progressive trend of thought which evolved in Turin itself, and which had among its most well-known exponents, Norberto Bobbio and Umberto Eco.

When the 1968 Revolution erupted, Augusto Del Noce, Professor at the University of Trieste, had to his credit, impressive works of history and philosophy, like the volumes Il problema dell’ateismo (Il Mulino, 1964) and Riforma cattolica e filosofia moderna (Il Mulino, 1965, but his attention as a philosopher turned from then onwards to the philosophical understanding of contemporary life.  

Books  published between the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s were:  Il problema politico dei cattolici (Unione Italiana per il Progresso della Cultura, 1967), L’epoca della secolarizzazione (Giuffrè, 1970) and Tramonto o eclissi dei valori tradizionali (Rusconi, 1972) Il suicidio della Rivoluzione (Rusconi, 1978) and, posthumous , Giovanni Gentile. Per una interpretazione filosofica della storia contemporanea (Il Mulino, 1990).

In these books, Del Noce shows the cultural continuity that exists in the diverse political regimes following one another in Italy over the space of a century: Liberalism, Fascism and Anti-Fascism. The thought of Francesco de Sanctis, Minister of Culture of the Italian Risorgimento, the thought of Giovanni Gentile, Minister of Culture, ideologue of Fascism and the thought of Antonio Gramsci, principal theorist of Anti-Fascism in Italian Democracy after the Second World War, are  fostered by Hegel’s Immanentism and follow a path of progressive abandonment of traditional values.   The age of Revolution for Del Noce, is the age of rejecting these values in the name of secularization, presented as a positive and necessary historical process.

Del Noce identified the evil of contemporary Italian culture under the category of “progressivism”, a vision of history based on the idea whereby Fascism and not Communism represented the root evil of the century. This implied as a consequence, the  necessary decline of Fascism and any ideal that in some way could be related to it, starting with the traditional values upon which Western Christian Civilization had been founded for centuries.

Against the idea of Revolution and the “spirit of modernity”, based on the primacy of ‘becoming’ and thus the myth of the irreversibility  of progress, Del Noce pits the idea of Tradition based on the philosophy of the primacy of Being or contemplation, inevitably aimed, in his opinion, at rediscovering Plato, just like the revolutionary philosophy of the primacy of ‘becoming’ has its most coherent conclusion in Marx. 

Unlike Jean de Viguerie, who belongs to the counter-revolutionary school, Augusto Del Noce did not align himself with the great thinkers of the French Restoration, but with the Italian School of Rosmini and di Vico, the thinker he had wanted to dedicate his last book to, but death prevented him from writing it. Nonetheless, like Viguerie, also Del Noce saw in the French Revolution a cultural watershed which had marked the political and cultural decline of the Christian West (cfr. R. de Mattei, La critica alla Rivoluzione nel pensiero di Augusto Del Noce, Le Lettere 2019). 

Cardinal Maria Martini, in his last interview given a few days before he died, said “The Church is 200 years behind the times.” With this quotation, Pope Francis on December 21st 2019,  concluded his Christmas discourse to the Roman Curia. Cardinal Martini’s idea is that the Church is two centuries behind the times because it has not had its French Revolution.  Pope Francis, Cardinal Martini’s heir, aims to bridge this distance by bringing the Second Vatican Council to fulfillment. Both the French historian and the Italian philosopher, were instead, convinced that the embracing of the modern world proclaimed by Vatican II was the main cause of the Church’s process of self-demolition.

On May 13th 1989, at the Palazzo Pallavicini in Rome, an important conference on the French Revolution was held. It was on that occasion Augusto Del Noce and Jean de Viguerie met. What united them was the rejection of the revolutionary utopia, love for Tradition and a concern for the crisis in the Church, of which they recognized the magnitude.

Augusto Del Noce died a few months later, while the Berlin Wall was crumbling. Jean de Viguerie outlived him 30 years, witnessing the crumbling and collapse of the West and the Church itself. They belong to our historical memory, that which Viguerie called “the past that never dies”.

Translation: Contributor Francesca Romana


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