“We live in a devastated age”: Reflections from Guardini on being “Lost in Chaos”

A contribution to the celebration of the 92nd birthday of Joseph Ratzinger who has described Romano Guardini (1885-1968) as one of the intellectual heroes of his youth.

In 1933 Romano Guardini published a small monograph consisting of three lectures around the subject of conscience. It was originally titled Das Gute, das Gewissen und die Sammlung – the good, conscience and inner composure. It was recently republished in Italian under the more simple title La coscienza.i

As a contribution to the celebration of the 92nd birthday of Joseph Ratzinger, born on April 16, 1927, who has described Guardini as one of the intellectual heroes of his youth, I have summarized the contents of La coscienza, including some translations of the most significant paragraphs.

Guardini begins his book by saying that he hopes to offer some aid to the Christian conscience in the struggle around the foundations of a moral life, especially as this struggle is conditioned by the spiritual situation in Germany. Rhetorically he asks: “fight: but who are our enemies”?ii

The first name on his list of enemies of the moral life is Immanuel Kant. To Kant he attributes the notion of the absolute autonomy of conscience. The second on his list is Friedrich Nietzsche according to whom Christianity is a form of slave morality that excludes believers from greatness. Thirdly he listed Bolshevism or what we would now more commonly call Marxism. Bolshevism ‘suffocates the living spirit, and destroys the free personality in the collective and in the process of history, diminishing it to a mere organ for the realization of super individual needs’.iii Other enemies, he noted, could be named, but these were his top three. In short, Kantians, Nietzscheans and Marxists are the enemies of the moral life!

With reference to the spiritual situation in Germany he remarked:

We live in a devastated age. The things of the spirit and the things of salvation no longer have their own seat. Everything is thrown on the road…

We have forgotten that what the spirit reflects is a very demanding nobility and that understanding it is only possible under certain conditions. [We have forgotten] that the different interests of the spiritual world from time to time cast a different way of speaking and listening; they require a different interior space, in which this speaking and listening can take place.

We live in a time, in which the degradation of the honor that belongs to the spirit has become a common practice, which no longer impresses in a particular way. To notice it, it is enough to take a careful look at public education, with its conferences, discussions, magazines and with its newspapers; it is enough to observe the bad habits followed in dealing with spiritual things, the language used in this.iv

Guardini goes on to speak of a ‘moral disorientation’. He suggests that ‘in the judgement of many, the moral act does not compensate for the serious effort it requires’, while for others, who would be ready for such an effort, they simply do not know where to start. They feel ‘lost in chaos’v.

Our conscience, he argues, is not a ‘mechanical instrument, a magnetic needle that puts itself in place, but something alive, and everything that is living is prone to error’.vi While our conscience is our supreme compass, it can nonetheless, lose its own compass. This he suggests can happen in three ways:

[First], the conscience can become superficial, reckless, obtuse. Consciousness makes life more burdensome. It makes life richer in content, more dignified, but this also means heavier. As a consequence we have a tendency to seek the easy ways and free ourselves from the burdens. There is an internal operation that aims to cushion the need for conscience. It is not always a conscious desire; it may be that the sphere of the subconscious acts. This can happen in a thousand ways: by doing so, for example, that the gaze is distracted by the unpleasant lines of what we are dealing with; that the most important point remains veiled; that the situation with its fatiguing unicity and unrepeatability is flattened on a more comfortable general scheme. At other times the warning of conscience is silenced and reassured, saying that in the end it is not a matter of what is “so bad”. Points of view aimed at challenging this judgement are emphasized. We refer to what others do; one looks for one’s own judgment, there is a remission of responsibility with reference to the traditional bad habit, which “was always like that”; to the environment that “is also of good will” to “good common sense” and the like, and so the moral requirement, which always has something hard in itself, is weakened.

[Second], consciousness may also be refined excessively. A person may see duties where there are none; to feel responsibilities which do not exist; to exaggerate obligations beyond the limits of what is right and possible. (And this is especially so for the person predisposed to sociality, who is in danger of overburdening his conscience). Consciousness can therefore be subject to real diseases. The pure and clear duty which, however difficult, always raises upwards, can turn into an obsession. The command of consciousness must be perceived in freedom. But when the conscience has suffered damage, this freedom disappears and from the need that it poses derives a real slavery: the anguished conscience, the scruple. Within the human person the secret instinct to torment oneself is deeply rooted, and in certain temperaments this instinct works with particular force. If it is not cured with prudent care it can degenerate into melancholy.

Thirdly, consciousness can also be altered in its contents. Our knowledge is not a mirror which simply reproduces what is in front of it. We do not view a situation the way that a camera photographs an object. In our view we are present ourselves. We ourselves, with our temperament, with our desires, with our secret and overt motives, are already contained in the gaze, which we direct on things: thus, by looking at them, we shape them. We do not take them as they are in themselves, but as we wish they were, that is, to find a welcoming environment for our desires and our feelings. We would like to see the confirmation of what we are in the situation. We would like to see from it what we bring into ourselves as an aspiration. So we interpret the situation according to our conscious and unconscious desires. The latter especially exert a strong influence. Modern psychology has demonstrated how profound is the influence of the unconscious will upon the acts of perception.vii

Not only is the conscience not a mirror or a camera, not a magnetic needle or any other kind of mechanical instrument, Guardini goes to argue that it is not a ‘law that hangs somewhere’, ‘not a simple idea’, ‘not a concept in the air’, but rather ‘the living voice of God’s holiness in us’.viii This means that as soon as we start to engage with our conscience we ‘strike a religious ground’. In the Old Testament this was described as ‘walking in the sight of God’ or ‘walking in the presence of God’. In this context Guardini explains:

God is not a concept, an idea, a feeling, a sociological need. God is real and absolute reality. And in the consciousness of those who approach him sincerely, he will not fail to bear witness to himself. God will make sure that in his sight the sincere conscience acquires the freedom to see without blindness and to decide rightly. To those who pray: Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven, God will give the grace of a clear conscience.ix

While three enemies were listed at the beginning of book, the weight of the argumentation is against the Kantian enemy. Guardini spends several paragraphs firing canons into the idea that a person who looks to God for knowledge of what is good and moral is a slave to others and fails the autonomy test. God, he asserts, ‘surrounds us, envelopes us, penetrates us’.x He is ‘present in our intimacy’. He ‘speaks within us’. He ‘speaks from the inside with the raising of the conscience, from the outside with the disposition of things’.xi ‘The word of the one is clarified by the word of the other’. ‘Man is regenerated, from God the Father, in Christ, by the work of the Holy Spirit, to participate in the divine life’.xii Therefore the moral law is not a law of my “I”.

Guardini describes the Kantian belief that the moral law is a law of my “I” as ‘an inner optical illusion’ and an ‘incorrect thesis’ both philosophically and theologically.xiii God, he declares, is not an ‘other’. Rather, ‘my religious relationship with God is determined precisely by that unique phenomenon that is not repeated elsewhere’.xiv This is the fact that ‘the more deeply I abandon myself to Him, the more fully I allow Him to penetrate me, the greater the force the Creator asserts in myself, the more I become myself’.xv

Having dealt with Kant’s optical illusion Guardini then deepens his theological analysis by suggesting that people often forget that there is a sacrament of the Christian conscience called Confirmation which comes with some seven gifts. He also endorses the prayer of Blessed John Henry Newman for clarity of conscience against ears that are deaf to the voice of God and eyes that are blind to the signs of God.

The final section of the work is focused upon the importance of prayer and recollection and the concept of the ‘custody of the senses’. Here Guardini states:

Let not all that beats at the door of the senses and attention enter; that we know how to distinguish between good and evil, between what is noble and what is ignoble, between what has value and what is worth nothing, between what brings awareness and order and what creates only confusion and drags us into the base.xvi

Moreover, Guardini suggests that we need to prevent newspapers pouring into our interior lives ‘all that jumble of political junk, of intellectual trifles, of dark and sensational news, of truth and falsehood, of beauty and vulgarity, of gossip and other things’.xvii We need to learn to take from newspapers only the important information that directly concerns us and not to waste our time on the rest of the data with which we are presented. We need to find pleasure ‘in engaging the fight against the precarious barbarity that surrounds us’, so that we are not the ‘laughing stock of the cultural chaos that surrounds us’ but are, on the contrary, ‘free masters of ourselves’.xviii

For Guardini it is axiomatic that the human person must be attentive to their conscience, but the conscience can be erroneous for the three reasons he gave. For those ‘lost in chaos’ his message was: forget Kant, forget Nietzsche and don’t degrade yourself with Marxist ideologies. Simply pray for the grace to clearly hear the voice of God in the depths of one’s soul.

Such reflections by Guardini can be found echoed by Joseph Ratzinger in his Values in a Time of Upheaval. In this collection of essays Ratzinger concluded:

It is indisputable that one must always follow a clear verdict of conscience, or at least that one may not act against such a verdict. But is quite a different matter to assume that the verdict of conscience (or what one takes to be such a verdict) is always correct, ie infallible – for if that were so, it would mean there is no truth, at least in matters of morality and religion, which are the foundations of our very existence.xix


iRomano Guardini La coscienza (Brescia: Morcelliana, 2009).

iiIbid, 5.

iiiIbid, 5.

ivIbid, 8-9.

vIbid, 21.

viIbid, 29.

viiIbid, 28-32.

viiiIbid, 32-33.


xIbid, 36.

xiIbid, 37.

xiiIbid, 38.

xiiiIbid, 39.

xivIbid, 40.

xvIbid, 40.

xviIbid, 56.

xviiIbid, 56.

xviiiIbid, 57.

xixJoseph Ratzinger, Values in a Time of Upheaval (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2006): 76.

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About Tracey Rowland 17 Articles
Tracey Rowland holds the St. John Paul II Chair of Theology at the University of Notre Dame (Australia) and is a past Member of the International Theological Commission. She earned her doctorate in philosophy from Cambridge University and her Licentiate in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome. She is the author of several books, including Ratzinger’s Faith: The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI (2008), Benedict XVI: A Guide for the Perplexed (2010), Catholic Theology (2017), The Culture of the Incarnation: Essays in Catholic Theology (2017), Portraits of Spiritual Nobility (Angelico Press, 2019), and Beyond Kant and Nietzsche: The Munich Defence of Christian Humanism (T&T Clark, 2021).


  1. We cannot identify infallible knowledge unless our judgment of it is infallible. Definition of terms is essential in this discussion. Conscience and knowledge are separate. Con-scientia literally With knowledge implies Acting with knowledge. Aquinas [who else] defines certitude when subject and predicate are apprehended in one act of knowing. A ratio or judgement of the intellect in apprehension. All knowledge begins with sense perception, which all the philosophers Romano Guardini quotes dismiss [with unverifiable after the fact presumptions] as certain, absolute knowledge. Aquinas once again [at the start of De Veritate quotes Ibn Sina that what the intellect first knows are things, or beings in sense perception] identifies sense perception as the First Principle of all knowledge. Cartesian methodical doubt infects all philosophy other than that of St Thomas Aquinas. Example, “Our knowledge is not a mirror which simply reproduces what is in front of it” (Guardini). It’s that analogy of mirror that falsifies the actual acquisition of real knowledge [critical thought alluded to here by Guardini is beneficial in acquiring certitude only if engaged with other permanent principles of knowledge]. God would not create Man without the capacity to possess infallible certitude of what exists, what is absolutely true or false if his eternal destiny actually depends on this integrity of his knowledge. Guardini correctly identifies Faith as our necessity and superior to reason. What however does faith add to the intellectual knowledge of the existence of God that is known without faith? Just what Guardini perceives in the deeper interior translation of that knowledge. What transcends the intellect is what is known solely thru revelation the proof of which is our faith (The Apostle). Nonetheless while conscience does not determine truth in like manner that reason is the measure of truth not the rule, the human intellect is inherently equipped by God to possess certitude of truth [the rule] free from error in that knowledge by which we Act in perfectly good conscience. If there is a flaw in Modern thought inclusive of recent pontiffs, even a great intellect such as Benedict XVI it is the refinement of Cartesian skepticism in context of the truths of the Catholic Christian tradition. This is the rationale for John Paul II to have recommended a return to those permanent principles of truth identified by Aquinas.

    • Peter kwasniewski says that priests who consult their conscience, and their conscience tells them the novus ordo is evil are heroes of conscience. Are they, or do all the bad guys just try to justify their dissent by referring to conscience? I think it is the latter.

    • Fr. – Can you please elaborate a bit more on – “If there is a flaw….Catholic Christian tradition” and provide some references to the permanent principles of truth in Aquinas. Thank you.

      • Theodore the First Principle of all knowledge sense perception is cited in my comment. The natural acknowledgment of existence, reality and beings distinct from my own existence is the premise for the advancement of acquiring knowledge and truth. For example what we think of things must correspond with our perception. The following principle regarding morality is implied. That is God gave us the inherent capacity to identify true and false, good and evil. That good or evil for Man is first and foremost found in his acts as compared to intention. We may intend a greater good although morally we cannot justify that good by an evil act. What is implied is that there are acts that are intrinsically evil and that no perceived good outcome may justify. It goes to the current rationale on abortion. Aborting an infant in the womb that is either defective or unwanted due to financial difficulty social repercussion cannot justify the evil of killing an innocent human life. Insofar as Cartesian skepticism as a factor in current Catholic theological thought the distancing from physical reality places greater viability in the sentiment in the mind of the theologian of intellectually perceived good v generally accepted moral strictures or rules. That a good outcome supersedes the rule. John Paul II may in that context be criticized regarding a sense of humanism that would curtail the death penalty making it virtually impossible to apply given his conditions. It may be seen in Benedict XVI’s own humanistic leanings which today is more secular than Christian regarding sexual misconduct by priests. An example may be his tenure at Munich as Archbishop and the transfer of a pathological abusive priest from Essen to his See and his tacit approval resulting in continued abusive of altar boys by that priest. Benedict apparently learned a severe lesson and once becoming Supreme Pontiff became much stronger than his predecessor in sanctioning homosexual clergy removing over 800 priests. There is much more that can be said though within this forum it is limited. I recommend you study my treatise on morality Assent to Truth available on Amazon.

      • Theodore a significant help in understanding Aquinas is that Being and Good are interrelated. Good is discerned in things that are good. All being is good. Good then is convertible with being (ST 1a2ae 18, 3). From this apex flows the primacy of moral good centered on the integrity of being and particularly Man. Thus good is perceived in good acts, acts that compliment the integrity of a person. Example the primary virtue Justice is in essence love of the other. Consequently all human acts are determined good insofar as the object [what the act does], intent, and circumstances are all good. It is an appreciation of reality that places ethics in acts rather than concepts that coincides perfectly with Christ’s teaching. I hope this very basic though important outline will help.

  2. Peter kwasniewski says that priests who consult their conscience, and their conscience tells them the novus ordo is evil are heroes of conscience. Are they, or do all the bad guys just try to justify their dissent by referring to conscience? I think it is the latter.

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