Yesterday was Christopher Dawson’s birthday. Well, it would’ve been. Arriving in this world in 1889, he died a happy and joyous death in 1970. Born into a blessedly happy and interesting Victorian family and raised in the idyllic and heady atmosphere of the short-lived Edwardian period, Dawson witnessed the horror of the world descending into almost complete madness during and after the Great War.
What did the West believe, Dawson asked over and over again during the aftermath of World War I? Progress, progressivism, and progressives were heretical, he claimed, promising those things promised only by the one God and only available in the next world, the world of eternity. The liberals and the progressives, he noted, really didn’t distinguish one thing from another, and each promised nothing but unreality while doing so with beautiful rhetoric. Many of the western world bought into such hollow promises.
In 1909, at the age of 20, Dawson had received a vision from God—or, so Dawson believed—inviting him to spend his life writing a history of world culture. Truly Catholic, it must embrace all of the cultures of the world, providing a universal understanding of the human person. Though Dawson consented to Roman Catholicism in 1913, he joined the Church formally at St. Aloysius in Oxford the following year. His mother never forgave him for this.
It’s not clear the Dawson ever forgave himself either. That is, he believed throughout his life that he never did enough for God; no matter how much he read, wrote, thought, and spoke, he simply could not live up to what he believed God had asked of him. Anxious by design and even more anxious by habit, Dawson spent a lifetime battling (rarely successfully) insomnia, depression, panic attacks, and paranoia.
Still, from any perspective, he accomplished an astounding amount in terms of ideas and writing.
No man, I think it is fair to write, analyzed and understood the horrors of the twentieth-century ideologues more than did Dawson. As a culture, we have almost completely forgotten this great thinker, though remnants of us here and there do what we can to keep his memory alive. In a sense, this is as it should be. Well, perhaps not as it should be, but understandably as it is. Dawson knew as early as the 1930s that the western world had lost its appreciation for two things that helped form our very beings: 1) the notion of struggle; and 2) the power of serious ideas, defended and honed in open discussion. As the twentieth-century regressed, Dawson argued, the western population would become increasingly comfortable with soft tyrannies. The iron brutalities and Naziism and Bolshevism had offended the peoples of the West, not so much because of the expansion of government but because of the manner in which it was done. Dawson argued during his life that a population poorly educated (the liberal arts are, for all intents and purposes dead) would almost always accept the free milk clinic and social welfare in all areas of life as long as it was not stamped on the face by the boot of a Gestapo or KGB agent.
As Dawson viewed it, a population lacking a liberal education and, consequently, unable to see behind and beyond the immediate to the larger things of this world and the next, remained a slave to the moment, temporarily as well as materially. The average person will take everything the Nazi or the Communist offers, as long as its not done with the brute violence offered by either the German or Russian experience.
During his lifetime, Dawson saw the fall of the National Socialists, and he assumed the Soviet Union would also collapse at some point.
Still, if humanity had lost the praise for and understanding of the dignity of the human person through the loss of proper education and serious religion, new ideologies would arise quickly and, perhaps, subtly. Most likely, these would be softer, more palatable ideologies, but they would arise nonetheless. With the meanings of words becoming subjective in the twentieth century, antique and profound terms such as human, liberty, dignity, freedom, etc. would have their essences ripped from them, the words remaining as hollow men, ready to be defined by the first assertive person who comes along.
Could any of this be fought, Dawson asked? So much depends, he noted, on one thing. Do you know you are? Do you know and understand your citizenship—to the powers here and now, and, more importantly, to the City beyond?
Happy Birthday, Mr. Dawson. You struggled in every aspect of your life. I assume trains of white robed martyrs now sing your praises.
Books by Bradley J. Birzer and Christopher Dawson are available from The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.