rediscovering christopher dawson

In the mid-twentieth century, English historian Christopher Dawson (1889-1970) was widely considered to be one of the finest Catholic scholars in the English-speaking world. Today his name and work is largely unknown, even among Catholics. But that is beginning to change as Dawson is being discovered and recovered by a number of writers and historians. One of those is Dr. Bradley Birzer, Russell Amos Kirk Chair in American Studies and Associate Professor of History at Hillsdale College and author of the book, Sanctifying the World: The Augustinian Life and Mind of Christopher Dawson (Christendom Press, 2007). Dr. Birzer is also Chairman of the Board of Academic Advisors for the Center for the American Republic in Houston, and has written extensively on J.R.R. Tolkien, James Fenimore Cooper, and the American frontier.

Carl E. Olson, editor of Ignatius Insight, interviewed Dr. Birzer about his new book, Christopher Dawson, and the complex and vital relationship between culture and religion.

Ignatius Insight: Who was Christopher Dawson? Why write a book about him?

Dr. Birzer: Hello, Carl. Thanks for the excellent questions. Well, I’m biased as I’ve spent much of my free time over the last seven years thinking about Dawson, but I consider him one of the most important Catholic scholars and writers of the twentieth century. I have yet to encounter someone in my intellectual life—outside of the greats of the ancient and medieval world—who seemed so utterly intellectual and ideas-driven, yet humane and Christian at the same time. I found his thoughts stimulating at most times and overwhelming at others. There was one moment when I was reading his letters, now housed on the sixth floor of the Hesburgh Library at the University of Notre Dame, to an American student. I found the letters and ideas so relentless and overwhelming, I started to get somewhat light headed. I left the library and stood outside to catch my breath. Indeed, in my reading of Dawson’s books and letters, I found a traditional western and Christian mind, a believer in love, myth, Truth, Beauty, and Goodness, in the heart of modernity.

Born in a dilapidated castle in Wales in 1889, Dawson died in May 1970. Though he held very few formal academic positions during his life, Dawson was profoundly respected in the academic world. Between the 1920s and early 1960s, schools, publishers, and academics almost beyond count approached Dawson, asking for lectures, writings, and advice. Timemagazine named him one of the great historians in the 1950s, and the poet and playwright T.S. Eliot regarded him as the most profound thinker of his generation. Astoundingly well read, Dawson had academic training in history, economics, sociology, and anthropology. Toward the end of his career, in the 1950s, when Dawson was teaching at Harvard University, Catholic colleges followed rather closely Dawson’s arguments for a Catholic revival of the liberal arts.

Outside of the Catholic world, Dawson is sometimes remembered as one of the first “metahistorians” and one of the first world historians. Yet, with only a few notable and important exceptions, most scholars have forgotten about Dawson and his many contributions to scholarship.

In the last several years, I think, there’s been a mini-revival of interest in Dawson and his works. He’s being mentioned in First Things and other Catholic periodicals. His letters, diaries, manuscripts, etc. are housed at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota and at the University of Notre Dame under the loving archival care of Ann Kenne and Kevin Cawley, respectively. Gleaves Whitney, Joseph Pearce, Adam Schwartz, Gerald Russello, Aidan Nichols, and James Hitchcock, to name just a few scholars, have contributed significant work on Dawson and his many contributions to the intellectual world. Ed King tirelessly publishes the Dawson Newsletter several times a year. Hillsdale College (but especially under the encouragement of her very Christian Humanist Dean of Faculty, Mark Kalthoff, and her Provost and Associate Provost, Bob Blackstock and David Whalen, respectively) as a whole, the Center for the American Republic (Winston Elliott), the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (Jeff Nelson, Jed Donahue and Mark Henrie), the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal (Annette Kirk and Bruce Frohnen), the Acton Institute (Sam Gregg), the McConnell Center (Gary Gregg), the Center for Ethics and Culture (Dan McInerny), the Center for Cultural Renewal (Barbara Elliott), the University of St. Thomas in Houston (John Hittinger and Dominic Aquila), Thomas More College (William Fahey), and Eighth Day Books (Warren Farha) continue to promote the ideas of the Christian Humanists.

Ignatius Press, ISI Books, I.H.S. Books, and the Catholic University of American Press are publishing and republishing works by and about the Christian Humanists. Richard Gamble’s The Great Tradition is probably the best and most penetrating work of Christian Humanism in the past year. So, lots of very good folks are doing amazing work, promoting and exploring Dawson’s thought in particular and Christian Humanism in general.

And, perhaps most importantly, Pope Benedict XVI comes out of the same Augustinian tradition as does Dawson. I was recently reading the pope’s Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures, and I was struck by the similarity of the arguments and the language of these two great men. At times, while reading this fine book, I thought I was reading a nearly perfect combination of Dawson and Eric Voegelin.

Ignatius Insight: We tend to think of historians as scholars who deal with dates and persons while describing a particular era or event. Dawson certainly did that, of course, but he approached history quite differently from most other historians, didn’t he? 

Dr. Birzer: Yes, definitely. Grounded in historical fact, Dawson read voraciously in all fields. Because he wrote about such a wide variety of topics and attempted to cover these topics and areas well, he sometimes overlooked some important ideas here or there, and he sometimes got a few of his facts wrong. I don’t want to exaggerate this. Dawson got far, far more right than he got wrong. His slips are here and there, and, frankly, it’s shocking he didn’t make more, considering the vast amount of knowledge he possessed and attempted to synthesize. One of my close friends and colleagues, Harold Siegel, a medievalist by training and inclination, tells me that while Dawson got this or that date wrong in the Medieval period, for example, he almost always got the larger picture right, offering some excellent insight into the true meanings of history and the human person.

Indeed, Dawson believed the best historians were those who used their imaginations to understand the world and man’s place within it. Counter to the progressive thinking of the beginning of the twentieth century, Dawson believed one knew the highest things from the faculty of the soul. Sometimes Dawson referred to this in Johannine and Stoic terms, and sometimes he employed the term “poetic.” As Dawson explained it: “the mastery of” professional historical methods and “techniques will not produce great history, any more than a mastery of metrical technique will produce great poetry.” The true historian, Dawson argued, will recognize that “something more is necessary—intuitive understanding, creative imagination, and finally a universal vision transcending the relative limitation of the particular field of historical study.”

Dawson believed that myth, theology, and a deep understanding of language should always inform one’s understanding of history. History, too, should inform our understanding of myth, theology, and language.

Ignatius Insight: By the 1950s, Dawson was one of the most respected historians in the English-speaking world. But by the 1970s, he was largely forgotten or ignored. Why? 

Dr. Birzer: This is an excellent question, but it’s a very difficult one to answer, and I’m certainly not a historian of the 1960s or of Vatican II. Dawson’s reputation wasn’t the only reputation to suffer in the wake of the great council. I think most of the great Christian Humanists of his era suffered in terms of reputation following the vast cultural shifts that accompanied Vatican II. Guardini, Maritain, de Lubac, etc., all seemed to have been forgotten or ignored by the larger Catholic culture. Chesterton and Belloc’s reputation suffered as well, and I think many scholars and readers found Chesterton’s militant Catholicism embarrassing for a while.

John Paul II’s call for a revival of Christian Humanism in the mid and late 1990s has helped lead to a revival of the thought of many of these thinkers. Several, though, such as E.I. Watkin, Tom Burns, Frank and Maisie Sheed, and Bernard Wall, all need good biographies written about them. There’s certainly a great deal of work to be done in this area.

Two Catholics who survived Vatican II completely unscathed, Russell Kirk and J.R.R. Tolkien, did so because neither they nor their works were not openly identified as Catholic. Tracey Rowland has written brilliantly on the aftermath of Vatican II in her stunning Culture and the Thomist Tradition (2003), as has Pope Benedict in the pages of Communio. Ralph McInerny has written about the results of Vatican II with his usual penetrating wit as well.

Simply put, with Vatican II, came a vast series of changes in terms of liturgy as well as mindset. Anything prior to Vatican II, at least to many American Catholics, seemed outdated and part of the old Catholic ghetto. Dawson, no matter how far on the forefront of Catholic thought he stood in 1959, must, unfortunately, have seemed rather reactionary in 1967.

In many ways, though, Dawson actually anticipated the arguments found in the documents of Vatican II. I think this is most especially true in Dawson’s understanding of the creativity and uniqueness of each human person.

By the way, none of this is meant to criticize the documents of Vatican II. Profoundly beautiful in language and teaching, these should be read and studied by all Catholics.

Ignatius Insight: Dawson was born into an Anglo-Catholic family and was raised in the Anglican tradition. How and why did he become Catholic? What role did the writings of Saint Augustine play in his conversion? What other thinkers influenced him in his decision to embrace Catholicism?

Dr. Birzer: For Dawson, Anglicanism seemed to be a stepping stone to Roman Catholicism. As he explained it, why would anyone accept the beauty of the Catholic liturgy, which the Anglicans shared, without the authority behind such beauty. Dawson believed ultimately Anglicanism would collapse because of its lack of authority; it would become decentralized and scattered. But, he never forcefully criticized the liturgy of the Anglican church, and he always held the Anglicans in high regard, even while he disagreed with significant aspects of their teachings.

Dawson’s conversion to Roman Catholicism in January 1914 came at an incredibly high price. His mother, with whom he had a very close relationship as a young boy, never forgave him. She came from a long line of Anglican clergy, and she gave to her son a profound love of mythology and hagiography. From his father, Dawson learned of the greatness of Dante. Additionally, Dawson’s best friend, E.I. Watkin, was a Catholic, and his wife, Valery Mills, was a Catholic. Dawson wrote of his own conversion in moving terms, noting St. Augustine, Cardinal Newman, R.H. Benson, and Charles Peguy as primary intellectual influences.

While much of the impetus to became Catholic came from personal friendships and intellectual rigor, Dawson also believed he had experienced a deep mystical vision at the age of 19. Standing at the Ara Coeli in Rome on Easter Sunday, 1909, Dawson suddenly understood the connection of history and culture, and he believed God called him to write a comprehensive history of the world. Whether this actually happened to Dawson or not, he lived the rest of his life attempting to fulfill what he considered a God-given mission.

Ignatius Insight: What are some of the ways in which Dawson displayed an “Augustinian mind”? How did it shape his approach to history?

Dr. Birzer: St. Augustine served as an important nexus in history, a bridge between the ancient and medieval worlds. When the barbarians descended upon Rome and the Roman Empire with relentless force in the fifth century, St. Augustine responded by writing the City of God over a fourteen-year period. Like Plato and Aristotle for classical Greece and Cicero for the Roman Republic, St. Augustine came at the end of an era, recording the best of what had preceded him. In the City of God, Augustine successfully brought together the thought of Plato, Cicero, and Virgil and Christianized it. He spent what time he had preserving the best of western and Christian civilization.

As with Augustine, Dawson believed himself at the end of an age. The long and relatively humane age of traditionalism, respect, and myth was about to implode, and the age of the ideologies was already beginning. In the various ideologies of the twentieth century, Dawson saw only the anti-Christ: propaganda, conformity, will power, and the destruction of the human person. Indeed, one only has to place oneself in Dawson’s life, in say 1933, and imagine how horrifying the state of the world must have looked to someone of Dawson’s upbringing. Far from the idyllic and agrarian period of Dawson’s childhood—where the Catholic saints seemed as alive as one’s mother or father—the National and International Socialists marched in their myriad rival factions and were setting up the Gulags and Holocaust camps of the world. Like an insane modernist painter, they deconstructed and reconstructed the human person, not in the image of God, but in the image of man.

Like Augustine, Dawson believed one must employ the imagination—the energy of the soul—to preserve the best of western and Christian civilization and defend each with all of the force imaginable.

Aidan Nichols, the English Dominican and one of the finest living Roman Catholic scholars, has called Dawson’s work as a whole a “latter-day City of God.” I agree completely with Nichols.

Dawson shared Augustine’s vision of history, purpose of life, and understanding of the nature of evil. Augustine was Dawson’s patron saint as well. Dawson, however, disagreed with Augustine’s aesthetics. Otherwise, the English historian took most of his best and most “original” thoughts from the fifth century North African.

Ignatius Insight: You write about how Dawson’s work provoked, at times, quite a bit of controversy, among both scholars and Church censors. Why was that? 

Dr. Birzer: Though an excellent writer overall, he had his flaws, and, equally important, he wrote in a variety of styles—ranging from the very popular to the shockingly complex. At times, he wrote assuming his audience had as much knowledge and background about a given subject as he did. This led to some theological confusion. As mentioned earlier, Dawson wrote often of the imagination and poetry as a divine light reflected in the soul, taking this from St. John’s Gospel, chapter one, verse 9. In some places he was clear that this light came from the Incarnate Word. At other times, though, he seemed to argue it came from the Holy Spirit, and, at times, its origin was unclear. I’m not sure how seriously one should take this the criticism. A meaningful understanding of the Trinity, far from my very limited spiritual and intellectual experience, seems to be reserved for the deepest of mystics.

Additionally, while Dawson had no love of the Reformation (though he very much preferred Calvin to Luther), he believed Protestantism to be a fact of existence and one that Catholics must accept as simply a part of reality. Bickering among Christians—Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox—seemed downright silly and counter-productive to Dawson, especially since any Christian had far more to fear from a Nazi, a Communist, or even a secularist than he did from other Christians. Dawson believed strongly that whatever theological differences might exist, branch to branch, Christians had far more in common with one another than they had differences. In his writings, and in his life, Dawson promoted ecumenism. In the 1940s, this was a fairly controversial stand.

Suffering from insomnia, depression, anxiety, and paranoia, Dawson could also be his own worst enemy. His publisher, Frank Sheed, spent a considerable amount of time and energy trying to convince Dawson of his personal worth.

Ignatius Insight: Sanctifying the World has a fascinating section about some of the various groups of Catholic intellectuals that existed in the first half of the 20th century. Who were the “Order” men and what was Dawson’s involvement with their work? How would you characterize Dawson’s relationship with neo-Thomism, especially the work of Jacques Maritain?

Dr. Birzer: Thanks, Carl, this was one of my favorite sections of the book, and I had a blast researching and writing about it. In the first half of the twentieth century, England had a number of groups—groups of friends who wrote and discussed poetry and philosophy—such as Order. Some were ideologically driven, such as the Bloomsbury group, but the best were apolitical, motivated by a love of the humane things. The most influential such group was the Inklings, made up chiefly by J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. In the 1920s, Dawson belonged to the “Order” men, men who had lived in the Chelsea neighborhood of London and discussed ideas. They also produced four issues of a journal, entitled Order. It’s a stunning, hilarious, and angry journal, written by relatively young men—with ideas based on those of Dawson and Jacques Maritain as well as St. Thomas Aquinas and Edmund Burke—who wanted to reform the world. They believed English Roman Catholics to be too timid, intimidated by the larger Anglican culture. The Order men hoped to wake them up. Therefore, and somewhat ironically, they promoted truth, beauty, and goodness, in an “in your face” sort of way.

The four issues of Order are very hard to find. Collectively, the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota and Loras College, in Dubuque, Iowa, have all four issues. The issues offer a lot of insight into English Catholicism in the 1920s and deserve to be reprinted.

Out of the journal Order came Sheed and Ward’s justly famous “Essays in Order” series. Whereas Order had attempted to unite English Catholics, “Essays in Order” took this a step further and openly hoped to create a Catholic Republic of Letters, bringing together the best of English and Continental Catholics in one series. Though lasting only sixteen volumes (seventeen if one properly counts A Monument to St. Augustine [1930] as volume 0), the series received high praise from Catholic and non-Catholic presses alike. Its authors included Jacques Maritain, Dawson, Nicholas Berdyaev, Francois Mauriac, E.I. Watkin, Thomas Gilby, and Theodor Haecker. G.K. Chesterton, Martin D’Arcy, Gabriel Marcel, Eric Gill, and Ronald Knox were each listed as authors of future volumes in the series, but the series collapsed before these were published. Regardless, the seventeen volumes offer a wonderful picture of the profundity and sheer diversity of Catholic thought and imagination between the two world wars.

As to Maritain, specifically, Dawson had mixed views. While Dawson thought very highly of Maritain prior to 1936, he believed the post-1936 Maritain too concerned with politics. Sadly, the two never met in person. Dawson, incorrectly, I believe, thought Maritain lacked imagination in his own work and an understanding of imagination as fundamental to the human person. The Maritain of Art and Scholasticism (1924) seemed long gone to Dawson by the late 1930s. Scholars such as Notre Dame’s Dan McInerny and the University of St. Thomas’s (Houston) John Hittinger have clearly and finally demonstrated the role of imagination in Maritain’s thought. Dawson was simply wrong on this issue.

Ignatius Insight: In a 1930 note, Dawson listed five of the most important threats to liberty. In reading them, one of is struck by how up-to-date and contemporary they are. In what ways did Dawson (like Chesterton, it seems to me) anticipate the various ideologies and belief systems that dominate both academic and popular debate today?

Dr. Birzer: Whereas Chesterton prophesized the rise of the ideologues long before their actual appearance during and immediately following World War I, Dawson, a generation after Chesterton, lived through the Fascist, National Socialist, and Communist takeover of much of the world. The results—the conformity and the mass executions—horrified him. Much of what Dawson thought and wrote came from his reaction to the dehumanizing policies of the ideologues of the left and right. As Dawson convincingly wrote, there never existed a right-left spectrum on a horizontal line. Instead, the only real division was vertical—Christ and anti-Christ.

Dawson correctly predicted that democracy, as experienced and understood in America, would produce only more ideological rigidity. He feared that Americans focused too much on what is political and technological, ignoring the cultural and the humane. Toward the end of his career, Dawson made a number of suggestions for a more humane civilization. He specifically hoped some Catholics would create a religious order dedicated to the promotion of the liberal arts and the role of Catholicism in sanctifying the best of the ancient world. He also hoped Catholic liberal arts colleges would arise throughout America, teaching and promoting the best of the western tradition: the seven virtues, the great ideas, and the sacrifice of many (from Socrates to St. Thomas More) for the current generations.

On some days, Dawson was hopeful. On others, he believed western civilization would have to go through numerous trials before it again embraced a humane understanding of the world.

I am confident Dawson would’ve been shocked by several events after his death: the fall of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989; the confidence and moral arguments of the fortieth American president in helping bring about the fall of communism; the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI; and the vast dissemination of Catholic theology and Christian Humanist belief in the works of his fellow parishioner at St. Aloysius in Oxford, J.R.R. Tolkien.

He, however, would not have been shocked by the re-emergence of radical Islam as a threat to the West. Dawson believed Islam a heresy, and he recognized the threat Islam had posed to the West and to Judaism and Christianity since the seventh century.

Ignatius Insight: Like many other great Catholic thinkers (including Benedict XVI), Dawson believed that culture was at the heart of the battle for the minds and hearts of men. What were some of his basic beliefs about culture and how to reform or revive it? 

Dr. Birzer: Dawson argued from 1929 forward that the cultus [cult] stood at the heart of culture. Therefore, up until the French Revolution, every people everywhere, as far as the evidence indicates, had worshipped some form of divinity, greater than man. From the cult comes the culture, and from the culture comes language, familial relations, law, economics, etc. Only modern liberal secularists and progressive ideologues had attempted to divorce the cult from the culture. But, to divorce the cult from the culture means to destroy the culture itself.

Because the culture originated in the cult, however, one only need to revive the cult to revive the culture. Dawson considered T.S. Eliot’s work, for example, as a model for the revival and reform of culture. Eliot took rather modernist forms in literature and poetry, but he sanctified them. In no place is this truer than in the “Four Quartets,” which, in my humble belief, attempts to demonstrate the continuity of Heraclitus’s Logos with St. John’s Logos.

Such a sanctification of the pagan, according to Dawson, had been one of the great missions of the Christian Church since St. Paul quoted the Stoic poets in Athens. Through imagination, a Catholic, therefore, must discern what is good from what is bad in culture, isolate the good from the bad, and Christianize it.

Ignatius Insight: Why is Dawson still important today? What can we learn from him? For those who have never read his work, where is a good starting point?

Dr. Birzer: Dawson is more important than ever, as he reminds of us what it means to be human and he reminds us to find strength and purpose in faith and in culture. Dawson’s best book is his World War II call to arms, The Judgment of Nations. Sadly, it’s no longer in print. Catholic University of America Press has been republishing his works, and they’re doing an excellent job with them. But, I would start with ISI’s version of Dynamics of World History.

Thank you, Carl. It’s always a pleasure to talk with you, and it’s always a pleasure to talk about someone as meaningful and important as Dawson.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Essays by Dr. Birzer may be found here.

Dr. Bradley J. Birzer is co-founder of The Imaginative Conservative and a Senior Contributor. He is the author of Sanctifying the World: The Augustinian Life and Mind of Christopher Dawson, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth, and American Cicero: The Life of Charles Carroll. He is also author of The Humane Republic: The Imagination of Russell Kirk (forthcoming, University Press of Kentucky). Dr. Birzer also teaches Catholics in the Public Square  for Catholic Courses

Rediscovering Christopher Dawson | An Interview with Dr. Bradley J. Birzer, author of Sanctifying the World: The Augustinian Life and Mind of Christopher Dawson | Originally appeared on Ignatius Insight, February 4, 2008 and appears here by permission.

All comments are moderated and must be civil, concise, and constructive to the conversation. Comments that are critical of an essay may be approved, but comments containing ad hominem criticism of the author will not be published. Also, comments containing web links or block quotations are unlikely to be approved. Keep in mind that essays represent the opinions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Imaginative Conservative or its editor or publisher.

Leave a Comment
Print Friendly, PDF & Email