power of language

Christopher Dawson

Continuing the theme of language and its importance to the human person, both individually and relationally (see previous essay), let us turn now to Christopher Dawson.

The English historian Christopher Dawson (1889-1970), another patron of The Imaginative Conservative, embraced a solidly Aristotelian view of the social world.  Aristotle had famously written in his Politics that man is by nature a social animal, meant to live in community. To leave community, a man must become either a beast or a god, but he can no longer remain human. A man may not live outside his cultural inheritance, Dawson wrote, paraphrasing Aristotle, without becoming an “idiot, living in a private world of formless feelings, but lower than the beasts.” Not even offering the Aristotelian alternative of becoming a God, Dawson further noted that culture is the means by which “men have learned from the past” through “the process of imitation, education and learning and to all that they hand on in like manner to their descendents and successors.”

With St. John the Revelator, Dawson proclaimed the importance of the Word to the human person as well as to history and culture.  As “little words”—that is, human persons as Imago Dei—humans pass on their civilization through the rational use of language.  Language allows human societies to inherit and then transmit what is known and what is believed.

Against those who see war as the great precipitator of cultural evolution, Dawson claimed instead and rather importantly that all true progress comes from the proper employment of language.  “The word,” he wrote, “not the sword or the spade, is the power that has created human culture.”  The sword protects the word, Dawson claimed, and the spade supports the word.

In this claim, of course, one sees much influence on the poetry of his friend and ally, T.S. Eliot, and on his American disciple, Russell Kirk.

Just as God spoke the universe into existence, man, created in His image, speaks culture into existence, tying the generations within time, but simultaneously also across time. Only through language can man store wisdom and understanding, building upon what was learnt and uncovered by previous generations, passing it on to future generations.  “Language is the foundation of social life,” Dawson wrote.

An intimate relationship, of course, connects language, tradition, and reason.  “Language, which is essential to Reason,” Dawson explained, “is itself essentially traditional, and I should say that it is in the creation of tradition, unless indeed it is a miraculous gift or invention,” an idea which Dawson would not dismiss.  Language provides a framework for reason.

God communicates through human tradition, a gift that proves “inaccessible to Reason.”  And, “the individual who denies the authority of language and the other fundamental forms of human culture is thereby debarred form the use of reason, which is essentially bound up with communication.  He is,” Dawson concluded with characteristic bluntness, “an idiot.”

Just as language is essential to Reason, so the Word of God is essential to Faith.  Granted the fact of Revelation, Reason is still insufficient as the vehicle of its transmission.  For this, it is necessary to have the Sacred Word of Scripture and the sacred society of the Church, which is the bearer of the Sacred Tradition.  The Holy Spirit in the Church is to the Word of God, what human Reason in the tradition of culture is to the Word of Man.  The Spirit is the Interpreter as well as the verifier.

Throughout history, one finds a correlation between God’s revelation and man’s development of language.  Dawson therefore concluded that the order of Grace and the order of nature are intimately connected.  Following Aquinas, Dawson argued that grace remakes and perfects nature.  “The Christian concept of Revelation does not simply involve the intelligibility of a spiritual reality but a change in the nature of the creature which renders divine communication possible,” he argued in 1959.  Therefore, because each culture and person represents a singular image of God and God’s revelation, reason unaided can never be universal, but, instead, must be culturally specific.  “In every culture men possess the power of reasoning as they possess the power of speech, but the content of their reasoning is different as the knowledge that they possess depends on the culture to which they belong,” Dawson argued.

A few more thoughts from Dawson worth pondering

Poetry, especially, “is in its origins inseparable from prophecy, and among every people we find the figure of the inspired mantic poet at the threshold of its literary tradition.”

In this, Dawson claimed in the 1940s, one should recognize the central figure of the bard as the conveyor of divine and generational wisdom.

Our highest understanding of existence comes from language, but often from a reverential, mythic, and mystic form of language rather than from a purely rational form.

“Man is born into a world that he has not made, that he cannot understand and on which his existence is dependent.  In actual fact, social authority and the world of culture take hold of him from the cradle and thrust back the frontier of transcendence behind the authority and omniscience of parents and schoolmasters.  It is only in the poetic imagination which is akin to that of the child and the mystic that we can still feel the pure sense of mystery and transcendence which is man’s natural element.”

For the Christian, this comes from the embrace of liturgy, the public act of ritual.

“In Christianity, on the other hand, the liturgy was the center of a rich tradition of religious poetry and music and artistic symbolism. In fact, the art of Christendom in both its Byzantine and medieval phases was essentially a liturgical art which cannot be understood without some knowledge of the liturgy itself and its historical origin and development. And the same is true to a great extent of popular and vernacular culture. The popular religious drama, which had such and important influence on the rise of European drama as a whole, was either a liturgical drama in the strict sense, like the Passion plays and Nativity plays, or was directly related to the cult of the saints and the celebration of their feasts. For the cult of the saints, which had its basis in the liturgy, was the source of a vast popular mythology, and provided a bridge between the higher ecclesiastical and literary culture and the peasant culture with its archaic traditions of folklore and magic.”

But it’s hard to end this post with Dawson.  Not because Dawson wasn’t brilliant; he was.  But because he understood language intellectually so much better than he did poetically.

To get the real sense of the highest state, beauty, and wonder of language, one should necessarily turn to that Great Bard of the Twentieth Century, T.S. Eliot.  The Anglo-American, especially in his Four Quartets, owes much to Dawson’s thought and works.

“And every phrase

And sentence that is right (where every word is at home),

Takings its place to support the others

The word neither diffident nor ostentatious

An easy commerce of the old and the new

The common word exact without vulgarity

The formal word precise but not pedantic

The complete consort dancing together.”

After all, Eliot understood as did Dawson, Chesterton, and Kirk, each one of us is a little word—carrying within us an icon, a perfect image of what we are meant to be.  Just as we would never contemplate defiling the Word, we also should never defile the words.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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