(Today’s offering in our Timeless Essay series affords our readers the opportunity to join Dr. Bradley Birzer as he examines the work of Christopher Dawson, arguably the most essential historian of the twentieth century. —W. Winston Elliott III, Publisher)
Looking back over the vast ruins and wastelands of the twentieth-century, one can find many exemplars of the human condition, many of them devout Roman Catholics who understood clearly that when man forgets God, the killing fields begin. One of the most important Roman Catholic converts of the past century, Christopher Dawson, may have been arguably THE historian of the twentieth century. While the claim may at first seem extreme, there is every reason to at least make him a viable contender.
Reared in an upper middle-class Protestant family, Mr. Dawson first learned to respect the Roman Catholic church from his father, an open-minded and intellectually-oriented British army officer. Other important influences on Mr. Dawson’s eventual conversion to Roman Catholicism were St. Augustine, from whom Mr. Dawson derived many of his most original thoughts; John Henry Newman; the lives of the saints and mystics; his wife (a cradle Catholic); and his closest friend, E.I. Watkin. Perhaps equally important, on Easter 1909, Mr. Dawson had a profound religious experience while visiting, of all places, Rome:
Looking back on that Easter day in 1909 Christopher remembered that he went to visit this church and sat on the steps of the Capitol in the same place where Gibbon had been inspired to write The Decline and Fall and it was there that he first conceived the idea of writing a history of culture. An entry in his journal later that year refers to ‘a vow made at Easter in the Ara Coeli’ and stated that he had since ‘had great light on the way it may be carried out. However unfit I may be (he wrote) I believe it is God’s will I should attempt it.’1
On the Feast of the Epiphany, 1914, Mr. Dawson entered the Church and became its greatest historian for the remainder of his life.2
Mr. Dawson was deemed too sickly to fight in the First World War, and he served in the civil service, aiding the war effort. For the next fourteen years, Mr. Dawson read as widely and as deeply as possible, preparing for a writing career as a historian. His reading paid off, as all of Mr. Dawson’s numerous writings carry with them a feeling of extreme depth, historical insight, and wisdom.3 He also wrote with verve and purpose. As the Second World War took shape, Christopher Dawson wrote:
It is here that Catholics have a special responsibility. They are not involved in the immediate issues of the conflict in the same way as are the political parties, for they belong to a supranational spiritual society, which is more organically united than any political body which possesses an autonomous body of principles and doctrines on which to base their judgements. Moreover, they have a historical mission to maintain and strengthen the unity of Western culture which had its roots in Christendom against the destructive forces which are attempting its total subversion. They are the heirs and successors of the makers of Europe—the men who saved civilization from perishing in the storm of barbarian invasion and who built the bridge between the ancient and modern worlds.4
And, Mr. Dawson argued, even if the forces for Christendom fail, they will still serve a vital purpose:
Any Catholic who is intellectually alive and is at the same time obviously convinced of the truth of his religion administers a shock to their preconceived ideas. He is not likely to convert them, but he shakes their confidence in the inevitability of the secularist outlook and in the stupidity of the religious view of life.5
Christopher Dawson did that and more.
Religion, The Basis of All Culture
One of Christopher Dawson’s greatest contributions to intellectual thought was his understanding of the rise and meaning of cultures. In one of his last books, Mr. Dawson wrote:
Culture, as its name denotes, is an artificial product. It is like a city that has been built up laboriously by the work of successive generations, not a jungle which has grown up spontaneously by the blind pressure of natural forces. It is the essence of culture that it is communicated and acquired, and although it is inherited by one generation from another, it is a social not a biological inheritance, a tradition of learning, an accumulated capital of knowledge and a community of ‘folkways’ into which the individual has to be initiated.(3)
Ultimately, then, culture came from the cultus, the group of people, usually based on kinship, who banded together to worship the same deity or deities. Once a common worship and understanding of theology had developed or been discovered, a culture developed. From the culture, then, derived economics, politics, and law. American man of letters, Russell Kirk, significantly influenced by Mr. Dawson, explained it well:
From what source did humankind’s many cultures arise? Why, from cults. A cult is a joining together for worship—that is, the attempt of people to commune with a transcendent power. It is from association in the cult, the body of worshipers, that community grows…. Once people are joined in a cult, cooperation in many other things becomes possible. Common defense, irrigation, systematic agriculture, architecture, the visual arts, music, the more intricate crafts, economic production and distribution, courts and government—all these aspects of a culture arise gradually from the cult, the religious tie.6
Consequently, a loss of religious faith results in the eventual destruction of the culture. Though, as T.S. Eliot argued, such decline may be slow in coming. “A culture may linger on,” Mr. Eliot wrote in his Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, “and indeed produce some of its most brilliant artistic and other successes after the religious faith has fallen into decay.”7
The implications of Mr. Dawson’s understanding of culture are nothing short of profound. For if one is to change society, he or she must do so by changing the culture. To attempt to change society through law, economics, or politics will ultimately prove futile, as these things are merely manifestations of a particular culture, itself, at least originally, based on the cultus. Equally impossible would be to change the fountainhead of the culture, God, for He is movable by His Will alone. Hence, all true reform comes from a reordering of the culture, not from man-made ideologies, which Mr. Dawson rightly recognized as secular religions. The new totalitarianism—found in 1939 Germany, Italy, and Russia—is “more like a Church than a State, since its membership is based on the profession of a creed or ideology and on faith in the gospel of the leader rather than on citizenship.”8
The Importance of Medieval Culture
When Christopher Dawson was a youth, the best historians had discounted the significance of the Middle Ages, the one era that better than any other proved the necessity of religion and deep traditions underlying culture. Two factors seem to have accounted for this. First, there were no nations during Christendom and scholars failed to understand this effectively. In the early twentieth century, a world without nations must have seemed utterly perplexing, alien, and chaotic. Nations, according to the prevailing thought of the early 1900s, were the means by which peoples manifested their will and secured their rights. To be without nations must mean oppression of the will and rights of the people, the thought ran. Second, most historians in the English-speaking world were Protestants or secularists and viewed pre-Renaissance Europe as simply dark or barbaric. Men who had written on the middle ages in a positive light, such as G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, Mr. Dawson believed, had gone too far in their praise. Scholars, consequently, had dismissed their arguments as overblown propaganda for the Roman Catholic Church.9
Through careful scholarship, Christopher Dawson proved that right or wrong, good or bad, medieval culture made Europe, and religion could not be separated from it. From its very beginning, Europe relied on the medieval synthesis of the classical, the Christian, and the barbaric. The Church inherited “all the riches of the Gentiles, Greek philosophy and Roman law, Oriental mysticism and Western humanism,” Christopher Dawson wrote, sanctifying them “in its own tradition while preserving its spiritual identity and the transcendent authority of its supernatural mission.”10
St. Augustine, for example, had written the handbook for life in the middle ages with the City of God. In it, he had sanctified the pagan work of Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero, making it Christian, thus continuing the continuity of the ancient into the medieval. And, perhaps more than anyone medieval, St. Boniface, an Anglo-Saxon priest, took the classical and Christian synthesis to the German barbarians.
The work of St. Boniface did more than any other fact to lay the foundations of medieval Christendom. His mission to Germany was not an isolated spiritual adventure like the achievements of his Celtic predecessors; it was part of a far-sighted program of construction and reform planned with all the method and statesmanship of the Roman tradition. It involved a triple alliance between the Anglo-Saxon missionaries, the Papacy, and the family of Charles Martel, the de facto rulers of the Frankish kingdom, out of which the Carolingian Empire and the Carolingian culture ultimately emerged.11
The resilience of the middle ages also fascinated Mr. Dawson, as the barbarians continued to attack long after the necessary work of St. Boniface. The monasteries best embodied the virtue of fortitude for medieval culture.
Ninety-nine out of a hundred monasteries could be burnt and the monks killed or driven out, and yet the whole tradition could be reconstituted from the one survivor, and the desolate sites could be repeopled by fresh supplies of monks who would take up again the broken tradition, following the same rule, singing the same liturgy, reading the same books, and thinking the same thoughts as their predecessors.12
Far from being oppressive, the medieval period witnessed the protection of liberties, the promotion of virtue in society, and a delicate political balance between church and state, pope and council, king and parliament. Citing Erasmus, Mr. Dawson labeled Christendom the Christiana Res publica.
The Rise of Nationalism
The latent nationalism of the barbarian tribes who had settled Europe always served as an internal threat to the foundations of Christendom. The church, common academic language, and common culture did much to attenuate the latent nationalism. Inklings of nationalism arose, however, in France as early as 1302 and especially in post-Reconquest Spain in the late fifteenth century. But, nationalism did not emerge full-blown until Martin Luther’s revolt against the Church in the early sixteenth century, as the barbarian “spirit of the old gods was imperfectly exorcised by the sword and…has continued to haunt the background of the German mind.”13 Following the examples of the proto-nationalists of the previous centuries—restless souls such as John Wycliffe and Jan Hus—Luther more than any other figure of his age “embodies the revolt of the awakening German national spirit.”14 Like all nationalists, Luther rejected the profound depth and intricacies of Christendom–its culture and polycentric political system–and de-intellectualized “the Catholic tradition,” Mr. Dawson explained. “He took St. Paul without his Hellenism, and St. Augustine without his Platonism.”15
The French Revolution and its introduction of the infection of ideologies into the world, a disease that has yet to end, first successfully mixed nationalism and ideology. Indeed, more than any other event, the French Revolution demonstrated the need for an ideology—a pseudo-religion, created by the mind of man, rather than historically uncovered through and across the generations—to unify linguistically, culturally, and biologically diverse peoples around a central nation-state. The results, though, have been devastating, as the mix of nationalisms and ideologies has unleashed “the powers of the abyss—the dark forces that have been chained by a thousand years of Christian civilization and which have now been set free to conquer the world,” Mr. Dawson believed. “For the will to power is also the will to destruction, and in the last event it becomes the will to self-destruction.”16 Or, as Mr. Dawson bravely stated at a peace conference in Italy, just prior to World War II, with Hermann Goering attending as the German representative, “The relatively benign nationalism of the early Romantics paved the way for the fanaticism of the modern pan-racial theorists who subordinate civilization to skull measurements and who infuse an element of racial hatred into the political and economic rivalries of European peoples.”17 Certainly, the vast killing fields of the twentieth-century ideological terror regimes has proven Mr. Dawson’s analysis correct.
The Holy Spirit: The True Conclusion
Ultimately, the Church—as the only historical entity that transcends nationalisms and ideologies—must use its intellectual strength to combat, attenuate, or destroy that which was loosed from the abyss. “It is, therefore, the duty of those elements in Western Society that still possess a principle of spiritual unity to rally the divided forces of our civilization,” Christopher Dawson argued.18 Because of this, Mr. Dawson had great hopes for the future of the West and the world. The whole history of Christianity has been one of constant reform and renewal, he knew. Just as the human person is born anew in Christ through baptism and sanctification, so too can culture be reclaimed and remade for Christ. Often, though, the impetus for renewal will come from specific persons:
I should say that no people has ever been converted to Christianity by a learned apologetic or by mysticism, important as these things are. The great examples of Christian evangelization are St. Paul’s apostolate in Asia Minor and Greece, St. Francis Xavier and his successors in Japan, and perhaps St. Patrick in Ireland. In all these cases it is a very simple type of evangelism, joined with miracles and works of mercy…. It is of course simply a question of spiritual dynamism: Where there is direct spiritual communication through a saint or an evangelist, you always find results, but where it is a matter of routine organizations and activities, you do not.19
Mr. Dawson’s other examples, as mentioned earlier, were St. Augustine and St. Boniface. Always, though, the initial prompting and guidance for renewal comes from the Holy Spirit, through the Church. The evils of ideologies and nationalisms “are powerless against the Spirit who is the Lord and Giver of Life,” Mr. Dawson wrote.20 But, he cautioned, “whenever Catholics cease to be active, when they rest in a passive acquiescence in what they have received, Catholicism tends to lose contact with contemporary culture and the world drifts away from the Church.”21
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, any one with a religious inkling cannot read the English historian’s vast corpus of works without recognizing that the Spirit animated him as well. Indeed, only the Spirit can gift someone to extent that Mr. Dawson enjoyed and used his gifts for the Christiana Res Publica. “A Christian has only to be in order to change the world, for in that very act of being there is contained all the mystery of divine life.”22 God willing, future historians, philosophers, and theologians will also recognize Mr. Dawson as one of the most vital voices in the Catholic Renaissance of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, using his words to understand culture, Christendom, and the man-centered follies of nationalism and ideology.
This essay in our series of “Timeless Essays” originally was published here in July, 2014. We highly recommend Dr. Birzer’s Sanctifying the World: The Augustinian Life and Mind of Christopher Dawson.
1 Christina Scott, A Historian and His World: A Life of Christopher Dawson (1984; New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 1992), 49
2 Scott, A Historian and His World, 62-65; and Gleaves Whitney, “Can Western Civilization Survive the 21st Century?: Some Dawsonian Considerations,” paper delivered April 24, 1999, Philadelphia Society Annual Meeting, Philadelphia, Penn. See also Joseph Pearce, Literary Converts (San Francisco, Calif.: Ignatius Press, 1999).
3 Perhaps this says more about the present author than Mr. Dawson, but while reading through his personal correspondence, the sheer depth and breadth of his understanding of humanity and history overwhelmed me, and I had to leave the archives for some fresh air.
4 Dawson, “Editorial Note,” The Dublin Review (July 1940), 1.
5 Dawson, The Crisis of Western Education (1961; Steubenville: Franciscan University of Ohio Press, 1989), 176.
6 Russell Kirk, Redeeming the Time, ed. Jeffrey O. Nelson (Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 1996), 7.
7 T.S. Eliot, Christianity and Culture (New York: Harvest, 1976), 102.
8 Dawson, “The New Community,” The Tablet, 7 January 1939, 6.
9 Scott, A Historian and His World, 95-7.
10 Dawson, “The Real Issue,” Colosseum 1 (1934): 28.
11 Dawson, Religion and the Rise of Western Culture, 62. For more on St. Boniface from Dawson, see Christopher Dawson, The Making of Europe: An Introduction to the History of European Unity (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1934), 210-11. See also, Letters of St. Boniface (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000); and Thomas F.X. Noble, ed., Soldiers of Christ: Saints and Saints’ Lives from Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995).
12 Dawson, Religion and the Rise of Western Culture, 66.
13 Dawson, The Judgment of the Nations (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1942), 30.
14 Dawson, Progress and Religion: An Historical Inquiry (1929; Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University Press, 2001), 142.
15 Dawson, Progress and Religion, 142. See also Dawson, Progress and Religion, 142; and Dawson, The Dividing of Christendom (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1965).
16 Dawson, Judgment of the Nations, 8.
17 Quoted in Scott, A Historian and His World, 106.
18 Dawson, “Editorial Note,” 2.
19 Dawson to Mulloy, 30-31 December 1956, Folder 9; Dawson Letters 1957, University of Notre Dame Archives, Notre Dame, Indiana.
20 Dawson, Judgment of the Nations, 222.
21 Dawson, “The Real Issue,” 28.
22 Dawson, Christianity and the New Age (1931; Manchester, N.H.: Sophia Institute Press, 1988), 103.