Christopher Dawson held that the Christian religion created a distinctive culture that not only preceded, but has continued long after, the thirteenth century. It is only by examining this cultural dynamism that one can appreciate why modern society is a mutilated, or a “secularized,” version of Christendom…

Today’s offering in our Timeless Essay series affords readers the opportunity to join Russell Hittinger as he explores the Christian Humanism of Christopher Dawson as it applies to the redemption of Western Civilization. —W. Winston Elliott III, Publisher 

Christopher DawsonSoren Kierkegaard observed that a distinguishing mark of modern culture is its preoccupation with theories of historical progress. Whether he is a philosopher or a shopkeeper, modern man secretly believes that there exists some hidden hand that moves the system of history along. The individual is called upon by an array of public authorities to serve this world-historical process, or at the very least, not to stand in the way of it. Modern man, Kierkegaard argued, has become so proficient in understanding the progress of world history that he has forgotten what it takes to make moral and religious progress in his own life. The situation is a kind of wholesale sanity and a retail madness.

As one sits in the pews of many Christian churches today, he has his attention called to world-historical issues: to the “new” historical moment of the nuclear arms race; to the movements for social justice in the Third World; to the struggle to liberate men and women from structures of “patriarchal oppression;” and, in general, his attention is called to all sorts of momentous issues which are linked together by hyphens along what Kierkegaard called the “prodigious railroad” of world history. Rather than being addressed as individuals who need to cultivate the virtue of justice—as well as the other interior excellences of the soul—we are all too often invited from the pulpit to jump aboard the caboose of the train of world history lest it pass us by altogether.

To point out that this malaise has particularly affected the Christian churches is not to say anything new. Nietzsche contended that the contemporary theologus liberalis vulgaris “appears quite innocently to have taken up history and even now is hardly aware that in doing so, probably quite against his will, [he] has entered the service of Voltaire’s écrasez.”[1] It is often the case that one’s enemy speaks prophetically. David Hume, for example, understood very clearly that historical apologetics can prove to be a more effective weapon than ordinary philosophical discourse. Hume devoted much of his philosophical career to polemics against Christian natural theology—against the possibility of miracles, against the proofs for the existence of God, and against metaphysics in general. Yet, as he read the galleys of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall on his deathbed in 1776, Hume conceded that Gibbon would do more to undermine Christianity than would any of his own work. He saw that there is no better way to turn men’s minds against Christianity than to suggest that it has played either an insignificant or a harmful role in history and culture. Most men care little for metaphysical debate, but they are willing to entertain a new story.

In our own day, Catholicism has become especially vulnerable to the thrusts of such historical polemic. It is fair to say that in comparison with their Protestant brethren, Catholics have been slower to grasp the extent of this malaise. Cardinal Newman, perhaps, was an exception; he understood that modern debate over religion had shifted from natural theology to historical claims and ideologies, and that with the secularization of Christianity history tends to replace metaphysics as the central paradigm. Nevertheless, until the problem became vividly manifest after the Second Vatican Council, Catholic intellectuals tended to slumber in the commonplaces of the textbook tradition of natural theology. Little attention was paid to the popular momentum of heterodox stories: to what Saint Irenaeus in the third century called “vain genealogies.” Relatively few intellectuals appreciated the fact that “modernism” is something more than a set of heterodox philosophical or theological theses; that the real power of “modernism” consists in its invitation to take a novel view of history; and that it does not so much ask for a consent to carefully worked-out philosophical premises, but calls for a conversion of perspective. Liberation theology, for instance, need not attack directly the traditional (i.e., Augustinian and Thomistic) understanding of the nature of man and society; rather, it employs historical arguments which are intended to demonstrate the historical, cultural, and spiritual obsolescence of the tradition. In short, their goal is to undercut any appeal to criteria which are derived from a culture that is now obsolete. Catholics who have found certain truths dismissed outright simply because they are “pre-Vatican II” now have reason to sympathize with traditional Protestants who, a century earlier, found their biblical tenets dismissed because they were “pre-scientific.”

As yet, contemporary Catholicism has not produced a thinker of the stature of Kierkegaard or Karl Barth, who might answer the modernist apologetic. In large part, the work has been undertaken by scholars like Eric Voegelin and Leo Strauss, whose interests are devoted more widely to the issue between modernism and pre-Enlightenment Western thought than to the specific theological crises at work in the Christian churches. It is worth pointing out, however, that there was one Catholic thinker who in this century made a significant contribution to answering the modernist historical polemic—Christopher Dawson. Although there is somewhat of a Dawsonian revival taking place in America these past few years, Dawson is not well-known; he certainly has never enjoyed the notoriety of Chesterton or Maritain.


Born on Columbus Day, 1889, at Hay in Wales, Christopher Dawson was educated at Winchester and at Trinity College, Oxford. After studying economics under Gustave Cassel in Sweden, Dawson returned to Oxford to do postgraduate work in history and sociology. He converted to Catholicism in 1914. His first major work, Progress and Religion (1929), involved “an historical inquiry into the causes and the development of the idea of progress and its relationship to religion.” Dawson’s subsequent work was devoted to two facets of this theme. First, he investigated the general problem of the relationship between religion and culture, focusing on sociological laws of development. Second, he was interested in the specific relationship between the Christian religion and Western culture. Although Christopher Dawson was recognized by many as the pre-eminent Catholic historian of his time, it should be mentioned that his work was better received outside of Catholic schools. In 1947-1948, he was invited to give the prestigious Gifford Lectures at Edinburgh. Then, in 1958, he became the first incumbent of the Stillman Chair of Catholic Studies at Harvard. He was regarded with some suspicion by Catholic educators because he emphasized the paramount importance of historical and cultural studies and warned that a myopic focus upon scholastic philosophy tended to reduce Christianity to a mere set of “ideational products” shorn of historical and cultural flesh. Dawson suggested that unless the curriculum in Catholic schools was expanded to include these other studies, students would be vulnerable to historical apologetics. In The Crisis of Western Education (1961), he outlined the problem and recommended ways to rectify it. Christopher Dawson was viewed as a dangerous innovator. Though, in retrospect, it is ironic that many of the Catholic educators who regarded him in this light in 1960 were later the ones who insisted upon jettisoning scholastic philosophy altogether from the curriculum, later Dawson was often viewed as dangerously “conservative.” (How Dawson and other Catholic thinkers prior to Vatican II—like Maritain and Danielou—were “innovators” one year and “reactionaries” the next is a story still to be written.)

Any historical apologetic requires criteria by which to assess whether or not a particular historical subject (for instance, Western culture) has progressed. It requires delineating the subject according to epochs and then showing certain lines of cause and effect. The most successful apologetic of this sort is able to show how a historical subject develops according to principles intrinsic to itself. Such diverse thinkers, as Newman and Hegel, were skillful in this respect. In order to carry on the project of assessing the development of Western culture, it is necessary to designate as precisely as possible what this culture is and when it began. The Straussian perspective, for example, looks prospectively from, and retrospectively back to, the pre-Christian classical culture of antiquity. The birthplace of Western culture—at least symbolically—is Athens. Modernity, therefore, is assessed according to the extent to which it has departed from Athens. Both Liberals and Marxists, however, are in agreement that any assessment of modernity must be undertaken in terms of modernity itself; both Frankfurt School Marxists and John Stuart Mill would agree that the principles intrinsic to the modern age are rooted in the Enlightenment. They differ in terms of how the development since the Enlightenment is to be judged. Whereas a liberal of a Deweyan stamp would argue that the ongoing task of development is to make the fruits of the Enlightenment more accessible to the common man, a Marxist like Jurgen Habermas would contend that the Enlightenment represents only the first phase of a dialectical process which, on the basis of criteria internal to itself, must find its completion in socialism. In any event, our point is that historical apologetics require answering what the subject is, answering when it began, and establishing criteria of development which are intrinsic to the subject. Where there is no agreement regarding the first two, any debate over the third will appear incommensurable. Alasdair Macintyre has done much to show this in his book After Virtue (1981).

Dawson’s position is unique because he argued that the “archetypal pattern” of Western culture came into being during the so-called “dark ages;” that is, during that period in the West that stretches from the fall of the Roman imperium to the rise of the schools in the twelfth century. If it was unusual for a Catholic to shift attention away from the thirteenth century; it was all the more unusual for a historian to contend seriously that the three requirements outlined above must be analyzed in terms of what is commonly the most disparaged era of Western history. Nearly all historians are willing to concede some importance to the classical culture of antiquity, to the Renaissance, and to the Enlightenment, yet the notion of a “dark ages” still exerts a considerable influence upon our historical imagination. Mark Twain, perhaps, best summarized this attitude when he referred to the period as a “brainless and worthless long vanished society.”[2] Twain thought this period fascinates only romantics and Southerners. Dawson was neither. Nonetheless, he insisted that despite the claims of modern man to have superseded the Christian ideas of the thirteenth century, he has not superseded the culture of Christendom that first took shape during the “dark ages.” The historical dependence upon an idea or upon a philosophical system of ideas is different from a dependence upon a cultural paradigm. While it is true that certain aspects of medieval science and theology are for all practical purposes obsolete, we do not shed other cultural structures in the same way that we might shed ideas. This is why Dawson believed that Catholics had put too many apologetical eggs, as it were, in the basket of medieval scholasticism; if the Catholic contribution of Western culture is principally identified with the philosophy of the schools of the thirteenth century, then the debate is over. The subject will remain as little more than one of antiquarian curiosity. Hence, it was Dawson’s conviction that what had been overlooked is the fact that, in the West, the Christian religion had created a distinctive culture that not only preceded but has continued long after, the harvest of the thirteenth century. It is only by examining the cultural dynamism that one can appreciate why modern society is a mutilated, or what Dawson termed a “secularized,” version of Christendom.


Dawson maintained that Western culture consists of three components. The first is the Augustinian understanding of the relationship between the Two Cities. It is well known, of course, that Saint Augustine’s City of God was the blueprint for the culture of Western Christendom. His thought stands to Christendom in a way similar to that of Homer to ancient Greece. Dawson argued that the Two Cities theme is inherent in the structure of Western culture and that even though the theological content has been transformed or excised altogether, the drama is archetypal. Both Marxism and Liberalism, he thought, are secularized renditions of the Augustinian position. The second component is sociological and, to a certain degree, political. After the collapse of the imperium in the West, the Christian missionaries brought the various barbarian peoples into what Dawson regarded as a novel kind of cultural unity—one that was not based on a racial, geographical, or political hegemony. Western European culture began as a confederacy that had for its center a transnational Church. The birth of Western European culture and the birth of Christendom, for Dawson, are precisely the same thing. It was Christendom that gave to the West its commitment to a pluralistic culture that is unified not on the basis of race or sheer political power, but upon a moral and spiritual ideal. Since the passing of medieval Christendom, the history of the West can be interpreted, according to Dawson, as a continuous series of conflicts over which transnational ideals should play the role once occupied by the Church. The third component is the manner in which Western culture, throughout the centuries, relies upon reform movements for its development. Just as the culture first began under the influence of monastic missionary movements, every subsequent generation has required the force of reform movements. Dawson emphasized that these movements have tended to arise not from within the sphere of State authority, but rather from free spiritual associations which are pre-political in nature. Although, as Paul Johnson has pointed out in his book Modern Times (1983), the twentieth century is a pathetic story of the effort to live by the bread of political power alone, Dawson contended that the dynamism for real progress in the West has been voluntary associations which usually operate on the periphery of political institutions.

Of course, to map out the details of Dawson’s case would require a tour through the entire corpus of his work. Here, we will limit ourselves to highlighting a few of his more important insights. Let us first take his understanding of the Augustinian contribution. During this century, Catholic thinkers like Etienne Gilson and Anton Pegis have rightly emphasized the “synthetic” character of medieval thought and culture. Dawson, too, agreed that medieval culture incorporated synthetically two otherwise discordant ideals: the humanistic ideal, drawn from Hellenism, which is devoted to the powers and virtues of this world; and the prophetic or eschatological ideal, which stresses the power of a transcendent order other than this world. This polarity has been discussed by other scholars under the rubric of “Athens and Jerusalem.” Dawson, however, took a different approach to this matter by arguing that Christianity was not (and is not) itself the synthesis. Although it gave incentive to the synthetic ideal, the culture-forming energies of Christianity depended upon the Church’s ability to resist the temptation to become completely identified with, or absorbed in, the culture. Dawson maintained that the key of Western culture is the tension between Christianity and the culture which it spawned. In this regard, Dawson would probably agree with Leo Strauss’ remark that the conflict between the secular and the sacred is “the secret of the vitality of the West.”[3] It was Augustinian theology that explained how to understand this conflict.

In the Augustinian system, history is not viewed as a “synthesis,” but as a drama of two intersecting cities. Dawson argued that the predominance of the Augustinian position kept the synthetic ideal in the West from degenerating into a static order, as in fact happened in Christian Byzantium, which followed the Eusebian doctrine of a strict parallelism between church, state, and culture. The current of Augustinianism that flows under the surface of Western culture has frequently erupted as a reaction against tendencies to collapse church, state, and culture together. At times, these neo-Augustinian reactions have gone so far as to negate the very possibility of a Christian culture. Paradoxical though it may seem, Dawson maintained that despite these eruptions against culture, the Augustinian viewpoint actually fuels the prospect of a Christian age and civilization because culture is not regarded as a millennial kingdom but as a “field of continual effort and conflict.”[4] Once history and culture are viewed as something less than ultimate, the Christian religion can work with it, even implant itself in it, without violating its own fidelity to the first commandment.

Dawson’s point is that Augustinian theology de-mystified the world’s presumption of autonomy and thereby unleashed what could best be called a missionary attitude toward culture. It gave incentive to the prospect of a Christian culture because it persistently called attention to the belief that without the leaven of the spirit, the world cannot transform itself. Furthermore, Augustinian theology emphasized the freedom of the human heart and the dynamism of the individual personality. No authentic development can take place behind the back of the individual. Therefore, the spiritual and moral laws which apply to the conversion and development of the individual must also apply to society. Dawson believed that this is a chief reason why, in Western culture, reform has not been successfully accomplished through a mere tinkering with sociological or political structures.

The second component of what Dawson termed the “archetypal pattern” of Western culture is rooted historically in the situation faced by the Western Church on the eve of its missionary expansion. In the Roman West, in spite of its lower standard of civilization, the conditions were favorable for an original and creative Christian culture. “For here,” Dawson explained, “the church did not become incorporated in a social and political order that it was powerless to modify; it found itself abandoned to its own resources in a world of chaos and destruction.”[5] Beginning with the Celtic missionary enterprise of the fifth century and continuing throughout the waves of missions which worked back through the north of Europe, the Western Church created a culture from its own rib—principally by means of cenobitic monasticism. Under the hegemony of a common ecclesiastical tradition, Celts were allowed to be Celts and Franks to be Franks. From his study of world religions and cultures, Dawson concluded that it is only in the peculiar relationship between Europe and the Christian religion that we find a transnational, interracial pluralism wedded together with a common religion. This is why he argued that every subsequent effort to maintain this pluralism on the basis of the hegemony of a particular nation or race has proved disastrous. Either the principle of unity is lost, in which case Europe tends to revert to its multiple elements in civil war with one another, or one of these elements claims hegemony, in which case pluralism gives way to the totalitarian simulacrum of unity. In Dawsonian terms, it is reasonable to interpret modernity as an ongoing effort to enjoy the benefits of Christendom without a principle of unity sufficient to accomplish the task.

The third component, as we have already said, is the relationship between cultural progress and movements of moral reform. In Religion and the Rise of Western Culture Dawson put it this way: “It is only in Western Europe that the whole pattern of culture is to be found in a continuous succession and alternation of free spiritual movements; so that every century of Western history shows a change in the balance of cultural elements, and the appearance of some new spiritual force which creates new ideas and institutions, and produces a further movement of cultural change.”[6] Again, underneath the synthetic ideal, the cultural and religious currents of medieval Christendom were in constant tension, if not open conflict. Whether we point to the crisis posed by the Carolingian Empire’s ambition to create a theocratic monarchy such as that in the East or to the Avignon papacy, there were continuous efforts to maintain the Augustinian distinction between the Two Cities, and by means of grassroots reform movements to emancipate the Church from Caesar. The fortunes of Western culture, in terms of its internal mechanisms of change and development, are deeply tied to the reform impulse arising from the religious sector. This pattern continues into the modern age. In the history of the American Republic, for instance, virtually every major movement of social reform has arisen from the religious sector; even those movements which might be judged radically heterodox from a theological standpoint nevertheless appear to recapitulate the form or pattern that Dawson observes.

Indeed, it is interesting to note that today the burden of reform has been thrust once again upon the religious sector of our society. Religion is called upon to address every type of social or political ill, from drug addiction to race relations, and even to matters of international relations and military affairs. With some justification, it is said that this phenomenon is due, at least in part, to the fact that the clergy has become secularized and has nothing better to do than to dabble in politics. Although this is true to an extent, one is apt to overlook the fact that men in the clergy are invited to do so and, indeed, are rewarded for inserting themselves into social and political affairs. While this frequently amounts to an exploitation of religion, there also appears to be a widespread sense that the bankrupt policies of the City of Man need the moral symbols and authority of the City of God. The situation is complex and confused (and for this reason, I believe, a Dawsonian analysis is necessary in order to sort out all of the moving parts), but the fact remains that there are more rather than fewer appeals to religion—so much so that there exists the danger of fanaticism.

For his part, Dawson warned that if religion is to be creative in its cultural tasks, it must first renew itself and diligently protect its own spiritual integrity. If it allows itself to be completely submerged in culture and politics, it will lose its salt. More than once in his writings, Dawson reminded his readers that the main service of monasticism was not its preservation of higher learning and culture but rather its fidelity to the “principle of an autonomous Christian order which again and again proved to be the seed of new life.”[7] Unfortunately, it has become almost counter-intuitive to many of our religious authorities that in order for religion to serve culture, it must first protect its own integrity. This is not the first time in Western history that, while the bishops concern themselves with international politics, the laity who are really in the culture see the need for a spiritual renewal.


Earlier, we said that a historical apologetics requires designating the what and the when of the subject. Having done this, one is prepared to execute a critique or apologetic according to criteria which are intrinsic to the subject under review. We have outlined Dawson’s position on the first two issues. Now, what are we to make of criteria for assessing the progress of Western culture? Dawson thought that it is, first of all, important to understand that modern man has a deep stake in using historical ideologies to hide his cultural dependence upon the pre-modern pattern of the West. At least since the Renaissance, the category of the “dark ages” was invented in order to suggest that, without the light of classical culture, the world was engulfed in darkness. This hermeneutic was continued by the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment (although it was put to the service of different ends). Whereas the Protestants suggested that the historical period of Christendom was the dark age of the “Babylonian Captivity,” when the primitive simplicity of the early Church was compromised, the Enlightenment claimed that after the privileged moment of Greek philosophy, the West fell into a darkness that was dispelled only by the emergence of modern science. It was Dawson’s conviction (which is basically in accord with that of Eric Voegelin) that through the Archimedean lever of historical method, modern man uses history to posit ruptures in history itself. Whether it is consciously intended or not, this use of history authorizes the absolutism of the present moment. It thus hides and distorts the internal consistency of a historical subject.

It is worth recalling that, in his Discourse on Method, Descartes revealed that before he discovered the Archimedean lever of his own cogito, he first saw the need to set aside everything that he had received from history. He described the historical inheritance according to the metaphor of a haphazardly arranged city. Most cities, he observed, have been built over time by the hands of “several masters.” Their streets are circuitous and show little foresight. Rather than trying to reform such a city, Descartes vowed to build upon his own foundation.[8] While Descartes is principally remembered for his theory of mind-body dualism, the more basal dualism that is regulative of his entire philosophy is the notion that one can begin de novo, by suppressing those definite points in time and space which are conveyed through history and culture. With Descartes, historical hermeneutics undergoes a radical transformation; for what we have termed criteria “internal to the subject” no longer applies to a concrete historical subject, but to the mind of the observer. Dawson thought that this attitude toward history was “one of the main factors in the secularization of European culture.”[9]

In order to engage in a historical apologetic with modernism, it is necessary to demonstrate that modern culture still relies upon the operational efficacy of the original pattern of Western culture. But modernism claims to have superseded that pattern. In one way or another, the ideology that hides the continuing pertinence of the pattern has to be unmasked. We call a theory of history ideological if it entails a systematic divorce of the thinker from the facts of which he speaks. (Even Descartes would have to admit this principle.) Any theory of history that posits black holes in history, and then appeals to these lacunae in order to justify the value or status of the present moment, refutes itself; if history involves such radical discontinuities, then history proves nothing. You cannot have it both ways. Strauss has made this point with regard to “historicism” in his Natural Right and History (1953). In any case, it is an effective technique to show where the modernist, in his own report of things, relies upon the history that he claims to have superseded.

Both by temperament and training, Dawson preferred to turn his readers’ attention back to historical “facts.” He hoped to show that his interpretation of the development of Western culture was empirical and coherent in terms of accounting for the course of the historical subject without positing black holes. In this regard, he followed the spirit of English historiography. But he was not reluctant to use the self-referential argument: That is, to regard as data in support of his own position the fact that modern­ists implicitly admit the force of the “archetypal pattern,” even as they seek to dismiss it. For instance, in an essay entitled “Karl Marx and the Dialectic of History” (1935), Dawson remarked that “Liberal interpretation of history has taken over from the Catholic tradition not only its sense of universalism, but also its dualism.”[10] Here he wished to show how modern ideologies devoted to the ideal of progress are deeply committed to some version of the drama of the Two Cities, if for no other reason than to explicate why there is a real significance to the struggle between reactionary and progressive forces in Western culture.

In this respect, it is interesting to find John Stuart Mill, in On Liberty, criticizing Calvinism in particular and what he took to be the reactionary nature of Christianity in general, in terminology redolent of the Augustinian theme:

It will not be denied by anybody that originality is a valuable element in human affairs…. This cannot be gain-said by anybody who does not believe that the world has already attained perfection in all its ways and practices. It is true that this benefit is not capable of being rendered by everybody alike; there are but a few persons, in comparison with the whole of mankind, whose experiments, if adopted by others, would likely be any improvement upon established practice. But these few are the salt of the earth; without them, human life would be a stagnant pool.[11]

When Mill goes on to state that unless “there were a succession of persons [of] ever recurring originality,” society would sink into a torpid “mediocrity,” he has clearly transposed the content rather than the form of the original pattern of Western culture. Now, it is the liberated bohemian rather than the saint who represents the vanguard of cultural progress. Mill, however, implicitly recognizes all three components of the pattern constituted by Christendom: first, in the creative tension between the regenerate and unregenerate elements of a culture; second, in the ideal of an international order unified on the basis of moral freedom; and third, in the need for voluntary movements of reform. Dawson was convinced that one can go through the writings of the moderns and find the same sort of reliance upon the pattern of Christendom that they claim to have superseded.


If Dawson is correct in terms of the components which constitute the “archetypal pattern” of Western culture, then we have at hand criteria by which to assess the progress of our culture. First, we might ask whether the built-in tension represented by the Two Cities theme has been collapsed into a merely intramundane conflict—between rich and poor, between men and women, or perhaps between the so-called First and Third Worlds. A secular distortion of the Augustinian theme eliminates the transcendent nature and meaning of historical conflict and therefore makes historical development dependent upon a dialectic of continual civil wars within the body of the culture. Second, we might ask whether our society is tending toward a healthy pluralism or whether it gravitates toward a brutal uniformity. Dawson himself contended that despite the self­-congratulatory rhetoric about pluralism, modern society is becoming more homogeneous in terms of its practices. Finally, we should ask whether or not our cultural reform is conceived of, and executed, primarily in terms of manipulating political structures; that is, in such a way that the moral and spiritual power of the individual makes little or no difference. When these criteria are taken into account, it is difficult to arrive at any other judgment but that modern society continues in the original pattern but does so in a woefully deficient manner.

In short, our society lacks an explicit knowledge of the criteria required for self­-discernment. Dawson, I believe, was correct in pointing out that this problem now has worldwide implications. Just as post­-Renaissance historians wanted to demote, or actually erase, the relationship between Western European culture and the Christian religion, many contemporary historians (e.g., Spengler and Toynbee) are eager to dismiss European history itself as a merely parochial story. Not infrequently, it is said that the West is morally and culturally exhausted and that the direction and hope of world history are embodied in the “emergent” societies of the Third World. The West, like John the Baptist, must decrease so that the new societies may increase.

Of course, only someone operating from a Western perspective would entertain such an idea in the first place. Dawson felt that this attitude is profoundly flawed, for it overlooks the historical fact that “the new Asia and Africa which are emerging with such revolutionary suddenness do not represent simply the reaction of Asiatic or African culture against the in­fluence of an alien civilization, but rather the extension of Western civilization and Western international society into the extra-European world.”[12] It would be a mistake, he warned, to “kick away the ladder” of European historiography because nearly the entire world now lives under the influence of European culture and its ideologies. If it is true, as Dawson contended, that these ideologies represent efforts to retain the unity of Christendom on secular terms, then it can be said that Europe has given to the world a broken image of its own Christendom. Europe’s own cultural and historical amnesia is an international problem. The ambition of Western intellectuals to use history, in the first place, to occlude the West’s dependence on its own religious heritage and, in the second place, to hide the fact that the extra-European world now lives under ideologies generated by the West’s own amnesia, is at the very nerve of the problem of world order.

The recovery, therefore, of a sense of Christendom is not some esoteric religious issue. The struggles of international order today are not essentially between Oriental and Occidental, or between First and Third Worlds, but between forces internal to Christendom itself. That two men from the East, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Karol Wojtyla, should grasp this reality more clearly than Western intellectuals would both please and distress Christopher Dawson.[13]

There are degrees of moral evil in the world, and neither we nor our allies are free of it. But let us remember: because no one is free of moral fault, it does not follow that all are equally at fault. We knew that when we condemned the evil empire of the Nazis. It is no less true when we condemn the evil empires of the Kremlin, South Africa and Ayatollah Khomeini. —Sidney Hook

This essay in our series of “Timeless Essays” was first published here in March 2016. Republished with gracious permission from Modern Age (Spring/Summer 1984). The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now


[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life, trans. Peter Preuss (Indianapolis, 1980), pp. 39 f.

[2] Mark Twain, “Life on the Mississippi,” in Mississippi Writings (New York, 1982), p. 500.

[3] Leo Strauss, “The Mutual Influence of Theology and Philosophy,” The Independent Journal of Philosophy, 3 (1979), 113. Here, it is important to note that whereas Strauss is speaking chiefly about ideas, Dawson speaks about cultural structures which certainly involve ideas, but are not reducible to them. Dawson would disagree with Strauss’s notion that the chief tension is between Greek philosophy and biblical fideism. Dawson would argue that this overlooks the fact that it was only with the introduction of Christianity that the dialectic between Jerusalem and Athens assumed cultural flesh. He believed that the Renaissance represented the rebellion of Athens against Jerusalem and that the Reformation represented the rebellion of Jerusalem against Athens. But, for Dawson, this civil war only makes sense if one assumes the specific historical and cultural reality of Christendom. See his Progress and Religion (New York, 1960), pp. 143 f.

[4] Christopher Dawson, Dynamics of World History, ed. John J. Mulloy (La Salle, III., 1978), p. 239.

[5] Progress and Religion, p. 132.

[6] Christopher Dawson, Religion and the Rise of Western Culture (New York, 1958), p. 21.

[7] Christopher Dawson, Medieval Essays (New York, 1959), p. 64.

[8] Descartes, Discourse on Method, Part II, trans. Haldane and Ross (Cambridge, Eng., 1931), pp. 87 f.

[9] Dynamics of World History, p. 245

[10] Ibid., p. 355.

[11] John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (Indianapolis, 1978), p. 61.

[12] Christopher Dawson, Christianity in East & West (La Salle, Ill., 1981), p. 29.

[13] For a more detailed treatment of the issues in this article, see my essay “The Metahistorical Vision of Christopher Dawson,” in The Dynamic Character of Christian Culture: Essays on Dawsonian Themes, ed. Peter Cataldo (Washington D.C., 1984).

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