Christopher Dawson stood as an antagonist against the conformity of progressive and professional history, and he rightly noted that such history negates not just personality but the very essence of creativity itself…
Abroad, of course, things are worse this summer than last. Though amazingly enough, little reported in the news, the current president has dropped almost as many bombs on the Middle-east in his first seven months as president as the previous executive did over his eight years. Additionally, the threat (how real, remains to be seen) of the use of nuclear weaponry has the peoples and countries of the Pacific on edge. As of this writing, China has threatened to declare war on the United States if she launches a preemptive strike against North Korea, but to proclaim neutrality if North Korea strikes first. While nothing overt may come of the entire conflict, it will be difficult to trust China, anytime soon. Certainly, the United States has not had the best relationship with the Asian superpower over the past several decades, but we have at least been civil with one another, even while arguing over the South Sea and creating artificial islands. The prospect of war with China, even if a remote possibility, is a disturbing one, unleashing—at least in my mind—the kind of terrors the nuclear threat of the Soviets presented in my childhood.
Looking for some solace and comfort in all of this, as we approach the third decade of the twenty-first century, I turned to one of the single greatest thinkers of the previous one, Christopher Dawson (1889-1970): historian, economist, sociologist, anthropologist, and Anglo-Welsh Catholic man of letters.
Though Dawson is remembered most for being a professional historian, he was really, first and foremost, a poet of historical writing and thought. Not in the least arrogant (in fact, quite the opposite), he tried to explain this concept in one of his essays on the nature of metahistory and the metahistorian, terms that have been hijacked and destroyed by the inanities of the academic left since Dawson first employed them. “Metahistory is concerned with the nature of history, the meaning of history, and the cause and significance of historical change,” he wrote in 1951. As Dawson himself recognized, however, metahistory, if employed improperly, might easily descend into the historicism of Hegel. Dawson claimed for himself, however, the tradition of metahistory as first developed by St. Augustine of Hippo and, fourteen centuries later, contained by Alexis de Tocqueville. The former, led by Hegel, saw history as a type of God, while the latter recognized that God guided history, remaining transcendent over it. He could, however, as sovereign of time and space, enter into history itself in the Incarnation, thus sanctifying it and his own creation and artistry.
While there was a false metahistory—claiming the apotheosis of history itself, thus making a false god and a false idol out of the events of time and, equally dangerous, claiming history had a purpose, in and of itself—there was the equal danger presented by professional history, making the historian merely a recorder of events. As such, professional history erased the very personality of the human person, making him nothing more than a mere technician, though a highly-educated one. He would become, even with the most advanced degrees, a cog in the vast machine of academia, attenuating and then dismissing his own judgment and adopting something bland and tapioca-like. Certainly, he would not be liberal in the sense of liberal education. “The mastery of these techniques will not produce great history,” Dawson lamented, “any more than the mastery of metrical techniques will produce great poetry.” The twentieth-century, true to form, even in what should be its most liberal manifestations, had managed to denigrate the creativity of the unique individual. As with all great art, real history demands “intuitive understanding, creative imagination, and finally a universal vision transcending the relative limitations of the particular field of historical study.”
As the greatest thinkers of the twentieth century—such as Dawson, Russell Kirk, Robert Nisbet, Sister Madeleva Wolff, and others recognized—academia, far from resisting modernity, had embraced it fully, thus contributing to the very problems it had been designed to fight. Compartmentalized and specialized, desperately attempting to prove its “utility,” the modern university had become the very inversion of its medieval origins. It, diabolically, seeks conformity, not creativity.
Dawson’s logic regarding history, however, also places limitations on what we should expect. Just as humanity and human history have revealed only a few great architects, poets, playwrights, artists, and sculptors, so, too, should we recognize that few great historians will arise. Indeed, saints seem to arise more frequently than great historians. Of course, the same has been true of all excellence in life. As Dawson’s friend and ally, Theodor Haecker, well understood, while there were many Caesars, there was only one Virgil.
Since the progressives came to dominate the American history profession, however, the field has produced not greatness but sameness. They have sought not the best of their students, but the homogenization of their students. Indeed, just as these masters have shown to have little regard for the free will of their students, their students have shown little regard for free will at any level, but especially in their own conclusions following their academic research. With thought following action, the very blandness of academic history has revealed how utterly inhumane the subject has become when trying to find the depths of free will, choosing, instead, a hesitant pre-destinarianism.
Even in the twenty-first century—over a century after the corruption of the field—this should seem obvious. The best historical writers—such as David McCullough, Paul Johnson, and Joseph Pearce—have come not from academia, but have appeared next to academia. As true poets, these biographers have struggled to understand the deepest meanings and purposes of their subjects. They have made their subjects more real, not less. More complicated, not less. More human, not less.
Dawson stood not just as an antagonist against the conformity of progressive and professional history, but he also rightly noted that such history negates, by its very existence, not just personality but the very essence of creativity itself.
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