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Christopher Dawson: Part II.

Study and renewal of Christian culture

For anyone who wants to understand the life and work of Christopher Dawson, the biography by his daughter, Christina Scott, is a wonderful introduction - A Historian and His World. A life of Christopher Dawson, 1889-1970 (Sheed & Ward, 1984, and Transaction Publishers, 1991). Her thirteen chapters can be grouped into four periods.

1) Early period: 1889-1912. Three things stand out as important. First of all, the three regions in Great Britain in which his family either lived or often visited and were the source of Dawson's marvellous sense of place and time - Hay on Wye in Wales; Easton, near Winchester in Wessex; and Craven in Yorkshire. Secondly, his great friendship with Edward Watkin, his conversion and 'going over to Rome', January 5, 1914. Thirdly, his sense of vocation as a historian of culture which came to him on Easter Sunday in Rome, 1909, while visiting the church of the Ara Coeli, so well described by Christina Scott:

"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; 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"' (49).

2) Years of intensive study and achievement: 1912-1933. During this period, his marriage to Valerie Mills on August 9, 1916, and his writings for The Sociological Review and The Dublin Review define his life as a husband, father and scholar. If one wants to form an idea of the range of his reading and writing, Enquiries into Religion and Culture (1933) is a collection of his best essays from 1920 to 1933. But undoubtedly his first three books, The Age of the Gods, a study of the origins of culture in prehistoric Europe and the Ancient East (1928); Progress and Religion, a historical enquiry (1929); and The Making of Europe, an introduction to the history of European unity (1932), established his reputation as a scholar of the first rank--a historian of religion and culture perhaps without an equal during his generation.

3) Historian of Christian Culture and especially its present crisis: 1932-1962. Cardinal Hinsley invited him to be vice-president of The Sword of the Spirit movement in July, 1940, and editor of The Dublin Review around the same time. He delivered the Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh in 1947 and 1948 and was invited to become the first occupant of the Stillman Chair of Roman Catholic Studies in the Harvard Divinity School from 1958 to 1962.

4) The Hidden Years: 1962-1970. A series of strokes in the spring of 1962 cut short his stay at Harvard, and during the fateful years of the Second Vatican Council, he was unable to write or speak, but his mind was clear and he could still read about the revolution taking place in the Catholic world. It was the liturgical "barbarians" who upset him the most, since the Latin liturgy and the monastic way of life in its various forms were the two dynamic factors in the history of Christian culture, as he tried to show in his writings. He died on the 25th of May, 1970, the feast of Saint Bede, an Anglo-Saxon monk of whose culture Dawson had written so eloquently.

Catholic Revival of the 1930s

Christopher Dawson figured prominently in the Catholic Revival of the 1930s. After 1929, most of his books were published by Sheed and Ward. Frank Sheed during his many trips to America undoubtedly included Christopher Dawson when speaking on this topic. Indeed Dawson, together with Tom Burns, edited the series Essays in Order which was intended to introduce English readers to Catholic writers--Russian, German, English and French. In fact Dawson wrote an essay on the Catholic Revival in the first volume of the series - Jacques Maritain's Religion and Culture (1930), translated by Dawson's friend Edward Watkin.

Although Dawson was not associated with any particular group, he admired G.K. Chesterton as a journalist and a poet. Christina Scott, in her introduction to the Dawson Special Issue of The Chesterton Review, May 1983, remarks that her father was fond of quoting from The Ballad of the White Horse: "In fact one of my earliest memories is of his reading the lines: 'Gored on the Norman Gonfalon the Golden Dragon dies' (dedication).

She tells the story of Frank and Maisie Sheed taking Christopher, Valerie and their son Philip, who was then a small boy, to lunch at the Cafe Royal. Chesterton was also invited and he sang ballads to Philip, who sat next to him, to the amazement of the other guests in the restaurant.

"This must have been about 1934, not long before Chesterton's death. There was a great deal of humour and eccentricity in the literary world in those days, which it is good to recall beside more serious considerations."

In fact, Dawson wrote a letter to Chesterton June 1, 1932, which is printed in that issue of The Chesterton Review. It accompanied a copy of The Making of Europe and in it he wrote,

"Years ago, when I was an undergraduate, your Ballad of the White Horse first brought the breath of life to this period for me when I was fed up with Stubbs and Oman and the rest of them."

Years later when the editor asked Dawson to contribute an article to the Lumen Vitae issue dealing with the theme of Christian hope, Dawson singled out the Ballad of the White Horse as capturing in a marvellous way the spirit of Christian hope in the age of the conversion of the barbarian peoples (July/54).


Christopher Dawson was also a Catholic spokesman on Christian culture in the English-speaking Protestant world and a strong advocate for the recovery of Christian unity, since he felt that the desecularization of modern culture and its profound conversion could only come about through the cooperation of Protestant and Eastern Christendom. In the 30s he wrote for The Criterion, edited by T.S. Eliot, an Anglican, for the Anglican journal Christendom (Oxford) and was involved with the Quaker J.H. Oldham, and his group called 'The Moot'. In the 40s through The Sword of the Spirit movement, he became a close friend of the Anglican Bishop of Chichester, Reverend George Bell, and the later Gifford Lectures, delivered in Edinburgh, were to an audience comprised mostly of Scottish Presbyterians.

Finally in the 50s the scene shifts to America. It was probably John Mulloy who put him in touch with the editor of the Protestant journal Religion in Life, for which he wrote two book reviews and an article, all on Christian culture. In addition, as I have already noted, the Harvard Lectures from 1958 to 1962, were delivered to those aspiring to the Protestant ministry in the Harvard Divinity School.


In America, Catholic periodicals such as The Sign, Commonweal, America and Catholic World regularly reviewed his books from as early as 1930, and from 1932 onwards began to publish some of his articles. I believe the first one was 'The New Decline and Fall' in Commonweal, January 20/32, and the October 27/33 issue carried an article on Dawson by his friend Edward Watkin, introducing him to American Catholics.

Thus Catholic Canadians who read these publications and bought some of his books would have been familiar to some extent with Dawson's views on religion and culture and especially the crisis facing modern secularized civilization. I came across an interesting example of this at Madonna House, in Combermere, ON, when the person in charge of the library of Catherine de Hueck Doherty--'The Baroness'--showed me five of Dawson's books from the earlier decades. I also discovered that the Baroness had kept a copy of the Sheed and Ward Sampler, No. I, Christopher Dawson (New York 1936) with his photo on the cover.

As a matter of fact, Dawson visited Canada during his years at Harvard. Christina Scott mentions that he and her mother, Valerie, visited their oldest daughter, Juliana, during two summer vacations. She was a nun at the Assumptionist convent in Baie Comeau on the north shore of the Saint Lawrence river, and there is a letter that I remember seeing in which Dawson gives his impressions of Quebec City and the way it had kept its Catholic character. Of course, this was before Vatican II.

Dawson's analysis

The four Dawsonian notes defining the secularized mass civilization of the 20th century which I delineated in my previous article (C.I., March, 2001, pp. 33-37) were echoed in the writings of the modern popes from Leo XIII to Pius XII, and some of them also in other members of the Catholic Revival. Did not Belloc write a book on The Servile State and did not Chesterton often refer to the ideological insanity of the secular idealists with whom he crossed swords, or rather crossed pens? In any case, all of them realized the need for the desecularization of modern civilization and the recovery of spiritual vision, since without this movement of spiritual conversion the face of modern civilization is turned toward the Kingdom of Darkness, destruction and death, although it deludes itself that it is marching down the road to Light, Liberty and Life.

But one must not overemphasize the influence of the Catholic Revival on the spiritual blindness of the intelligentsia between the two World Wars. Like Woodrow Wilson after the First World War, the Allies during the last years of the Second World War were again planning to make the world 'safe for democracy'. The religion of Democracy, not the power of the Spirit, was the answer to the demonic forces of destruction that had been let loose on modern culture during the early decades of the 20th century. In a felicitous phrase which Dawson coined in 1937 in relation to the apostles of Liberalism and Pacificism, they were planning "an imaginary world for an impossible humanity" (The Catholic Attitude To War, The Tablet, March 13), ignoring the superhuman forces of evil in the universe and the burden of inherited evil passed on from generation to generation.

In January of 1944, Dawson published an article in The Dublin Review: 'Religion and Mass Civilization - The Problem of the Future', which opens with a terrific attack on the 'fool's paradise' of the democratic idealists.

"Let us face facts: nobody knows what is going to happen to our civilization. It is easy to make plans--five year plans or fifty year plans-it is easy, and attractive, to draw up programmes for the world we want after the war. But if history is any guide, there is little reason to suppose that the world we Want is the world we are going to get.... The rights and wrongs of the present struggle are so clear, the moral responsibility of Hitler and the Axis powers is so plain, that it is easy for us to take a superficial view of the situation and to imagine that when once we have disposed of the Nazis and the Japanese, the problem will be settled and the world will have been made safe for democracy. But things are not so simple as that. Hitler and his like are not the creators of the world crisis, but its creatures who have been carried to power on the crest of the wave of destruction. Even Germany herself owes her importance to her weakness as much as to her strength. She is, as it were, the volcanic node where the spiritual fissures of our civilization intersect, the point at which the ordered surface of our society is broken through by the eruption of the subterranean forces.

Hence, he concludes that the activities of the modern planners and the international reformers bear the same relation to the world crisis as the activities of a plumber or a mining engineer to a volcanic eruption. "The foundations of our world are shaken and we shall not save it by replanning the superstructure."

Need for spiritual vision

The real nature of the problem is the loss of the spiritual vision and its tremendous consequences, which he describes in a powerful passage in the middle of the article:

If a civilization is entirely concentrated on external activity, on techniques and mechanics, on means as distinct from ends, its gain in material power and control over nature is counterbalanced by a loss of harmony, a loss of balance between the inner and outer worlds of experience, which causes it to exhaust its reserves of spiritual powerand make it brittle and unstable.

We have a terrible object lesson of this before our eyes in the fate of modern Germany. No society devoted itself more successfully to the cult of technocracy, none accomplished greater feats of scientific organization. But it failed entirely to preserve its inner harmony and to protect the spiritual values which give civilization its ultimate justification. It became a mad race for unlimited power. And the result was that the social machine got out of control and the scientists and the technologists became the servants and the slaves of the party that made the strongest appeal to the crudest and most elementary mass emotions.

Now, owing to the reasons that I have already discussed, the German people is peculiarly predisposed to this kind of mass suggestion, especially when it is associated with the cult of military power. But, apart from this, the same problem exists for the whole of modern civilization, and we are none of us immune from these dangers, though they present themselves to us in less violent and shocking forms. But everywhere we see the same tendency to extroversion, the same depreciation of spiritual values and the same weakening of spiritual vitality.

In our case it has been the war of business and not the business of war that had absorbed our energies--a better and more human alternative we may say-but one which is no less far removed from the ultimate vision of reality, from what the makers of Europe, and the makers of America also, regarded as the true life.

And so once again Dawson stated the case for the recovery of spiritual vision, not the vision of John Dewey, but the vision of Saint Paul and Saint John, Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas. For power divorced from spirituality inevitably results in apocalyptic scenarios, as he points out in the conclusion. Totalitarianism and technocracy have combined to destroy the old conventions regarding the limits of practical politics, and the relations of politics and business, of public and private interests:

"The new techniques of mass power and social control cannot be abolished or forgotten, even if their misuse can be checked. We are faced with the choice between social regimentation and social regeneration, and if we do not possess the vision and the patience to realize the latter, we shall inevitably be forced to adopt the former, in the same way as we have been forced to adopt the regimentation of total war in our opposition to the totalitarian state.

"The continued existence of Western democracy depends on whether the democratic peoples are capable of dealing seriously and realistically with this fundamental issue. Social regeneration or spiritual renewal is not just a high-sounding phrase which can be left to preachers and moralists; it is the basic sociological problem of ourtime. For unless we find a way to restore the contact between the life of society and the life of the spirit, our civilization will be destroyed by the forces which it had the knowledge to create but not the wisdom to control."
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Title Annotation:cultural historian
Author:King, Edward
Publication:Catholic Insight
Article Type:Biography
Date:Apr 1, 2001
Previous Article:St. Catherine of Siena.
Next Article:Correction.

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