The High Achievement of Christopher Dawson
“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. Unfortunately, the boredom that is generated in people’s minds by academic history leads to a positive anti-historicism which seems to be becoming characteristic of modern ‘left-wing’ thought.” So Christopher Dawson wrote to G. K. Chesterton in 1932, when Dawson’s The Making of Europe was published. A historian endowed with imagination, Christopher Dawson restored to historical writing both an understanding of religion as the basis of culture and a moving power of expression. Also, Dawson was a highly learned man and a most conscientious scholar. He and his friends of the “Order” group of Catholics, in the 1930s, were not uncritical of Chesterton and Belloc’s historical views. As Mrs. Scott puts it, the “Order” writers “were to make the point that Catholicism was not always a jolly tavern, nor were Catholics necessarily medievalists, and that Europe was not always the Faith.” Dawson admired Chesterton, but “Belloc he preferred as a poet rather than as a historian, for he considered his views one-sided and unreliable, nor did he feel at home with Belloc’s particular brand of “triumphant Catholicism.”
Dawson, indeed, was a historian so honest and temperate that he was spared most of the slings and arrows commonly directed at English Catholic writers by Protestant adversaries. Yet his being a Catholic convert had a good deal to do with his not obtaining any full-time university post until, at an advanced age, he was invited to Harvard as the first Stillman Professor of Roman Catholic Studies.
Doubtless it was as well that Dawson was not enrolled in the roster of those “academic historians” who bored him. For Dawson’s writing was done in his own study, among his thousands of books. He was perhaps the last of the great historians so to labour. Dawson’s is the sort of history, marked by intellectual penetration and broad confident learning, that Francesco Guicciardini wrote in his splendid study in the Strozzi-Guicciardini palace. (Dawson’s study, though, is not preserved: Dawson and his wife, Valery, shifted somewhat eccentrically from residence to residence.) Like Guicciardini, Dawson had the mind of a statesman; though unlike Guicciardini, Dawson had no opportunity to practice statecraft. For besides being an eminent historian, Dawson was one of the principal social thinkers of this century, much influenced by Troeltsch and Le Play; and Dawson’s writings on the troubles of our time powerfully influenced T. S. Eliot.
For this reviewer, the liveliest parts of this admirable biography by Dawson’s daughter are the sketches of Dawson’s family, early surroundings, and domestic existence. Mrs. Scott shows us a Victorian and Edwardian England of which the vestiges now are being swept away. Dawson was born in 1889 at Hay Castle (today a huge bookshop), on the Welsh border; he inherited a landed property in Yorkshire, Hartlington Hall, though he disliked the duties of a landed proprietor. He accumulated a noble library—part of which he transported to Harvard during his Stillman Professorship, preferring his own books to those of the Harvard stacks. One is reminded of Robert Parkinson, “Rotter,” in Wyndham Lewis’s novel Self Condemned: “Parkinson was the last of a species. Here he was in a large room, which was a private, functional library. Such a literary workshop belonged to the ages of individualism. Its three or four thousand volumes were all book-plated Parkinson. It was really a fragment of paradise where one of our species lived embedded in his books, decently fed, moderately taxed, snug and unmolested.”
Dawson wrote many books, all of them important; this biography has sent me back to re-reading some that I turned to decades ago. In this perspective, it comes home to me that I have been saturated in Dawsonian historical studies, and that my own books reflect Dawson’s concepts. (We never happened to meet, although we had friends in common, among them Father Martin D’Arcy and T. S. Eliot.)
What was Dawson’s principal achievement? It was to show us that all civilizations arise out of religious belief: culture comes from the cult. This understanding, expressed somewhat differently by Arnold Toynbee and somewhat similarly by Eric Voegelin, now begins to dominate the history of ideas, and presently will be reflected in popular histories; Dawson’s studies are winning the day.
And it is not historians only upon whom Dawson’s insights have worked. If one turns to Robert Graves’s novel Seven Days in New Crete (American edition’s title, Watch the North Wind Rise), published in 1948, one encounters an imaginary Brief History of the collapse of civilization in the “post-Christian era” and the eventual renewal of a high culture through cultivation of religious belief. Graves’s religion of the White Goddess is a far cry from Dawson’s Christianity; but the historical analysis of the causes of social decay and the means of social renewal in Graves’s romance are Dawsonian.
The wide range of Dawson’s thought is suggested in the titles of the essays that compose The Dynamic Character: “The Metahistorical Vision of Christopher Dawson” (Russell Hittinger); “The Theology of Recapitulation” (Paul Quay); “The Maturity of Christian Culture” (Glenn Olsen); “Christopher Dawson and Baroque Culture” (R. V. Young); “Christianity, Capitalism, Marxism” (John J. Mulloy); “A Flaw in the Bishops’ Pastoral” (Richard Roach): and recollections of Dawson by Chauncey Stillman. These were papers presented at conferences of The Society for Christian Culture, which organization concerns itself chiefly with Dawson’s work.
Dr. Young expresses succinctly the method of Dawson as a philosophical historian: “For Dawson himself the broad vision of the grand sweep of history is not a means of imposing an a priori, synthetic order on the particularity of human events; it is rather a means of understanding just those particular actions of the historical process by seeing them in a larger context. The crucial factor is that in Dawson’s work the immediate and the particular are not neglected in the interest of the abstract and general. Doubtless this characteristic is ultimately attributable to Dawson’s Christianity—to his belief that a single historical event, the Incarnation, is of absolute and unique importance.”
On Easter day, 1909, young Christopher Dawson sat where Edward Gibbon had sat, on the great steps leading to the church of Santa Maria Aracoeli, In Rome; there and then Dawson determined to write a history of culture; indeed, he vowed it. “However unfit I may be,” he wrote in his journal, “I believe it is God’s will I should attempt it.”
In the corpus of his writings, Dawson succeeded in fulfilling his vow. Gibbon had cast his contemptuous glance upon the monuments of superstition; Dawson saw in those monuments the power and the truth of Christian culture.
It is altogether possible to look “upon such monuments and to despair, as Henry Adams did at Chartres, safely leaving “the Virgin in her majesty, with her three great prophets on either hand, as calm and confident in their own strength and in God’s providence as they were when Saint Louis was born. but looking down from a deserted heaven, into an empty church, a dead faith.”
But also it is possible, with Christopher Dawson, to hope. As Dawson wrote near the end of his life, “We are living in a world that is far less stable than that of the early Roman Empire. There is no doubt that the world is on the move again as never before and that the pace is faster and more furious than anything that man has known before. But there is nothing in this situation which should cause Christians to despair. On the contrary, it is the kind of situation for which their faith has always prepared them and which provides the opportunity for the fulfilment of their mission.”
The serious study of history virtually has been proscribed in American schools; It is supplanted by “social stew,” or else survives for most young people only in the form of an alleged “world history” founded unconsciously upon Voltaire’s Universal History (in which work there occurs a single mention of Christianity, in connection with Constantine’s victory at the Milvian Bridge). Yet a vigorous and imaginative living historian, John Lukacs (much influenced by Dawson) argues that history will be the chief literary form of the dawning age, and a renewed consciousness of the past may redeem us from many horrors of the present. If this renewal of the historical consciousness does come to pass, Christopher Dawson may yet be chief among its authors.
This review first appeared in The Chesterton Review, vol. 10 (1984), pp. 435–38.
Posted: April 5, 2010 in From Russell Kirk.