Friday, December 03, 2004

The Vision of Christopher Dawson

by Araceli Duque

Christopher H. Dawson has been called “the greatest English-speaking Catholic historian of the twentieth century.”1 Despite this, most of his books have been out of print for decades now, and graduate students today are ignorant of his work. A gifted, eloquent and prolific writer, Dawson wrote more than twenty books and numerous articles on the nature of Christian culture. This topic concerned him so deeply that he considered it his vocation to explore the cultural role of religion, the relationship between Christianity and world cultures, and the specific history and institutions of the Christian religion. As a result of this vast research, he emphasized the need to recover the spiritual tradition at the root of the Western European history. A life dedicated to the study of world cultures led him to claim that: “It is the religious impulse which supplies the cohesive force which unifies a society and a culture... A society which has lost its religion becomes sooner or later a society which has lost its culture.”2 Writing against the positivistic and nihilistic attitude of his age, Dawson challenges commonly held assumptions about culture and history, and unmasks Western religion of progress. His contentions have as much relevance today as they had when he wrote them. Dawson brilliantly applies Christian principles to the world of historic events, and sees the inner world of spiritual change “as the dynamic element in history and as a real world-transforming power.”3 It is his vast erudition, coupled with his singular vision and talent to present a coherent and global vision of the different aspects that dominate the changing course of history, that have led some to consider him one of the greatest historians of our age, “more realist and convincing than Spengler or Toynbee.”4

Born in 1889 into an Anglo-Catholic family in Hay Castle, Dawson was an English scholar in the true sense of the word. That is, a man of “leisure” much in the fashion of Joseph Pieper. He studied at Winchester and Trinity Colleges, Oxford, and briefly in Sweden. In 1914, he converted to Catholicism. Much like John Henry Newman, he arrived at Catholicism through the study of history. After marrying Valery Mills in 1916, he settled down to country living and the reading and writing of history. He lectured sporadically and gave conferences in the most prestigious institutions of his country as well as in the United States. We may mention the Forwood Lectures at the University of Liverpool, the Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh, University College, at Exeter, and the British Academy of London. In 1958 he was invited by Harvard University to hold a Chair of Roman Catholic studies in Divinity School. Having returned to England due to poor health, he died in May 1970, at 81 years of age.

Despite his brilliance and insight, Dawson has been surprisingly ignored in academia and beyond. One of the reasons for this neglect is perhaps his vast erudition, which makes any study of his daunting, if not intimidating. Another reason is perhaps his insistence on drawing from the Middle Ages the key to the unity of Western civilization. Nevertheless, in no case did this contention involve the condemnation of the modern world per se or the return of a historical past.

Having lived both World Wars, Dawson thought that something in Western Europe had gone terribly wrong. “The task,” Dawson thought, “is to bring Western civilization back to the right road…”5 The right road, according to Dawson, means to cultivate the spiritual foundations of society, at an individual level. The way this would be done is, first of all, through the study of culture as a whole, for Europe cannot be understood as a whole by studying its parts. It is by looking back at history that we become freer to choose the path to go. Otherwise we become slaves to past errors. Thus, one of those previous areas we could learn from is the Middle Ages because they were “the outstanding example in history of the application of Faith to Life: the embodiment of religion in social institutions and eternal forms and therefore both its achievements and failures worthy of study.”6 In fact, during the Middle Ages “to the Catholic the church was the kingdom of God on earth—in via—the supernatural society through which and in which alone humanity could realize its true end. It was a visible society with its own law and constitution which possessed divine and indefectible authority.”7

Yet, Dawson did not advocate a return to some ideal past, or the establishment of a Carolingian Imperio Sacro. He studies the Middle Ages as a means to understand the nature of Christian culture. As he says, “we cannot leave this [the study of Christian culture] to the medievalists alone, for they are to some extent themselves tied to the error by the limitations of their specialism. Christian culture is not the same thing as medieval culture. It existed before the Middle Ages began and it continued to exist after they had ended. We cannot understand Medieval culture unless we study its foundations in the age of the Fathers.”8

Insisting upon the need to understand the organic relationship between religion and culture, Dawson contends that it is through this realization that Western civilization is to survive. He was no apologist for laissez-faire Capitalism: “The Truly rich society is not the one that goes on piling up economic wealth as an end in itself, but the one that uses its wealth as the foundation on which to build a rich and many-sided culture…It is a question of how much you live rather than how much you live on.” Dawson wrote many books to explain how and why we lost the vision of these common values and the unity in our civilization. His concern was “how to preserve the spiritual inheritance of Europe and restore a common purpose to Western civilization”9 in a period when the continent was torn by internal divisions, wars and the rise of dictatorships. The world is different today than it was 50 years ago, yet the essential European dilemma he addresses remains the same. As he states, the European problem cannot be solved merely “by a drastic process of economic and political reorganization which would create a federal unity--the United States of Europe-.... Europe owes its unique character to the fact that it is and always been a society of nations, each intensely conscious of its own social personality and its own political institutions and laws, but all united by a common spiritual tradition, a common intellectual culture and common moral values…” It is only by the recovery of these common traditions and values and in the strengthening of them “that Europe can be saved.”10 Only when people have a common moral vision can they rise above the might that makes right or the law of the jungle.

Dawson was not a pessimist. As a profound Christian, he insisted on the need not to abandon hope, for history is not about impersonal forces, but is made up of thousands upon thousands of decisions made by the human person exercising free will. The true makers of history, the great men in history, are in reality the servants of events.

Their masters are the spiritual men whom the world knew not, the unregarded agents of the creative action of the Spirit. The supreme instance of this—the key to the Christian understanding of history—is to be found in the Incarnation—the presence of the maker of the world in the world unknown to the world… The Incarnation is itself in a sense the divine fruit of history—of the fullness of time—and it finds its extension and completion in the historic life of the Church.11

This intrusion of God in history, the Incarnation, marks a turning point. Thereafter man, as part of a community and a culture, is essential to Christianity like no other religion. The task, Dawson insisted, is for individual Christians today to recover historical consciousness in order to contribute decisively to the creation of a new Europe of the spirit. “The great obstacle is the failure of Christians themselves to understand the depth of that tradition and the inexhaustible possibilities of new life that it contains.”12

The work of Christopher Dawson is very relevant to those who want to understand the role of religion in Western history and the Christian roots of European history in particular. As opposed to contemporary views, his work shows how the idea of transcendence infuses history with a wider and richer interpretation of events. “Where faith is absent…man is divorced from reality. He is living in the dark and all his intellectual and political systems become distorted and unreal.”13 Christopher Dawson sheds much light on this obscure aspect of Western scholarship. It is well to remember his contention that: “on the realization that civilization is insufficient, the fate of civilization rests.” Christianity does not consist on a social reform alone but in being a light in the darkness. Civilization is a road that man undertakes, not a house to live in. His real city lies elsewhere.

Dawson’s vast erudition, his historical intuition, his profound understanding of human nature, and his vision of Western culture as a living and dynamic entity, make him an essential starting point in the study--and understanding of--the spiritual tradition at the root of Western culture. Without this, all else that follows in Western history is incomprehensible.

Books by Christopher Dawson:

The Age of Gods, 1928
Progress and Religion, 1929
Christianity and the New Age, 1931
The Making of Europe, 1932
The Spirit of the Oxford Movement, 1933
Medieval Religion and Other Essays, 1934
Religion and the Modern State, 1936
Beyond Politics, 1939
The Judgment of the Nations, 1942
Religion and Culture, 1948
Religion and the Rise of Western Culture, 1950
Understanding Europe, 1952
Medieval Essays, 1954
Dynamics of World History, 1957
The Movement of World Revolution, 1959
The Historic Reality of Christian Culture, 1960
The Crisis of Western Education, 1961
The Dividing of Christendom, 1967
Mission to Asia, 1966
The Formation of Christendom, 1967
The Gods of Revolution, 1972
Religion and World History, 1975


1. Daniel Callahan, et al., « Christopher Dawson, » Harvard Theological Review. 66, (1973), p. 167.
2. Christopher Dawson. Progress and Religion (1929; New Jersey: Doubleday Image, 1960)
3. Ibid. Dynamics of World History. (Delaware: ISI Books, 2002), p. 251.
4. Harry Elmer Barnes. The American Historical Review. 1978.
5. The Judgment of the Nations. (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1942), p.71.
6. Medieval Essays. (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Co., 1959), p. 53f.
7. Dynamics… p. 294.
8. The Crisis of Western Education. (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1961), p. 131.
9. Understanding Europe, (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1953).p. 45.
10. Ibid., p. 223.
11. Religion and the Modern State. (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1935), p. 97.
12. Understanding Europe, p. 255.
13. Religion and the Modern State, p. 101.

Note about the author:

After receiving MA in history from Villanova University, Araceli Duque is a PhD candidate of European Studies at the University Institute Ortega y Gasset, Madrid, Spain. Her main research interests are modern European intellectual history, history of ideas, philosophy, and Russian literature and history. She currently resides in Seville, Spain.