Some Biographical Notes on Christopher Dawson

September 20, 2012

Photograph of actor Sir Alec Guinness standing with historian Christopher Dawson at Boston College-sponsored birthday party for Dawson on November 8, 1959.

Culled from the pages of Bradley Birzer’s wonderful biography, Sanctifying the World: The Augustinian Life and Mind of Christopher Dawson.

Christopher H. Dawson has been called “the greatest English-speaking Catholic historian of the twentieth century.” He wrote about the cultural role of religion, the relationship between Christianity and world cultures, and the specific history and institutions of the Christian (particularly Catholic) religion. Despite this, most of his books (over twenty and numerous articles in the journals and magazines of his time) have been out of print for decades now, and graduate students today are ignorant of his work. The ignorance of academia toward Dawson is second only to its ignorance of G.K. Chesterton.


The Accidental Communities Of Dawson’s Life
The lack of an academic appointment, though, necessitated the absence of an academic community and its concomitant moral, spiritual, and financial support. This proved the most frustrating part of Dawson’s writing career, as he craved intellectual discussion and interaction. Equally important, his entire belief system informed him that while the individual human person, specifically the saint, did change history for the better, he did so as a part of — and within — much larger communities. At one level, those communities of the Church are rooted in a specific time, space, and culture. At another level, the most important community transcends time and space, calling all baptized souls as equals back to the One. Dawson knew he held full membership in the latter community.

One might also use Thomistic terms, labeling these respective communities accidental and essential. It was the former, the accidental communities, that seemed, often in his life, to elude and frustrate him. In a letter to Maisie Ward, Dawson confided that he wrote best when he felt himself a part of a purposeful community. “I have always felt the need of some common intellectual work for the church,” Dawson wrote. “First of all we had Essays in Order, and later on the Sword of the Spirit which, though not exactly intellectual, performed the same function for me.” Indeed, looking back over Dawson’s publishing history, he published his most and his best works when involved in some kind of purposeful community of friends and allies.

Dawson’s Friendships
None of this should suggest that Dawson did not have friends. He experienced numerous deep and profound friendships, mostly with writers, publishers and editors. Several of his closest friendships were with Bernard Wall, Barbara Ward, E. I. Watkin, David Jones, Harmon Grisewood, and Tom Burns, just to name an important few. Despite his often intense loneliness, he also had a loving relationship with his wife and children. Though he belonged to several social groups, as will be discussed below, he preferred to meet his friends socially one on one, rather than in large groups. His life, as Sheed wrote in his autobiography, was almost completely the life of the mind. “He lived more wholly in the mind than anyone I ever met,” judged Sheed. When Dawson encountered another, he often did so mind to mind, despite an intensely held spirituality.

Dawson’s Chronic Insomnia
The sheer amount of energy — anxious, grace-filled, or otherwise — that Dawson possessed often kept him up late into the night. He seemed to have suffered from chronic insomnia. `Just heard Kit [Dawson] put out his electric light. Poor Kit never sleeps without Sedormid & Co. [a sleep aid] and then hardly at all,” his friend David Jones reported. “Even I seem a regular bruiser with a fine swagger on me and a pipe in the hat of me compared with his health. I do wish he could be made well, he is so nice.” One daughter reported that Dawson’s “active mind could take no rest.”” There is no doubt as to the extensive activity of his mind. To write that it was highly gifted is trite and understated. “I won’t say he knew everything,” Frank Sheed conceded, “but there was nothing you could count on his not knowing.”

Dawson’s Library
His American patron, Charles Chauncey Stillman, believed that “Dawson’s knowledge was the most encyclopedic” he had “ever encountered” and understood Dawson to have a photographic memory and understated. “I won’t say he knew everything,” Frank Sheed conceded, “but there was nothing you could count on his not knowing.” His American patron, Charles Chauncey Stillman, believed that “Dawson’s knowledge was he most encyclopedic” he had “ever encountered” and understood Dawson to have a photographic memory.

One of Dawson’s most treasured possessions was the library he inherited from his uncle and then continued to build on his own. “The practice of havin}; volumes — and such splendid ones — in every room is, I think, an altogether wonderful idea: one not only has the world of learning at one’s fingertips, but at one’s elbows, coat tails, and collar button,” a visitor to the Dawson home wrote in 1954. “It is an old and hackneyed idea to have a library in one’s house; it is a new and rewarding idea to have a house in one’s library.”

McNaspy, a Jesuit who had traveled to Oxford in the late 1940s and studied under Dawson, recalled that his home in Devonshire was “a living library, with tens of thousands of volumes — old and new — on all phases of religion, itnthropology, sociology, ethnology.”

Even more impressive to the young Jesuit, Dawson “seemed never to forget anything he read.” On their first encounter, October 29, 1947, McNaspy was attending a lecture and discovered the insatiable curiosity of Dawson, who had never been to the United States, but knew every nuance of its -history. At the end of the lecture, McNaspy approached Dawson with some trepidation. “Oh, you’re from Louisiana,” Dawson said to the young priest. “Good. I’ve been wondering why it was that the see of the diocese moved from Natchitoches to Alexandria. Can you tell me?” Dawson asked. To which, McNaspy “gulped, muttered something,” and then “admitted I didn’t know, but thought it might be because Alexandria had become the larger city.”

A Truly “Catholic” Experience Of Scholarship And The Intellectual Life
Despite his personal insecurities in social relations, Dawson worked with others in a variety of small groups and in associations of friends, beginning in the early 1920s. One-on-one discussion or small-group discussion invigorated Dawson. Such interaction not only stimulated his own thought processes, but it also gave him a means by which to explore — in community — the various ideas he had developed while reading and researching on his own. Further, he believed group interaction necessary to provide a truly “Catholic” experience of scholarship and the intellectual life. God desired community, not radical individualism, Dawson argued. Just as the Church — itself the Body of Christ — went forth into the world as community, so must its citizens. As Dawson saw it, God proved this in the scriptural passages found in St. Matthew’s Gospel, known simply as the “Great Commission,” to go forth two by two and preach the gospel. This need for community proved as true in the intellectual endeavors of the Church as it did in her specific liturgical endeavors.

Dawson’s Interest In Economics
Dawson’s interest in economics as expressed in and around the theological arguments involving social stability and wealth — derived from his brief study in Sweden, his connection to LePlay’s sociology, and his respect for Catholic social teachings — continued throughout the late 1910s and 1920s. His other economic articles appeared in the Universe, a Roman Catholic newspaper, and in Blackfriars, a journal of the English Dominicans.

In each, Dawson argued for the private ownership of land by small farmers and peasants and a moral rather than utilitarian understanding of the market economy. The twin materialist philosophies of socialism and capitalism most threatened the institutions of property and the right to liberty, Dawson feared. “Socialism and Capitalism are, in fact, but two sides of the same development,” he wrote. “They represent the last stages of that revolt against the Catholic tradition, which began in the sixteenth century, and which affected by degrees every side of European civilization.”

Each “ism” is merely an attempt to replace the moral foundations of a spiritualized Christian society with the materialist laws of supply and demand, to make man economic rather than religious of cultural. Because God has given man dominion over the earth, even the material serves a spiritual and Godly purpose. Dominion, Dawson believed, does not mean domination and exploitation. Instead, man must act as a steward, receiving God’s creation as a gift to better the fallen world, through grace. “There is a mystery in all the processes by which the earth is brought to bear fruit for the support of man, and the one great end of sacrifice and spell and purification is to cooperate with the forces of nature in producing good harvests, numerous flocks and favorable seasons,” Dawson wrote. To exploit the gifts of God is nothing less than the mockery of God and the arrogant denial of His authority and His wisdom.

As with the economy as a whole, wealth is morally neutral in and of itself. It must never become an end, but only serve as a means to something greater. Ultimately, Dawson believed, wealth is only good if one uses it “as a vehicle of spiritual love.” One of the Church Fathers, St. Ambrose, had taken this argument to its logical conclusion. “What you give to the poor man is not yours but his. For what was given for the common use, you alone usurp. The earth is all men’s and not the property of the rich.”

Another Church Father, St. Basil, stated: “He who strips a man of his garments will be called a thief. Is not he who fails to clothe the naked when he could do so worthy of the same title? It is the bread of the hungry that you hold, the clothing of the naked that you lock up in your cupboard.” Each of these men followed the beliefs of the first Archbishop of Jerusalem, St. James. In his Catholic epistle, he wrote of the wealthy: “You have feasted upon earth: and in riotousness you have nourished your hearts, in the day of slaughter.”

Dawson, however, saw no contradiction between his views and those advocating a free society, properly understood. Capitalism, for Dawson, was not free. It meant the rule of the capitalists, businessmen who had gained control of the levers of political power. Instead, Dawson believed in the right to associate freely, one to another. “Economic life, as one of man’s many activities, must find its own social expression and form its own organs,” Dawson argued. “It must be ordered by the free association of individuals, not by a compulsory organization proceeding from the centre of political authority.” Only this will allow true order, as ordained by God.

For, Dawson wrote, should society divide itself between the rich and the poor, no hope can exist for an effective and stable social order in which the Church can thrive. “It is only bymore light, by spiritual leadership, and by the diffusion of ideas that such a disaster can be averted. It is from Catholics, above all, that such enlightenment should come.” Only Catholics have fully inherited the world reborn after the near death of the Graeco-Roman world. Catholics must “show the modern world that the true end of life for society, as for the individual, is something outside and above itself — the co-operation of spiritual beings in the service of God.”

Dawson And His Order Journal Circle
Inspired by their many conversations regarding art and the lack of beauty in the world, the Order men took the journal title from two sources. First, they found inspiration in the Aristotelian/Thomist understanding of order as that which recognizes its specific end or purpose and places itself in its proper sphere in the Divine Economy. Tellingly, the masthead quoted St. Thomas Aquinas from his Argument Against the Muslims.

According to established popular usage, which the Philosopher considers should be our guide in the naming of things, those are called wise who put things into right order and control them well,” the great medieval philosopher had written. Therefore, the Order men argued, all things — no matter how high or low they might seem — have a vital place in the Divine Economy, and, if ordered properly, will fulfill a necessary, Godly purpose. This, of course, would be God’s “utility,” as opposed to man’s utility.

God’s utility inherently promotes the dignity and uniqueness of each human person, created as imago Dei, while man’s utility merely serves the pleasure of the man or men in power. Nature, Aristotle wrote, makes nothing in vain. However, Aquinas added, only grace perfects nature. In other words, what God makes, God understands and loves. What man makes, man misunderstands and uses for his own purposes, purposes which at best are merely steps away from the diabolical.

Second, they took the idea of order from the eighteenth-century Anglo-Irish statesman and man of letters, Edmund Burke, who had stressed the need for the “moral imagination” — the ability to see clearly beyond the here and now into the reality of eternal forms — thus allowing one to order one’s soul, one’s present community, and one’s soul to the eternal community. Without the moral imagination, as Burke had argued, the human person lost his ability to order anything. Indeed, without the moral imagination,

A king is but a man, a queen is but a woman; a woman is but an animal; and an animal not of the highest order. All homage paid to the sex in general as such, and without distinct views, is to be regarded as romance and folly. Regicide, parricide, and sacrilege, are but fictions of superstition, corrupting jurisprudence by destroying its simplicity. The murder of a king, or a queen, or a bishop, or a father, are only common homicide; and if the people are by any chance, or in any way gainers of it, a sort of homicide much the most pardonable, and into which we ought not to make too severe a scrutiny.

The Order Men attempted to pull Burke’s eternal understanding into created time. Beauty and imagination, they believed, led to truth. “We were up against, dismayed by, the hideous aesthetic expressions of modern religion,” Burns remembered. Though traditionalist and conservative in political, the theological, and philosophical beliefs, the Chelsea group demanded radically new forms of art and expression. If all things, properly understood, had an end that was good, then all new forms of art must be embraced and sanctified or a Christian purpose. The traditional or modern form could continue, but its essence must come into conformity with grace. This Burkean notion of the moral imagination and the rightly ordered soul, Burns remembered, first came to him through Maritain’s philosophia perennis, “a living tradition, over and against materialism in its myriad forms.”

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