Archive for the ‘Christopher Dawson’ Category


Beyond Politics 3 – Christopher Dawson

February 13, 2013
Society, says Burke, is not an artificial legal construction, it is a spiritual community, "a partnership in all science, a partnership in all art, a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead and those who are yet to be born."

Society, says Burke, is not an artificial legal construction, it is a spiritual community, “a partnership in all science, a partnership in all art, a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead and those who are yet to be born.”

Moral rearmament to serve the cause of the nation is not the Church’s primary and essential task. Religion serves a higher creed than man can comprehend. Again and again we see the prophets, and One greater than the prophets, announcing the doom of their people, when on the short view they should have been devoting their energies to restoring the national morale. Certainly no modern government, whether totalitarian or democratic, would tolerate the behaviour of Jeremiah the prophet at the time of his nation’s need: in fact in most countries today his treatment would be condemned as unduly mild, and he would be executed out of hand as an agent of enemy propaganda.

Yet on the long view Jeremiah is justified even on national grounds, since, thanks to him and his like, his people still survive while the successful powers to which they bowed their neck have one after another gone down to the dust. Better for Israel, some may say, if they had shared the lot of other peoples and not continued to drag their weary way down twenty-five centuries of suffering. But that is where history, like religion, transcends the order of culture and enters the penumbra of divine mystery.

And the Church, no less than the ancient prophets, is the servant of this higher order. She is the hierophant of the divine mysteries, not the teacher of human science nor the organizer of human culture. But if it is not the Church’s business to organize culture, neither is it that of the State. It is an intermediate region which belongs to neither the one nor the other, but which has its own laws of life and its own right to self-determination and self-direction.

To restore order in this sphere is the greatest need of our civilization, but it can only be achieved by a power of its own order, that is to say by the power of ideas and the organization of thought. But it is not possible to do this by any kind of philosophic or scientific dictatorship, as was the dream of the idealists from Plato to the present day, for the intellectual world is as divided as the religious world, and philosophy has lost its ancient prestige and its hegemony over the other sciences.

Nor is it possible to restore spiritual order by a return to the old humanist discipline of letters, for that is inseparable from the aristocratic ideal of a privileged caste of scholars. A democratic society must find a correspondingly democratic organization of culture, which should be distinct from political democracy, but parallel to it in another field of activity. At the present day, when everyone is educated a little, and when no one can master the whole realm of knowledge, it would be invidious to distinguish the scholars from the unlearned, especially since under modern conditions a man may attain vast scientific knowledge without any corresponding breadth of culture.

In these circumstances it seems to me that the form of organization appropriate to our society in the field of culture as well as in that of politics is the party — that is to say a voluntary organization for common ends based on a common “ideology”.

But is an organization of this kind conceivable in our divided and disordered civilization? That is the vital question on which the future of democracy depends.

The totalitarian parties, as I have pointed out, owe their success to their achievement in this field — the organization of national life and culture outside the political sphere. But since this function is not really consistent with the political basis of their activity, they transcend politics in both directions — by aiming at a super-political end and by using sub-political methods of violence and lawlessness in order to attain it. They become persecuting sects, like the Jacobins before them, rather than free organs of public opinion.

Now it is the fundamental principle of the old English school of political thought that the national society and national culture transcend politics. It is common both to the Left and the Right, and was insisted on by Tom Paine as strongly as by Edmund Burke. Government, says the former, is no sacred mystery, it is simply a national association for carrying on the public business — res publica — and the greater part of the order that reigns among mankind is not the creation of governments, but is due to the free activity of the civilized community.

Society, says Burke, is not an artificial legal construction, it is a spiritual community, “a partnership in all science, a partnership in all art, a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead and those who are yet to be born.”

But while English thinkers, whether Liberal or Conservative, recognized that society transcends the State, they did not realize the need for any deliberate organization of the nonpolitical social functions. They believed that these things could be safely left to nature and to the free activity of individuals or, alternatively, to nature and social tradition. They did not see that some form of social control is necessary in the economic world in order to protect the individual and society itself from exploitation, and that some social discipline is no less necessary in the world of culture to save the national tradition from disintegration and destruction.

Today the liberal individualism and the conservative traditionalism of the nineteenth century have alike disappeared, and the policy of laissez faire, which has already been abandoned in economics, is rightly being abandoned in culture also. Nevertheless, this need not involve the abandonment of the traditional English principle of the limitation of the State to its own political sphere. It is still possible to create an organization of national culture which would not be directly dependent on the State or on any political party; and I believe that a society so organized would be not only more free but in the last resort also stronger than a totalitarian State which is obliged to narrow and even impoverish its culture in order to keep it completely dependent on political control.

But in order to do this it is necessary to have a clear consciousness of our aim, and to pursue it with as much determination and perseverance as the servants of the State have shown in their domain. Hitherto the children of this world have shown themselves not only wiser but also more capable of self-discipline and devotion than the children of light. The Machiavellian virtue of the statesman, low as it may be, has been a real thing, whereas the higher ideals of the humanist and the philosopher have been bloodless phantoms which were not strong enough to arouse passionate devotion or effectual action.

Yet few would deny that it is possible to serve the community in other fields than politics, or would hold that such a vocation is intrinsically less capable of arousing devotion and enthusiasm. What has been lacking hitherto is any satisfactory basis for common action, and for lack of this there has been an appalling waste and misdirection of the highest spiritual resources of the community which have been left to run wild or to expend themselves in an unworthy servitude to economic interests.

What is necessary is some organization which is neither political nor economic, and which will devote itself to the service of national life and the organization of national culture. At the present time in democratic countries the realm of culture has become a no-man’s-land which is given up to anarchic individualism and at the same time invaded from different directions by the organized powers of the State, and financial capitalism.

Thus the press, the cinema, and the theatre, which exert such an enormous influence on public opinion and popular culture, are as yet almost free in democratic countries from any direct interference by the State: yet their freedom is limited and their cultural value diminished in every direction by the financial motives and the capitalist organization that determine their character. The field of education, on the other hand, is relatively free from this slavery to economic forces. But here the State has already acquired almost complete control, and it would seem as though the power which the State has thus obtained over the mind of the community must inevitably bring about the triumph of a totalitarian order.

Nevertheless, there remains a free element, a survival of the humanist tradition, which gives even our bureaucratic educational machine a leaven of freedom and liberal ideals. It is easy to condemn the snobbery and Philistinism of the English public-school system. Yet one must admit, I think, that it does stand, however incompletely, for this principle of the service of the national culture, apart from any political or economic motive; so that one is conscious of the presence of something which comes neither from State organization nor the power of money, but which is the fruit of the unbroken corporate tradition of centuries of national life.

It is inevitable that under existing social conditions some of them should have acquired a definitely aristocratic character as the preserve of a wealthy and privileged class, but this is by no means always the case. The school which I know best, and which is in a sense the archetype of the whole system, has never had any marked aristocratic or plutocratic character. It has always maintained its original function of training scholars who would be good servants of the community. In this it has been faithful to the spirit of its founder, the good chancellor, who was the trusty servant alike of King and Pope, of State and Church, of England and Christendom.

And thus it has preserved its place through all the social and political changes of five centuries as an independent spiritual organ of the community, a living example of an organized cultural institution which is neither the creature of the State nor the servant of the financial powers that dominate democratic society.

Now if it is possible for a school to have an independent cultural tradition and, as it were, a soul of its own, why should not the same principle of free organization be applied to other fields of culture which at present lie derelict and which otherwise will become the drill fields and machine yards of a totalitarian State?

The main cause is the absence of any spiritual power to take the work in hand and the lack of any clear sense of national aims and social responsibility in matters of culture. But the time has come when we can no longer afford to neglect the non-political and non-economic sides of national life or to leave them to the unorganized activity of individuals.

The new totalitarian parties and regimes have discovered that nations do not live by bread alone and they have attempted to capture the soul of a nation by violence and to use the total psychological force of the community in their relentless drive towards world power. Thus what is at stake is not the literary culture of a privileged minority, but the spiritual life of the people. It is only by the free organization of national life, according to the spirit of our institutions and traditions, but in new forms adapted to twentieth-century conditions, that we can save, not only our national being, but also the ways of life, the forms of thought and the spiritual values which are the principles of Western Civilization.


Beyond Politics 2 – Christopher Dawson

February 12, 2013
George Frederick Watts, "The Minotaur," 1885, oil, Tate Gallery, Britain. Watts' painting is a mythopoetic commentary upon W.T. Stead's exposée regarding the Victorian traffic in child prostitution, "The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon," Pall Mall Gazette 6 July 1885. In tandem, in painting and in text, Watts and Stead excoriate human viciousness, "the greed and lust associated with modern civilizations." (Hare) Stead's social commentary pulls no punches and addresses the problem most aggressively. Watts' painting is perhaps more restrained: the man-beast holds crushed beneath its left hand a little bird (symbolic for a little girl), as he stares longingly at the arriving ship, the arrival of the annual Athenian tribute.

George Frederick Watts, “The Minotaur,” 1885, oil, Tate Gallery, Britain. Watts’ painting is a mythopoetic commentary upon W.T. Stead’s exposée regarding the Victorian traffic in child prostitution, “The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon,” Pall Mall Gazette 6 July 1885. In tandem, in painting and in text, Watts and Stead excoriate human viciousness, “the greed and lust associated with modern civilizations.” (Hare) Stead’s social commentary pulls no punches and addresses the problem most aggressively. Watts’ painting is perhaps more restrained: the man-beast holds crushed beneath its left hand a little bird (symbolic for a little girl), as he stares longingly at the arriving ship, the arrival of the annual Athenian tribute.

We have behind us a long tradition of freedom; not, it is true, of democracy in the modern sense, but of individual liberty and corporate self-government. Our parliamentary institutions are not the artificial creation of liberal idealism, as in so many countries; they are an organic part of the life of the nation, and they have grown up century by century by the vital urge of social realities. We are too old to change this tradition for some imported ideology. If parliamentary institutions are irreconcilable with a totalitarian party regime (and I believe they are) then the new system is not for us. We must find some other method of reorganizing and strengthening the nation.

The British parliamentary system is of its very nature non-totalitarian, and its success through the ages has been largely due to the limited character of its aims and its powers. It has been the monarchy rather than parliament that has been the symbol and guarantee of national unity, and the monarchy, even more than parliament, depends for its very existence on its limited character. But what has always given the English system its unique strength and social solidity has been the existence of a social unity behind the monarchy and behind parliament, a unity of which they are the political organs, but which itself transcends politics. It is this unity which makes it possible for our party system to function on a basis of common understanding without dividing the nation into two hostile camps with mutually exclusive ideologies.

In the past this unity was taken for granted: it was an unconscious social fact arising out of the natural structure of society, from the life of the people and the national tradition of culture. But to-day not only is this structure changing, it is also becoming self-conscious owing to the advance in psychological knowledge and the organization of sociological and economic research. And it is on this ground, rather than in the field of politics in the strict sense, that it is necessary to plan and organize, if any fundamental reform is to be made in the life of the nation.

It is true that the totalitarian States have attempted this fundamental work of social reconstruction by direct political action. But by so doing they have, as we have seen, made the party into a super-political organization which has some of the characteristics of a religious society, and at the same time they have destroyed personal freedom and narrowed the national tradition of culture by subordinating the higher super-political activities of the community to the intolerant and rigid tyranny of political partisanship.

In the past Western society was made up of a number of interpenetrating orders, political, economic, cultural and religious, each of which was either autonomous or possessed a considerable degree of de facto independence. The political order was only a part, and in theory at least not the most important part, of the social structure, and within the political order itself the party held a relatively humble and unhonoured place. The idea that the spiritual life of society should be ruled and guided by a political party would have appeared to our ancestors a monstrous absurdity. The spiritual order possessed its own organization, that of the Church, which was held to transcend all the rest in importance and which exercised a profound influence on human life from the cradle to the grave.

But the time has long passed since the Church held undisputed sway over the mind and conscience of western culture, and the loss of Christian unity has brought with it a loss of spiritual order and of the sense of spiritual values in society at large. First, with the Renaissance, secular culture emancipated itself from the tutelage of the Church and created an independent order of humanism and science. Then with the industrial revolution economic life emancipated itself from the control of the State and created the vast system of financial, commercial and industrial relations which we know as the capitalist order.

Thus there have arisen outside the traditional historic organizations of Church and State these two independent orders to which western civilization owes a vast increase in its material and spiritual resources, but which on account of this lack of organization and social direction, have become centrifugal and disintegrating forces. This first became plainly evident in regard to economics, and it was here that the first conscious attempt was made to restore unity of direction and bring the economic order under the control of the community. This was the origin of Socialism and, in a sense, of all the totalitarian movements, for the attempt to unify the political and the economic orders led almost inevitably to the confusion of social categories and the attempt to extend State control to every sphere of social life.

Even in England, I believe that the decline of our political system dates from the day when the Trade Unions renounced their non-political ideal of being masters in their own house and aspired to be masters also in the House of Commons. For this led inevitably to the supersession of the Liberal Party, which was a vital organ of English political life, and the intrusion of a new principle which if logically carried out would involve a totalitarian order. For if all the workers are embodied in the unions, and if the T.U.C. decides the policy of its parliamentary candidates, it is obvious that the English party system could no longer exist, and the whole political order would be subordinated to an organization based on industry and governed by purely economic considerations.

Actually, of course, these possibilities have failed to materialize and the Labour Party, instead of absorbing the political in the economic order, has helped to bring some measure of social responsibility and control into the capitalist system. Nevertheless, the creation of a party that has a non-political economic basis and introduction of the principle of class war into the party system have undoubtedly weaker and narrowed the basis of agreement on which that system rests, and there can be little doubt that an attempt to realize the full socialist programme by constitutional means would strain the parliamentary system to break point.

But if it is dangerous to attempt the fundamental reorganization of economic life purely political means, it is far more danger to bring politics into the order of culture, for this means the invasion of the human by the hand of power. This is the original sin of every totalitarian system, and this is why the English mind revolts instinctively at the idea of the forcible imposition by the State of any kind of ideology.

When Humanism emancipated secular culture from ecclesiastical control, it applied the traditional mediaeval ideal of the freedom of spiritual power to the realm of science and art. It sought not the destruction of the spiritual power, but the creation of an independent spiritual power in the natural order; and since then the freedom of scholarship and science and art has been the keystone of western culture.

But the republic of letters was never a lawless one. Citizenship could only be obtained by a long and toilsome discipline which made the scholars no less a closed and privileged order than the clerics of the mediaeval Church.

But modern civilization, while retaining the ideal of freedom of thought, and even extending it to regions which were formerly outside its domain, has at the same time destroyed the framework of social and intellectual discipline on which this freedom rested. With the growth of popular education at one end of the scale, and the development of scientific specialization at the other, the intellectual order dissolved into a vast and formless chaos controlled only by the power of the state over education and the power of capital over the press. Where these powers do not operate, the strange shadow world of the intelligentsia remains the last refuge of cultural independence like the last spot of dry land on which man and beast crowd together in uneasy fellowship before the rising floods.

Unless some order can be brought back into this chaos, nothing can save it from the ideological police of a totalitarian State, and there is already no lack of evidence of what that involves in the loss of spiritual freedom and the lowering of cultural standards. Better perhaps that the State should organize our culture than that it should be left to the mercenary leadership of the popular press and the financial exploitation of its intellectual and moral weakness. But it is a choice of evils, either of which is equally hostile to the freedom and humanity of western culture.

But what of the other spiritual power which still survives and still maintains its ancient claim to be the guide and teacher of mankind — I mean the Church? There is no doubt that the Church is by its nature and tradition better fitted to deal with problems of the spiritual order than the State can ever be. “Let us not forget,” wrote Nietzsche, “in the end what a Church is and especially in contrast to every `State’, a Church is above all an authoritative organization which secures to the most spiritual men the highest rank, and believes in the power of spirituality so far as to forbid all grosser appliances of authority. Through this alone the Church is under all circumstances a nobler institution than the State.”

Nevertheless it is today impossible to return to the undifferentiated unity of medieval culture. The rise of humanism and the modern sciences has created an autonomous sphere of culture which lies entirely outside the ecclesiastical domain and in which any direct intervention on the part of the Church would be resented as an intrusion. Moreover, the Church is herself weakened by religious division and invaded on her own territory by the forces of anti-clericalism and paganism, and by the unlimited claims of the totalitarian State. The greatest service the Church can render to western civilization at the present time is to keep her own inheritance intact and not to allow her witness to be obscured by letting herself be used as the instrument of secular powers and politics.

It is true that the present crisis is producing constant appeals to the Church to use her influence in the cause of “moral rearmament”. There is a tendency, especially among the English-speaking Protestant peoples, to treat religion as a kind of social tonic that can be used in times of national emergency in order to extract a further degree of moral effort from the people. But apart from the Pelagian conception of religion that this view implies, it is not wholly sound from the psychological point of view, since it merely heightens the amount of moral tension without increasing the sources of spiritual vitality or resolving the psychological conflicts from which the society suffers.


Beyond Politics 1– Christopher Dawson

February 11, 2013
For the most disturbing feature of the new situation is the growing inhumanity of our civilization. It is not that we are personally less humane: on the contrary we are horrified at the cruel sports and cruel punishments of our forefathers in the not remote past. It is the system itself which is indifferent to humanity and which forces its servants and masters to be indifferent also.

For the most disturbing feature of the new situation is the growing inhumanity of our civilization. It is not that we are personally less humane: on the contrary we are horrified at the cruel sports and cruel punishments of our forefathers in the not remote past. It is the system itself which is indifferent to humanity and which forces its servants and masters to be indifferent also.

Written at the close of WWII, this essay warns of the rise of a democratic totalitarianism no less dangerous that the fascist totalitarianism so recently defeated. We live in an age of school shootings and a secular system itself which is indifferent to humanity and the human person. Christopher Dawson saw it coming. Some today still refuse to see it and babble on about “gun control” as we hurtle towards an abyss.


Four years ago I wrote a small book on Religion and the Modern State which was an attempt to reconsider the problem of the’ relations of Church and State as they were affected by the rise of the new political ideologies. I pointed out that the issue was not merely a conflict between Democracy and Dictatorship or between Fascism and Communism. It was a change in the whole social structure of the modern world, which affects religion and culture as well as politics and economics. The forces that make for social uniformity and the mechanization of culture are no less strong in England and the United States than in Germany and Italy, so that we might expect to see the rise of a democratic totalitarianism which would make the same universal claims on the life of the individual as the totalitarian dictatorships of the Continent.

I think that events have justified this diagnosis of the situation and that few people to-day will question the existence of this totalitarian trend even in our own country. It has indeed become the most vital and urgent problem of our time, how this trend is to be reconciled with the traditions of liberty and individualism on which not only the English State but the whole fabric of English culture and social institutions has been built.

Everybody recognizes the need for national unity and national organization, but there are few who realize how fundamental are the changes that this involves in our national ways of life and ways of thought, and fewer still are prepared to pay the price. For if we copy the methods of the dictatorships in a merely negative and defensive spirit, we shall lose our liberty and the distinctive virtues of the English social system without gaining any new inspiration or vision. While if we go the whole way and attempt to base our organization on the positive creed of a political party, we shall run the risk of producing a social conflict which will divide the nation instead of uniting it.

It is easy to take a pessimistic view of the situation and to say that England is now paying the price for the material prosperity and economic domination that she has enjoyed for the last century, and that she must now yield place to the younger and more ruthless powers that have learned in a hard school to adapt themselves to the new conditions. But even if this be true, it is no excuse for an attitude of passive resignation. The change we are witnessing is something much greater than the rise and decline of particular States. It is a transformation of civilization such as the world has never known before, and it affects every nation and every continent, whether they are young or old, whether they are weak or powerful.

What is it that is happening? The old civilization of Western Europe which was so deeply rooted in the Christian and Mediterranean past has produced something different to itself which has no roots in the experience of our race — a marvelous, mechanical monster that threatens to devour the culture that created it.

For the most disturbing feature of the new situation is the growing inhumanity of our civilization. It is not that we are personally less humane: on the contrary we are horrified at the cruel sports and cruel punishments of our forefathers in the not remote past. It is the system itself which is indifferent to humanity and which forces its servants and masters to be indifferent also.

We see this in detail in the case of the motor-car which exists to serve human pleasure and convenience and yet inevitably seems to bring mutilation and death to large numbers of harmless people. We see it on a large scale in the way that the modern industrial system, which exists to serve human needs, nevertheless reduces the countryside to smoking desolation and involves whole populations in periodic troughs of depression and scarcity. But we see it in its most extreme and devilish form in modern warfare which has a nightmare quality about it that is hardly reconcilable with a human origin or purpose.

When we saw the recent preparations for war — the gas masks, the digging of shelters and the preparation for the wholesale evacuation of the population from the towns — it seemed no longer to have anything in common with the old warfare of armies set in array and the human thrill of battle. It was rather as though a human ant heap was threatened with destruction by some gigantic impersonal force.

If the world abandons itself to the domination of these inhuman powers, it matters little which nation or which group of States is successful, for this power is alien to every nation, and its victory means defeat for humanity as a whole.

The militant ideologies of the Left and the Right may, no doubt, help nations to endure the shock with fortitude and even with hope, but they are like drugs which render the nerves insensible to the pain of the operation without in any way changing its character. For these gigantic forces seem to demand some superhuman power, some pure intelligence, to govern them, if they are not to become devilish instruments of destruction; and the more completely a nation, surrenders itself to the blind urge to power, the more easily are they carried away. by the relentless drive of events which is pressing European civilization towards disaster.

The fact is that the same fundamental issues confront all the peoples of Europe, and the Fascist States are no more anxious than the democratic ones to make a complete break with the past. On the contrary, they have taken their stand in the maintenance of national traditions and national culture, and the traditions of Latin and Germanic culture are really no more adapted to mass organization and mechanization than are our own. It is only in the region of politics that their tradition of authoritative government and, military discipline have made it easier for them than for ourselves to accept a totalitarian system, but this is not altogether an advantage since it causes the real nature of the change to be obscured by the romance of ideological myths and passionate loyalty to the personality of a leader.

But we have to face these problems in cold blood without any passionate belief in an inspired leader or a new gospel. It is therefore harder for us to take decisions, harder for us to choose a definite path, while on the other hand we still have room to look around and to learn from the mistakes of those who have attempted to solve the problem by drastic revolutionary methods.

Now the existing totalitarian regimes have all originated in the same manner: viz, by the capture of the State machine by a political party which has then proceeded to reorganize the whole life of the community according to its programme and ideology. Under the regime of parliamentary democracy, the State had become a neutral impersonal organization which was operated by whatever party or combination of parties happened to predominate at the moment, and since rival parties and rival interests tended, with universal suffrage and representation, to cancel one another out, the democratic State was incapable of deciding fundamental issues and the whole government became weak and inept.

Fascism and Communism owed their triumph to a policy of revolutionary action which restored to the State a single will and purpose. But in order to do this they narrowed the basis of citizenship at the same time as they widened the range of political action. Alike to the Communist and the National Socialist the Community transcends the State, and the party is not a cog in the machinery of government, but the inspired organ of the Community or the nation and it possesses a divine absolute right to override legal and constitutional restrictions and to use the State as a means of realizing its super-political ideals. For the State exists only to serve the people; and the Party, or the Leader of the Party, is the only authentic embodiment of the will ‘of the people.

Thus the new parties have little in common with their democratic predecessors. They are more like a religious order which exacts total obedience from its members and which trains them by a strict discipline to become the instruments of the corporate purpose. But while a religious order is always in the last resort the servant of the Church, the totalitarian party is the master of the State and bends it to its purpose. It is in fact more like a Church than a State, since its membership is based on the profession of a creed or ideology and on faith in the gospel of the leader rather than on citizenship. Nevertheless, though the Party is above the State and assumes super-political functions, there is an inevitable tendency for it to become fused with it sooner or later.

Alike in Russia, Italy and Germany, it is no longer possible to distinguish the party from the government, so that the upshot of the revolution in all three cases has been an immense increase in the power of the State and in the range of its activities. Never perhaps in the history of the world has the State been so omnipotent and its power so highly concentrated in the hands of the ruler as in the three great totalitarian States today. There have been vast empires in the past, and emperors and dictators who seemed to possess unlimited power over their subjects, but never before have they been able to mobilize all the political, economic and psychological resources of the ,community and turn them to whatever end they chose.

De Maistre wrote in a striking phrase of the revolutionary will of the First French Republic as “a battering ram with twenty million men behind it “, and this is ten times more true of the will to power of the new totalitarian State, for apart from the greater population and wealth of the new States, their mechanization and their intensive organization of intelligence and propaganda give them a power of which earlier ages had no conception.

Now the problem which confronts us today is how the democratic States are to make themselves strong enough to exist in face of the new powers, without abandoning the principles of personal liberty and tolerance on which they are based. And it is a problem on which the future of the world depends, for if the three great western democracies, England, France, and the United States, fail to preserve and maintain their tradition of freedom, no other powers in the world will be strong enough to do so, and the whole spirit of western civilization will be changed.

From the western political standpoint the regime of the totalitarian party State represents a brutal simplification of social life, a one-sided solution which ruthlessly sacrifices some of the highest cultural values to the cult of power. Yet this should not prevent us from recognizing that its achievements are genuine ones or from admitting the weaknesses and vices of our own liberal democratic system and the tendencies towards social degeneration which exist in democratic society.

If Western civilization is to be saved it is necessary to find some way of removing the divided aims, the lack of social discipline and the absence of national unity that are the weaknesses of democracy, without falling under the tyrannis of dictatorship and the fanatical intolerance of a totalitarian party. And we cannot do this by politics alone.

No constitutional change will touch the roots of our weakness, for it is the life of society and not merely the government of society that needs reordering. It is through their realization of that truth that the dictators have earned their success. They have not been content to govern and tax and legislate, they have aspired to change the spirit of a people, to rescue it from apathy and despair, to give it faith in its mission and hope in its future. And if they have done it by crude and brutal methods, by the sacrifice of individual freedom and by the suppression and oppression of minorities, they would say that it is better to do it so than not to do it at all.

But we on our side must ask whether it is not possible for a free nation to do all this without losing its freedom and by methods which do not conflict with the social traditions of our race. After all, Communism had behind it the tradition of autocratic violence which had already revolutionized the Russian State in the days of Peter the Great, while National Socialism can appeal to the tradition of a State that was built up by military discipline and the ideal of a people in arms.


Christopher Dawson on Sanctifying the Pagan – Bradley J. Birzer

September 25, 2012

The sign of the cross was used as a sacred symbol in one form or another by many pagan peoples, long before the emergence of Christianity. In Paganism this symbol had mythical significance. According to the researchers, the cross had originated among the ancient Babylonians of Chaldea, and was used as a symbol of the pagan god Tammuz. Since the Bronze Era, the sign of the cross was used by many tribes in Europe as a symbol of consecration for the newborns. Also, the symbol of the cross was used among Aryan civilization as a representation of mystical light of the pagan gods or sacred fire and even the sun. The ancient scientists believed that the middle of the universe was where the earth meets the sky, and the four arms of the cross indicated the four cardinal points

While these comments concern Sanctifying the Pagan, they had particular import for me as I struggle to evangelize the gospel to openly hostile derisive anti-theists, those who echo Christopher Hitchens in his book title “God is Not Great” and “Religion ruins everything.” A brief moment of dialogue with one last week as I told her about watching the Republican Convention where I had learned that Mitt Romney had served as a bishop in his Church. I had been impressed by the stories of his works of charity. This was greeted with a snarky snort of disbelief.

I followed up later with an exchange on the work of Catholic priests and their acts of charity. “That’s all bullshit.” I was told. As someone who for most of his life has been imprisoned in selfish ego that rarely thought beyond himself, I am in awe of any work of charity, not the least the mindset that promotes such things. And here was a woman who was telling me that not only did she not believe in it but couldn’t even see it. Redeem this, asshole, the sign said.

I must tell you I love my life or what little sliver I still have of it. The greater error would be to retire and ponder the wonderful thoughts of Christopher Dawson. It would be so easy not to have my home assistant in my life with her cynical liberal ways and “lapsed Catholic” outlooks. I learn a lot from her.


The Christian must redeem not just one person or one culture, but all persons, cultures, times, and places. Christianity must never be exclusive or particular, but instead welcoming and universal. Christianity was, Dawson explained, “not conceived as a human society but rather as a new creation, reborn in Christ and destined to extend beyond the boundaries of Israel to the Gentiles and the whole human race.” [Dawson, Formation of Christendom]

Dawson’s central theological tenet came from St. Paul’s Letter to the Colossians, the first chapter, in which he explains that all things come from the One, and all things must be sanctified and brought back to right order, in conformity with the One. “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church,” St. Paul wrote. For “he is the beginning, the first-born among the dead, that in everything he might be pre-eminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, making peace by the blood of his cross.” [Colossians 1: 17-20]  

Indeed, Dawson argued, only in God exists pure Being. All other being reflects the pure Being of God, in some way, shape, or form. “Thus the whole universe is, as it were, the shadow of God and has its being in the contemplation or reflection of the Being of God,” Dawson explained in 1930. “The spiritual nature reflects the Divine consciously, while the animal nature is a passive and unconscious mirror.” [Christopher Dawson, "The Dark Mirror," Dublin Review, vol. 187 (1930)]

In these arguments, Dawson significantly resembles his nineteenth-century exemplar, John Henry Newman. “There is in truth a certain virtue or grace in the Gospel which changes the quality of doctrines, opinions, usages, actions, and personal characters when incorporated with it,” Cardinal Newman wrote,and makes them right and acceptable to its Divine Author, whereas before they were either infected with evil, or at best but shadows of the truth.” [John Henry Cardinal Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1960)]

The complete sanctification of the pagan is the end result of the Christianization of the world. As the Christian moves forward, empowered by the Holy Spirit and the sacraments, he takes the pagan and changes the essence not only of the individual pagan, but of the pagan culture itself. Just as the physical person remains the same during baptism, but his soul is purified and the direction of his desires changes, so too with culture. In fact the development of Christian culture and the progress of Christianity in the individual soul are in many ways parallel,” Dawson explained. “For the history of Christianity is essentially that of the extension of the Incarnation; and the study of culture shows the same process at work in history that may be seen in detail in the lives of individuals.” [Dawson, "The Leavening Process in Christian Culture," dated August 7, 1955]

A culture may keep its pre-Christian forms, but the essence of the culture — its stories, myths, symbols, etc. — become Christian meaning and purpose.The cult of the saints and the holy places consecrated the whole historical and geographical context of culture,” Dawson wrote, “and gave every social relation and activity its appropriate religious symbolism.” [Christopher Dawson, "Education and the Crisis of Christian Culture," Lumen Vitae, vol. 1 (1946),] Dawson argued that this was an extension of the `Aristotelian principle of matter and form.” [Dawson to Mulloy, August 27, 1954] Even against and within the modern, totalitarian state, the Spirit can work.

The Church remains what she has always been, the organ of the Divine Word and the channel of Divine Grace. It is her mission to transform the world by bringing every side of human existence and every human activity into contact with the sources of supernatural life. Even the modern State, that new Leviathan, that `King over all the children of pride,’ is not irrelevant to the work of grace nor impenetrable to its influence. If it does not destroy itself, it must be transformed and reconsecrated, as the power of the barbarian warrior became transfigured into the sacred office of a Christian king.
Christopher Dawson, Church, State, and Community: Concordats or Catacombs? Tablet (1937)

Therefore, even in the twentieth century, against the brutal mechanized ideologies, man had a chance to redeem the world through the Spirit, Dawson argued. [See especially his book The Judgment of the Nations (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1942)]

In these beliefs, Dawson follows a long tradition of western theology and especially of the Christian Humanists. In his “On Christian Doctrine,” St. Augustine wrote that if philosophers “have said aught that is true and in harmony with our faith, we are not only not to shrink from it, but to claim it for our own use from those who have unlawful possession of it.” In much of the City of God, St. Augustine uses Cicero and Plato to support his argument that a thriving Christianity was compatible with a stable post-Roman world; “Human institutions such as are adapted to that intercourse with men which is indispensable in this life — we must take and turn to a Christian use.” [St. Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, Book II, Chapter 40]

Clement of Alexandria, living in the late second and early third centuries, presaged Augustine’s argument. Pre-Christian faiths, he argued in his Miscellanies, served as a “preparatory teaching for those who [would] later embrace the faith.” Additionally, he speculated that philosophy was given to the Greeks as an introduction to Christianity. For philosophy, Clement concluded, “acted as a schoolmaster to the Greeks, preparing them for Christ, as the laws of the Jews prepared them for Christ.” [Clement of Alexandria, Miscellanies] That is, Plato and Aristotle served to prepare the way for Christianity philosophically in a manner similar to the way Abraham and Moses had done so legally and theologically.

The belief in the sanctification of the pagan is undergirded by the belief that one can demonstrate the continuity of time and space, as it has been sanctified by the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of the Logos. For truth belongs to God, Dawson argued, whether codified in scripture or nature or even within elements of paganism. With the creation of the world, the natural law reveals much, though certainly not as much as direct revelation.

Natural Law provides a good example of what I mean by the comparative study of values. Our conception of Natural Law is peculiar to our own culture and represents a synthesis of Hellenic and Christian elements. But we can find parallel conceptions in the other cultures — notably in China, where the Confucian concept of nature and law and virtue provides a remarkable analogy. So too in India we have the ancient Vedic concept of rita, which parallels the Hellenic idea of Dike, and the later concept of Dharma, which has points of resemblance with the medieval concept of canon and natural law.
Dawson, “Memorandum,” dated July 25-28,1955

By being the Author of all societies and of the plethora of cults/cultures, Dawson argued, God placed a part of His Truth in each culture. Therefore, as each non-Christian culture encounters Christianity, it has some piece of the larger truth, allowing it to accept the full Truth of Christ’s Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection. Even “primitive religion is essentially an attempt to bring man’s life into relation with and under the sanctions of, that other world of mysterious and sacred powers whose actions is always conceived as the ultimate and fundamental law of life.” Sin, especially, and the need for redemption or purification manifest themselves strongly in primitive cultures, Dawson argued. [Dawson, The Dark Mirror]

Or, as Dawson’s fellow Augustinian, C. S. Lewis, explained with his usual succinctness, “Paganism does not merely survive but first really becomes itself in the v[ery] heart of Christianity.” [Lewis, Magdalen, to Dom Bede Griffiths, November 1, 1956, CSL Letters to Dom Bede Griffiths, Letter Index 36, in Wade Center Inklings Papers, Wheaton College, Wheaton, IL] Further, Dawson noted, because history remains such a mysterious thing to man, “we must believe that every period of history and every human race and culture has its part to play in the progressive development of this process of spiritual creation.” [Dawson, "Memorandum," dated August 1, 1955]

Historically, one can find this understanding of paganism throughout the History of Christendom. Cardinal Newman offered several examples in his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine.

The use of temples, and these dedicated to particular saints, and ornamented on occasions with branches of trees; incense, lamps and candles; votive offerings on recovery from illness; holy water; asylums; holidays and seasons, use of calendars, processions, blessings on the fields; sacerdotal vestments, the tonsure, the ring in marriage, turning to the East, images at a later date, perhaps the ecclesiastical chant, and the Kyrie Eleison, are all of pagan origin, and sanctified by their adoption in the Church.
Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine

Perhaps the best scriptural example of the sanctification of the pagan comes from St. Paul in his attempt to convert the Athenians. While standing on Mars Hill, he congratulated the Athenians for being religious. Specifically, he noted how he was impressed with their statue to the “unknown God” Christ, he told them in no uncertain terms, was their unknown God. All their religion, philosophy, and culture had pointed them to Christ. Paul even quoted approvingly, though sanctifying the meaning, two pagan philosophers and poets, Aratus and Cleanthes, in Acts 17:28: “In him we live and move and have our being” and “For we are indeed his offspring.” [Scriptural commentary and analysis from The Navarre Bible, Gospels and Acts (Princeton, Scepter, 2002),]

Other examples of sanctification, following St. Paul’s attempt at Mars Hill, include St. Augustine’s sanctification of Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero in the City of God; St. Thomas Aquinas’s sanctification of Aristotle; and even the Christian; monks who built their monastery on top of the highest mound/temple in Cahokia, Illinois, the former site of the priest-king of a vast Indian Empire. The monks of Cahokia were, themselves, following a very old western tradition, churches throughout Europe and North America sit on formerly sacred pagan sites. They, in essence, baptized the suspect ground, just as Augustine and Aquinas baptized pagan ideas.

Two problems, Dawson noted in his Gifford Lectures, could arise with the sanctification of the pagan. First, the reliance on natural revelation, natural theology, and the natural law may lead one — the human person or an individual culture — astray. One cannot accept natural theology, after all, as guide that is as sure as the truths revealed in scripture or through tradition. At the beginning of his Gifford lectures, for example, Dawson cites William Blake’s apocalyptic poetry approvingly. If man “has not the religion of Jesus he will have the religion of Satan, and will erect the synagogue of Satan, calling the Prince of this World, `God’, and destroying all who do not worship Satan under the name of God….

Deism is the worship of the God of the World by the means of what you call Natural Religion and Natural Philosophy, and of Natural Morality or Self-Righteousness, the selfish virtues of the Natural Heart. This was the religion of the Pharisees who murdered Jesus. Deism is the same, and ends in the same. [Dawson, Religion and Culture]On the following page Dawson wrote, “Religion is feeling and imagination: not reasoning and demonstration.” Dawson’s fear of natural theology also reflects St. Augustine’s fear of embracing too wholeheartedly that which came before Christianity. Many of the ancient gods, the venerable North African argued in the City of God, were actually demons disguised to fool men into making mischief. [Augustine, City of God, Book 2, Chapter 10]

Second, the Christian may fail to sanctify the pagan person, ritual, or culture fully. For Dawson, this became most obvious at the end of the medieval period, when the Church had failed to rid the barbarians (now Germans) of their nationalistic notions. Ultimately, the Germans were left with the choice presented so ably in the Arthurian legends: to choose the Grail or Guinevere, the continuation of the Word Incarnate or the lesser desire of the flesh, to be Galahad or Lancelot. With the Reformation and the destruction of Christian universalism, Dawson argued, Lancelot won. And, as a result, Germanic nationalism reared its frightful head and spread throughout Protestant Europe [Dawson, Religion and the Rise of Western Culture]

But no matter the dangers — and all actions in this world are potentially fraught with danger, Dawson believed — one must continue to sanctify the pagan, to redeem the time, and to remake the world for God’s Kingdom. For Dawson, this was the job of the Christian Humanist and the modern saint. As opposed to the Renaissance or secular Humanist, the Christian Humanist recognizes the profundity of Eternity entering Time, the Incarnation and the change in the nature and destiny of man.

Secular humanism seeks to glorify man as the highest being in the universe. “The men of the Renaissance had turned their eyes away from the world of the spirit to the world of color and form, of flesh and blood,” Dawson wrote. “[T]hey set their hopes not on the unearthly perfection of the Christian saint, but on the glory of Man — man set free to live his own life and to realize the perfection of power and beauty and knowledge that was his by right.” [Dawson, Nature and Destiny of Man] The Christian Humanist differs dramatically from the secular humanist. Rather than placing man at the center of the universe, he instead desires to identify the proper place for man in the universe.

The Christian Humanist, therefore, asks two fundamental questions: 1) what is the role of man within God’s creation; and 2) how does man order himself within God’s creation? “Humanism was a real historical movement, but it was never a philosophy or a religion,” Dawson explained. “It belongs to the sphere of education, not to that of theology or metaphysics. No doubt it involves certain moral values, but so does any educational tradition. Therefore it is wiser not to define humanism in terms of philosophical theories or even of moral doctrines, but to limit ourselves to the proposition that humanism is a tradition of culture and ethics founded on the study of humane letters.” [Dawson, Christianity and the Humanist Tradition]

It is, Dawson argued, the combination of Greek and Christian thought, taking the best of Aristotle and showing its continuity in St. Paul. The Church embraced Christian humanism at the Council of Jerusalem in 50 A.D. The real decision was made by the apostolic Church when it turned from the Jews to the Gentiles, from the closed world of the synagogue and the law to the cosmopolitan society of the Roman-Hellenistic world,” Dawson explained. It was St. Paul, though, “the first Christian humanist,” who provided the blueprint for the Church and the sanctification of the pagan at Mars Hill in Athens. “Humanism and Divinity are as complementary to one another in the order of culture, as are Nature and Grace in the order of being,” Dawson concluded. [Dawson, Christianity and the Humanist Tradition. Dawson was significantly influenced by the Russian theologian and philosopher Nicholas Berdyaev, and especially his book The Meaning of History]

It is the Spirit, though, that animates all life and culture. “The vital and creative power behind every culture is a spiritual one. In proportion as the spiritual element recovers its natural position at the centre of our culture will necessarily become the mainspring of our whole social activity,” Dawson wrote at the conclusion of his second book, Progress and Religion. “Since a culture is essentially a spiritual community, it transcends the economic political orders. It finds its appropriate organ not in a state, but in a Church. [Dawson, Progress and Religion] The only true progress comes when man recognizes himself as the spirit and flesh, and the culture as the joint product of Divine and human labor. “The process of redemption consists in grafting a new humanity on to the old stock,” Dawson explained, “and in building a new world out of the debris of the old.” [Dawson, Enquiries into Religion and Culture]


Christopher Dawson on Language and Myth – Bradley J. Birzer

September 24, 2012

The Pieta by Michelangelo. The structure is pyramidal, and the vertex coincides with Mary’s head. The statue widens progressively down the drapery of Mary’s dress, to the base, the rock of Golgotha. The figures are quite out of proportion, owing to the difficulty of depicting a fully-grown man cradled full-length in a woman’s lap. Much of Mary’s body is concealed by her monumental drapery, and the relationship of the figures appears quite natural. Michelangelo’s interpretation of the Pieta was far different from those previously created by other artists, as he sculpted a young and beautiful Mary rather than an older woman around 50 years of age. The marks of the Crucifixion are limited to very small nail marks and an indication of the wound in Jesus’ side. Christ’s face does not reveal signs of The Passion. Michelangelo did not want his version of The Pieta to represent death, but rather to show the “religious vision of abandonment and a serene face of the Son”, thus the representation of the communion between man and God by the sanctification through Christ.

While Dawson dealt with the issue of culture in all of his major writings, beginning in his first book, The Age of The Gods, a study of primitive religions’ and cultures, Dawson offered his most developed understanding of culture in his Harvard University lectures. Published in part in the mid-1960s as The Formation of Christendom, Dawson drew on his own lifetime of scholarly thought and research and embraced a solidly Aristotelian view of the social, world. Aristotle had famously written in his Politics that man is by nature a social animal, meant to live in community. To leave community, a man must become either a beast or a god, but he can no longer remain human.

A man’ may not live outside his cultural inheritance, Dawson wrote, paraphrasing Aristotle, without becoming an “idiot, living in a private world of formless feelings, but lower than the beasts.”[Dawson, Formation of Christendom] Not even offering the Aristotelian alternative of becoming a God, Dawson further noted that culture is the means by which “men have learned from the past” through “the process of imitation,” education and learning and to all that they hand on in like manner to their and successors.” .”[Dawson, Formation of Christendom]

With St. John, Dawson proclaimed the importance of the Word to the human person as well as to history and culture. As “little words” — that is, human persons as imago Dei – humans pass on their civilization through the rational use of language. Language allows human societies to inherit and then transmit what is known and what is believed. Against those who see war as the great precipitator of cultural evolution, Dawson claimed all true progress comes from the proper use of language. “The word,” he wrote, “not the sword or the spade, is the power that has created human culture.”[Dawson, Formation of Christendom] The sword protects the word, Dawson claimed, and the spade supports the word. ,lust as God spoke the universe into existence, man, created in His image, speaks culture into existence, tying the generations within time, but simultaneously also across time. Only through language can man store wisdom and understanding, building upon what was learnt and uncovered by previous generations, passing it on to future generations. “Language is the foundation of social life,” Dawson wrote. [Dawson, "Culture and Language”]

An intimate relationship, of course, exists between language, tradition, and reason. “Language, which is essential to Reason,” Dawson explained, “is itself essentially traditional, and I should say that it is in the creation of tradition, unless indeed it is a miraculous gift or invention,” an idea which Dawson would not dismiss. [Dawson, "Memorandum," dated July 11, 1959]Language provides a framework for reason. Specifically, God communicates through tradition, a gift that proves “inaccessible to Reason.” In addition, argued Dawson, “the individual who denies the authority of language and the other fundamental forms of human culture is thereby debarred from the use of reason, which is essentially bound up with communication. He is,” Dawson concluded, “an idiot.” Further, as

[L]anguage is essential to Reason, so the Word of God is essential to Faith. Granted the fact of Revelation, Reason is still insufficient as the vehicle of its transmission. For this, it is necessary to have the Sacred Word of Scripture and the sacred society of the Church, which is the bearer of the Sacred Tradition. The Holy Spirit in the Church is to the Word of God, what human Reason in the tradition of culture is to the Word of Man. The Spirit is the Interpreter as well as the verifier.
[Dawson, "Memorandum," dated July 11, 1959]

Throughout history, one finds a correlation between God’s revelation and man’s development of language. Dawson therefore concluded that the order of grace and the order of nature are intimately connected. [Dawson, "Memorandum," dated July 11, 1959] Following Aquinas, Dawson argued that grace remakes and perfects nature. “The Christian concept of Revelation does not simply involve the intelligibility of a spiritual reality but a change in the nature of the creature which renders divine communication possible,” he argued in 1959. [Dawson, Correspondence to Ruth Anshen, November 7, 1959]

Because each culture and person represents a singular image of God and God’s revelation, reason unaided can never be universal, but, instead, must be culturally specific. “In every culture men possess the power of reasoning as they possess the power of speech, but the content of their reasoning is different as the knowledge that they possess depends on the culture to which they belong,” Dawson argued. [Dawson, The Relation of Philosophy to Culture, dated September 7, 1955]

Language also enables man to wield his most powerful tool for survival as a species, that is, through the imagination of the culture and the individual human person, as best expressed in myth. “I believe the old myths are better not only intrinsically, but because they lead further and open a door into the mind as well as into the past,” Dawson noted in his autobiographical writings, entitled “Tradition and Inheritance.” Myth, Dawson forcefully argued, “was the old road which carries us back not merely for centuries but for thousands of years; the road by which every people has traveled and from which the beginnings of every literature have come.” [Christopher Dawson, Tradition and Inheritance: Reflections on the Formative Years (St. Paul, MN: Wanderer Press, 1970)]

When discussing the best historiographical methods to understand pre-Norman England, for example, Dawson argued in favor of giving the Celtic legends their due. “It is true that considerable difference of opinion exists as to the date and historical value of the oldest Welsh poetry, but even if we put them at the lowest, there can be no doubt that they embody an ancient and genuine folk tradition which had its origin in the dark age of post-Roman Britain,” he wrote in a critical book review. “These relics of a submerged tradition are no less worthy of our historical study than the remains of Saxon cemeteries and village sites, and I the more so in that they are a faint but living voice from a lost world, which brings to us an echo of the impression that the events of the age of conquest left in the memory of the British people.” [Christopher Dawson, The Making of Britain, Tablet (1936]

If archeological evidence allows one to study the material side of man’s nature, the mythological allows one to comprehend, at least in substantial part, his spiritual nature. Myth, properly defined, is simply the supernatural working in history. Additionally, myth is a universal truth that repeats itself in some form or particular variation for every people and every time. History, Dawson conceded, is “not a flat expanse of time, measured off in dates, but a series of different worlds.” Each world possesses its “own spirit and form and its own riches of poetic imagination.” [Christopher Dawson, Backgrounds and Beginnings, A.D., vol. 1]

One should not be surprised, Dawson concluded, that the British people chose Arthur, not Alfred or Harold, as “the central figure of national heroic legend.” [Dawson, The Making of Britain] After all, Dawson believed, the British love lost causes and extreme opposition in the face of doing what is right; it remains a fundamental part of their national character.

One sees the importance of myth and language not just in stories, but in names and in the naming of things. In Genesis, for example, God gives man Alone the ability to name things on this earth, to categorize, and to serve as a steward over creation. From a Jewish or Christian perspective, naming is synonymous with controlling. One also finds this outside of the Judeo-Christian tradition. In many primitive religions, for example, especially among Native Americans, shamans usually considered the knowledge of names as equivalent to the control over the things named. In fact, such an understanding of names can be found in almost every culture throughout world history.

Language also serves as the unifier not only of a people over time, but also for an immediate and generational community as well. Hellas provides a good example in the larger abstract understanding of the importance of language as a unifier. It was through language that the Mediterranean became Hellenized, adopting Greek culture, art, philosophical abstractions, and cultural symbols. Jesus of Nazareth, the Word Incarnate in Christian theological terms, was born into this language and culture. But it was also a culture of many cultures, in flux.

As a Jew, Jesus lived in a world controlled militarily and dominated economically by the Roman Empire, itself significantly Hellenized. Even the name `Jesus” was a Greek name, for example, the equivalent of the Aramaic, Joshua. Jesus’ most traveled disciple, St. Paul, walked safely on Roman roads and spoke Greek, spreading the new religion throughout the Mediterranean, specifically in the Greek isles and throughout the Roman boot. When St. John wrote his Gospel, he used the Stoic concept, the Logos, the burning fire, love, or word, at the heart of all things, to describe the Divine Savior. In a letter discussing the implications of the Protestant Reformation and its dislike of the (reek and Roman inheritance, Dawson wrote:

It is certainly desirable that we should learn to know more about the ancient philosophical systems of China and India, but this does not mean that we should try to undo the work of the Fathers and of St. Thomas by divesting the original Hebrew thought of Our Lord of its rationalist `Greek dress’. For where are we to begin? The Church used the categories of Greek thought to define the dogmas of the Faith and the Gospel itself has been transmitted to the world in a’Greek dress.’ It is the mission of the Church to teach all nations, but she cannot disavow her own part and start her mission all over again. That was the great error of the Protestant Reformation, which attempted to abolish a thousand years of Catholic development and to construct a new model of evangelical Christianity on exclusively scriptural foundations.
Dawson, Hermitage, to unknown recipient, January 6, 1956

Therefore, the informed Christian must think beyond the mere Hebraic. To limit the Christian inheritance to the Jews and the Jews alone would be to retard the true development and very purpose of Christendom. “We do not believe, like the Protestants (or some Protestants) that the Bible is the only record of these dealings,” Dawson wrote. “On the contrary, the whole history of Christendom is a continual dialogue between God and man, and every age of the Church’s life, even the most remote and obscure, has some important lesson for us today.” [Christopher Dawson, Communications: Christian Culture, Commonweal, vol. 61 (April 1, 1955)]

No one person or generation — or even all persons and generations combined — has a full understanding of God’s purpose or of the Divine Economy. Yet each manifestation of God’s grace offers a new piece of the puzzle worth studying. Each person is a new and unique reflection of God, and each culture — as a network of minds — is a reflection of the Logos and the power of imagination. Each new created thing reveals more about the nature and Being of God. Not just the Jews, but the Greeks, Romans, and all other peoples are worth studying, as they, in their finite ways, reveal some singular aspect of the Infinite.

The Catholic understanding of the Divine Economy “is the acceptance of an organic world of spiritual realities into which man obtains entry not b his own right, but by `grace,” Dawson wrote in 1933. As a member of the Church, the Christian sees only the historic manifestation of Christ’s grace, Beyond the physical, earthly Church is the much greater part, not visible to our eyes. Hence, Roman Catholicism “attaches such immense importance to the doctrine of the Communion of Saints, the solidarity of the living and the dead in the common life of the One Body,” Dawson continued. [Christopher Dawson, The Future Life: A Roman Catholic View, The Spectator, vol. 151 (1933)] The; dead share in the communion with the living. “The men who died for the; faith in third-century Rome or sixteenth-century Japan are still partners in the common struggle, no less than those who are the leaders of Christian’s thought and action in our own days,” Dawson explained. [Christopher Dawson, Christian Culture: Its Meaning and Its Value, Jubilee, vol. 4 (1956)]

A negation or attenuation of this belief of continuity would also destroy the concept of mystery — intimately related to poetry, art, myth, and literature — which is central to the continued viability of any culture. Indeed, the first fruits of any proper culture are music and poetry. [Christopher Dawson, Education and the Crisis of Christian Culture (Chicago, IL: Henry Regenery Company, 1949] Poetry, especially, “is in its origins inseparable from prophecy, and among every people we find the figure of the inspired mantic poet at the threshold of its literary tradition.” [Dawson, Religion and Culture]

Though art often appears as abstract, Dawson claimed, a scholar can learn far more about a society and a people through a study of its arts than by all the economic statistics available. Quantifying is nothing more than a conglomeration of raw, disinterested, dry numbers and figures. And yet humans are diverse, unique, full of zest and passion. “We can learn more about mediaeval culture from a cathedral than from the most exhaustive study of constitutional law,” Dawson wrote, adding that “the churches of Ravenna are a better introduction to the Byzantine world than are all the volumes of Gibbon.” [Dawson, Dynamics of World History]

Even the farmer had traditionally been an artist. There is, after all, an “intimate communion of human culture with the social in which it is rooted,” and this becomes manifest “in every aspect of material civilization — in food and clothing, in weapons and tools, in dwellings and settlements, in roads and methods of communication.” [Dawson, Progress and Religion]To cultivate” and “agriculture” obviously have their roots in the culture. We moderns, though, Dawson feared, have become so used to a fragmented world that we see art as something high and high alone, to be placed in galleries, separated from work and ordinary life. It is therefore difficult for present-day scholars to conceive of art as anything more than exploitation and leisure for the elites. [Dawson, Dynamics of World History]

Education through myth, poetry, and art into one’s culture traditionally has provided an initiation into the divine mysteries, especially of the Divine Economy and the communion of the living and the dead. “It is only in the poetic imagination which is akin to that of the child and the mystic that we can still feel the pure sense of mystery and transcendence which is man’s natural element. [Dawson, Religion and Culture] Such a religious ordering, alone, allows us to order “life as a whole — the molding of social and historical reality into a living spiritual unity.” [Christopher Dawson, "Introduction," in Carl Schmitt, The Necessity of Politics: An Essay on the Representative Idea in the Church and Modern Europe (London: Sheed and Ward, 1931)]

It forces man to recognize that something greater than himself exists. It forces man to realize that he is a creature, not the Creator. It necessarily humbles man. Traditionally, the best means of Christian education and initiation has come through the liturgy, which combines the myth, poetry, and art of the Church into a drama, presented before the members of the Body of Christ.

In Christianity, on the other hand, the liturgy was the center of a rich tradition of religious poetry and music and artistic symbolism. In fact, the art of Christendom in both its Byzantine and medieval phases was essentially a liturgical art which cannot be understood without some knowledge of the liturgy itself and its historical origin and development. And the same is true to a great extent of popular and vernacular culture. The popular religious drama, which had such an important influence on the rise of European drama as a whole, was either a liturgical drama in the strict sense, like the Passion plays and Nativity plays, or was directly related to the cult of the saints and the celebration of their feasts. For the cult of the saints, which had its basis in the liturgy, was the source of a vast popular mythology, and provided a bridge between the higher ecclesiastical and literary culture and the peasant culture with its archaic traditions of folklore and magic.
[Christopher Dawson, The Institutional Forms of Christian Culture, Religion in Life, vol. 24 (1955)]

The other means, almost as important as liturgy, was monasticism, in which “religion and culture attain their complete fusion.” [Christopher Dawson, The Institutional Forms of Christian Culture, Religion in Life, vol. 24 (1955)]

Dawson, therefore, argued that the Protestant overemphasis on the Ju daic inheritance was dangerous on many levels. It focused too much on the worldly and on a non-complicated linear history, thus attenuating the level of hierarchy and mystery in Creation. It centered us too much in time. The Judaic was vital, of course, but so was the Greek and the Roman. “The history of the Jews is bound up with the history of the world, not with that of any single political or territorial unit,” Dawson understood, speaking before a largely Jewish audience at Brandeis University. “In every age they have had a particular task to perform, but this task is to be seen in relation to the world situation rather than as part of a continuous national tradition.” [Christopher Dawson, On Jewish History, Orbis, vol. 30]

But the earliest council, the Council of Jerusalem, presided over by Archbishop James, and the discussions of St. Paul in his letters to the earliest Christian churches, prove the need to move beyond the merely Jewish origins of Christianity and to embrace and sanctify all cultures. “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ,” St. Paul wrote to the Christians of Galatia. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” [Galatians 3:27-28 (RSV).] Following these new, universal teachings, Christianity very quickly moved away from Jerusalem and a Jewish culture base.

In the West early Christian culture was predominately Greek. The Latin Christian culture was largely the creation of Africa — Tertullian, Cyprian, Augustine. Here as in Asia Minor, there was a strong undercurrent of oriental culture (Punic) which was only extinguished by the growth of Christian culture, but in this case it was Latin not Greek that became the dominant element. So too in Gaul, the vernacular Celtic language of the Christian writers like Irenaeus. It was not till the Fifth century that Gallic Latin culture produced its characteristic literature, and by that time the Germanic peoples had become the ruling race, so that the Latin Christians in Gaul (and Spain) were in somewhat the same sociological position as the Syriac speaking Christians in the East. [Dawson to Mulloy Correspondence, June 20, 1960]

Further, the Jewish revolts of 66-70, 115-117, and 132-135 eroded the historic and theological ties between Judaism and Christianity. Christianity, then, does not just proceed from Judaism in some direct line; it explodes from Judaism, becoming universal.


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.”


On Spiritual Intuition In Christian Philosophy — Christopher Dawson

August 19, 2011

Christopher Dawson

The following was first printed in the Winter 1994 issue of “The Dawson Newsletter,” which has unfortunately been discontinued.

The problem of spiritual intuition and its reconciliation with the natural conditions of human knowledge lies at the root of philosophic thought, and all the great metaphysical systems since the time of Plato have attempted to find a definitive solution. The subject is no less important for the theologian, since it enters so largely into the question of the nature of religious knowledge and the limits of religious experience. The Orthodox Christian is, however, debarred from the two extreme philosophic solutions of pure idealism and radical empiricism, since the one leaves no place for faith and supernatural revelations, and the other cuts off the human mind entirely from all relation to spiritual reality. Yet even so there remains a vast range of possible solutions which have been advocated by Catholic thinkers from the empiricism of the medieval nominalists to the ontologism of Malebranche and Rosmini.

Leaving aside the more eccentric and unrepresentative thinkers, we can distinguish two main currents in Catholic philosophy. On the one hand, there is the Platonic tradition that is represented by the Greek Fathers, and, above all, by St. Augustine and his medieval followers such as St. Bonaventure; on the other, the Aristotelian tradition which found classical expression on the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas.

But it is important not to exaggerate the divergences between the two schools. Both of them seek to find a <via media> between the two extreme solutions. St. Bonaventure is not a pure Platonist, nor St. Thomas a pure Aristotelian. The former rejects the doctrine of innate ideas, while the latter finds the source of intelligibility in the divine ideas, and regards the human mind as receiving its light from the divine intelligence.[St. Thomas himself insists on the fundamental agreement of the two theories.] Hence although Thomism insists on the derivation of our ideas from sensible experience, it is far from denying the existence of spiritual intuition.

Human Intelligence Is Intuitive By Nature
On this point I will quote the words of a French Dominican, Pere Joret: “Let us not forget,” he writes, “that the human intelligence, also, is intuitive by nature and predisposition. No-doubt, as it is united substantially with matter, it cannot thenceforth know except by proceeding from sensible realities and by means of images. But, apart from this, our intelligence is intuitive. Its first act at the dawn of its life, at its awakening, is an intuition, the intuition of being, or, more concretely, of `a thing which is,’ and, at the same time, as though it already unconsciously carried them in itself, there suddenly appear with an ineluctable certainty the first principles” of identity, contradiction, causality, and the like. It is from our intuition of first principles that all our knowledge proceeds.

St. Thomas says: “As the enquiry of reason starts from a simple intuition of the intelligence, so also it ends in the certainty of intelligence, when the conclusions that have been discovered are brought back to the principles from which they derive their certitude.” Pere Joret insist on the importance of the intuitive faculty as the natural foundation of religious experience. It is not itself mystical, but it is the essential natural preparation and prerequisite for mysticism. The failure to recognize this, which has been so common among theologians during the last two centuries, has, he says, been deplorable not only in its effects on the study of mysticism, but in its practical consequences for the spiritual life.[ F. D. Joret, O.P., <La Contemplation Mystique d'apres St. Thomas d'Aquin.> Bruges, 1923, pp. 83-90]

It is easy to understand the reasons for this attitude of hesitation and distrust with regard to intuitive knowledge. If the intuition of pure being is interpreted in an excessively realist sense, we are led not merely to ontologism, but to pantheism — to the identification of that being which is common to everything which exists with the Transcendent and Absolute Being which is God. And the danger has led to the opposite error of minimizing the reality of the object of our intuition, and reducing it to a mere logical abstraction.

Here again it is necessary to follow the middle way. The being which is the object of our knowledge is neither wholly real nor purely logical and conceptual. The intuition of pure being is a very high and immaterialized form of knowledge, but it is not a direct intuition of spiritual reality. It stands midway between the world of sensible experience and the world of spiritual reality. On the one hand it is the culminating point of our ordinary intellectual activity, and on the other it leads directly to the affirmation of the Absolute and the Transcendent.

Hence it is always possible, as Pere Marechal shows, that the intuition of pure being may become the occasion or starting-point of an intuition of a higher order. But it is difficult to decide, in concrete cases, whether the supreme intuition of the Neo-Platonist or the Vedantist philosopher is simply the intuition of pure being interpreted in an ontologist sense, or whether it is a genuine intuition of spiritual reality. There is no <a priori> reason for excluding the latter alternative; indeed, in some cases it seems absolutely necessary to accept it. Nevertheless, this higher intuition is not necessarily always the same. It is possible to distinguish several different types of intuition, or to find several different explanations of it.

In the first place there is the possibility of a very high form of metaphysical intuition by which the mind sees clearly the absolute transcendence of spirit in relation to sensible things and the element of nothingness or not- being which is inherent in the world of sensible experience.[M. Maritain admits the possibility of this kind of intuition, but he regards it as an anomalous form of experience which is neither metaphysical nor mystical. Cf. "Experience Mystique et Philosophie," in <Revue de Philosophie,> November, 1926, p. 606.] This form of intuition seems adequate to explain the spiritual experience which is typical of the oriental religions, e.g., the intuition of advaita — non-duality, which is characteristic of the Vedanta.

But there are other cases which suggest a higher form of experience, and one which is more strictly comparable to the higher experiences of the Christian mystic. In such cases the obvious explanation is that such experience is mystical in the full sense of the word, since we need not deny the existence of supernatural grace wherever the human mind turns towards God and does what lies in its power — <facienti quod in se est, Deus non denegat gratiam.>

But while we must admit the essentially supernatural character of all true mystical experience it is still possible that this higher experience may have its psychological roots in a rudimentary natural capacity of the soul for the intuition of God. This is certainly not the common theological view, but there are, nevertheless, Catholic theologians such as St. Bonaventure and, above all, the great medieval mystics of Germany and the Low Countries, who teach that the human soul possesses by its very nature a real but obscure knowledge of God. St. Bonaventure argues that Aristotle’s theory of the sensible origin of all human knowledge only holds good of our knowledge of external reality, not of those realities which are essentially present to the soul itself; consequently, “the soul knows God and itself and the things that are in itself without the help of the exterior senses.”[ Bonaventure in II Sent., d. 39, q. 2.] <Deus praesentissimus est ipsi animae et eo ipso cognoscibilis.>

The Soul In Immediate Contact With God
The medieval mystics base their whole theory of mysticism on this doctrine of the knowledge of God essentially present in the human soul. Underneath the surface of our ordinary consciousness, the sphere of the discursive reason, there is a deeper psychological level, “the ground of the soul,” to which sensible images and the activity of the discursive reason cannot penetrate. This is the domain of the spiritual intuition, “the summit” of the mind and the spiritual will which is naturally directed towards God. Here the soul is in immediate contact with God, who is present to it as its cause and the principle of its activity.

It is, in fact, a mirror which has only to be cleansed and turned towards its object to reflect the image of God. In the words of Ruysbroeck: “In the most noble part of the soul, the domain of our spiritual powers, we are constituted in the form of a living and eternal mirror of God; we bear in it the imprint of His eternal image, and no other image can ever enter there.” Unceasingly this mirror remains under the eyes of God, “and participates thus with the image that is graven there from God’s eternity. It is in this image that God has known us in Himself before we were created, and that He knows us now in time, created as we are for Himself. This image is found essentially and personally in all men; each man possesses it whole and entire, and all men together possess no more of it than does each one.

In this way we are all one, intimately united in our eternal image, which is the image of God and the source in us all of our life and of our coming into existence. Our created essence and our life are joined to it immediately as to their eternal cause. Yet our created being does not become God, any more than the image of God becomes a creature.”[Ruysbroeck, <The Mirror of Eternal Salvation,> chap. VIII]

God As Its Eternal Origin
The soul “in its created being incessantly receives the impress of its Eternal Archetype, like a flawless mirror, in which the image remains steadfast and in which the reflection is renewed without interruption by its ever new reception in new light. This essential union of our spirit with God does not exist in itself, but it dwells in God and it flows forth from God and it depends upon God and it returns to God as to its Eternal Origin. And in this wise, it has never been, nor ever shall be, separated from God; for this union is within us by our naked nature, and, were this nature to be separated from God, it would fall into pure nothingness. And this union is above time and space and is always and incessantly active according to the way of God. But our nature, forasmuch as it is indeed like unto God but in itself is creature, receives the impress if its Eternal Image passively. This is that nobleness which we possess by nature in the essential unity of our spirit, where it is united to God according to nature. <This neither makes us holy, nor blessed, for all men, whether good or evil, possess it within themselves; but it is certainly the fist cause of all holiness and all blessedness.>[Ruysbroeck, <The Adornment of the Spiritual Marriage,> Bk. II, chap. LVII (trans. C.A. Wynschenk Dom]

According to this view, every man naturally possesses an immediate contact with God in the deepest part of his soul; but he remains, as a rule, without the realization and the enjoyment of it.

His soul is turned outwards to the things of sense, and his will is directed to temporal goods. It is the work of grace to reconstitute this divine image, to bring a man back to his essential nature, to cleanse the mirror of his soul so that it once more receives the divine light. Nevertheless, even apart from grace, the divine image remains present in the depths of the soul, and whenever the mind withdraws itself from its surface activity and momentarily concentrates itself within itself, it is capable of an obscure consciousness of the presence of God and of its contact with divine reality.

This doctrine is undoubtedly orthodox, and involves neither illuminism nor ontologism, still less pantheism. Nevertheless, it runs counter to the tendency to asceticism which has been so powerful since the Reformation, and it is also difficult to reconcile with the strictly Aristotelian theory of knowledge and of the structure of the human mind as taught by St. Thomas. Recently, however, Pere Picard has made a fresh survey of the problem, and has endeavored to show that St. Thomas himself, in his commentary on the Sentences, admits the existence of this obscure intuition of God, and uses it as a proof of the soul’s resemblance to the Trinity which was so often insisted on by St. Augustine.[ Cf. "La Saisie immediate de Dieu dans les Etats Mystiques." by G. Picard, in <Revue d'Ascetique et de Mystique,> 1923, pp. 37-63 156-181. The subject is also discussed by Pere Hugueny. O.P., in his introduction to the new French translation of Tauler (Vol. I, 73-154). He concludes that Tauler's doctrine is based upon that of Albertus Magnus, and diverges on several points from that of St. Thomas.] He does not, however, base his view in the argument from authority so much as on general theological considerations, as the hypothesis which is most in harmony with the teaching and experience of Catholic mystics. Certainly, it seems, the existence of an obscure but profound and continuous intuition of God provides a far more satisfactory basis for an explanation of the facts of religious experience, as we see them in history, than a theory which leaves no place for any experience of spiritual reality, except a merely inferential rational knowledge on the one hand and on the other a revelation which is entirely derived from supernatural faith and has no natural psychological basis.


London Burning By Derek Jeter

August 15, 2011

Feral Youth on the Underground

Like many others, I’ve been watching and thinking about London burning. There seems to be no shortage of commentary or explanation – my personal favorite is the “feral youths” comment promulgated by the Daily Telegraph that has become part of the current secular short hand to explain “how a generation of violent, illiterate young men are living outside the boundaries of civilized society.”

The cause was not injustice; this was not a revolt of the downtrodden masses, breaking into stores looking for food. The causes were greed, selfishness, a respect and even lust for violence, and a lack of moral grounding. Conscienceless predators preyed upon the weak. The weak were anyone who happened to be passing by, and those, many of them immigrants, who tried to defend their shops and neighborhoods. The iconic scene was the 20-year-old college student in East London who was beaten for his bicycle and fell bloody to the ground. His tormentors, with a sadistic imitation of gentleness, helped him up. Then they rifled through his backpack to get his phone and wallet. It was cruelty out of Dickens. It was Bill Sikes with a million YouTube hits.
Peggy Noonan, Après le Déluge, What?Wall Street Journal, August 13, 2011

Some American commentators are moved to say the same phenomena could easily happen here, although the practice of flash mobs who use Twitter to descend upon sports and mobile phone shops to make off with sneakers and iphones is virtually the same activity minus the burning of the shops when they leave, so the question seems fairly moot IMHO.

Here is Max Hastings, in the conservative-populist Daily Mail: “The depressing truth is that at the bottom of our society is a layer of young people with no skills, education, values or aspirations… Nobody has ever dared suggest to them that they need feel any allegiance to anything, least of all Britain or their community.. Not only do they know nothing of Britain’s past, they care nothing for its present.”

Part of the sheer intellectual joy of being Catholic in the midst of all this gnashing of teeth and wailing about is the way that our faith leads us to regard all of this. Seen through the eyes of faith, these events are no cause for despair or shocked amazement but simply a testament to the bankruptcy of secular culture and its atheist roots. In fact, Christopher Dawson, who has been featured repeatedly on this blog recently, objected to the bracketing of those two words. There is no “secular culture” he protested at one point:

“The society without culture is a formless society — a crowd or a collection of individuals brought together by the needs of the moment (good working definition for a “flash mob”) — while the, stronger a culture is, the more completely does it inform and transform the diverse human material of which it is composed,” Dawson wrote in Religion and Culture. A culture without a common faith may linger for a while, but eventually it must dissolve, for all other bonds between men, especially political bonds, are tenuous at best without a common faith. In other words, there is no such thing as a culture that is secular. A secular culture would, by definition, mean the absence of a culture.
Sanctifying The World, Bradley J Birzer

You can’t read Simone Weil’s declaration of our obligation toward human beings a few posts back to realize that secular culture has failed to provide many of the basics she lists. Here’s the list again:

  1.  The human body is above all in need of food, warmth, sleep, hygiene, rest, exercise, clean air.
  2. The human soul needs equality and hierarchy.
  3. The human soul has a need for consented obedience and for freedom.
  4. The human soul is in need of truth and of freedom of expression.
  5. The human soul needs, on the one hand, isolation and intimacy, on the other, social life.
  6. The human soul needs personal and collective property.
  7. The human soul needs punishment and honor.
  8. The human soul needs disciplined participation in a common task of public interest, and personal initiative in that participation.
  9. The human soul needs security and risk.
  10. The human soul needs above all to feel rooted in various natural milieus and to communicate with the universe through them. The homeland, milieus defined by language, by culture, by a common historical past, by the profession, the locality, are examples of natural environments. Everything that results in the uprooting of a human being or which has the effect of preventing him from growing roots is criminal.

Thinking about that list and our “feral youths:” Religion shapes almost all our norms and mores, language, and family structure. Even material things, such as food ways or courtship customs, ultimately have a religious root. Bradley Birzer notes that a culture that by and large rejected its religion or has secularized itself has merely substituted some form of false religion — most likely an ideology of some kind — for its lost faith.

Once this is understood, Dawson argued, the process of a man fulfilling his destiny is rather obvious: God calls each person; each person has the natural law written on his heart; and each human person best expresses his religiosity within the natural and inherited community. Real community is not based on some freely-entered social contract between equals, but instead is natural, organic, hierarchical, and driven and governed by proper authorities. The community in which a person’s religiosity is best expressed could be rooted in the here and now, or it could transcend the particular, partaking of the universal, much like the Burkean community of the dead, the living, and the yet unborn. Both forms of community are equally valid and necessary in God’s economy of grace. Each plays its own role, and each person is called to play a unique role within each. “The Catholic conception of society is not that of a machine for the production of wealth,” Dawson wrote in 1933, “but of a spiritual organism in which every class and every individual has its own function to fulfill and its own rights and duties in relation to the whole.”

At the root of every society lies the cultus, defined as the group of people, usually based on kinship, who band together to worship the same deity or deities. “Therefore from the beginning the social way of life which is culture has been deliberately ordered and directed in accordance with the higher laws of life which are religion,” Dawson explained. Culture “is essentially a viral phenomenon — a way or order or pattern of social living. It is a way of gaining preserving, and extending life.” Further, it is a “network of relations,” again, in the Burkean sense, connecting person to person, in and across time. Economics, politics, and law proceed from the culture. American cultural critic Russell Kirk, influenced by Dawson in a variety of ways, explained Dawson, views well:

A cult is a joining together for worship — that is, the attempt of people to commune with a transcendent power. It is from association in the cult, the body of worshippers, that community grows…. Once people are joined in a cult, cooperation in many other things becomes possible. Common defense, irrigation, systematic agriculture, architecture, the visual arts, music, the more intricate crafts, economic production and distribution, courts and government — all these aspects of a culture arise gradually from the cult, the religious tie.

Christopher Dawson's Understanding of Culture

Further, “religion is the key to history,” Dawson claimed. “We cannot understand the inner form of a society unless we understand its religion.” `A social culture is an organized way of life which is based on a common tradition and conditioned by a common environment,” Dawson wrote in 1949. “It is therefore not identical with the concept of civilizations, which involves a high degree of conscious rationalization nor with society itself, since a culture normally includes a number of independent units.”

Have we not simply observed in London (or in Philadelphia where the city is on curfew due to “flash mobs” and the inability of police to suppress these sudden attacks)  the rise of youthful secular cults who have banded together to worship deities of greed, selfishness, and a lust for violence? Next up a government program to move them all into careers in Wall Street Day Trading. I’ll keep you posted.


Dawson’s Contributions by Bradley J. Birzer

August 12, 2011
Dr. Bradley J. Birzer

Buy this man’s book!

“I have had to follow my own line of studies and plough a lone furrow for thirty-five years,” Dawson told an audience in the early 1950s, “solely because the subject to which I have devoted myself — the study of Christian culture — has no place in education or in university studies. Attempting to fulfill the purpose that he believed God had for him, Dawson wrote almost two hundred books and articles during his lifetime. His more famous books include The Age of the Gods; Progress and Religion; The Making of Europe; Medieval Essays; Medieval Religion; The Judgment of the Nations; Religion and Culture; Religion and the Rise of Western Culture; Religion and the Modern State; The Division of Christendom; and The Formation of Christendom.

While never the stylist that his American counterpart Russell Kirk was, Dawson always wrote with a verve and a purpose that has a charm all of its own. Stylistically, though, one should regard Dawson as the master of the conclusion, as his conclusions are as rhetorically persuasive as they are intellectually sound. Dawson also believed that his Roman Catholicism gave him a special purpose in writing. As the second world war took shape, Dawson wrote that as “the heirs and successors of the makers of Europe — the men who saved civilization from perishing in the storm of barbarian invasion and who built the bridge between the ancient and modern worlds,” Catholics had a specific and unique purpose, given to them by God.

In an Augustinian fashion, Dawson argued, Catholics always transcend the politics and ideologies of the day, representing, instead, the eternal supernatural realities which are “more organically united than any political body which possesses an autonomous body of principles and doctrines on which to base their judgments.” So armed and commanded, Catholics must “maintain and strengthen the unity of Western culture.” The forces arrayed against them desire nothing less than the total subversion and destruction of all that is True, Good, and Beautiful.

Even if the forces waging the battle on behalf of Christendom fail, they will still serve a vital purpose, as “any Catholic who is intellectually alive and is at the same time obviously convinced of the truth of his religion administers a shock to [an ideologue's] preconceived ideas.” He must not expect to “convert them,” for they are entrenched in their own subjective realities. But by stating openly one’s own beliefs and demonstrating one’s faith publicly, the Catholic will certainly shake “their confidence in the inevitability of the secularist outlook and in the stupidity of the religious view of life.”

Much of this was autobiographical for Dawson. In a speech delivered at a celebration for his seventieth birthday, Dawson revealed the reasons behind leis decision to teach at Harvard and why he considered it the culminating moment of his scholarly life. “All my life for fifty years I have been writing on one .reject and for one cause,” he told those celebrating with him, “the cause of ;Christendom and the study of Christian culture.”

Dawson held a very broad vision of the West. “I am still profoundly convinced of the importance of the need for the defense of the West,” he wrote in 1942, “though it is important not to understand the expression in too narrow a political and geographical sense, as is often done. In my view the West is a cultural tradition like that of Hellenism and one which has an even wider and more universal mission.”

For example, Dawson believed the Spartan defense of Hellas at Thermopylae hid a serious spiritual significance, not just a military or a geopolitical significance. Such a Greek proto-spiritualism and patriotism anticipated the true spiritualism of medieval Catholic Europe. And, by the time the world had reached the twentieth century, the true spiritualism had moved outside of and beyond Europe into the Americas, Africa, and Asia. The West’s mission, properly understood, was truly universal. Indeed, Dawson argued the mission of the West is synonymous with the mission of the Church.

Things looked bleak during Dawson’s own life. With the destruction wrought by the first and second world wars, the Cold War, the rise of nationalism, communism, fascism, the holocaust camps, the gulags, the killing fields, and the sheer mechanization and overwhelming destruction of human lie in the twentieth century, western citizens wanted answers about the purpose of life and the necessity of the good life. Dawson willingly called western culture back to what he believed were first principles and right reason.

With the world collapsing into ideological and mass democide, Dawson feared the “unloosing of the powers of the abyss.” Indeed, he believed, “the dark forces that have been chained by a thousand years of Christian civilization…have now been set free to conquer the world.” The abyss competed with grace, and men and women began taking the easy route, the path of least resistance. At least, it seemed easy to them in the short run. In the long run, their poor choices would catch up with them, and the abyss would rule them, making them little more than pathetic slaves. Rather than celebrate the diversity of human persons created in the infinite image of the Creator, men instead seemed to be recreating a Babylon and imposing a strict, gray conformity.

Sadly, western civilization had entered the ‘Age of the Cinema’ — in which the most amazing perfection of scientific technique is being devoted to purely ephemeral objects, without any consideration of their ultimate justification.” Mechanical and created things had taken on a life of their own, and they were becoming the standard by which all of life was living. “It seems as though a new society was arising which will acknowledge no hierarchy of values, no intellectual authority, and no social or religious tradition,” Dawson lamented, “but which will live for the moment in a chaos of pure sensation.”

The world, then, had to be sanctified, and Dawson believed in true Augustinian fashion that one could do that only by choosing to drain one’s will, allowing God’s grace to fill the vacuum and remake the person. Put another way, “the creative element in human culture is spiritual, and it triumphs only by mortifying and conquering the natural conservatism of man’s animal instincts.” Indeed, history is nothing more than “the cumulative results of a number of spiritual decisions — the faith and insight, or the refusal and blindness, of individuals.” Man finds himself best through a non-mechanized order, a strong community (family and beyond), and the inculcation of the seven pagan and Christian virtues — prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance, faith, hope, and love.

As Dawson understood it, the Holy Spirit played the key role in his life as well as in his vision of history. He argued unceasingly that “the forces of evil cannot be successfully resisted without the power of the Spirit.” The human person, then, exists as a potential vessel of grace — a noble and unique instrument — to reclaim the world for God.

The Church exists as the “embryo” of the Kingdom of Christ. “The Church is the divine organ of the Spirit in the world and the guardian and interpreter of the word of God,” Dawson wrote in 1944. The Church’s mission “is a universal mission to the whole human race, and it is therefore also her mission to enlighten and super-naturalize civilization.” Grace perfects nature through “the new creation which is the historic Church.” Dawson put this in philosophic terms in private, undated notes, entitled “Traditionalism and Rationalism.”

As language is essential to Reason, so the Word of God is essential to Faith. Granted the fact of Revelation, Reason is still insufficient as the vehicle of its transmission. For this it is necessary to have the Sacred Word of Scripture and the sacred society of the Church which is the bearer of the Sacred Tradition. The Holy Spirit in the Church is to the Word of God what human Reason in the tradition of culture is to the World of Man. The Spirit is the Interpreter as well as the verifier.

For the Church to consider an alliance with secularism, therefore, would be a terrible betrayal of its mission, an almost pure “act of apostasy.”

One of the most important gifts offered by the Holy Spirit is the gift of creativity and imagination. “It is the nature of grace to be gratuitous, prevenient [vocab: Coming before, preceding. Hence expectant; anticipatory], and creative,” Dawson wrote in 1955. “In this, it only carries on the process of natural creation.” The human person, made as imago Dei, must also act as a creator, but only to glorify God and creation.

Only by allowing the Holy Spirit to work old truths into new forms — what John Henry Cardinal Newman called the “illative sense” and what T. S. Eliot called the “moral imagination” — could the world hope to overcome the ideologues, their false visions, and their massacres. Only the transcendent and a proper understanding of the economy of grace could renew the face of the earth. “It is a creative spiritual force,” Dawson wrote, “which has for its end nothing less than the re-creation of humanity.

The Church is no sect or human organization, but a new creation — the seed of the new order which is ultimately destined to transform the world.” Far from considering the imagination a hindrance to rationality or understanding, Dawson wrote, the Church “has always used Imagination as the normal means of transforming the notional assent into a real one.” Importantly, imagination “becomes a channel of the life of the spirit like the other powers of the soul.” Only the creativity of the Spirit will save Civilization before it succumbs to self-destruction.


The Remarkable Christopher Dawson Influence by Bradley Birzer

August 11, 2011

Christopher Dawson

A nice mention on the Ignatius Press blog website for payingatttentiontothesky. There’s a great interview with Bradley Birzer over there that covers much of the same ground I am doing here. Birzer’s book on Dawson [Sanctifying the World], available at Ignatius or Amazon is a wonderful read. I was utterly entranced by it as it plays to a background theme that I find fascinating, namely the eclipse of the Catholic faith by the secular world in the 60’s and the 70’s. At some point Catholicism and the Pope became a late night joke and the idea that there was a Christian truth in the 60’s and the 70’s was almost absurd. I guess Monty Python pretty much saw to that. Dawson was an observer in his decade of decline in the 60’s. Not that he declined in any way. He continued to write and work but the influence and regard for his writings waned. It wasn’t until recently that we begin to see a reassessment of Humane Vitae  and Birzer’s groundbreaking work on Dawson is in that mode and hopefully many more of his works will be reissued by the folks at Ignatius.


Perhaps first and foremost in terms of Dawson’s significant influence was that on poet, playwright, and social critic T. S. Eliot. Eliot first contacted Dawson, through Dawson’s publishers, Sheed and Ward, in the summer of 1929. He expressed his fondness for Dawson’s works, his desire to have Dawson contribute to his journal, the Criterion, and his wish that the two could meet. Eliot specifically hoped that Dawson would consider writing a piece on the “views of a practicing Catholic layman about marriage reform, birth control, the relations of the sexes in general in the modern world.” Dawson agreed, and he wrote one of his most perceptive articles, also published in booklet form, “Christianity and Sex.” In the article, described more fully in later chapters, Dawson argued that the ideological attack on the family — the true central institution in society — would inevitably lead to the increase of the power of the state, a theme that Dawson would take up in his five books written from 1931 to 1942.

As Eliot’s best biographer, Russell Kirk, wrote, “Of social thinkers in his own time, none influenced Eliot more than Dawson.” For three decades, Eliot was quite taken with Dawson’s views, and it would be difficult if not impossible to find a scholar who influenced Eliot more. In the early 1930s, Eliot told an American audience that Dawson was the foremost thinker of his generation in England. He explicitly acknowledged his debt to Dawson in the introductions to his two most politically and culturally oriented books, The Idea of a Christian Society and Notes Towards the Definition of Culture. One can also find Dawson’s influence in two of Eliot’s most important writings of the moral imagination, Murder in the Cathedral and The Four Quartets. Eliot continued to acknowledge a debt to Dawson after World War II. In a speech to the London Conservative Union in 1955, Eliot told his fellow conservative that they should understand conservatism as Dawson does, not as political but as ante-political and anti-ideological. Only then, Eliot argued, could English conservatives truly and effectively shape society. Dawson wrote of Eliot fondly in his personal correspondence, though the two never became close friends socially, as “they were both very reserved.” Much of their influence on one another came from a group of Christian academics and scholars who met on a fairly regular basis over a ten-year period beginning in 1938. Called the Moot, it included those whom Eliot considered “the Christian elite,” such as Dawson, Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich, and Arnold Toynbee.

Dawson played a serious role in C. S. Lewis’s work as well. Lewis seems not to have admitted this outright, but Dawson assumed — probably correctly — that Lewis had taken much of the argument in his Abolition of Man from Dawson’s own 1929 work, Progress and Religion. Though Dawson may have influenced Lewis intellectually, the two had next to nothing in common in terms of personality, at least at the beginning of their relationship.

Humphrey Havard, the physician affectionately known to Lewis and the other Inkling as the “Useless Quack,” brought Lewis and Dawson together one evening dui ing the second world war, and the results were less than satisfying for eithe one of them. Dawson asked Havard to meet Lewis, and Havard took him to Lewis’s offices at Magdalen College. Havard remembered Dawson, in contrast to Lewis, as a “physically frail, shy, disappointed man” whose intellectual style “was tortuous, full of qualifications and abstractions.” C. S. Lewis “did his best to draw Dawson out; but he shrank from our vigorous humor and casual manners.”

Strangely, this first meeting did not put an end to the relationship, and a friendship of sorts, or at least an alliance based on mutual respect, developed. When Dawson took over the editorship of the most important English Catholic intellectual journal, the Dublin Review, in 1940, he made a list of roughly twenty persons he wanted as permanent contributors and reviewers. Prominent on the list were the non-Catholic Lewis and “I,ewis’ Oxford Group,” better known as the Inklings, which included J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and Owen Barfield. And, in 1941, Lewis wrote to Dawson, “Dear Dawson (If we might both drop the honorific now?).” In such a formal time, the dropping of the honorific meant something, and especially to Lewis, who did so only with those he greatly respected. Religion and Culture, Dawson’s first set of published Gifford Lectures, especially pleased Lewis. After praising the book and its “magnificent ending” in a letter of appreciation to Dawson, Lewis concluded, “Thanks very much: you have given me a great treat.” Lewis also invited Dawson to participate in his prestigious Socratic Club.

The two disagreed on the meaning of history, though, and Lewis wrote his famous essay, “Historicism,” in 1950, in part, to counter Dawson’s philosophy of history. “I give the name Historicism to the belief that men can, by use of their natural powers, discover an inner meaning in the historical process,” Lewis argued. Had the Ulsterman left his argument there, Dawson might not have disagreed. After all, as Dawson argued in his own Stoic, Augustinian fashion, all good comes from the One, the Creator of all. Further, when he, Dawson, discovered the truth of history, he believed he did so by grace alone.

But Lewis took his argument further, giving examples of what he meant. “When Carlyle spoke of history as a `book of revelations’ he was being a Historicist. When Novalis called history `an evangel’ he was a Historicist.” These two examples were enough to include, by implication, Dawson. After Lewis sent Dawson an offprint of the article, Dawson returned the favor by writing two articles against Lewis’s view, entitled “The Christian View of History” and “The Problem of Metahistory.” Dawson challenged Lewis directly in the former article and implicitly in the latter article. Dawson seems to have won this argument, though, as in Mere Christianity Lewis claimed to know “the key to history,” a process by which the devil time and time again fools ordinary humans into doing the wrong thing. Ironically enough, Dawson would not have disagreed with Lewis on this.

The founder of modern American conservatism, Russell Kirk, found much to his liking in Dawson’s work. As early as in Kirk’s second but most famous academic book, The Conservative Mind, originally published in 1953, he noted that the first problem conservatives must solve is the “problem of spiritual and moral regeneration.” To support his first tenet of conservatism, Kirk cited Dawson approvingly. Indeed, it is impossible not to notice Dawson’s influence on Kirk’s historical understanding throughout his many works and forty-three-year writing career. Kirk first admitted to Dawson’s influence on him in a 1984 review article in the Chesterton Review. “Dawson wrote many books, all of them important. In this perspective, it comes home to me that I have been saturated in Dawsonian historical studies, and that my own books i reflect Dawson’s concepts.”

In his autobiography, Kirk again revealed that, “strongly influenced by Christopher Dawson and Eric Voegelin, Martin D’Arcy and Mircea Eliade,” he had “come to conclude that a civilization cannot long survive the dying of belief in a transcendent order that brought the culture into being.” At the time of his death in 1994, Kirk was planning to edit the collected works of Dawson, and he and his wife, Annette, had just returned from a trip to England, tracing Dawson’s path there. A historian endowed with imagination,” Kirk wrote with great praise, “Christopher Dawson restored to historical writing both an understanding of religion as the basis of culture and a moving power Of expression.”

Obviously, Dawson’s influence went well beyond Kirk, Lewis, Eliot, Merton, Jones, and Griffiths, each of whom had developed his own reputation through a variety of means and works. But by the late 1950s, as noted above, Christopher Dawson was arguably one of the most influential Roman Catholic scholars and public intellectuals in the English-speaking world. With only a few exceptions, Dawson’s mind rivaled any within the Roman Catholic Church.


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