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Christopher Dawson:
A Cultural Mind in the Age of the Great War

by joseph t. stuart
catholic university of america, 448 pages, $29.95

Joseph T. Stuart’s book holds out the promise of shedding light on the inner workings of a peerless mind. Christopher Dawson’s writings have been enormously important to me in understanding the civilization I inherited and grew up in, the part my homeland (Ireland) played in its construction, how it has been coming apart, and how it might be restored. My editions of Religion and the Rise of Western Culture, Understanding Europe, and The Crisis of Western Education are well-thumbed to the point of falling to pieces.

Dawson wrote about the dynamics of world history. He described how material factors interacted with intellectual trends—and, above all, with more mysterious and creative spiritual forces. As Stuart writes, Dawson built bridges between specializations, “integrating political, economic, and social history with the history of art, monasticism, education, and the intellectual and spiritual life.” At times his work is less history than what Stuart calls “prophetic sociology,” in the tradition of Tocqueville and Henry Adams, in which an investigation of social data leads less to scientific generalizations than to a moral or religious vision.

Dawson was born in 1889. Stuart’s study places him in the context of World War I, “a major spiritual rupture, the ‘original sin’ of the twentieth century.” The sexual revolution, Stuart judges, began during the 1920s and continues into the twenty-first century. The “privatization of the transcendent” in the aftermath of the war “emptied out the inside of Europe’s public squares and left them ripe for colonization by political religion.” The Great War also initiated a massive expansion of state power and apparatus and marked the beginning of the subordination of individuals to societies that pushed efficiency as the highest value.

Part of Christopher Dawson’s importance lay in his ability to hold his intellectual nerve, as it were; neither to despair nor to polemicize; to produce an integrated response to a time of civilizational disintegration. He found a way to respond to the times “as a scholar, a social theorist, and a Christian”—indeed, as a Catholic, for he converted from Anglicanism in 1914. An independent scholar for most of his career, he was appointed Professor of Roman Catholic Studies at Harvard in 1958.

No knowledge was lost on Dawson. Every stone lifted from his immense reading was fitted into his interpretive edifice. The publisher Maisie Ward remembered that

letters to Dawson from an expert in Indian religions treat him as a fellow expert; from an expert on the history of the Irish in the United States, as an equal in that field also. From Chinese dynasties to American Indians, from prehistory to the Oxford Movement, from Virgil to the latest novel or even “Western,” Christopher can talk of anything although you can also find him plunged in almost ­unbreakable silence and impervious to the people and things around.

Another visitor recalled crawling with the often ill Dawson “on hands and knees up and down between rows of books on the floor of his study. . . . I think each row represented a different century.”

Though he respected the integrity of each subject, Dawson was ­also drawn to what happened on the borders between subjects. As Stuart points out, Dawson was born in a twelfth-century castle at Hay-on-Wye near the English border with Wales. He was, in his own words, “conscious of the co-existence of two worlds—the rich Herefordshire countryside and poor and wild Welsh hills.”

Sociologists, Dawson thought, should listen humbly to the beliefs and theories of theologians concerning religious truths and the spiritual element in social processes. Equally, though, Dawson believed that most of the schisms and heresies in the Christian church “have their roots in social or national ­antipathies, and if this had been clearly recognized by the theologians the history of Christianity would have been a very different one.”

Dawson’s earliest literary memory was of a poem about Welsh myths that he remembered his mother reciting and that contained the proverb: “He who will be chief, let him be a bridge.” His “­connected view” of things was not just interdisciplinary but transdisciplinary, transcending two or more approaches to form what Stuart calls “a completely new holistic way of addressing particular problems.” In an age of left versus right, science versus religion, materialism versus spirituality, nations versus nations, Dawson remained true to the cause of reuniting the common values and traditions of Western culture, which so many others neglected and ignored.

Dawson “did not write in the service of triumphalist Catholicism,” this book notes. He had an epic vision, but it was couched in a relatively modest, scholarly voice. He tempered his prophetic power with intellectual rationalizations. ­Stuart writes of Dawson’s “­intellectual asceticism”—his factual fastidiousness, ideological restraint, English reserve, and clear writing. Readers of Dawson will know that his prose style does not ­particularly glisten or dash, nor is he endlessly quotable (at least not in a drop-of-the-hat kind of way). But he still packed a punch—as when he wrote about the eighteenth-­century ­philosophers who tried to replace the ancient faith of Christendom with their new ­rationalist ­doctrines: “They were in ­reality simply ­abstracting from it those ­elements . . . which had entered so deeply ­into their own thought that they no ­longer recognized their ­origin.”

Dawson sought to unite at least two major traditions that might otherwise have stayed well apart, stewing in mutual distrust and disdain. One was the humanistic tradition—his home ground. Dawson’s upbringing was imbued with a “tradition of culture as a hierarchy of values embedded in stories passed down from generation to generation.” The other tradition was the newer ­sociohistorical school of thought, initially exemplified by Durkheim and Weber, taken forward by a new wave of British sociologists (whom ­Dawson befriended and learned from), and further powered by the rise of anthropology.

Dawson seized on the sociologists’ idea of “culture as the common way of life of a people.” But rather than accept “culture” as the definitive object of study or the final motor of history, he looked deeper. “Every living culture must possess some spiritual dynamic, which provides the energy necessary for that sustained social effort which is civilization. Normally this dynamic is supplied by a religion.”

Thus when Dawson writes, “A society which has lost its religion becomes sooner or later a ­society which has lost its culture,” he is making, Stuart observes, less a ­pious statement than an anthropological one. The statement reflects one of Dawson’s core insights, which one encounters again today from the pens of contemporary writers. “Culture,” Paul Kingsnorth writes, “is always a fundamentally spiritual question. What is a culture? What’s it coiled around? It’s always, always a religious question.” Perhaps the energy—the dynamic (a favorite ­Dawsonian term)—that we are witnessing in the culture ­today, or rather in the culture wars today, is the product of the great uncoiling of culture from religion as it hits the final phase of frenzied acceleration before being spent completely.

The concluding ­chapters of what will surely prove to be a landmark study are devoted to how Dawson applied his mind to the specific circumstances of his time in the realms of politics and education. He championed a new form of education centered around the study of Christian culture from its spiritual and theological roots, through its organic historical growth, to its cultural fruits. It was a bold project. One might conclude that, in practical terms, he was proposing the abandonment—or at least the serious modification—of the classical, humanist model of education, built around the study of Greek and Latin, which had formed him and which he could see stretching backward from his own youth in England to ancient Athens. And he points the way toward a practical, if daring, alternative to more modern schemes of education that hurry us toward scientific specialization and utilitarian ­vocationalism.

His vision embraced a moderate cultural relativism (which, ­critically, involved relativizing modernity as much as the past, gathering everything into a vision of history in which man’s spiritual impulse plays a determinative role). It would make room for and make sense to nonbelievers, while also resisting the assimilationism that (whatever its proponents might hope for or pronounce) inevitably led to the destruction, abandonment, or corrosion of the Church’s place in the world and in the hearts of the faithful. In both tone and content, Dawson provides a template for those who seek to to defend Western culture or the Church in current debates in politics and culture and who want to disarm opponents without seeing them humiliated or (to use the internet term) “­destroyed.”

Stuart’s book is dense, sober, technical, scholarly, and fair to Dawson and his critics. Yet the impression it imparts is not far from heroic: the impression of a man whose dedication to an “apostolate of study” led him ultimately to stand athwart the hectic course of history, politics, and social change, yelling (in his diffident, scholarly manner) “Culture.” Dawson meant a specifically Christian culture: historical and dynamic, local and universal, material and spiritual, human and divine.

John Duggan writes from Surrey, ­England.

Image by Levan Ramishvili via Creative Commons. Image cropped.