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The Great His­to­rian of Cul­ture: Christo­pher Daw­son by Russell Hittinger

The Great His­to­rian of Cul­ture: Christo­pher Daw­son

by Rus­sell Hit­tingerChristo­pher Daw­son

A Historian and His World: A Life of Christopher Dawson by Christina Scott. With a new introduction by Russell Kirk, and a postscript by Christo­pher Daw­son: “Memories of a Victorian Childhood.”

Christo­pher Daw­son was the most il­lus­tri­ous Catholic his­to­rian of our cen­tury. He was per­haps the last of a breed of free­lance schol­ars and writ­ers (e.g. Hume, Gib­bon, and in our time, Rus­sell Kirk) whose great­ness was made pos­si­ble in large mea­sure precisely be­cause he avoided the nar­row and often petty con­straints of pro­fes­sional, aca­d­e­mic in­sti­tu­tions. Daw­son did not hold a full-time aca­d­e­mic post until he was nearly sev­enty years old, when he ac­cepted the Still­man Chair of Roman Catholic Stud­ies at Har­vard, where he lec­tured from 1958–1962. This bi­og­ra­phy, com­pe­tently and beau­ti­fully writ­ten by his daugh­ter, Christina Scott, is a fine ac­count of Daw­son’s life and thought.

Daw­son was born at Hay Cas­tle, in Wales, on 12 Oc­to­ber 1889. Built in the twelfth cen­tury, the cas­tle stood in a town that still had a Welsh-speak­ing pop­u­la­tion. From his mother, the daugh­ter of an arch-Protes­tant An­gli­can cler­gy­men, he learned a pietas to­ward the Welsh cul­tural and re­li­gious tra­di­tion. From his fa­ther, an An­glo-Catholic mil­i­tary of­fi­cer, he in­her­ited a re­spect for the Catholic tra­di­tion, to which Daw­son would con­vert in 1914. He would later write of his early child­hood in Wales: “In fact it was then I ac­quired my love of his­tory, my in­ter­est in the dif­fer­ences of cul­ture and my sense of the im­por­tance of re­li­gion in human life, as a mas­sive, ob­jec­tive, un­ques­tioned power that en­tered into every­thing and im­pressed its mark on the ex­ter­nal as well as the in­ter­nal world.”

Even in these early years we find one of the most dis­tinc­tive traits of Daw­son’s mind. Un­like many of the lights in the fir­ma­ment of the Catholic re­vival of the 1930s—e.g., Mar­i­tain, Gilson, Rous­selot, and Ronald Knox—Daw­son es­chewed ab­stract phi­los­o­phy and sys­tem­atic the­ol­ogy. Of course he re­spected these as im­por­tant ex­pres­sions of in­tel­lec­tual and sci­en­tific order. From the very out­set of his life, how­ever, Daw­son was drawn to the cul­tural, his­tor­i­cal, aes­thetic, and even mys­ti­cal el­e­ments of Chris­tian­ity. For ex­am­ple, we learn from the bi­og­ra­phy that his first lit­er­ary com­po­si­tion, writ­ten at the age of six, was an al­le­gor­i­cal story about “The Golden City and the Coal City”, which de­scribed a strug­gle be­tween Chris­tians and hea­thens. We also learn that when he went up to Ox­ford in 1908, quite for­tu­nately tak­ing as a tutor the Aris­totelian scholar Ernest Barker, Daw­son chiefly de­voted him­self to the study of lives of the mys­tics and saints rather than phi­los­o­phy.
Noth­ing, how­ever, was more for­ma­tive dur­ing his Ox­ford years than his read­ing of St. Au­gus­tine’sCity of God. Daw­son was im­bued with an Au­gus­tian­ian sense of his­tory as a moral and spir­i­tual drama. It was this sen­si­bil­ity, when com­bined with his train­ing in so­ci­ol­ogy and in the best meth­ods of his­tor­i­cal re­search, that ac­counted for Daw­son’s ge­nius. His two well-known es­says on St. Au­gus­tine, “The Dying World,” and the “City of God,” re­pub­lished in En­quiries into Re­li­gion and Cul­ture(1933), are, in my es­ti­ma­tion, un­sur­pass­able—both in terms of their sense of St. Au­gus­tine, and in their Au­gus­tin­ian sense of his­tory. If it is still pos­si­ble for some­one to be an Au­gus­tin­ian, Daw­son was the real item.

Dur­ing Easter va­ca­tion 1909, when he was nine­teen, Daw­son vis­ited the church of the Ara Coeli in Rome. Sit­ting on the steps of the Capi­tol, in the same place where Gib­bon had been in­spired to write The De­cline and Fall, Daw­son vowed to write a his­tory of cul­ture. Re­turn­ing to Eng­land, he even­tu­ally mar­ried Valery Mills and was re­ceived into the Catholic Church on the eve of the Feast of the Epiphany, Jan­u­ary , 1914. Then began a lonely four­teen years of study in prepa­ra­tion for his pro­jected his­tory of cul­ture. It was a dif­fi­cult pe­riod be­cause Daw­son worked with­out a full-time uni­ver­sity post. In­deed, his first bid for such a po­si­tion, at the Uni­ver­sity of Leeds in the early 1930s, was re­jected be­cause of his Catholi­cism.

The four­teen-year pe­riod of ges­ta­tion bore ex­cel­lent re­sults. Be­gin­ning with his first pub­lished work, Age of the Gods (1928), a stream of pub­li­ca­tions would fol­low, in­clud­ing: Progress and Re­li­gion (1929), The Mak­ing of Eu­rope (1932), Spirit of the Ox­ford Move­ment (1933), En­quiries into Re­li­gion and Cul­ture (1933), and Re­li­gion and the Mod­ern State (1939), to men­tion only a few of the more promi­nent books. In these books, the gen­eral con­tours of Daw­son’s pro­ject be­came ap­par­ent. He con­tended (i) that re­li­gion is not a by-prod­uct of cul­ture, but is rather the an­i­mat­ing form of cul­tures world­wide, (ii) that the ca­reer of Eu­ro­pean cul­ture is to be ex­plained by a com­mon re­li­gion, that al­lowed the var­i­ous tribes and eth­nic in­ter­ests to tran­scend the ma­te­ri­ally lim­it­ing pres­sures of race, lan­guage, and prop­erty, and (iii) that mod­ern Eu­rope, hav­ing re­jected the Chris­t­ian re­li­gion, has de­volved into a racial and tribal mael­strom, con­trolled only by the ma­te­r­ial forces of tech­nol­ogy, eco­nom­ics, and armed force.
At the time of the Sec­ond World War, Daw­son was ap­pointed ed­i­tor of the Dublin Re­view. He used his ed­i­to­r­ial of­fice to good ef­fect, by fos­ter­ing co­op­er­a­tion be­tween po­lit­i­cally left- and right-wing Chris­tians of var­i­ous de­nom­i­na­tions, and by urg­ing his co-re­li­gion­ists to get a proper per­spec­tive on the events of the War. In nu­mer­ous ar­ti­cles, as well as in his book Judge­ment of the Na­tions(1942), Daw­son re­peat­edly warned that to­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism is both the heresy of mak­ing the state man’s final end, as well as the il­lu­sion of think­ing that cul­tural patholo­gies can be ad­dressed merely by tech­nol­ogy.

After the war, Daw­son re­ceived well-de­served recog­ni­tion for his schol­arly work. In 1947 he gave the pres­ti­gious Gif­ford Lec­tures at Ed­in­burgh Uni­ver­sity. These lec­tures were pub­lished under the ti­tles Re­li­gion and Cul­ture (1948), and Re­li­gion and the Rise of West­ern Cul­ture (1950). Par­tic­u­larly in the lat­ter book, Daw­son dis­cussed what we, in the late twen­ti­eth cen­tury, can learn from the so-called “dark ages,” when the prim­i­tive so­cial con­di­tions of Eu­rope held the po­ten­tial for being formed into a great civ­i­liza­tion. To the end of his life, he in­sisted that the twen­ti­eth cen­tury is as volatile, and be­cause of tech­nol­ogy, per­haps more fraught with dan­ger than, the orig­i­nal “dark ages.”

From 1958–1962, Daw­son was the first in­cum­bent of the Still­man Chair of Roman Catholic Stud­ies, at Har­vard. His Har­vard lec­tures would later ap­pear under the ti­tles The Di­vid­ing of Chris­ten­dom(1965), and The For­ma­tion of Chris­ten­dom (1967). These books are among the best he wrote. He was es­pe­cially keen to show how cul­tural forces are a prin­ci­pal cause of ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal schisms.Heresy, he con­tended, can­not be un­der­stood merely in terms of sys­tem­atic the­ol­ogy.

The sub­ject of ed­u­ca­tion was also of par­tic­u­lar in­ter­est dur­ing his Amer­i­can so­journ. The Cri­sis of West­ern Ed­u­ca­tion (1961) al­lowed Daw­son ac­cess to the dis­cus­sion going on in the Catholic sys­tem, where such men as John Mul­loy and Bruno Schlesinger urged cur­ric­u­lar re­forms based on Daw­son’s ideas. Though Daw­son flour­ished dur­ing a golden mo­ment of Catholic in­tel­lec­tual life—the bi­og­ra­phy re­lates his busi­ness and friend­ship with Ronald Knox, E. I. Watkin, T. S. Eliot, Fr. Mar­tin D’ Arcy, Frank Sheed and Maisie Ward, Eve­lyn Waugh, David Jones, C. S. Lewis, and a host of lesser lights—his re­la­tion to the bu­reau­cra­cies and of­fi­cials in the Church was not al­ways a happy one. He en­coun­tered a cer­tain nar­row­ness and medi­oc­rity that must have taxed his loy­alty.

In any event, Daw­son had the sin­gu­lar mis­for­tune of being re­garded by some Catholic ed­u­ca­tors as per­haps too pro­gres­sive in mat­ters of ed­u­ca­tion, be­cause of his em­pha­sis on his­tory and cul­ture rather than phi­los­o­phy, and then, by the early 1960s, as being too con­ser­v­a­tive be­cause of his em­pha­sis upon the theme of Chris­t­ian cul­ture. There is some­thing qui­etly, but pro­foundly, tragic about Daw­son’s Amer­i­can ex­pe­ri­ence. Here was a re­fined Eng­lish Catholic, whose ca­reer was lim­ited in Eng­land by anti-Catholi­cism (of the old-fash­ioned sort), whose ma­jes­tic writ­ings were some­times tossed off by re­view­ers as the work of a “Catholic pub­li­cist”, who by the end of his ca­reer had achieved the most pres­ti­gious uni­ver­sity post held by any Catholic in the world—but, at the end, was spurned by some Amer­i­can Catholics as being in­suf­fi­ciently rel­e­vant to the spirit of the age. The moral of the story of the Vat­i­can II era is sum­ma­rized in the events of Daw­son’s later life.

After a stroke in 1962, Daw­son re­signed from Har­vard, and re­turned to Eng­land, where he would live, semi-crip­pled, until 1970. Sunk in a coma on his deathbed, Daw­son awoke for one lucid mo­ment. His sis­ter re­calls: “All of a sud­den he opened his eyes and star­ing at the paint­ing of the cru­ci­fix­ion, which was on the wall at the foot of his bed, he had a beau­ti­ful smile and his eyes were wide open. He then said: ‘This is Trin­ity Sun­day. I see it all and it is beau­ti­ful’.” His bi­og­ra­pher notes that he had been un­con­scious, and could not have known it was Trin­ity Sun­day.

Historian and His World is nicely written and produced. It contains a good bibliography of Dawson’s writings, brief pieces by Russell Kirk and James Oliver, and the posthumously published memoir of Dawson about his childhood. Thanks are due to Transaction Publishers for bringing this book into print for the American audience.

“[Dawson] viewed the disintegration of Western culture as a far worse disaster than that of the fall of Rome. For the one was material; the other would be a spiritual disaster which would strike directly at the moral foundations of our society and destroy not the outward form of civilization but the soul of man, which is the be­gin­ning and the end of all human cul­ture.” —A Historian and His World

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Essays on Christopher Dawson may be found here

F. Rus­sell Hit­tinger was at the time of writ­ing an as­so­ci­ate pro­fes­sor in the school of phi­los­o­phy, The Catholic Uni­ver­sity of Amer­ica. He is cur­rently William K. War­ren Pro­fes­sor of Catholic Stud­ies and Re­search Pro­fes­sor of Law at the Uni­ver­sity of Tulsa. This originally ran in Volume 33, Number 4, 1993 issue of the University Bookman and is published here with their gracious permission.

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