Christopher Dawson: A Cultural Mind in the Age of the Great War
By Joseph T. Stuart.
Catholic University of America Press, 2022.
Paperback, 448 pages, $29.95.

Reviewed by Dermot Quinn.

The University Bookman is proud to offer this three-review symposium on Joseph T. Stuart’s important new book, Christopher Dawson: A Cultural Mind in the Age of the Great War. Please join us on January 10, 2023, at 7:00 p.m. EST as we host Dr. Stuart on our monthly “The Book Gallery” webinar. Register to participate at this link. — The Editors

When Christopher Dawson died in 1970 at the age of eighty, he seemed a man from a vanishing past. Writing his obituary in The Tablet, the Cambridge medievalist David Knowles doubted if anyone under the age of 40 could recall his slight figure, his gentle voice, his frail appearance, his weak health, his retiring disposition—a man so insubstantial that “a gust of wind might sweep him out of sight.” Yet to those who came of age in the 1920s and the 1930s, Knowles insisted, Dawson was both master and prophet. His vast scholarship, his mind always taking “the broadest view of history and religion,” his awareness of culture as freighted with spiritual significance, his Augustinian sense of a living past whose story is not yet complete, his understanding of Europe as the transmitter of the Christian and classical civilizations from which it was formed, his moral seriousness, his courageous defense of political freedom in the face of totalitarianism—these were Dawson’s legacies to his own and later generations. If we are to repair a civilization all too obviously weakened by existentialist and relativist casts of thought, Knowles claimed, we should rediscover that legacy. He offered no predictions as to the likelihood of that happening, but he seemed doubtful of it. 

Knowles was right in more ways than one. In the years immediately after his death, Dawson did fade from view, the victim of fickle intellectual fashion. In more recent years, however, the signs of a Dawson revival are unmistakable and encouraging. For a while, the heroic John Mulloy kept his name before the public in the form of the Dawson Newsletter. Taking up the baton, Don Briel, Glenn Olsen, Russell Hittinger, and others explored Dawson’s thought in books, articles, lectures, and seminars. In the last decade and a half, Catholic University of America Press and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute have re-issued Dawson’s major works. Gerald Russello’s Christianity and European Culture: Selections from the Work of Christopher Dawson appeared in 1998. Bradley Birzer’s Sanctifying the World: The Augustinian Life and Mind of Christopher Dawson followed in 2007. Fine books by Adam Schwartz (in 2005) and James Lothian (in 2009) dealt in part with Dawson. In addition, several colleges and universities have created Humanities programs whose inspiration is directly or indirectly Dawsonian. Students today who travel to Rome with Catholic Studies professors walk in Dawson’s trail. It was on the steps of Santa Maria in Aracoeli in 1909 that he conceived the notion of writing a history of culture, a project that determined the course of his life. That 1909 epiphany was a response to a similar epiphany in the same spot in 1764—Edward Gibbon’s dream of writing The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. With Dawson, the Empire, as it were, strikes back. 

Now, in the second or third wave of this Dawson revival, we have Joseph T. Stuart’s splendid Christopher Dawson: A Cultural Mind in the Age of the Great War. What Stuart identifies and admires in Dawson—the “architectural” way he arranges discrete historical and philosophical materials; the “boundary thinking” by which he protects the integrity of distinct disciplines; the “bridge-building” by which he encourages conversations between disciplines; the “intellectual ascetism” with which he conducted his scholarly life—are amply displayed in his book. Stuart is patient, fair-minded, restrained, and fastidious, like the man he describes. Seeing Dawson as a model of intellectual good manners, he is an example of the same. Julian Scott, Christopher Dawson’s grandson, has praised his book as “extremely wide ranging,” as much a cultural history of the twentieth century as a history of one man’s mind. On this evidence, the Dawson revival goes from strength to strength. 

Yet what, precisely, is being revived? Dawson’s major works remain important, of course, and ought to be on serious reading lists. The intellectual journalism of the 1930s and 1940s is engaging but necessarily dated. The vastness of his erudition is itself an inspiration (although unlikely to be emulated in an age of academic specialization). But whether in a major or minor key, what is most striking about Dawson is his combination of daring and restraint. The scholarship was careful, meticulous, and painstaking—which made the breadth of its conclusions the more exhilarating. It was his insistence on disciplinary boundaries that made bridge-building between disciplines possible. His love of limits was also a love of the liminal spaces between them. Always in his work is a sense of the creative interactions between religion and culture, between past and present, between man and his environment, between the material and the spiritual. Dawson had the confidence and humility of a polymath. History is not to be explained “as a closed order in which each stage is the inevitable and logical result of that which is gone before.” In an unsettling way it is not to be “explained” at all. There is an irreducibly mysterious element to the human drama that defies the best (and worst) of the system-builders. 

To be sure, Dawson was a bracingly aphoristic writer confident of his own judgments. “Religion is the key of history,” he wrote in 1948. “We cannot understand the inner form of a society unless we understand its religion. We cannot understand its cultural achievements unless we understand the religious beliefs that lie behind them. In all ages the first creative works of a culture are due to a religious inspiration and dedicated to a religious end.” In so declaring, he was attempting to describe that Augustinian restlessness for the divine that is the stamp of all human beings. The search can go spectacularly wrong, as it did in his lifetime when all sorts of false gods were invented and idolized. But even faux religiosity is a perverse tribute to the real thing.

What distinguishes Dawson’s “key” to history is that, unlike others, it opened doors rather than closed them. He wanted to know, as a theoretical and practical matter, why civilizations destroy themselves. It was, in a way, the central question of his life. Writing in 1924, for instance, he argued that the catastrophe of the Great War showed “how insecure are the foundations on which the elaborate edifice of the modern world-order rests.” He wanted to rebuild those foundations using sturdier materials than the flimsy liberalism that had been destroyed on the Somme. Twenty-one years later, when Hitlerism had been defeated but not Stalinism, he thought that the challenge was even more severe:

The totalitarian state is, by its very nature, intolerant not merely of criticism but of diversity; so that it combines all the intolerances of the past—the intolerance of the absolutist state for the rebel, the intolerance of the orthodox state for the heretic, the intolerance of the police state for the criminal—into a massive weight of social pressure that forces everyone into the same mould of total conformity.

Yet if totalitarianism by its awfulness seemed to make the case for Western liberalism, could Western liberalism make the case for itself? Dawson had his doubts:

In the past, Western Civilization was based on the assumption that man had an immortal soul, and however much the state demanded, it admitted, at least in theory, that the destiny of every human being reached beyond the extreme limits of political society, so that human conduct was ultimately governed and judged by super-social laws. The secularization of Western Society did not immediately destroy the consequences of this belief. On the contrary, the more men lost their faith in God, the more desperately did they cling to the belief in the liberty and value of human personality which was the fruit of a thousand years of Christian culture. The present plight of Western culture is due…to the fact that the real values we are defending against the totalitarian state are values that have been divorced from their religious and metaphysical foundations, and are in so far indefensible, but which remain the highest values which we possess.

As Sigrid Undset remarked, “the morality code that remains after the religion that produced it is rejected is like the perfume that lingers in an empty bottle.” The more the West lost its spiritual aim, Dawson thought, the more it clung to its material achievements. Hobbes and Bacon were its new high priests. Knowledge was power, and power was everything. 

Dawson did not propose as a solution to this crisis the recreation of a vanished Christendom. That was self-evidently absurd. He had a lot of time for the Middle Ages but not much time for medievalists. He proposed instead a politics of engagement with the modern world, a pluralism with deep roots in religious soil, a form of Christian Democracy that has had broad appeal in Europe and Latin America in the years before and after his death. A confessional state was the last thing he wanted but he did hope for a recovery of the theological foundations upon which a genuine liberalism could be based. Indeed, that commitment was far-reaching, influencing among others John Courtney Murray and, through him, the deliberations of the Second Vatican Council. (Murray’s essay The Return to Tribalism seems completely Dawsonian in inspiration.) “The malady from which our civilization is suffering,” Dawson wrote in 1945, “can only be remedied by [the restoration of] the true hierarchy of spiritual ends and [by the recognition of] the autonomy and irreducibility of the higher levels of spiritual reality.” That sentiment prevailed in Rome between 1962 and 1965. It also stands as a summary of Dawson’s entire intellectual project. 

So, the Dawson revival is not an exercise in nostalgia. He may represent the kind of scholarly life that is all but impossible today. He may appear, as David Knowles implied, a man out of time even in his own time. Yet the revived interest in him says something important about our own need for a serious man for serious times. To Joseph Stuart, he represents “a cultural mind in the age of the great war,” a scholar grappling with civilizational ruin. “Those of us who remember the world before the wars,” Dawson wrote, recalling his childhood, “have witnessed a change in human consciousness far greater than we have realized, and what we are remembering is not the Victorian age but a whole series of ages—a river of immemorial time which has suddenly dried up and become lost in the seismic cleft that has opened between the present and the past.” That change in human consciousness took many forms in the middle years of the twentieth century—pessimism, irony, loss of faith—but at its root lay doubt about the very possibility of civilization itself. Dawson knew how slowly accumulated wisdom could be wiped out in an instant. He had seen it before. He was seeing it again.

We seem to be seeing it, too. The robust democratic pluralism Dawson favored has given way to a morally preening cancel culture. Technocrats tell us what to do and think. Free people must follow the science or face jail. The age of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded. Dawson, an acute diagnostician of cultural loss three-quarters of a century ago, continues to be vindicated today. 

What was that diagnosis? George Weigel, praising Stuart’s book, summarizes it thus: “Like St. John Paul II, Christopher Dawson understood that culture is the great driver of history over the long haul and that a society can only be as great as its spiritual aspirations.” That is the good news. The bad news is that spiritual aspirations are also capable of distortion. Explaining those distortions, showing how they flourish and fail, was the Dawson project. It still is. Dawson calls on us to re-examine our household gods, to ask if the glittering objects of our veneration amount to anything other than trash. When his contemporaries worshipped Nazism, Communism, and Scientism, was it any wonder that the results were ruinous? But are our domestic idols any better? There are plenty of holocausts to go around, many of them hidden from view. 

Yet Dawson did more than denounce. As Stuart notices, his project was essentially constructive. He sought “to repair the separation of values from truth, religion from culture, ideas from material reality, technology from ecology, past from present, faith from reason, and education from life.” That was a formidable program but by no means an impossible one. After all, Dawson himself had shown how it could be done—by thinking clearly, by respecting boundaries, by building bridges, by showing restraint. The repairs he suggested were urgent in the middle years of the twentieth century. They are no less urgent now. To begin, we would do well to start with Joseph Stuart’s exemplary volume.

Dermot Quinn is Professor of History at Seton Hall University.

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