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bernard wall colosseum

Bradley J. Birzer

As I was going through some files in my campus office this afternoon, I came across photocopies of articles from a now mostly forgotten journal, The Colosseum.  Founded by Bernard Wall (1908-1974) and Christopher Dawson (1889-1970) in 1934 as a new, even more polemical journal than had been the four famous issues of the short-lived but volatile Order, The Colosseum is nothing less than a brilliant statement of Christian humanism in an age of rampant ideologies.

The very range of the journals of opinion in the 1920s and 1930s should give any modern conservative and libertarian pause. We’ve lost so much in terms of a love of ideas, the importance of liberal learning, and the wide reading among the general public in this year of Our Lord, 2010.

In the 1920s and 1930s, one could look to The American Review, The Sewanee Review, and The Bookman for southern Agrarian and humanist ideas and debate; The Nation, North American Review, The Atlantic Monthly, and Review of Reviews for classical liberal beliefs; and The American Mercury and The Freeman for individualist thought. Small communities—republics of letters, if you will—flourished. Each of these journals represented something larger than itself.

In case readers presumed the title of The Colosseum to be mere hyperbole, the opening pages of the first issue would have disabused any reader of such notions.

“The Colosseum will not be a polite review. We hold that in our time silence would be inexcusable; and our belief in what we intend to say is too sincere for us to sit back and pay scholarly compliments.” Further, Wall and Dawson (the editors) argued, true scholars could no longer hide in the monasteries or accept penance in the desert. Instead, they must fight against the “shrieking contradictions of Capitalism, Bolshevism, Yogi, Democracy, Usury, Determinism, Freudianism, Starvation and Advocates of Poison Gas.” The human person “has been defaced and is now exploited and commercialized.”

The world of the 1930s, shaped and delimited by the ideologues and their creation of the machine to mechanize and conform man, offered only the false Manichean choice of “the sub-human mediocrity of the bourgeois world” and the false errors of the Bolshevists and Fascists. Because of the continued errors of the modern world, “crooks and demagogues like Stalin, Göring and Goebbels are enabled to exploit it.”

To counter these untruths, as Wall and Dawson hoped, writers of The Colosseum would fight for a proper definition of the human person. Man, they argued, finds himself only in a religious and familial context. The twentieth-century Catholic must recognize the beginning of modern errors, the new, elevated understanding of man in the Renaissance, and attempt to push him back into his proper place in the “hierarchy of beings.” [Wall, “Programme,” Colosseum 1 (1934): 5.]

Contributors included Jacques Maritain, Erick v. Kuehnelt-Leddihn, Nicholas Berdyeav, E.I. Watkin, and Peter Wust.

Though the journal only lasted a few years (1934-1939)—and the issues are terribly difficult to find in 2010—Wall, Dawson, and The Colosseum should be remembered by all readers of The Imaginative Conservative. Not only is the feisty journal an intellectual ancestor to what is being produced here and at websites such as Pileus, Ignatius Insight, and the Tory Anarchist, but this short-lived journal offered a model of brilliant writing, thought, and principles.

As Wall wrote in his autobiography, Headlong into Change, “T.S. Eliot thought that the vitality of small independent reviews was the test of a country’s civilisation.” [pg. 76)]

Eliot’s Criterion, of course, suffered the same fate, sadly, as did The Colosseum and so many other journals of its day, washed away by the forces of Demos, Mars, and Leviathan.

The narrowing of thought and the politicization and “ideologicalization” of culture frightened Wall profoundly. “What caused the disturbances in people’s minds was that we were all subjected to propaganda of a kind the human race had never before experienced.” [Headlong into Change, 79]

Few remember Bernard Wall now. I wish more did, as we would all benefit from his wisdom.

In 1935, Wall obtained a copy of Dawson’s Religion and Modern Society. That copy rests only feet from my MacBook Pro.  It remains one of my greatest possessions.

Thank you, Mr. Wall. Not polite, but certainly meaningful.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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1 reply to this post
  1. Brad, thank you for this essay, which took me back to heady days in Ann Arbor. I had not encountered Bernard Wall and the Colosseum since doing research on Dawson and other Catholic humanists more than two decades ago. You have done Wall justice.

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