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62-51B6CGYFX7LA 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’s City 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.

A 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. 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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