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The beginnings of Western culture are to be found in the new spiritual community which arose from the ruins of the Roman Empire owing to the conversion of the Northern barbarians to the Christian faith. The Christian Church inherited the traditions of the Empire. It came to the barbarians as the bearer of a higher civilization, endowed with the prestige of Roman law and the authority of the Roman name. The breakdown of the political organization of the Roman Empire had left a great void which no barbarian king or general could fill, and this void was filled by the Church as the teacher and law-giver of the new peoples. The Latin Fathers—Ambrose, Augustine, Leo and Gregory—were in a real sense the fathers of Western culture, since it was only in so far as the different peoples of the West were incorporated in the spiritual community of Christendom that they acquired a common culture. It is this, above all, that distinguishes the Western development from that of other world civilizations.” (Religion and the Rise of Western Culture)

Books by Christopher Dawson are available in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Essays by/about Mr. Dawson are here.

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23 replies to this post
  1. Is this when mass-culture started? That is, non-conservative culture? Non-communal? Nation-building Christianity killed or bribed it's way around the world. That isn't conservative.

  2. I'd also like to add that I am thinking merely thinking out loud. This subject is really interesting to me, and I am a novice.

    Another thought. To me, conservatism is local, familial and humble. This may have been the way Christ was, but the Catholic church certainly was not and still isn't.

    The 'barbarians' had culture too, you know. Beautiful culture. A lot of that has been incorporated into Christianity and the West.

    Most pagans are more conservative than any Western blogger or web-surfer can fathom. Why should we herald mass-catholic-christianity-West-culture thing and deride the barbarians?

    And I don't want to single out Christians. Other religions, especially monotheist religions, divide and conquer too.

    Again, just thinking out loud. Curious to hear from the experts.

  3. Jon, your questions are worth asking…I agree with Dawson regarding the void that the Roman Empire left; it was readily filled by Christianity. I would also agree that the culture of the barbarians, much less one of their kings were in no way capable or ready to fill such a void. The barbarians did have a culture, but Dawson refers to the "high civilization" of the West which was greater and much more far reaching than the barbarians could imagine. Remembering Dawson's understanding of culture, from "cultus", pagans had culture. Did the barbarians have a "High" culture, much less a beautiful one…I disagree with you there. I do not see the Irish stripping naked and attacking their government officials or business leaders who have starved their economy in recent years like their noble, but not necessarily beautiful Celtic ancestors. I am grateful for the Spanish conquistadors and Catholic friars coming and civilizing Mexico. My ancestors were probably not Aztec much less of their ruling class or priesthood; so they survived losing their hearts being pulled out of their chests and thus I am here today. My wallet may be torn from pocket every April 15th, but I do thank God for America and the high, noble beauty of the West.

  4. The barbarians weren't just Irish. They were everywhere. Everywhere before others came in.

    Barbarianism in my mind is defined as localism. It rose out of that region and is specific to you.

    Christianity is barbarism too, but only for the MidEast. When Christianity or the Roman religion left their region they were no longer barbarians/pagans. They spread.

    Why should somebody in Wyoming believe in a guy from the Middle East as their savior? That's odd. At least the Mormons try to sort this out.

  5. Jon,

    "Barbarianism in my mind is defined as localism." OMG (which, by the way, has made it into both Webster and the OED as a "word"), out of what cloud did that come? If you think that the opposite of barbarianism is civilization (although I have no idea what that could possibly mean to you), then perhaps it is equated with cosmopolitanism? Let's see, cosmopolitans can be people like Ben Franklin, a wonderful relativist and almost as much fun as Groucho Marx, or Karl Marx, not so wonderful. Ideologues are all cosmopolitans, because local patriotism requires that you love something that actually exists, as opposed to something you can only conjure up.

    I lived in Wyoming for a year and was overwhelmed by the wind, the big sky, and the open spaces. It is a place where a "guy from the middle east" makes all the sense in the world, because you realize how small and insignificant you are without Him.

  6. Gentlemen, kindly permit me to introduce myself, a pure-bred barbarian: Celt on one side, German and Ostrogoth on the other and not a drop of so-called civilised blood to spoil the cocktail. When we barbarians meet in private (after saying Grace of course, because we are grateful for our Roman Catholic faith), we often lament that the winners always write the history to suit themselves. Recent German archeology discovered a big error in classical and medieval maps, suggesting that many big, modern German cities stand on the sights of, um, big, ancient, pre-Roman, German cities that Tacitus et. al. queerly forgot to, um, mention in haste to describe the enemy as anything but savages. Fancy that. Thinking deeper for 'arf a mo,' why would the Romans waste so many men and gold aurea conquering a land if all it had was bratwurst and trees? They had trees at home, and whatever Italians think passes for sausages then and now.

    In the Scots historian Sir John Keay's recent history of India, he cites an interesting bit of research on the Puranas, written in Sanskrit by the Aryan invaders 3000-3500 years ago. Some linguists took modern Hindi and separated the Sanskrit from the indigenous, pre-Aryan, Dravidian words. The Hindi words for priesthood and ritual, warfare and pastoral activities were Sanskrit for the Aryan invaders were herdsmen, warriors and brahmins. All the other words (apart from modern Hindi words such as 'semiconductor' and 'pole-dancing') were Dravidian, pre-invasion, and covered agriculture, sex, cookery, weather, housing, entertainment, child-raising and so forth, or most of life. So, he asks, were the Aryana who wrote the histories the real conquerors, or were they subsumed into a larger and older society like many others, with the difference that they alone wrote histories glorifying their own small importance? The Sanskrit histories were promoted by the Raj-era English, he notes, who had a similar reason to purport that India was always best-governed by armed outsiders. They would, wouldn't they!

    Being a conservative, and thus prudent, I would not rush to take the side of winner in all instances when uncovering the opposing view only takes a little more work. We can be grateful for Roman legacies without swallowing their claptrap and propaganda.

  7. John Wilson: NO clouds here, buddy. Do you always start arguments with an ad hominem?

    What I am trying ask is this: is monotheism a pre-requisite to conservatism? Is religion at all required?

    I can imagine a conservative Japanese person, who believes in Shinto. This is a Japanese religion for a Japanese people. It makes sense.

    Now we have American people who practice a Middle Eastern religion. I am just a little perplexed by this notion. Shouldn't your religion reflect the place where you grew up?

    Wyoming is a beautiful, if not holy, land. Should't your God know about it? Shouldn't Wyoming be mentioned in the Bible? Especially now.

    Stephen Masty:
    I think I get your points, and you bring up a lot of fascinating stories too. I'd like to hear more…

  8. Well, BUDDY, look up ad hominem, and you will find that I rarely engage in it.

    I am just amazed that you equate the "liittle platoons" with barbarism. "Amazed" might not even be the operative word–maybe "perplexed" is better.

    And yes, not only is monotheism a prerequisite to conservatism, but to be more specific, Christianity is a prerequisite to conservatism. Saying this does not imply that conservatives are bigots, only that to conserve means something beyond just what the heck there is out there. I don't particularly mind that some Japanese are Shinto, or that most Englishmen don't go to church, or even that some women run around rattling chicken bones and calling themselves wiccans.

    But Goodness, Truth, and Beauty are not just a matter of taste. Oh, for goodness sake I shouldn't have to be explaining this. God for sure knows where Wyoming is. Maybe you can rewrite the Bible and get it in there. I was once walking home from class in Laramie and got in the middle of a whiteout. If that wasn't God giving me a timeout I don't know what else could do it.

  9. Dr. Willson,

    I think there's a strong case to be made that to be an American conservative one must also be Christian. Insofar as being conservative involves living by the best of your cultural traditions and heritage, Christianity being a fundament component of the best of America's heritage, it would seem that a conservative, at least in the Anglo-American tradition, must be a Christian.

    But your comment raised some questions for which I don't yet know the answer. Is conservatism specific to a given culture, so that, for instance, a native of Japan would have to be Shinto, or whatever other religion was foundational to that culture, in order to be a conservative?

    Even regarding the question as to whether an American conservative must Christian, Kirk admits Babbitt in to the pantheon of conservatives, but he was not Christian. Does that mean adherence to Christianity is not required or that conservatism is a matter of degrees – Christianity being required to be a conservative in the fullest sense?

    Also, in Kirk's various formulations of his conservative principles (I'll admit that I don't know that I've seen them all), at most he seems to require belief in a transcendent being or moral order, which is a prerequisite of and implied by Christian belief, but not identical with it.

    Just a few thoughts to prompt what could be an interesting discussion.

    • Conservatism does not have to include Tradition in the religious sense. Conservatism by definition tries to conserve something that pertains to history. History is the development of our nation state and its boundaries. Conservatism holds to Constitutionalism, which is maintaining the balance of power, limiting government over-reach, and government’s expenditures. Conservatism includes many things that history has made “traditional”. I read a blog called The Secular Right. These are conservatives, but are not religious.

  10. "at most he seems to require belief in a transcendent being or moral order, which is a prerequisite of and implied by Christian belief, but not identical with it. "

    Well articulate John Creech. This is fascinating.

  11. Jon,
    Your favorite book is listed as Waiting for Barbarians….but when I looked up such title, I found three books with that title. Can you entertain for me your understanding of a barbarian via your own intellect, but also as your favorite book?

  12. Creech,

    You pose a very interesting question about the significance of religion – and in particular, Christianity – to the definition of conservatism. In his writings, Dr. Kirk readily spoke about "divine intent" and "belief in a transcendent order," but he does not explicitly state that one must be Christian to be defined rightfully as conservative. Irving Babbitt and Robert Nisbet, two towering figures of 20th century conservatism, were not practicing Christians, but both believed that religious belief was essential to a proper, conservative worldview. Kirk often quoted Babbitt, who was largely a Buddhist, that, at bottom, all problems are religious; and Nisbet, largely a secular writer, maintained that religion was an essential part of any healthy community. But I've never gleaned from their writings that one must be a Christian to be a proper conservative.

  13. John Creech, let's try one more time. The question about whether Christianity is central to, or essential to a conservative view of the world is, I think, the most important question one can ask about the word "conservative." If Christianity is not essential to it, I would suggest that the term has no real meaning. Christianity, unlike any work of men, is either true or not true. It's truth claims are not like those of pagans or Shinto or Druids. Christians claim a transcendent, eternal God who has delivered through creation, revelation, and Incarnation a meaning to the order of things that has no other alternative. This is true whether one is American, Zulu, Chinese, or Eskimo. That said, where do the edges meet? Our conventional media call the Russian communists conservatives, which simply implies that the word means only "that which we have, or have had, that should be preserved." We should be able to do better than that, and better even than the great non-Christian Robert Nisbet, who, like many creatures of reason, saw Christianity as merely useful. i certainly would like to be more definitive than this, and what I have said does not require any Christian to be a bigot, but it's late and this is the best I can do tonight.

  14. John Rocha:
    I totally forgot I put that on my profile. That is quite a coincidence! Waiting for Barbarians is a book by James Coetzee of South Africa. I believe he has won a Nobel prize for one of his books. The book is fictional but also an allegory for colonialism. The main character is a magistrate in a frontier town in S Africa or thereabouts. He is torn between the barbarians (the black locals) who he oversees and his colleagues and supervisors. He's forced to make some really consequential decisions. It's a really cool book.

    As to how I define a 'barbarian', without looking it up in wikipedia first ;), is someone who is polytheist or atheist. At least most basically. There are also specific examples like the tribes of northern europe, or what some whites called black africans. " via your own intellect"

    Glen Davis — good stuff.

    John Wilson,

    If Christianity is crucial to conservatism, is conservatism crucial to Christianity?

    Could you be a Christian liberal?

    Specifically why can't you be an atheist conservative?

  15. Dr. Russell Kirk once told me that he was "a conservative by prescription for that is needed here and now," adding that were he born in Ancient Egypt (which seemed to us both so hidebound and frankly constipated from afar) he would think change quite necessary. So, taking him at his word, were he born far earlier along the banks of the Upper Nile and named Amenhotep Kirk, he may have been a radical. This seems consistent with his very philosophical, analytical and prescriptive path to Rome, led as he wrote by the human need for authority: in an era oppressed and awash in authority, he may have been still a counter-balance but within a different denomination. Cut your suit to fit your cloth.

    We may deduce safely that Dr. Kirk did not think that one needed to be a Christian in order to be a conservative; that conservatism is an attitude or set of tools for preservation; and that whatever were the relative merits of one's civilisation, there a true conservative would act with prudence to protect his or her culture from the Harpies of appetite, ideology, thoughtless change and (often) rapid change.

    As for the good Mr. Creech's observation that "to be an American conservative one must also be Christian," what of America's many conservative Jews?

    Surely, my late friend and former office-mate, the splendid Ralph de Toledano (whose ancestor led the Jews of Toledo from Isabella's Spain) deserves a comfy piece of cloud in the Conservative Pantheon hereafter. I can think of many less-famous but equally thoughtful and fully conservative American Jewish friends whom you would not know and so I need not name: one majestic character, with whom I am still close after 30 years, surprised and charmed me when first we met (working together for Mr. Reagan at the Republican National Committee) with his cogent and heartfelt critique of left-wing Catholic theology! He saw it as threatening a great tradition (Christianity) which he thought was an essential component of American civilisation. Perhaps what he and I had most in common was our love of tradition, and as I learned more I came to enjoy and respect his cherished Jewish traditions nearly as much as my Catholic ones, and both fitted perfectly under the American rubric and to a shared national objective.

    I also know Afghan Muslim immigrants to America who are true conservatives, and who worry as deeply as any of us about their beloved, new homeland's moral decline, slaughter of the unborn, fiscal imprudence, loss of community, family break-up, loss of individual dignity and self-restraint and so forth: indeed it may pain them more because they come from a country where their own traditions are so imperiled and they arrived with rather high expectations. My American Muslim and Jewish conservative friends work within their own religious communities to strengthen traditions and values, and see that as also a means to restore and preserve American greatness. Were more Christian American conservatives like them, we'd all be in better shape.

  16. As quoted in William F. Buckley's "Nearer, My God" Russell Kirk makes clear his reason for seeking to be received into the Catholic Church. He was "seeking the source of Wisdom."

    "What I found in the Church was Authority. Catholicism is governed by Authority; Protestants, by Private Judgment. I had become painfully aware of the insufficiency of Private Judgment in the twentieth century––every man creating his own morals. In my search, over the years, for a sound apprehension of the human condition, I came at last to recognize in the Roman Church the elements of Truth, as sustained by two thousand years of continuity; by the wealth of wisdom in the Church’s pronouncements; by the lives and words of St. Augustine of Hippo and St. Gregory the Great, particularly, among the Church Fathers; by Acton’s observation, if you will, that no institution purely human could have survived, over the centuries, so many blunders.

    I was not “converted” to the Church, but made my way into it through what Newman calls illation––fragments of truth collecting in my mind through personal experience, conversations, knowledge of exemplars, and much reading and meditating. (I was not baptizing in any church until 1964, when I attained the age of forty-five years.) Mine was the god of the philosophers, Pascal notwithstanding “though I read Pascal, too), rather than the god of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

    Father Hugh O'Neill, S. J., At the University of Detroit, who gave me some instruction during 1953–54, replied in answer to an inquiry of mine that most people seeking knowledge of Church doctrines came to him out of some psychological distress or want. It was not so with me: rather, I still was seeking the source of wisdom."

    In other statements Dr. Kirk made clear that, as Dr. Willson has said, Kirk did not believe in Jesus Christ because of his "conservative" message but because Jesus was the Son of God. At his most essential level of seeking, Dr. Kirk was not seeking a religion that coincided with his conservative principles. He was seeking Truth. And in the resurrected Christ he found Truth and Hope. "The Resurrection is critical both to my personal faith and to the whole elaborate edifice called Christianity."

    So is it possible to be conservative without believing in the resurrected Christ? Perhaps. But, what does it gain a man to possess the whole of conservative thought and to lose eternal life with the Creator of the True, the Good and the Beautiful?

  17. Jon, "Could you be a Christian liberal?"

    I put this question in the same category as, "Could you be a Christian advocate of pro-choice?" The answer finally has to be a big NO. Liberalism as it has come to be practiced requires a world view that is relativistic, progressive, and above all convicted that human nature either does not exist or at least that human beings are made of play-dough. Governments exist to make people happy. Since none of this is true, I think "Christian liberal" is an oxymoron. This is not to say that one cannot be a Democrat and a Christian (at least one of my cousins is) or even a socialist and a Christian, although that is pushing it.

    To go back to the original point, I don't dispute Steve Masty's call for wiggle room on this question, although it remains the case that a real muslim can be a real conservative only if one defines the latter as "conserving the tradition" whatever it may be. A Straussian friend of mine once said that the (preamble of) Declaration of Independence is either true for everybody or it is true for nobody. I had to think about that for a couple of years, but now I am willing to say, OK, it's true for nobody. It might be useful for many people, but it has no necessary connection to the Created Order.

    Atheists can certainly vote for whoever is running for the Stupid Party, and can act like people who value some sort of tradition, but when you push aside the beans and get down to the pork they have replaced God with themselves.

    By the way, guys, none of this means that I don't like pagans and muslims and druids and even a few communists (although I tend not to like neocons). It just means that when we line up and raise our hands for things that are permanent, there is only one standard toward which to raise those hands. If this is offensive, I apologize, but not sincerely.

  18. Stephen,
    I have been delayed in responding to this lively conversation. Earlier this evening I was skimming George Weigel’s Witness to Hope looking at the intertwining thought and education of Joseph Ratzinger and Karol Wojtyla. Nonetheless, I was easily sidetracked by the election of Pope John Paul II…my point being that those in the media and elsewhere who barely knew Karol Wojtyla considered him the progressive and liberal Cardinal from Poland. Shortly after becoming the Pope, the world saw and experienced that he was a man of Truth. He loved and lived for the Truth. He travelled all through his pontificate sharing his faith and leading all of humanity toward Truth. For those who can intellectually come to the precipice and then jump, we know that the Truth is God made man in Jesus Christ.

    I bring this up because I now ponder a few questions that may be simply or not so simply answered: Was Pope John Paul II a conservative as John Willson and others have defined? Possibly to the root…is being a conservative assume that one loves and lives for the Truth? Can you be a conservative and live and love the Truth? Does one supersede the other? One can think of Plato preaching and teaching the word of Socrates, but just baptized by Christianity….

    I do agree with observation that “the winners do get to write the history”, but it does not mean in writing the history those on the “Dark side” lose all the time. There are some people who are working to make this country a more progressive and sensitive country, so all can see us as a true light around the world, which ultimately means destroying America as it was founded in 1789 and even how it currently lives under the same Constitution with all the Amendments that have followed 1789. They do not claim to have the Truth, but rather Truth does not exist at all. There are a few of us who still hold tight to the Truth and teach it, the Truth still lives even after the defeat in the War of Northern Aggression, mostly in Texas…I call on all in reconvening Dr.Walker Percy’s SOUP–Southerners and Others United to Preserve the Union in Repayment of an old Debt to the Yankees Who Saved It Once Before and are Destroying It Now.

  19. Winston Elliot III:

    ""What I found in the Church was Authority. Catholicism is governed by Authority; Protestants, by Private Judgment. I had become painfully aware of the insufficiency of Private Judgment in the twentieth century––every man creating his own morals."

    This is a good quote. Thanks for putting it up there, cause this gets at the root of what I was asking, really.

    In this BIG world, the authority of the local shaman or head honcho just won't do.
    Certain elements of paganism have been incorporated into our largely Christian culture because they are useful, like Wednesday (Oden's Day) or Thor'sDay, but real Authority in our big world requires one big God. I'm thinking that anyway.

    So perhaps paganism isn't really compatible with conservatism. I don't know. I'm still thinking on this one, but there's good stuff being written here….

  20. Johns Rocha and Wilson, what makes the most sense to me is CS Lewis'es observation (somewhere in Mere Christianity) that different faiths see God through clearer or dustier lenses. This recognises the Absolute while admitting that some religions, people, etc. are more myopic than others. This seems as true of seeing God as of seeing the Truth in God's Order on earth, in which case a more or less perceptive individual, from a greater or lesser religion, culture or nation, can be a true conservative and seek to preserve the paths to goodness according to his ability to see them – conserving not just within his own religion but in any larger sphere within which he and his co-religionists participate (in American citizenship, for example). Come Judgement Day, one presumes that the Almighty 'grades on the curve,' expecting more from those to whom he as given greater powers of clarity and perception: the brilliant Zoroastrian may be held to a higher standard than the dim Catholic.

    John Rocha, I am pleased to learn of the surprise with which some people found Pope John Paul II's conservatism and I have an odd theory. The best people often radiate inner goodness which more people can experience than can understand, thus the more myopic among them project their own values onto the saintly. I'll bet that some liberals, moved by Mother Theresa's selfless and relentless charity, were probably surprised to her entirely 'un-feminist' submission to authority and her opposition to abortion. Possibly even a Cocker Spaniel could detect something rare and wonderful in Pope JP II, though it had not much hope of understanding the causes and implications of his greatness.

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