christopher dawson

Christopher Dawson

A people that no longer remembers has lost its history and its soul. -Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

The temples of the gods are the most enduring works of man. -Christopher Dawson

The first impression one has upon opening a book by Christopher Dawson is of what can be called the romance of learning, a romance experienced as an independent aesthetic category apart from the substance of that learning. We experience here the aesthetic appeal of sheer erudition, the sort of excitement that pervades Montaigne’s Essays, Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, Browne’s Religio Medici, and many passages in Paradise Lost. It is the special aesthetic appeal of Old Books, an appeal that Walter Pater and T. S. Eliot knew well how to exploit.

Dawson did not publish until he was forty, but from early youth, he was a man of books -thousands of volumes of them in various languages. You encounter in Dawson names you have never heard of, connections and comparisons you have never seen before, scholarly vistas unthought of suddenly opening before you. His erudition, however, works in the service of a large central project: recovering the continuities of Western culture and reshaping in a dramatic way our sense of the history of Western civilization.

As an historian, Dawson radically revises our sense of the continuity of Western culture, but within that continuity, its vicissitudes and heroisms. For the ordinary educated consciousness, what happened in Western Europe after the collapse of the Roman order tends to be a blank page labelled “the dark ages.” The period from the fifth to the tenth centuries was indeed characterized by social chaos, roving bands of pillagers, Norse invasions, but as Dawson makes clear, there were heroic continuities, an enormous effort on the part of beleaguered communities to preserve and add to the inheritance of religion, culture, and learning and to provide the basis for a revival of civilized order.

Dawson was not a great academic lecturer, as such reputations are usually measured. He held minor British academic posts from time to time, but mostly he pursued his research among his treasured books. When he was invited in 1958 to a chair at Harvard, he agreed on condition that Harvard ship his working library from England to Massachusetts. Harvard agreed, not realizing how many books Dawson considered essential. Dawson shipped two thousand books to Cambridge.

At Harvard he was beloved for his eccentricities, and the legend of Dawson still lingers there. He was an exceptionally effective teacher for gifted students; but for the generality of Harvard students, he was a puzzle and even a blank. His manner was such that Harvard felt obliged to appoint an interlocutor to work with him, bridging the gap between Dawson and the students. In a useful biography of Dawson published in England in 1984 and now reissued in the United States, his daughter, Christina Scott, records:

He always read his lectures in his usual quiet voice and never raised it to reach the back of the hall, and when it came to seminars, of which he had no previous experience, he lacked the cut and thrust to get a discussion under way. The difficulty was largely overcome by the appointment of an assistant, Mr. Daniel Callahan, who fulfilled the office of interpreter for the professor …. When a student asked such a question as whether economics affected a particular period, Christopher might give a monosyllabic reply or one which was simply out of their depth. Mr. Callahan would then have to expand or explain.

Clearly, this was something of an academic disaster. The late Mr. Callahan wrote of the situation of Dawson at Harvard:

For his students … Mr. Dawson was frightening. Unlike most Englishmen of Oxford education, Mr. Dawson came to America with a number of illusions about American students: that they knew, as a matter of course, French, German and Latin, world history, the classics; that they were prepared to read three or four books a week for one course; and their term papers would be models of scholarly research.

… It was my painful duty to insinuate that, as a matter of fact, nothing at all could be taken for granted about American students. And when I had a chance, I had to let the students, their faces blanched, know that if they read only eight hundred of the five thousand pages for the week, they could probably get by. Eventually these problems worked themselves out: the students read two hundred pages; I read two hundred and one; and Professor Dawson of course read all five thousand.

Rara avis. It is surely very much to Harvard’s credit that it appointed Dawson to a distinguished chair, and perhaps students who did not know what to make of him were at least distantly aware that they were in the presence of someone both unusual and important. It is sad to learn that at Harvard he had the first of his cerebral hemorrhages and returned to England partially crippled, dying of heart failure in 1970. I judge that today he is not much noticed intellectually.

T. S. Eliot, lecturing in the United States, was once asked what writer was then the most powerful intellectual influence in England. Eliot answered, Christopher Dawson. That this influence was rarefied need not be doubted, but Dawson was a prolific writer, an original thinker, a skillful polemicist, and clearly, a deeply felt presence for such a person as Eliot – of which more in a moment. But before speaking of what I would call the Dawson Revolution in our sense of the shape of Western history, I would like to revert to what I have called the aesthetics of erudition, or what might also be called the humility of learning. For example, I will adduce his Gifford Lectures, delivered at the University of Edinburgh in and 1949 and later published as his magisterial Religion and the Rise of Western Culture (1950).

The Gifford Lectureship is a very distinguished matter, and it is characteristic of Dawson that he felt he could not rise to the occasion. Yet he did so magnificently, though his manner was Dawsonish. As his daughter records, “His shy manner and quiet intonation, combined with a lack of confidence in his own powers, must have made him seem the most unassuming of Gifford Lecturers, and of course, the deepest thinkers are not invariably the best speakers.”

But open the published version of these Gifford Lectures. The first thing you encounter is a frontispiece photograph entitled “Figure of Christ: From the Bewcastle Rood (c. 700).” In this book there are eight such photographs of various historical objects with immensely erudite commentaries by Dawson listed as “Notes on the Illustrations.” Because the learning here is so recondite, exquisite, and, when seen in perspective, important, I will quote in full the “note” on the Bewcastle Christ. The reader of this essay may savor it as a good introduction to Dawson:

The Anglian High Crosses are among the earliest and most remarkable monuments of Western Christendom. Although they date from the first age of Northumbrian Christianity, they show an astonishing mastery of design and execution, unlike anything to be found elsewhere in Western Europe during this period. The new art owes its origin to the deliberate importation of Christian artists and Christian craftsmen from the Mediterranean world by the leaders of the Anglian church, above all St. Wilfrid and St. Benedict Bishop in the second half of the seventh century. But while the ornamentation, especially the vine scroll, shows clear signs of Mediterranean (Syrian) influence, the style is not purely imitative, but represents an original Anglian renaissance of classical Roman traditions. It is in fact a true ‘Romanesque’ art which anticipates the Continental development by centuries. The Bewcastle cross has a particularly close association with the great age of the Northumbrian church, because it was erected in commemoration of King Alchfrith, the friend of St. Wilfrid and the supporter of the Roman party at the Synod of Whitby (664). It stands on the site of an old Roman fort high up on the Cumbrian moors beyond the Roman Wall. The figure of Christ in Majesty resembles that on the earlier and even finer Rood at Ruthwell in Durnfriesshire. In both cases, the face is unbearded, but carries a moustache. The Bewcastle inscription is entirely runic, whereas at Ruthwell the corresponding figure has a Latin inscription – IHS XPS IUDEX AEQUITATIS. BESTI ET DRACONES COGNOVERUNT IN DESERT0 SALVATOR-EM MUNDI. It seems that both of these great crosses were set up as triumphant assertions of the Cross over the forces of outer barbarism.

There is much of Dawson here in what amounts to a “minor” passage in a major work: his sense of the past as a living and present thing, his immersion in detail, his connoisseur’s judgments, his awareness of civilization as over against the “outer barbarism.”

In the vast body of Dawson’s writing there are many themes, though all of them are related to a central contention or insight. His enormous scholarship explored the insight in many contexts, sustained by his work, not only on the history of Western culture, but also on Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, and the matrix of archaic and primitive religions, as well as legend and myth. Throughout, it is his central contention that religion is the foundation of culture:

If therefore we study a culture as a whole, we shall find there is an intimate relation between its religious faith and its social achievement. Even a religion which is explicitly other-worldly and appears to deny all the values and standards of human society may, nevertheless, exert a dynamic influence on culture and provide the driving forces in movements of social change. “Religion is the key of history,” said Lord Acton, and today, when we realize the tremendous influence of the unconscious on human behavior and the power of religion to bind and loose these hidden forces, Acton’s saying has acquired a wider meaning than he realized.

Again and again Dawson returns to this theme:

The great civilizations of the world do not produce the great religions as a kind of cultural by-product; in a very real sense, the great religions are the foundations on which the great civilizations rest. A society which has lost its religion becomes sooner or later a society which has lost its culture.

Understanding this, Dawson is able to distinguish one important aspect of Western culture from other cultures:

The other great world cultures realized their own synthesis between religion and life and then maintained their sacred order unchanged for centuries and millennia. But Western civilization has been the great ferment of change in the world, because changing the world became an integral part of its cultural ideal. Centuries before the achievements of modern science and technology, Western man had conceived the idea of magna instauratio of the sciences, which would open new ways for human understanding and change the fortunes of the human race.

This illuminates the question of why it was the European explorers rather than, say, the Chinese who reached the North American continent in the fifteenth century. The Chinese had the vessels to explore the Pacific and also navigational instruments that in some ways were superior to those of the Europeans. The Chinese, indeed, sailed to the western coast of Africa but lost interest in further exploration there. The European explorers pushed ever westward, beyond the pillars of Hercules, down the African coast, outward to the Canaries and beyond. As Dawson would say, the Chinese belief system was static and inward-looking, the European belief system exploratory and devoted to change.

Though Dawson is finely discriminating as a phenomenologist of religion, he does discern the core that they have in common, that core being a mode of being:

Nevertheless, underlying all this complex development there is a unity of religious experience which is no less striking than the unity in diversity which characterizes the conceptions of the ritual order in the different archaic civilizations. This unity is the conviction that the true end of the religious life is to be found within the soul itself and is reached by a psychological process of introversion and concentration. This interior way of perfection begins with asceticism and discipline, proceeds by contemplation and enlightenment, and culminates in the experience of divine union or identity in which all distinctions are transcended and the soul is merged in eternal and absolute Being. This experience may be started in either theistic or pantheistic terms, as in the Upanishads or the Gita, in Sankara and Ramanuja, and in the various schools of Mahayana Buddhism. It is, however, always a via negativa, a search for the Absolute by the denial or stripping away of all forms and images, and the whole positive content of consciousness.

There is no evidence of which I am aware that Christopher Dawson had any personal experience of “introversion and concentration” leading to an experience of the timeless and the transcendent, yet as an historian, he recognized the importance of this central religious experience, the encounter with the holy, the divine. I have noted that T. S. Eliot, during the 1940s, said that Dawson was the most influential writer in England. That Dawson was thus influential may be doubted and would certainly have been news to Professor Harold Laski, but one may well think that in recognizing the pursuit of the holy as central to religion, Dawson was of special importance to Eliot. It is the experience Dawson so well describes, the experience in and out of time, that is the subject of Eliot’s poetry. That poetry describes a quest through the desert of fragments to the experience that provides a glimpse of unity, which I judge to be brilliantly concluded in the final section of “Little Gidding.”

In her two biographical critical volumes on Eliot, Lyndall Gordon shows that this quest for the holy state of mind had very early been a “preoccupation” – words become inadequate here – for Eliot.[1] So far as we know, his first experience of that state of mind occurred at his Harvard commencement of 1910:

Then in June there came the indescribable Silence in the midst of the clatter of graduation, the exhortations of practical men, the questions of parents, the frivolity of millinery and strawberries in the Yard. Suddenly able to shed the world, he experienced a fugitive sensation of peace that he would try all his life to recapture.

It is likely that Eliot had such experiences earlier than 1910, on the evidence of his poetry. Thus, as a child in St. Louis, he had heard the voices of children behind a wall that separated his own home from a school.

At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half heard, in the stillness
Between the two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always–
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)

Perhaps Eliot experienced such moments, or intimations of them, while sailing his boat as an adolescent off Cape Ann, where his family had a summer place near Gloucester:

The boat responded
Gaily, to the hand expert with sail and oar.
The sea was calm, your heart would have responded
Gaily, when invited, beating obedient to controlling hands.

The way to the timeless moment was hard for Eliot, costing, as he wrote, not less than everything, and he was well aware that others had made the same journey and done so more successfully than he. As he writes in “East Coker”:

…And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate – but there is no competition -
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss
For us there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

The overall meaning of this passage is clear enough, but there are tricky places in it. What sort of judgment is Eliot passing when he says that the moment of holy peace has been discovered “once or twice, or several times”? Does Dante make the first team, along with St. Augustine? And what about St. Teresa, St. John of the Cross, Milton, Henry Vaughan, and George Herbert? Does John Wesley make the cut, and John Henry Newman?

Lyndall Gordon observes that Eliot’s desire for transcendence, for the unseen pattern behind the perceived chaos of phenomena, is firmly a part of the nineteenth century New England inheritance, at least in experienced intimations. Emerson thought that “one design unites and animates the farthest pinnacle and the lowest trench.” Lyndall Gordon adduces Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance, in which the hero suddenly sees through nature’s mask and enjoys the experience. “But that was all,” Hawthorne writes. “Melville, too,” writes Gordon, “wrote in a letter to Hawthorne: ‘This “all” feeling … . You must have felt it, lying in the grass on a warm summer’s day. Your legs seem to send out shoots into the earth.”’

The major New England writers did not locate this experience within the orthodox Christian system of meaning, but it seems clear that Eliot thought that without such a system, the experience remained cognitively rootless. Eliot sought to give the experience meaning beyond itself through a system of belief that made the experience of the holy a part – indeed, the culminating part – of the objective nature of reality, as much a fact of the cosmos as the atomic table, and, indeed, more real than the atomic table. It is not surprising that Eliot, even though headed for the Department of Philosophy at Harvard and writing his dissertation on F. H. Bradley, abandoned philosophy and undertook a voyage where early twentieth century philosophy could not sail.

When Eliot sought to explain his ultimate position in prose, his sentences – perhaps understandably – become strained and convoluted, as in the following famous passage from his essay on Pascal:

The Christian thinker – and I mean the man who is trying consciously and conscientiously to explain to himself the sequence which culminates in faith rather than the public apologist -proceeds by rejection and elimination. He finds the world to be so and so; he finds its character inexplicable by any non-religious theory: among religions he finds Christianity, and Catholic Christianity, to account most satisfactorily for the world and especially for the moral world within; and thus by what Newman calls “powerful and concurrent” reasons, he finds himself inexorably committed to the doctrine of the lncarnation …. [The unbeliever] does not consider that if certain emotional states, certain developments of character, and what in the highest sense can be called “saintliness” are inherently good, then the satisfactory explanation of the world must be an explanation which will admit the ”reality” of these values. (emphasis added)

Lionel Trilling once remarked to me in conversation that in this passage Eliot had more or less blown his cover and declared himself a Christian for moral reasons. That does not seem to me to be true, or – better – adequate. Taken at face value, Eliot seems to be saying that the state of mind he pursues – and which has been pursued by others before him – is in fact an objective clue to the nature of the cosmos. In “Burnt Norton” he makes a pun on the title of his 1922 poem The Waste Land:

Ridiculous the waste sad time
Stretching before and after.

In common sense terms, this is absurd. Our ordinary pleasures are not ridiculous or a waste. Only from the perspective of the moment in and out of time can Eliot’s lines be understood. As Henry Vaughan wrote:

I saw eternity the other night
Like a great ring of pure and endless light
All calm as it was bright
And round beneath it, Time in hours, days, years
Driven by the spheres
Like a vast shadow mov’d, In which the world
And all her train were hurl’d.

Lyndall Gordon makes shockingly clear the high price Eliot paid for his pursuit of spiritual perfection and the divine moment and the price paid, to her bewilderment, by Emily Hale, a Boston girl he had met while a Harvard under-graduate and whom, under normal circumstance, he surely would have married. Emily Hale was confident that, after the death of his first wife, the disastrous Vivienne Haigh-Wood, he would return to her. Lyndall Gordon explains why he could not in fresh and interesting interpretations of Eliot’s “LaFiglia Che Painge” and “Gerontion,” in the latter of which Eliot is addressing Emily Hale. For Eliot she was an intimation of spiritual perfection. He records a divine moment with her in the opening section of “Burnt Norton.” Dante could never have married Beatrice, nor Aeneas Dido, and Eliot’s enormous correspondence with Emily Hale remains unopened in the vaults of the Firestone Library at Princeton until the next century.

In the Gifford Lectures and elsewhere, the philosopher of culture consorts with the historian, and one of Dawson’s major contributions is that he makes us aware of the continuities of the West following the breakdown of the Roman order in Western Europe and the onset of what is called “the dark ages.” He introduces us to heroic figures and profound movements about which we do not customarily hear. Indeed, Dawson can shock the educated contemporary mind:

The beginnings of Western culture are to be found in the new spirituality 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 lawgiver of the new people. The Latin Fathers – Ambrose, Augustine, … and Gregory – were in a real sense the fathers of Western culture, since it was only insofar 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 Western development from that of other world civilizations. The great cultures of the ancient East, like China and India, were autochthonous growths which represent a continuous process of development in which religion and culture grew from the same sociological roots and the same natural environment. But in the West it was not so. Primitive Europe outside the Mediterranean lands preserved no common center and no unified tradition of spiritual culture. The people of the north possessed no written literature, no cities, no stone architecture. They were, in short, “barbarians”, and it was by Christianity and the elements of a higher culture transmitted to them by the church that Western Europe acquired unity and form.

Especially striking in Dawson’s exposition on the “dark ages” from the fifth to the tenth centuries is the civilizational role played by the monastic movement, perhaps most notably by the Benedictines. With the collapse of the Roman order, Western Europe entered a Hobbesian period of social chaos and civilizational breakdown. The emerging monasteries were islands, not only of religious retreat, but of social safety and order. A monastic community began, typically, on a small scale but gradually became an economic unit, productive agriculturally, protected by walls, dedicated in one aspect to the preservation of learning:

Here the great legislators of monasticism were not Justinian, but St. Benedict and St. Gregory the Great. The rule of St. Benedict marks the final assimilation of the monastic institution by the Roman spirit and the tradition of the Western Church. Its conception of the monastic life is essentially social and cooperative – as a discipline of the common life. … The Rule lays down that “the monastery should be so arranged that all necessary things such as water-mills, gardens, and workshops should be within the enclosure.” In fact, the Benedictine Abbey was a self-contained economic organism, like the villa of a Roman landowner, save that the monks themselves were the workers and the old classical contrast between servile work and free leisure no longer obtained. The primary task of the monk, however, was still the performance of the divine liturgy of prayer and psalm, which is minutely regulated by St. Benedict …. Thus, in an age of insecurity and disorder and barbarism, the Benedictine rule embodied an ideal of spiritual ode and disciplined moral activity which made the monastery an oasis of peace in a world at war …. It was the disciplined and tireless labor of the monks which turned the tide of barbarism in Western Europe and brought back into cultivation lands which had been deserted and depopulated in the age of the invasions.

No doubt there are academic specialists in medieval history who are well aware of the developments Dawson describes, but the richness of his philosophical and historical learning places him in a small category of thinkers and allows him to place the developments he describes in a context of special cultural density. And with this, he combines the ability to reach the generally educated reader through the grace and lucidity of his prose style.

For several difficult and chaotic centuries the monasteries were foci of religious, cultural, and social order. So far as I can tell, this vital link in the continuity of Western culture has not registered in the sense of history possessed by the generally educated reader, or even the university professor, no doubt because our sense of that history is still affected by the dismissive attitudes toward the monastic tradition held by both the Renaissance Humanists and the Protestant Reformers. Yet, as Dawson makes abundantly clear, that link is there, demonstrable, and a vital part of our history.

Recent scholarship has elucidated other continuities in Western culture, sometimes surprising in the shape they take. Thus the earlier medieval period neglected the natural sciences, and a “bridge” was required to connect the ancient philosophers and scientists with the revival of the natural sciences in twelfth century Europe. In The Beginnings of Western Science: The European Scientific Tradition in Philosophical, Religious, and Institutional Context, 600 B.C. to A.D. 1450 (1992), David C. Lindbergh demonstrates that the “bridge” from the ancient world to the beginnings of modern science consisted of Muslim scholars, philosophers, and scientists.

The Greeks, and preeminently Aristotle, had created the foundations for a variety of disciplines -physics, zoology, medicine, and meteorology. The Islamic scholars translated, commented upon, and modified the work of the Greeks. For example, the translator Hunayan ibn Ishaq (80-473) translated three dialogues of Plato, four works of Aristotle, fifteen Hippocratic texts, and ninety works of the Greek physician Galen. Professor Lindbergh demonstrates that the Muslim writers attempted to make use of Greek metaphysics as well, although here the effort ran into the problem of reconciling Greek metaphysics with Islamic religious faith, modifying it in the direction of the “double truth” later expounded by Averroes and others. In Lindbergh’s account, medieval science was that of Aristotle combined with some Platonic elements and also with the Islamic commentaries, and he is entirely persuasive in showing that ancient and medieval science were linked by an Islamic bridge across the earlier medieval period.

Victorian England witnessed a debate, carried on with intellectual force and high elegance. T. H. Huxley emerged as the champion of science, armed with the potent new doctrines of Charles Darwin. The towering figure of John Henry Newman defended the claims of religion in countless essays and in books that have become classics – the Apologia, the Grammar of Assent, and The Development of Christian Doctrine. Matthew Arnold spoke for the humanities, the “best that has been thought and said.” This was very much a university fight – indeed, a fight over the desirable emphasis in the curriculum – but it was also a fight about the content of high culture itself.

In an odd reprise in our own period, C. P. Snow, the scientist and novelist, spoke for science. F. R. Leavis, the stand-in, puritanically, for Newman, blasted Snow unmercifully. Lionel Trilling, not surprisingly, took up the role of Arnold and tried to adjudicate the quarrel. Trilling tried to build a bridge which at once not only recognized the claims of science but also advanced the strong claims of the humanities. It must be said that in its later version the three-way debate did not come close to the cogency and intellectual reach of its great Victorian predecessors.

In a small but tightly argued and important book, the philosopher Mortimer Adler carries the debate to a new level that strikes me at least as highly cogent. Not least of its virtues, Truth in Religion: The Plurality of Religions and the Unity of Truth (1990) shows how intellectual history, even ancient intellectual history, bears on some of the controversies that agitate us today. Professor Adler has many things of great interest to say, but his central argument goes this way: we now understand that the truths of mathematics, science, and logic are transcultural. If the Chinese wish to build a nuclear reactor, there is nothing distinctive in the Chinese tradition that can advance the project. There is no “alternative” Chinese math or physics. They must turn to Einstein, Bohr, Fermi, and the rest. Adler builds upon this observation by arguing – very much against the “multicultural” spirit of the academy today – that if the truths of mathematics, logic, and science know no cultural borders, then neither do the truths of religion.

Whenever twentieth-century technology is employed, the mathematical and scientific truths that underlie it are either explicitly or implicitly affirmed. No matter how they differ in all other cultural respects – in their religions, their philosophies, their interpretation of history, and their mythologies – all cultural communities on this globe that use the technological devices now available affirm, at least implicitly, the mathematics and the natural sciences on which technology is based.

I will cite here another brief passage in which he puts the matter a bit differently and advances it a bit further:

If the underlying mathematics and natural science are true, then the underlying view of reality as free from inherent contradictions must also be true, for if it were not, the conclusions of the empirical natural sciences could not be true by virtue of their correspondence with reality.

Adler’s phrase about inherent contradictions is important here. He returns to the logic of Aristotle, who held that two contradictory statements cannot both logically be true (although of course both might be false). Adler sees the dominant Greek logic as fundamental to Western metaphysics, to the Western world view, and thence to science, logic, and mathematics. Aristotle’s logic was a statement about the nature of the universe: a statement cannot be both true and untrue. A thing cannot both exist and not exist.

As Adler observes, the Aristotelian metaphysics triumphed in the famous controversy between Aquinas and Averroes, an Arabic philosopher who tried to save the Muslim position on religion from the onslaught of Aristotelian thought. He argued that there are separate truths existing in logic-tight compartments: Greek logic and religious truth. For Averroes they are, though often contradictory, nevertheless both true. Aquinas said no and argued strenuously for the unity of all truth. A proposition could not be true in science and at the same time false in religion. The sphere of factual and logical truth is all embracing and unitary. No matter how diverse their assertions, religion and science cannot be incompatible, contradictory. The religious concept of eternity, for example, though it cannot be proved by scientific means, is not contradictory to the assertions of science. There is no conflict possible between philosophy and religion.

Adler follows Aquinas. The assertions of religion, he says, are meant to be assertions of truth. They are not matters of taste, like a preference for Picasso over Miro. Religious assertions may be based upon history, probability, deductive logic, and so forth, but they are part of the unitary Aristotelian universe. And, as noted above, Adler thinks that Western metaphysics, which underlies Western science, goes back to a fundamental axiom of the ancient Greeks:

With regard to the logic of truth, there is another important difference between the three Western religions and the six or seven religions of the Far East. The culture in which the Western religions originated and developed all adopted or accepted the logic that had been formulated by the Greeks in antiquity. This is certainly true of Christianity and Islam, and while it is not true of the Judaism that predated Greek philosophy, it is true of the Jewish philosophers in the Hellenistic period and of Jewish philosophers in the Middle Ages.

The principles of Aristotelian logic do not similarly underlie such major Far Eastern religions as Hinduism or Buddhism in its several forms, much less the assortment of lesser religions -animism and the like – that flourish in the Third World. Thus, all such religions are objectively false at their cores:

The foregoing argument cannot avoid ending with a conclusion that will seem harshly illiberal to those who wish to defend unrestricted cultural pluralism. The conclusion is that the Averroistic duality of truth in the domains of science and religion (where neither domain regards its truth as poetical or fictional rather than factual) is not a healthy state of mind and should not be welcomed and embraced.

A striking example of how such schizophrenia works can be imagined as follows. A Buddhist Zen master who lives in Tokyo wishes to fly to Kyoto in a private plane. When he arrives at the airport, he is offered two planes, one that is faster but aeronautically questionable and one that is slower but aeronautically sound. He is informed by the airport authorities that the faster plane violates some of the basic principles of aeronautical mechanics and the slower plane does not.

Adler concludes that in matters of taste, cultural pluralism is highly valuable, but in matters of truth it is not. The underlying Western assumptions about reality are validated by the evident success of Western science-which is transcultural. He speculates that someday religious truth will be transcultural as well, whenever Greek logic makes a bit more headway.

If these arguments are accepted, they lead to questions about how non-Western religions should be studied in the university. The non-Western religions should certainly be studied, but not as possible alternative truth systems. They may well be studied as objects of fascination, objects of aesthetic pleasure, areas of anthropological interest, and so on. But the kinds of claims they are capable of making are not equivalent to those of Western religions. They tripped up over their own local version of the Averroistic heresy.

Among other things, by the way, Adler’s book strikes me as a fine example of multiculturalism taken seriously, rather than as a sentimental campus plaything: your rain dance is as good as Aristotle’s logic. Multiculturalism thus seriously pursued would not be a bad thing at all. Unfortunately, that is not going to happen.

Nor, by all indications, is there going to happen another serious aspect of multiculturalism. Central to Arnold’s critical method and to his concept of culture was the comparative method, reading and comparing literary works in their original languages. He did not think that English literature could be properly understood without a knowledge of French and German literatures, and one has the sense that he regretted that he was not more expert in other modern languages. He certainly knew Greek and Latin. He looked with favor – and, indeed, longing – on the serious study of Asian languages and literature. Nothing along these lines is happening in the college curriculum today. Language study is extremely thin. The non-Western books are polemical, complaining, and mostly thin. We are required to admire the Sioux and denounce Columbus – in English. Everything is read in translation.

For decades now, Adler has been fighting these trends. In removing the opposition between science and religion and in effect making them partners through Greek logic, he has produced a variant on the old argument from design, which has not been much heard from lately. Popular in the eighteenth century, the argument from design tried to move from perceived regularities in nature to religious assertions. In its popular and journalistic form, it appealed to assorted aspects of physical nature – the seasons, animal behavior, the human eye, etc. Hume treated the argument in its popular form roughly in his Dialogues on Natural Religion. Adler’s argument about Greek logic and the performance of science and technology much more resembles Newton’s use of the equations of physics in his own sense of design.

One epigraph to this essay is a quotation from Solzhenitsyn: “a people that no longer remembers has lost its history and its soul.” Dawson’s work, in the large, consists of a great act of remembering as recovery, discerning the shape of Western civilization in the context of his vast knowledge of other civilizations. Yet the weather of a great writer’s mind makes itself felt locally, in the small acts of insight and recognition, and Dawson’s work is indeed rich in these sudden shafts of illumination. Herewith a few examples:

The result was that the modern world has been inundated by a shallow flood of universal literacy which destroyed the old traditions of popular culture and increased the mass-mindedness of modern society without raising cultural standards or deepening its spiritual life.

There are forces of nature in the strict sense and there are higher forces of spiritual good and evil which we cannot measure. Human life is essentially a warfare against unknown powers – not merely against flesh and blood, which are themselves irrational enough, but against principalities and powers, against “Cosmocrats of the Dark Aeon,” to use St. Paul’s strange and disturbing expression, powers which are more than rational and which make use of lower things, things below reason, in order to conquer and rule the world of man.

In that second quotation, Dawson speaks in terms that John Milton would have understood but which we have very largely excluded from our working vocabulary. Yet the suspicion that Dawson is right lingers around the margins of consciousness. One thinks of Thomas Mann’s famous story, “Mario and the Magician,” of the Holocaust and Auschwitz, and of the absence of surprise one felt at the revelations about the Manson “family” at the end of the 1960s.

Whatever the degree of assent one wishes to give to Dawson’s view of the Cosmocrats of the Dark Ages, that view nevertheless allows him to understand such a colossal figure as St. Augustine in a way that comes freshly to a modern secular consciousness. Here he distinguishes Augustine from the admirable Prudentius, who was devoted to the Roman Empire, although a Christian:

St. Augustine saw things otherwise. To him the ruin of civilization and the destruction of the Empire were not very important things. He looked beyond the aimless and bloody chaos of history to the world of eternal realities from which the world of sense derives all the significance which it possesses. His thoughts were fixed, not on the fate of the city of Rome or the city of Hippo, nor on the struggle of Roman and barbarian, but on those other cities which have their foundations in heaven and in hell.

It is impossible to be more English than Christopher Dawson and, at the same time, more universal. There is nothing in American culture at all like him, perhaps because America never aspired to a global empire. Dawson may be said to have internalized the English imperial aspiration and spiritualized it.

He was born on October 12, 1889, at Hay Castle in the Wye Valley, the son of a major in the Royal Artillery. His mother was the daughter of an Anglican archdeacon. The castle had been built in the twelfth century and possessed a ruined tower and secret passages. The family had inherited a trinket from an ancestor who was Captain of the Guard in the Tower of London when Ann Boleyn was beheaded. The legend has it that she gave the soldier the gold trinket, which was fashioned like a snake, saying as she did so, “A snake it is, a snake it has proved to me.” The trinket was Henry VlII’s first gift to her.[2]

When Dawson was six, his father retired from the army to avoid being posted to Singapore, and the family settled at an inherited family property, Hartlington Hall in Yorkshire, where Dawson spent his boyhood. When he was ten, he was sent to a boarding school near Rugby, and in the familiar way loathed it, and then went to Winchester for a year, which, although Spartan, was more to his liking, since it gave him abundant time for reading, and he collected books on a large scale. Winchester Cathedral appealed to his youthful but already profound historical sense:

I learnt more during my schooldays from my visits to the Cathedral at Winchester than I did from the hours of religious instruction in school. That great church, with its tombs of the Saxon kings and the medieval statesmen-bishops, gave one a greater sense of the magnitude of the religious element in our culture and the depths of its roots in our national life than anything one could learn from books.

After one year at Winchester, he was removed because his parents feared a susceptibility to consumption – throughout his life, his health was delicate – and placed under private tutors. He entered Trinity College at Oxford in the Michaelmas term of 1908, a golden age at Oxford of Newman and Arnold, not to mention the dreaming spires of Compton Mackenzie.

“Like so many other converts to Catholicism of that era,” writes his daughter Christina Scoff, “such as Ronald Knox, C. C. Martindale, Vernon Johnson and E. I. Watkin, his path to Rome went by the middle way of Anglo-Catholicism, which had a strong following in Oxford. It rep- resented a reaction not only from the secularism and materialism of the age, but from the more worldly aspects of “Establishment” religion or “Mayor and Corporation religion,” as Christopher used to call it. The beautiful Anglo-Catholic ritual was also a contrast to the severity of much of the Low Protestant tradition – the gloom of their Sundays, the long Bible readings and sermons, and the bare ugliness churches.”

A 1909 visit to of their unadorned Rome when he was nineteen opened Dawson’s eyes to a new world of religion and culture, “the wonderful flowering of Baroque.” In Italy he deepened his sense of the continuities of culture and of the power of religion in shaping it. “He remembered particularly,” writes Christina Scott, “visiting the church of the Ara Coeli, built on the summit of the Capitol on the site of the former temple of Jupiter, and one of the oldest churches in Rome. It was here, according to an ancient legend, that Augustus, after hearing a Delphic prophecy foretelling the coming of the Savior, built an altar to the Son of God (the Aru Primogeniti Dei), while later, in the time of Gregory the Great, the church was dedicated to the Mother of God. Even the architecture of the interior showed the same link between the two worlds, the one of pagan classical antiquity and the other of Christianity. Classical columns, mosaic pavements and the marble tombs of Roman dignitaries are reminders of the earlier pagan civilization, while medieval and Renaissance Rome is represented by the baroque high altar, the great gilded ceiling commemorating the victory of Lepanto and Pinturiccio’s frescoes depicting the life of St. Bernardino of Siena.”

Today it is odd to read of the intense disapproval with which Dawson’s conversion to Catholicism was resisted by his and his wife’s immediate family. They regarded it as almost a form of treason to England and English ways. He became a Catholic in 1913, and an important influence in his decision, ironically enough, was the liberal Protestant German theologian Adolf Harnack, whose researches persuaded him that the Church of Rome was the historical successor to an unbroken tradition extending back to the Apostles, a tradition broken by the Reformation. As Dawson recalled:

Harnack, a liberal Protestant, never knew how much he contributed to the process of my conversion to the Catholic Church! He had never heard of me, of course, but I wonder if it ever occurred to him that he might have helped anyone along that particular road.

The Anglican faction at Oxford had historically been anti-Reformation, though opposed to Rome as well. Thus Newman’s friend Hurrell Froude, in a letter to Newman, declared that he could never call the Holy Eucharist “the Lord’s Supper” or God’s priests “ministers of the word” or the altar “the Lord’s table.” Clearly there were not only theological but stylistic difficulties with Low Church terminology and doctrine.

Adolf Harnack aside, the most eloquent testimony I have found to the sources of Dawson’s conversion occurs in an essay entitled “Why I Am a Catholic.” I quote here a few sentences:

It was by the study of St. Paul and St. John that I first came to understand the mental unity of Catholic theology and the Catholic life. I realized that the incarnation, the sacraments, the external order of the Church and the internal work of sanctifying grace were all parts of one organic unity, a living tree whose fruit is the perfection of the saints …. This fundamental doctrine of sanctifying grace, as revealed in the New Testament and explained by St. Augustine and St. Thomas in all of its connotations, removed all my difficulties and uncertainties and carded complete conviction to my mind.

Dawson was received into the Catholic Church on January 5, 1914, at St. Aloysius Church in Oxford, rented a cottage in the Cowley Road, and began what he called fourteen years of isolated study before he published. After what today seems an interminable courtship, he finally married Valerie Mills in the summer of 1916, vacationed with her in Italy, and moved with her into a house at Boar’s Hill in Oxford. In 1928 he published his first book, The Age of the Gods: A Study of the Origins of Culture in Pre-Historic Europe and the Ancient East. The book was a critical success. T. S. Eliot invited him to write for the Criterion quarterly, and his productivity became immense. Between 1928 and his death in 1970, the bibliography of his writing is extraordinary in its scope.

It was in 1959, during his Harvard professorship, at age seventy that he had his first, though minor, cerebral stroke. He cut down on his public activities and continued to write and lecture, but during the winter of 1962, a particularly severe one, Dawson suffered a second and more damaging stroke in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He returned to England in a wheelchair and was thenceforth a cripple. “In May 1970,” writes his daughter, “Christopher had a sudden heart attack; at first he seemed to recover from it and was soon sitting up in bed asking for champagne and a copy of The Times, of which he had been a lifetime reader, but he soon after contracted pneumonia, which proved fatal.”

Books discussed or mentioned in this article can be found at The Imaginative Conservative BookstoreReprinted with the gracious permission of Modern Age (Summer 1997).

Notes:

1. Lyndall Gordon, Eliot‘s Early Years (New York, 1977); Eliot’s New Life (New York, 1988).

2. This and the following biographical information comes from Christina Scott, A Historian and His World: A Life of Christopher Dawson (New Brunswick, N.J., 1991).

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2 replies to this post
  1. There is much to chew on here. I have barely scratched the surface of even Dawson’s writings – much less the depth of scholarship that underlies his work. It is a daunting experience, but an exhilarating one nonetheless.

    • We can only marvel at Christopher Dawson and his life and works. He had an incredible imagination, if that is the right word. I recall being completely overcome by one of his books, which I read about 30 years ago. It challenged my understanding of British and European history, because Dawson was portraying a completely different view of history. If he was right, the last 500 years have been an aberration, and a kind of loss of what Europe and thus North America could have had. This puts the reformation in rather a dubious light, pace protestant readers of this magazine. Dawson seemed to have understood history with his mind free of just about every accepted notion. A real independent mind. I would put him with Tolkein, Belloc and Chesterton, in being of that generation that grew up towards the end of the Victorian era and was able to see terrible things on the horizon, because they understood mankind, not only events and politics or religion.

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