the imaginative conservative logo

humanist tradition

Christopher Dawson

The present age has seen a great slump in humanist values. After dominating Western culture for four centuries humanism today is on the retreat on all fronts, and it seems as though the world is moving in the direction of a non-humanist and even an anti-humanist form of culture. This tendency is most clearly visible in the totalitarian states. In the world of concentration camps and mass purges and total war, there is no room for humanist values, and it is difficult to realize that they have ever existed. Man is a means and not an end, and he is a means to economic or political ends which are not really ends in themselves but means to other ends which in their turn are means and so ad infinitum. Man who raised himself above nature and became lord of the world has become reabsorbed into the endless cycle of material change as the blind servant of the economic process of production and consumption.

But even outside the totalitarian state in the democratic world the situation of humanism has become precarious in spite of our insistence on political liberty and our Charters of Human Rights. Here also man has become the servant of the process of economic production, in spite, and partly because of, the increase of wealth and material prosperity. And the advance of technology and scientific specialism have steadily reduced the prestige and influence of humanism in education.

At the same time Western culture has lost its faith in Man. All the old idealisms and, above all, humanist idealism have become discredited, and there has been a marked tendency in Western literature and art—in America no less than in Europe—towards irrationalism, primitivism and the rejection of all the humanist values. What is the attitude of Christians towards this anti-humanist tendency? Clearly there are certain values which are common to Christianity and humanism, and to a considerable extent the enemies of humanism are also the enemies of Christianity. On the other hand, there is no doubt that the anti-humanist reaction has affected Christians as well as non-Christians, and in some cases Christians have joined in the attack on humanism and have welcomed its downfall.

The most striking example of this is to be seen in the neo-Calvinist movement of Karl Barth and his school which reasserts he traditional Protestant doctrine of the total corruption of human nature. No doubt these theologians are primarily concerned with Liberal Protestantism rather than with humanism, but since they go further than Calvin himself in their denial of human values, the values of humanism must go down the drain with the rest.

But the Christian reaction against humanism is not confined to the Barthians. It has become so common that it is now often taken for granted by public opinion. For example, I recently read an article in the New Statesman by a well-known historian on Professor Butterfield’s book, Christianity and Social Relations, in which the writer criticizes Professor Butterfield’s rejection of moral judgment in history. And he goes on:

The explanation is not far to seek. Christianity and humanism are incompatible. Mr. Butterfield believes in God, therefore he does not believe in man. He holds, no doubt correctly, that only Christians can be judged according to the rules of Christianity; and so he does not judge others at all. He does not discriminate among unregenerate mankind: or rather the only judgement he makes is that some men are cleverer than others.

No doubt this is a somewhat extreme view and there are still plenty of Christians who are prepared to defend the humanist position. Notably, there is M. Jacques Maritain who has written a well-known book in defence of the ideal of Christian humanism. But when Maritain talks about humanism he is clearly using the word in a very different sense from that of Professor Butterfield and his reviewer. So before discussing the problem it is essential to clarify our ideas and to define the real nature of humanism. For ‘humanism’ is one of those words like ‘democracy’ that has been used so loosely during the last fifty years that it can mean almost anything. If we neglect this task of definition and begin talking about Integral Humanism or Scientific Humanism or any of the other rival forms of humanist theory, we are apt to become involved in a fog of ideological controversy which has little relation to any historical reality.

Humanism was a real historical movement, but it was never a philosophy or a religion. It belongs to the sphere of education, not to that of theology or metaphysics. No doubt it involves certain moral values, but so does any educational tradition. Therefore it is wiser not to define humanism in terms of philosophical theories or even of moral doctrines, but to limit ourselves to the proposition that humanism is a tradition of culture and ethics founded on the study of human letters.

At first sight this does not carry us very far. It will not satisfy the philosophers like Maritain who says that ‘whoever uses the word [humanism] brings into play at once an entire metaphysic’. Nevertheless it is, for all that, the authentic humanism of the humanists—the historic movement that has perhaps done more than anything else to establish the norms of modern European culture during the three centuries between the Renaissance and the Revolution.

Thus although this definition appears to reduce humanism from a philosophy to a form of education, it was a form of education which formed the mind of Western Europe for more than 3oo years without distinction of philosophy or creed. Whatever we may think about the relations between Christianity and humanism as a philosophy or metaphysic there can be no question of any conflict between the tradition of humanist education and the tradition of the theological orthodoxy. For the humanist education was also the education of the theologians. It was practically the only education that Europe knew, and it was common to all parties and all creeds with a few insignificant exceptions.

This is not to say that the humanist culture of the post Reformation world was one and the same in every part of Europe. Religious differences had an important influence on its development, so that although Catholics and Protestants were both alike influenced by their humanist education, it produced different fruits in art and culture and life in the different spiritual environments. In the South the union of humanism and Catholicism gave birth to the Baroque culture which was the dominant form of European culture in the first half of the seventeenth century and which maintained its influence in Austria and Germany and Spain and South America far into the eighteenth century.

In the North the unity of Protestant culture is less obvious owing to the absence of religious unity as between the Lutherans and the Calvinists. Nevertheless the influence of humanism on the culture of Northern Europe is no less important than in the South, and it contributed no less than Protestantism to the formation of the new bourgeois culture in Holland and England and Scotland which was destined to have such an immense influence on the future of Western civilization.

Nevertheless Protestant culture was by no means completely humanist. The educated classes had all undergone the discipline of a humanist education, but they derived their ethical ideals not from the philosophers and the humanists but directly from the Bible and above all from the Old Testament. This element of Hebraism was strongest among the Puritans who have often been regarded, e.g. by Matthew Arnold, as responsible for the anti-humanist or Philistine character of the culture of the middle classes in England and America. But the popular conception of the Puritan as an illiterate Philistine is a gross caricature. Both in England and New England the Puritans were very much alive to the value of humane letters and humanist culture, and some of the most remarkable types of Christian humanism in England are to be found among the chaplains of Oliver Cromwell like Peter Steary and John Goodwin and Jeremy White.

It was rather in the Protestant underworld—among the lesser sects which kept alive the traditions of mediaeval heresy—that the anti-humanist element was strongest, and though these sects seldom emerged into the light of history, they nevertheless had a considerable influence in the religion and life of the English-speaking world. They survive today above all in the United States, in the Corybantic excesses of Protestant revivalism and in the obscurantism of traditional sectarianism.

These extravagances are very remote from the authentic Puritan tradition. Nevertheless we must admit that in Puritanism as a whole apart from the small group of Puritan humanists above I have mentioned, there is a hard core of unassimilated Hebraism which, even in a man like Milton, produced a sharp dualism between religion and culture and led him to use his mastery of the humanist style against the humanist tradition itself, as in his denunciation of classical literature and philosophy in the fourth book of Paradise Regained.

It was this dualism of religion and culture which prevented the development of religious drama and religious rat in seventeenth-century England and destroyed the mediaeval unity of religion and social life.

In Catholic Europe it was not so. The Baroque culture was far more deeply penetrated by humanist influences than the culture of the Protestant world, since they were not confined to the scholars and the men of letters, but affected the life of the people as a whole through the religious art and music and drama which continued to play the same part in the Baroque world that they had performed in the Middle Ages.

Thus there was not the same sharp divisions or antagonism between religion and culture that we find in Northern Europe. For instance the drama, instead of being banned by the Church, was used deliberately as a means of popular religious instruction, so that in Spain religious and secular dramas were composed by the same authors, performed by the same actors, and applauded by the same audiences. In the same way, there was no sharp dualism in Catholic Europe between humanist and Christian ethics. The synthesis between Christian and Aristotelian ethics which was perhaps the most important of the achievements of St. Thomas remained the basis of Catholic teaching and it provided an ideal foundation for the construction of a Christian humanism which could integrate the moral values of the humanist tradition with the super-naturalism of Christian theology.

It may be objected that by bringing in Thomism, I am doing just what I objected to in the ideologists of humanism. But apart from the fact that Aristotle and Plato have always been included in the study of humane letters, the Nichomachean Ethics embody the essential principles of humanist ethics and have an incomparable importance in the history of humanist education.

We must remember that ‘the study of humane letters’ was never confined to literature and philology. It was understood in the widest possible sense, as including the whole realm of classical culture. Thus the tradition of humanism takes us back eventually to the tradition of Hellenism which was the real source alike of the humanist values and of the humanist system of education.

Consequently humanism represents something much wider than the movement with which the name is primarily associated —I mean than the Renaissance of classical studies in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It stands for a continuous tradition which accompanies the whole course of western culture from its beginnings in ancient Greece down to modern times. In some ages it has been weakened and obscured and these are what the humanists called the Dark Ages. But as E.R. Curtius has recently shown in his great book on European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages[i], the continuity is much greater than is generally realized and though the Italian scholars of the Renaissance were the first to be known as humanists, we have no right to deny the title to John of Salisbury and the scholars of Chartres in the twelfth century or even to some of the Carolingian scholars in the ninth century like Theodulf of Orleans and Walafrid Strabo. It is this continuous tradition that makes the unity of European literature and European thought , so that as E.R. Curtius insists, it is hopeless to try to study any of the modern European literatures as though it were an autonomous whole, since they all form part of a greater unity and are only fully intelligible when they are related to the common tradition of Western humanism.

And the same can be said about the different European cultures. Culture does not arise spontaneously from the soil; it is an artificial growth which has been diffused from its original source in the Eastern Mediterranean by a complex process of transplantation and has been gradually made to bear fruit in a new soil by a long process of careful cultivation. Drama and prose are like the vine and the olive, and they are derived from the same homelands. The difference is that they have spread further and changed more.

This, however, is only one side of Western culture. The mistake of the humanists of the Renaissance and the men of the eighteenth century, and to some extent of modern scholars, is that they have regarded the humanist tradition at the only creative and formative element in Western culture and have shut their eyes to the existence of other elements or else have condemned everything else as barbaric, irrational and inhuman. In reality there is another tradition which is even more important than humanism in the development of European culture—the Christian tradition. This, like the tradition of humanism, has come into Western ‘Europe from outside and has become acclimatized and assimilated by a thousand years of spiritual labour. It is a more recent importation than the other, but on the other hand it has gone much deeper, since it has not been limited to the educated and leisured classes, but has penetrated to the roots of society—to the peasants—and has deeply influenced the life and thought of the common people.

First as rivals, then as mistress and servant, then as rivals again, but sometimes as friends and coadjutors, these two great traditions have together been the conscious spiritual and intellectual sources of Western culture.

Today both of them are threatened, and threatened on the whole by the same enemies, but both still exist, and as long as they exist Europe still survives.

Nevertheless this situation does not necessarily lead to a closer understanding and co-operation between Christians and humanists. There are many Christians who take an extremely pessimistic view of the prospects of Western culture. They believe that Europe is done for and that the future of Christianity lies elsewhere. As Canon Vidler has written, ‘Generally speaking, Christians see the European breakdown as the culmination and disintegration of the tremendous experiment that began at the Renaissance. That is, the experiment of European man to build a civilization with himself at the centre and independently of God and his sovereign rule?[ii]

From this point of view there can be no question of an alliance between Christianity and Humanism, or rather the de facto alliance that does in some sort exist is a compromising one from which Christians must disentangle themselves as quickly and completely as possible. And yet this process of disentanglement is not so simple as it seems at first sight. After 1800 years of intercourse there has been so much mutual interpenetration that all kinds of patterns of thought and behaviour have been formed which have become a second nature to us, and the average Christian does not realize how much his moral outlook is conditioned by humanist influences.

Take the case of humanitarianism. No doubt humanitarianism is on the decline in the modern world, but it is still strong and nowhere is it stronger than among English and American Christians. Yet humanitarianism is not a purely Christian movement any more than it is a purely humanist one. It is a typical example of the impact of the humanist tradition on Christianity and vice versa. Certainly we cannot regard the humanitarian achievements of the last two centuries as secure today, but in this matter at least the secular humanists and the Christians are very closely united—much more closely united, I think, than the different Christian bodies are in their defence of the rights of the Church against the secular state. And if today there was any question of reviving the practice of judicial torture or the reintroduction of public executions, there is no doubt that the very Christians who are most critical of humanism would be loudest in their protests.

The fact is that very few people have a clear idea of what a strictly non-humanist Christianity would be like. Of course they are aware of the existence of that type of extreme sectarianism which is content to be as `ignorunt as a mule’ but I am sure that that is not the kind of thing they want. It is no doubt possible to find examples of non-humanist Christianity that are more admirable than this, but they are a long way away. Perhaps the best example I can quote is that of the Archpriest Avakkum who was burnt alive in 1682 for his opposition to the reform of the Russian liturgy and whose autobiography is one of the classics of Russian literature. Now in some respects the religion of Avakkum seems just what is wanted if Christianity is to survive in a non-humanist totalitarian order, for he succeeded in existing and bearing witness to his faith under conditions which make the ordinary concentration camp seem like a kindergarten. But on the intellectual side his Christianity has no contact with ordinary rational human life. He was a kind of Christian witch-doctor who could meet the Siberian shamans on their own ground but whose religion was as narrow as theirs. His lack of any humanist culture or ethic made him entirely dependent on a rigid observance of ritual order, so that the smallest change in the traditional order, such as crossing oneself with three fingers instead of with two, seemed to him an act of apostasy far worse than any mere crime or act of immorality.

Now this kind of anti-humanist Christianity is not only contrary to the traditions of Western Christendom which have admittedly been permeated by humanist influence, but is alien from the spirit of Christianity itself.

The real decision was made by the apostolic Church when it turned from the Jews to the Gentiles, from the closed world of the synagogue and the law to the cosmopolitan society of the Roman-Hellenistic world. In spite of his apparent anti-intellectualism, St. Paul was by no means unconscious of the value of humane letters in the work of evangelization. In fact he was himself the first Christian humanist and his speech to the Athenians, with its appeal to the Hellenistic doctrines of the unity of the human race, of divine providence and of the natural affinity between the human and divine natures, is the basic document of Christian humanism. All this is much more than a method of apologetic devised for an Hellenistic audience. It is an expression of St. Paul’s sense of a certain affinity between Christianity and Hellenism owing to which the Hellenistic cities of the Eastern Roman Empire provided- the necessary conditions for the propagation of the pew faith.

“What was the nature of this affinity? On the one hand Hellenism provided a humane ethos and a philosophy of human nature which were not to be found among other cultures, while on the other hand Christianity is distinguished from other religions by its doctrine of the Incarnate Word, through whom the Divine and Human Natures have been substantially united in the historic person of Jesus Christ, the mediator between God and Man.

It is clear that this essential Christian doctrine gives a new value to human nature, to human history and to human life which Is not to be found in the other great oriental religions. The more the latter insist on the transcendence and absoluteness of the Divine Nature, the more they widen the gulf between God and Man, so that they tend either to deny the reality of the material world or to regard it as essentially evil, so that the body is a prison into which the human soul has got caught. These ideas were so powerful in the ancient world that they have often threatened to invade Christianity, and it was only by using the methods of Hellenic culture and with the help of Christian humanists like St. Irenaeus and St. Gregory of Nyssa that the Church was able to vindicate the Christian doctrine of man.

To St. Gregory there is a profound analogy between man’s natural function as a rational being—the ruler of the world and the link between the intelligible and sensible orders—and the divine mission of the Incarnate Word which unites humanity with the divine nature and restores the broken unity of the whole creation. The natural order corresponds with the supernatural order and both form part of the same divine all-embracing plan of creation and restoration. The Incarnation restores human nature to its original integrity and with it the whole material creation which is raised through man to a higher plane and integrated with the intelligible or spiritual order.

These doctrines are no doubt fundamentally Pauline, but with St. Gregory of Nyssa they are explicitly related to the tradition of Greek thought and to the Hellenic ideal of humanity. Moreover St. Gregory of Nyssa with his brother St. Basil and their friend St. Gregory Nazianzen were also humanists in the more technical sense—great students and lovers of humane letters who had a decisive influence on the development of the culture of Orthodox Christendom. Today there is a tendency to view Eastern Christianity through Russian eyes and to stress those elements in the Byzantine tradition which are most remote from the humanist tradition, as we see it, for example, in Avakkum and Khomiakoff and Dostoevsky. But these represent the spirit of Russia rather than the Byzantine tradition. The real founders of the Byzantine culture were the great Cappadocian fathers of whom I have spoken, and behind all the later developments of Eastern Orthodoxy which found so many different expressions in different ages and peoples, there lies this Christian Hellenism of the fourth century, which was also a Christian humanism.

It is true that there is another element in Orthodox Christianity which is neither Western nor humanist—I mean the tradition of the monks of the desert. But whereas the Byzantine culture was able to incorporate and Hellenize this tradition, thanks largely to St. Basil himself, the purely Oriental element in monasticism as represented by the leaders of Egyptian monasticism like Bgoul and Schenouti became unorthodox as well as non-humanist and was one of the driving forces behind the religious revolt which separated Egypt and Syria from the Orthodox Church.

It is therefore no accident that this great Orientalist reaction against Hellenic culture should have found its theological justification in a doctrine which denied the full humanity of Christ. Nor did the Oriental reaction stop at this point. For Monophysitism is only the first step in a far-reaching movement which carried East away from Christianity and found its final expression in the uncompromising Unitarian absolutism of Islam which rejects the whole idea of Incarnation and restores an impassable gulf between God and Man.

And thus white it is easy enough to conceive of an Oriental Christianity which has no affinity with any form of humanist culture, we must admit that it is very difficult in practice for such a Christianity to hold its own against the various forms of unorthodox or non Christian spirituality—Manichean, Moslem or Monophysite—which make such a profound appeal to the Oriental mind.

No doubt there is the Christianity of Abyssinia which is Monophysite more by historical accident than by theological necessity and which has held its own for a thousand years against the pressure of Islam. And even in the case of Abyssinia we must not forget how much the national revival in the sixteenth century owed to the stimulus of Western culture and Western Christianity.

It is true that Christianity is not bound up with any particular race or culture. It is neither of the East nor of the West, but has a universal mission to the human race as a whole. Nevertheless it is precisely in this universality that the natural bond and affinity between Christianity and humanism is to be found. For humanism also appeals to man as man. It seeks to liberate the universal qualities of human nature from the narrow limitations of blood and soil and class and to create a common language and a common culture in which men can realize their common humanity. Humanism is an attempt to overcome the curse of Babel which divides mankind into a mass of warring tribes hermetically sealed against one another by their mutual incomprehensibility.

If this only means that humanism is attempting to build a new tower of Babel—a city of Man founded on pride and self will in ignorance and contempt of God—then no doubt humanism is anti-Christian. But this is not the only kind of humanism. As man needs God and nature requires grace for its own perfecting, so humane culture is the natural foundation and preparation for spiritual culture. Thus Christian humanism is as indispensable to the Christian way of life as Christian ethics and a Christian sociology. Humanism and Divinity are as complementary to one another in the order of culture, as are Nature and Grace in the order of being.

Books on or by Christopher Dawson may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. 

Originally published in the Dublin Review in 1952.


[i] Cf. my article in The Dublin Review, First Quarter, 1950, pp. 31ff.

[ii] A. R Vidler, Secular Despair and Chrisitan Faith, p. 82.

Print Friendly
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
2 replies to this post
  1. Respectfully, I must protest. Anyone who has read Barth knows that “the total corruption of human nature” is not what he advocates, nor is that a fair summary in any respect of what Dawson calls the “traditional Protestant doctrine”. A misreading of one particular author is excusable, but a misreading of the entire tradition really isn’t. A caricature is not a summary.

    But with regards to the finite point that Barth was a leading and “striking example” of the attack on humanism, I reference only his brilliant essays/lectures on Mozart and note also that the author most cited in Barth’s Epistle to the Romans is not Luther or Calvin, but….Dostoevsky.

    Barth was, in fact, a great humanist. But he was a humanist of a particular type: He simply didn’t think that man was God and lived his life in protest of the fact that he was in a minority in that regard. And on this point, he would not compromise, period. He also walked the walk as anyone familiar with the Barmen Declaration well knows.

    Dawson, too, shared the conviction that man is not God. The way that conviction played out in his life was different than the way that shared conviction played out in the life of Barth. Obviously Barth would not agree that “Christian humanism is as indispensable to the Christian way of life as Christian ethics and a Christian sociology.” But Barth was no enemy of culture. Finally, if one takes a long view of culture and history, it is not entirely clear that Barth’s views are not less risky than other formulations.

    Does Dawson really shut the door on syncretism? I don’t know the answer to that. But I fear it is less clear than the answer to that same question put to Barth.

Leave a Reply