the imaginative conservative logo

Though Christopher Dawson remained unsure why the Natural Law developed, he did not hesitate to celebrate it. He remained firmly convinced that the development of Natural Law did not randomly emerge from individual genius, but rather believed that individual genius arose out of the various traditions and norms of each people…

As a historian and meta-historian (an important term, sadly, that has become tainted with corruption by the academic left), Christopher Dawson attempted to understand the very essence and heart of history. Certainly, the moment-by-moment unfolding and detailing of the past mattered, but only as these served as a means to understand the larger currents of thought and the human condition. It was the sea changes in thought and consciousness across cultures and over time that most interested him as scholar and thinker.

In the earliest awareness men had of their world, they worshipped the divine—whatever that divine might be. These various forms of worship, Dawson believed, served as the basis of all human culture(s). No Lockean, Dawson argued that men came together because of their mutual interest in defending what they each agreed was sacred, rather than as a compact in which each man sought to protect his own interests against the community. As Dawson viewed it, man’s first step in development was the formation of community based on the interests of the community and the community’s divine, not some recognition of individualism. As the title of Dawson’s first book, The Age of the Gods, suggests, this was an age of the divine. From the worship of the divine, each people developed their own distinctive way of life.

The second greatest moment in human history, Dawson argued, arrived around 500 BC throughout the entire civilized world—in the Mediterranean, in India, and in China. If the first great movement was the Age of the Gods, the second great movement was an age of the “humane” or of “humanism,” as Hindu, Buddhist, Confucian, and Greek embraced a vision of what would become a common humanity that transcends nations, races, and religions. Amazingly enough, each form of humanism—whether in China, Indian, or Ionia—developed within mere years of the others.

What defined this age as brilliant and peculiar was, in fact, its non-peculiarity. Throughout the civilized world, from East to West, each of the great ways of thinking embraced what would one day be called the “natural law,” applicable to all times and all places. The law emanated from the divine toward and upon all, regardless of soil, culture, skin tone, and temporal existence. As Dawson noted, the Natural Law applied to men as well as to nature; thus, natural law allowed human thought to free itself from the cycles of the seasons and the cycles of life, death, and rebirth.

Because of the very history and essence of each culture, each culture tends to be insular, protective, and—more often than not—defensive. “All cultures,” Dawson explained in his Harvard lectures, “are in some degree closed systems or orders of life which resist change and reject what is alien to their traditions as barbarous or impious.” Therefore, when 500 BC reveals the development and exploration of the Natural Law simultaneously unfolding in four major regions, Dawson asserts that we must take note. How the universal supplanted or tempered the particularisms of the time is endlessly fascinating, if still somewhat mysterious.

Once again, the Anglo-Welsh scholar blames the academic historian for confusing the issue. Perplexed by this rise of Natural Law across the civilized world, the academic historian refuses to explain it, but, instead, details its unfolding in dry-as-dust fashion; thus giving it no more significance than this or that battle, this or that technological development. We must, Dawson claimed, be willing to be like Herodotus and Polybius and attempt to understand it, to immerse ourselves in it, and to see the world through the eyes of the Greek, the Buddhist, the Confucian, or the Hindu in 500 BC.

Though Dawson remained unsure why the Natural Law developed, he did not hesitate to celebrate it. He remained firmly convinced that the development of Natural Law did not randomly emerge from individual genius, but rather believed that individual genius arose out of the various traditions and norms of each people. Of course, this makes the awareness of Natural Law in four major but distinct peoples even more interesting.

Dawson’s thoughts on genius are well worth repeating:

A genius is also the member of a society, the bearer of a culture and a link in a tradition. Unless the conditions of his culture are favorable, the genius cannot do his work, and even if he did, his discovery would be sterile. For inventions are steps in a cumulative process. They do not appear out of the void, but originate as a part of a social process of co-operation and competitive thought and discussion.

It’s difficult not to see in Dawson the Anglo-Welsh equivalent of Irving Babbitt, Paul Elmer More, and T.S. Eliot. Dawson is more explicit in his Christianity than the first two, certainly, but the similarities in argument are striking. Each found the rise of Natural Law and its transcendent nature to be critical to the formation of a decent and humane culture, one that respects free will as well as dignity. From such an understanding of man, universalism arose.

Dawson, being the most “occidental” of the four thinkers, focused most on the Greek achievement, while Babbitt delved deeply into the Oriental one. As such, Dawson focused much of his own thought on the first of the great Greek philosophers—indeed, the first philosopher anywhere—Heraclitus. In seeking an answer to the cycles of nature and the human person, he came to believe that all things found themselves rooted in a divine (if very pantheistic) element, Fire, or, in Greek, Logos. The Logos, while not quite god, represented the mind of the universe, and it endowed all persons, everywhere, with Reason, the language of the gods and of men. By speaking the language of Reason, each person could embrace not only the divine in the next realm, but, critically, the divine in each person of this world.

With the Logos, men became human.

Books by Bradley Birzer may be found in The Imaginative Conservative BookstoreThe Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
"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. I am curious. Why did he leave out The Jewish Babylonian exile which was happening around that same time which produced the five books of Moses?

Please leave a thoughtful, civil, and constructive comment: