by Bradley J. Birzer
Part I: Christopher Dawson on Liberalism
In the earliest drafts of the biography I wrote of Christopher Dawson, Sanctifying the World (2007), dedicated to our very own William Winston Elliott III, I included three largish-sections regarding Dawson’s critique of liberalism: The Rise of Liberalism; The Fulfillment of Liberalism; and Contending Against Liberalism. I deleted these–roughly 6,500 words–sometime in the summer of 2004.
At that time, eight years ago, I was worried I simply did not know enough about the subject, and I feared my own views on Dawson’s views were too polemical.
For what the sections are worth (and, perhaps, not very much), they now appear at TIC in three parts. I’m still not convinced they’re very good, but I do think Dawson said so much on liberalism worth pondering that at least the quotes I used are worth something.
Originally, they would have concluded what I ultimately called “Interlude II: What is the West?”, starting on page 185.
It should be noted that Dawson saw liberalism (19th and 20th century varieties) as a whole. And, while he was extremely anti-statist to the point of quasi-anarchism, Dawson thought liberalism of any sort could exist only as a transition state from true culture, liberty, and order to chaos and totalitarianism.
Part I: The Rise of Liberalism
As a revolt against authority, the Protestant Reformation opened the door to western secularization and economic individualism, otherwise known as liberalism, a word that Dawson sometimes mistrusted as too vague. “Liberalism is an unsatisfactory word since it has been used to describe three quite distinct movements,” Dawson wrote to the editor of Notre Dame’s Review of Politics, in 1954. “But the very fact that it has been used so widely and loosely increases the need for a fuller historical examination.”
The three movements, to which Dawson referred, were the English, the American, and the French, each represented by a revolution—the revolutions of 1688, 1776, and 1789, respectively. Each, though, had a common origin in the Protestant Reformation. The ideals of liberalism spread with the Huguenot Diaspora of the early seventeenth century. “Wherever they settled in Holland and England and North Germany, they formed centres of militant anti-Catholic opinion and carried on an organized campaign of public propaganda and secret agitation” against the Sun King and the Roman Catholic Church.
Most of the intellectual strains of thought and economic forces that would promote liberalism first came together in Holland. “Here, I think,” Dawson argued, “17th century Holland and Dutch culture are the decisive points, for it was in Holland that we find the first developments of secularism and toleration, of bourgeois control of the state, of bourgeois capitalism and finance.”
The greatest successes of liberalism, Dawson wrote, came with the so-called “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 and 1689, in which the Dutch and the English, as well as the Puritans and the Episcopalians, united.
Led by the rising middle-classes, Dawson argued, Protestantism had stressed the need for economic individualism. The rising middle-classes, as best expressed and represented by the Classical Economists of the eighteenth century, argued that the well-being of the community could only result from the individual pursuit of profit. The riches of the few would indirectly benefit the masses. But with laissez faire in Northern Europe, the old world of tradition and communal protection of the aged and indigent withered, Dawson contended.
It was an age of ruin and decay for the peasants and the yeomen and the free craftsmen: it was the age of the enclosures of the commons and the destruction of the guilds; it abandoned the traditional Christian attitude to the poor and substituted a harsher doctrine which regarded poverty as the result of sloth or improvidence and charity as a form of self-indulgence. It makes self-interest a law of nature which was providentially designed to serve the good of the whole so that the love of money was transformed from the root of all evil to the mainspring of social life.
The justification of the avarice of the individual, Dawson seems to have suggested, was the greatest accomplishment of liberalism. “The capitalist organization of industry has led, no less than military conquest, to the exploitation of subject classes and nationalities.”
Such an argument can be found in John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government. The so-called philosopher of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and 1689, completely redefined political society. This nominal Anglican moved even farther away from the traditional Platonic-Aristotelian-Augustinian-Thomist attempt to make virtue the basis of all good society than had Machiavelli. Indeed, whereas Machiavelli at least acknowledged the existence and importance of a God and then dismissed Him, Locke seems just to have dismissed God and His sacred law. Locke argued that society is no longer about a sublime covenant between the cult and God, but between insecure property-rights bearers who desire little more than worldly security and prosperity.
To protect one’s self and one’s material acquisitions, property rights define us and our neighbors. Rather than being created in the Image of God, the liberal philosophers of the seventeenth-century argued, men became homo economicus and formed society not for the common good or the will of God, but for individual benefit and profit. The world began not with the Creator making His creation, but with an amorphous “state of nature.” And, man, rather than possessing a soul with the natural law written on his heart, as St. Paul had assured the Romans, is merely the tabula rasa, ready to be molded by society itself.
Despite all of Dawson’s rhetoric against liberalism, he did not outright reject the importance of benefits of the market. In the early and middle 1930s, for example, Dawson issued several caveats regarding his views on capitalism. “When I say Capitalism, I do not, of course, mean the institution of private property or even the co-operative use of private capital for economic production,” Dawson argued in 1934. “I mean that whole system and philosophy of economic liberalism which allowed the economic process to develop without moral guidance and with no end but its own interest.”
A year earlier, in a letter to The Cambridge Review, Dawson noted that while capitalism could be as materialist as communism in its most liberal aspects, a Christian fared much better in the capitalist world than he would in a totalitarian society. “In our Capitalist society the Christian may be a misfit,” Dawson claimed, “but in a Communist society he is a traitor and a pariah.”
Additionally, capitalism has provided an immense increase in the production of wealth and enjoyment of life. The most significant problem with capitalism, Dawson argued, is that it fails to see the human person as an end in and of himself. It attempts to mechanize the human person for some goal or profit.
Dawson also noted, rather strongly, that the Catholic must live according to the rules of charity, never to the desires of the market order or the laws of supply and demand. As with the economy as a whole, wealth is morally neutral. It must never become an end, but only serve as a means to something greater. In the 1920s, Dawson wrote a three-part series on Catholicism and Economics. He wrote approvingly of the Church Fathers and their understanding of the market and charity. Ultimately, the market is only good if one uses it “as a vehicle of spiritual love.”
One of the Church Fathers, St. Ambrose, had taken this argument to its logical conclusion. “What you give to the poor man is not yours but his. For what was given for the common use, you alone usurp. The earth is all men’s and not the property of the rich.”
Another Church Father, St. Basil, stated: “He who strips a man of his garments will be called a thief. Is not he who fails to clothe the naked when he could do so worthy of the same title? It is the bread of the hungry that you hold, the clothing of the naked that you lock up in your cupboard.”
Each of these men was following the beliefs of the first Arch-bishop of Jerusalem, St. James. In his Catholic epistle, he wrote of the wealthy: “You have feasted upon earth: and in riotousness you have nourished your hearts, in the day of slaughter.”
When liberal political and economic notions combined with the ideas introduced by the Scientific Revolution of 1543 to 1687, Dawson feared, liberalism almost shattered all of Christianity’s significance in the eighteenth century. The universe, according to Newton, for example, was no longer moved by Love. It was, instead, a vast mechanism that could be discovered through science and observation. Even the understanding of God changed. In his dedication to the pope, Copernicus tellingly labeled Him “the Best and Most Orderly Workman of all” who had built “the machinery of the world.”
This was indeed a far cry from the Divine Love of the Divine Comedy that “moves the sun and the other stars,” pulling all things back to Him.
Dr. Bradley J. Birzer is co-founder of The Imaginative Conservative and a Senior Contributor. He is the author of Sanctifying the World: The Augustinian Life and Mind of Christopher Dawson, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth, and American Cicero: The Life of Charles Carroll. He is also author of The Humane Republic: The Imagination of Russell Kirk (forthcoming, University Press of Kentucky). Dr. Birzer also teaches Catholics in the Public Square for Catholic Courses.