by Brad Birzer
Part III: Contending Against Liberalism
As Dawson attempted to discover the sources of the ideological disruptions of the twentieth-century as well as solutions to the death and terror they caused, he often produced some of his most impassioned work. The forerunner to such brutal terrors as Communism and Fascism was liberalism, Dawson claimed. In his own research and writing, Dawson then took a special interest in those things which countered the growth of liberalism. From their successes and failures, this twentieth-century Augustinian figure thought, the world might learn from its follies and unify around some healing solution. As Dawson saw it, four forces worked against the growing power of liberalism, to varying degrees of success: the rise of Protestant Evangelicalism; the anti-Revolutionary traditionalist thought of Edmund Burke and Joseph De Maistre; the Romantic movement; and John Henry Cardinal Newman.
John Wesley, a high-church Anglican, heavily influenced by the pietism of German Moravians, led the first counter-liberal movement.
In daily sermons, given throughout England, he preached the need for a rigorous personal, moral discipline as well as for an intense pietism and a personal relationship with Christ. Methodism decreased the chances of a liberal or radical revolution by serving as a conservative force attracting the disenfranchised and economically downtrodden in England and, through the revivalists George Whitfield and Francis Asbury, numerous and various peoples of all backgrounds in the American colonies.
In almost every way, Dawson argued, the Wesleyan movement ran counter to the liberalism and Deism of its day.
“Wesley was undoubtedly one of the greatest Englishmen of the eighteenth century and a great religious genius,” Dawson wrote in his unpublished, Return to Christian Unity. “But no man of his religious stature was more unphilosophical and more anti-metaphysical, and more out of touch with the new intellectual currents of his time than Wesley.”
Wesley’s movement, despite its many successes, shared the flaw that all Protestantism shared, according to Dawson. It was individualistic, decentralized, and, hence, unable to deal effectively with social and cultural problems.
The anti-Revolutionary movement of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries founds its greatest intellectual representatives in Joseph de Maistre and Edmund Burke, each of whom Dawson considered a brilliant prophet. De Maistre, a Frenchman by birth, “hid the spirit of a Hebrew prophet,” attempting to discern “the problem of suffering and evil and the justification of the obscure purposes of God in history.”
However, Dawson cautioned, de Maistre focused so much on the dark side of creation, however, that he eventually could only see darkness as the cause of anything. An extreme Augustinian, de Maistre believed that man was so dark that “impersonal forces which move to their appointed ends” moved men, denying them any free will. This resulted in war and revolutions as natural parts of humanity. De Maistre held a special hatred for any aspect of liberalism. “The contempt of Locke is the beginning of wisdom,” de Maistre firmly believed.
He viewed the French Revolution as the birth of “a new age” of “hollow abstractions.” Still, de Maistre conceded, perhaps God intended the Revolution as a necessary punishment and purifier for men and their sinful ways. Ultimately, though those present may not see the how or why, God would use the violence and terror of the revolution to remake Christendom.
“We have been grievously and justly broken,” de Maistre wrote, “but if such eyes as mine are worthy to foresee the divine purpose, we have been broken only to be made one.”
Dawson cautioned that de Maistre took this belief too far, veering into a heterodox view closely resembling the Hindu belief of Karma, in which an evil will be repaid with an evil.
Despite de Maistre’s minor heterodoxies, Dawson strongly identified with him.
As he did with de Maistre, Dawson considered the Anglo-Irish statesman Edmund Burke a kindred spirit. Dawson never read Burke during his formative intellectual period, but he valued his thoughts on ideologies greatly, especially in the 1930s. “Burke has said certain things better than any one else can hope to again,” Dawson told John J. Mulloy.
Dawson especially appreciated Burke’s organic approach to culture and history.
Society, Burke argued, was never merely political or legal. At its most fundamental, society was spiritual as well as material, transcending any one generation, but embracing all living beings, past, present, and future.
It was from this standpoint, that Burke attacked the French Revolutionaries as the harbingers of terror not just for the French, but for all of Christendom. Their movement was the unloosing of chaos upon the world.
Much of Burke’s and de Maistre’s thought re-surfaced with the early nineteenth-century Romantics. The Romantics were diverse in their thought, and though they often shared de Maistre’s and Burke’s fears of pure rationalism, they just as usually rejected the traditionalist love of order, often preferring chaos and anarchy as seemingly free and liberating of the individual.
Still, the Romantics typically agreed that the rationalism of the Enlightenment came from the dividing of Christendom and the Protestant attempt to de-mythologize the sacraments and Creation. Hence, those Romantics who eventually embraced theism, more often than not embraced a medieval form of Roman Catholicism.
Even the extreme William Blake, one of the greatest of the Romantics, traversed a tortuous path from spiritual darkness and Gnosticism “among beasts and devils” to Christian heterodoxy to something closely resembling Catholic orthodoxy.
Through it all, he conceded, he had traveled “on the strength of the Lord God,” finding his greatest enemy in the rationalist, liberal Deism of his day.
But, according to Dawson, Blake embraced the Logos and the moral imagination as a “Divine Vision.”
It, and it alone, could heal the divisions of Christendom. And, though “religion failed to reconquer and reunite European Civilization,” as the traditionalists and Romantics had desired, Dawson argued, “it recovered its vitality and once more asserted itself as an autonomous force in European culture.”
John Henry Cardinal Newman offered the last great opposition to the rising tide of liberalism before it both turned into—and succumbed to—the deadly ideologies of the twentieth-century. As with many of the other figures mentioned above, Dawson felt a true kinship to Newman.
Both had been converts to Roman Catholicism, both were Augustinians, and both did everything in their intellectual power to combat liberalism. Indeed, Dawson considered his book on the Oxford Movement, The Spirit of the Oxford Movement, one of his two greatest intellectual accomplishments.
Newman’s Development of Christian Doctrine and his Apologia, especially influenced Dawson. The former impressed Dawson because it had been “inspired by an intense faith in the boundless powers of assimilation which the Christian faith possessed and which made it a unitive principle in life and thought.”
Dawson admired Newman’s Apologia because it recognized that “it was only in history that the divine process of progressive revelation and spiritual renovation could be fulfilled.”
Because all of history had a purpose, Newman argued, history seemed to have changed its direction with the coming of Christ. It no longer runs straight forward, but is, as it were, continually verging on eternity.”
Newman’s near mysticism and inspired foresight—his understanding of being on the edge of eternity—also impressed Dawson. Newman, more clearly than any of his contemporaries, understood the coming war of the Church against the ideologues. Evil and iniquity were attempting to enter the world in anyway that they could, and they found their first and perhaps most important vehicles in the French Revolution, utilitarianism, and secularization, Newman feared. Newman’s vision can best be seen in the poetry of William Butler Yeats, in the fiction of Father R.H. Benson, or in the gulags and killing fields of the twentieth-century. Newman’s words were a call to arms in defense of the Church before the Enemy gained control of its own institutions, Dawson believed.
Ultimately, Dawson argued, future scholars would remember Newman as the paragon of the nineteenth-century. “The personality and genius of Newman will be seen as a key point of the whole development” of nineteenth-century religious development and thought, “as at once the embodiment and contradiction of the spirit of his age.”
He was the greatest and best defender of the West and Christendom in his day.
Despite the opposition of those discussed above, the liberalism of the eighteenth and nineteenth century that Dawson abhorred became the academic liberalism of the twentieth century. This academic liberalism, as conformist one as one could imagine, seemed utterly devoid of any real history or purpose to Dawson. Significantly influenced by the various materialist philosophies of the previous century, these typical liberal academics in the first half of the twentieth century often referred to man as homo economicus, economic man. Greed, self-interest, and material pursuit occupied and shaped one’s every decision, or so many of these academics confidently argued and firmly believed. Often the materialist economic man arguments melded seamlessly with other materialist philosophies such as scientific evolutionary theories or Freudian psychological theories.
Coincident with Dawson’s declining health in the early 1960s, academic interest in theories of modernity and economics development lost some of their verve, and, within much of the academy and government agencies, economic man became political man. Though the transition occurred (and is still occurring) slowly, one sees the trend in its infancy in the 1930s in the speeches and writings of such diverse figures as-soon-to-be president Franklin D. Roosevelt and public intellectual Dorothy Thompson. The former explained in the early 1930s that America must accept the private as public and all things as political.
His various New Deal policies soon reflected his beliefs, and the nation, economy, and culture were suddenly politicizing at an unprecedented rate.
Many of Dawson’s fears regarding the purposelessness of liberalism can be seen in the life and career of American Dorothy Thompson. One of the most important and profound liberal intellectuals of her day, Thompson flirted with the New Deal, communism, and fascism. She rejected each, as well as rejecting her father’s evangelical Christian faith. The loss of so many beliefs left her adrift. “I am in search of a living faith in which to believe, and a body of faith in which to belong,” lamented Thompson. “I cannot bear this world!”
After all, once the progressive and more materialist visions of Marx, Freud, and Darwin had obscured the tradition and faith that ordered the human person, little solid or tangible seemed to remain. Aristotelian purpose seemed quaint and tired. Rather than a balance of the spirit and the material, the material dominated, and the spirit was forgotten. Further, Thompson admitted, “individualism and skepticism had set [her] adrift in a world where everything was challenged and nothing believed.”
The author of Deuteronomy had predicted such an outcome, thousands of years before Thompson recognized the plight of many within modernity. Those who ignored the law of God would find themselves with “no resting place for the sole of” one’s foot.
All shall be in doubt, and the individual person adrift and soon to drown in the depths of his subjective reality.
With the death of liberal faith in religion, tradition, and all things spiritual, the community could then start anew and define itself and its members. In short, culture could be born again, liberal thinking ran. And, in hindsight, it should surprise no one that the progressivism of the early-twentieth century became the New Deal of the 1930s, the Great Society of the 1960s, and, at century’s end, the existential “politics of meaning,” “it takes a village,” and the “desire to redefine the human person” of the last decade of the twentieth century. Liberalism, as Dawson argued, merely inherited the Christian world view without God or natural authority. It, therefore, can never transcend its limited inheritance. It must always remain merely derivative. As a creature rather than a creative force, liberalism can produce nothing truly new, for it has no roots. Even more important for Dawson, by neglecting the spiritual side of man—or, at best, relegating it to the private judgment of autonomous individuals—liberalism ignored or mocked the source of true creativity, the Holy Spirit. Since all life—in its creation and its animation—comes from the love of the Holy Trinity, liberalism has no substantial life of its own. As noted several times earlier, liberalism serves merely as a transition within western society, Dawson argued. Christendom came before it, and the killing fields and gulag followed it, Dawson contended.
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.