I mentioned in a post last week that it had been eleven years exactly since I’d read my first Christopher Dawson book. That book, 1942’s Judgment of the Nations, remains my favorite of Dawson’s works.
I spent the entire Thanksgiving break that year, 2001, reading Dawson. I had found the book at Hyde Brothers Books in Fort Wayne shortly before, and I devoured the book. At the time, my oldest was only two, and I had a lot more time in which to read.
To state that Dawson’s writing overwhelmed me would be an understatement. To say that it changed my life would be an understatement as well.
The copy I found was in nearly perfect shape (Sam Hyde, by the way, is one of the best used book sellers I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing), and I marked it up in the margins with glee.
I mark up all of my books, by way, much to the disgust and bewilderment of many of my friends. But, as far as I’m concerned, a book is a friend. Like all friendships, it can be cultivated only with extensive and meaningful communication and discussions. To keep a book privately owned in a pristine state is, to my mind, akin to idolizing a thing and ignoring the full meaning of the Incarnation and its demand that we engage material culture and sanctify it through the gift of grace. As the profound Canadian author, Michael O’Brien, has written in his best novel, the World War II-era Sophia House, each book is a new soul. It enters the world, changing all that it encounters for better or worse. Arguing with my favorite authors is my way of honoring them.
But, I disgress.
Despite the extensive marginalia I offered Dawson, the inside front page only states, rather unpoetically in black ink: “Brad Birzer. Read: November 2001.”
Regardless, I found the book life changing. Never had I encountered such excellent writing or such deep thought. My graduate school experience was pretty mixed. I had some excellent professors. Indeed, some of the best anywhere, in terms of ability and personality. And, I had some great friends in graduate school. But, the books we read often dealt far more with specific events, ever narrowing in our pursuit.
Dawson introduced me to something very different: metahistory.
Metahistory “is concerned with the nature of history, the meaning of history and the cause and significance of historical change,” he claimed. The professional historian–such as those who licensed me in graduate school–“is primarily engaged in the study of the past. He does not ask himself why the past is different from the present or what is the meaning of history as a whole. What he wants to know is what actually happened at a particular time and place and what effect it had on the immediate future.” Such historical methods and “techniques will not produce great history, any more than a mastery of metrical technique will produce great poetry.”
The true historian, or the metahistorian, Dawson continued, will recognize that “something more is necessary—intuitive understanding, creative imagination, and finally a universal vision transcending the relative limitation of the particular field of historical study.”
This is exactly what I encountered that November, 11 years ago. Overwhelming, breath-taking brilliance, the intellectual and spiritual nectar of the gods. My first thought–and I expressed this numerous times in the marginalia–was that Dawson sounded much like J.R.R. Tolkien. Almost immediately, I realized the connection. The two attended the same parish, Dawson knew almost all of the Inklings (though he was too shy and insecure to be a part of such a boisterous group), and the two relied on each other’s work. Dawson even published Tolkien’s justly famous short story, “Leaf by Niggle,” in his last days as editor of The Dublin Review.
As soon as I’d finished The Judgment of the Nations, I knew I would have to write a book about author. And, I did. Of all things I’ve written, it’s the thing of which I’m most proud. Not that a person can really judge his own work.
Though this didn’t appear in the 1942 American edition, Dawson dedicated the English and European version of the book to those who hoped to restore some intellectual form of Christendom after the second world war.
Four years have gone to the making of this book–years more disastrous than any that Europe has known since the fourteenth century. Small as it is, it has cost me greater labour and thought than any book that I have written. I dedicate it to all those who have not despaired of the republic, the commonwealth of Christian peoples, in these dark times.
Dawson despised writing about politics, properly deeming them low. But, he also felt that good men must sometimes embrace those very topics they hated for the sake of the common good. To combat the various rising, bloodthirsty ideologies of the age–fascism, communism, and nationalism socialism–Dawson write The Modern Dilemma (1931), Religion and the Rise of the Modern State (1935), and Beyond Politics (1939). The Judgment of the Nations concluded his series on politics. But, as with his other works, Dawson privileged culture, noting that it always set the stage for politics with ideologies serving as perversions of traditional religious thought.
The Judgment of the Nations is a wild ride. As devastating as any ideology (beyond its specific massacres) is the growing uniformity of the world, the movement toward a mechanized humanity and a loss of individuality and true diversity. As the world moves toward the conformist abyss of the annihilation of the human person, Dawson claimed, power replaces love as the prime mover in the world, thus overturning the western project from Socrates through Dante. The human race, in its will to power, has embraced Babylon rather than Jerusalem. We have entered, he feared, the “Hour of Darkness.” All movements–whether going by the name of democracy, fascism, or communism–have become “mass movements,” he claimed. Further, Dawson argued, liberalism (whether in its classical or statist forms) had proven disastrous, doing nothing more than creating a purposeless world. As Dawson famously (or infamously) noted in his life, liberalism served as nothing more than a stepping stone from Christendom to totalitarianism. When it transformed from nineteenth to twentieth century liberalism, it made the fatal mistake of confusing liberty and equality.
For it is freedom and not equality that has been the inspiration of Western culture and the whole history of Western man has been a long quest for freedom. Western civilization has never been a geographical or racial unity. It was born on the shores of the Aegean between the barbarism of continental despotism of Asia. (pg. 62)
Only through the right of association can humanity truly progress. Indeed, Dawson wrote, all of history is the struggle between the right of individuals within community and the imperialism of politics.
The modern state, Dawson continued, resembles really nothing in history. Instead, through the institutions of education, the military, and the bureaucracy, the modern state in all of its forms has become something new under the sun. Whereas the pre-modern state might achieve absolutism, the modern state can achieve totalitarianism. Whether democratic, communist, fascist, or national socialist, the modern state most resembles the medieval church in its ability to inspire purpose but antique in its understanding of God-kingships in its politics. Thus, rendering to Caesar what is Caesar’s has gone well beyond what Christ warned about. The new state has destroyed the “commonwealth of free citizens” into a “hive or an ant-heap.” In all of its forms, Dawson warned, the new state is “the totalitarian Anti-Christ.”
Nothing can save us from the Apocalypse as understood by St. John at Patmos. But, it might prove possible to hold it off for a while. This might even prove God’s desire. Whatever Dawson’s enthusiasm about Christianity, he believed almost equally in the power of humanity. He wanted a true Christian Humanism, one that embraced the dignity of every person and sought an alliance between all Christians, Jews, and virtuous pagans and atheists. In a very Ciceronian fashion, Dawson argued that only an acceptance of Natural Law and “eternal Reason” would allow the human person to challenge the growing Babylonian state and modern ideologies with any degree of success.
Looking back 11 years ago, I envy myself. I would give a lot to be able to read Dawson for the first time again. If you’ve not had the blessing, I envy you as well. Reading any book by Dawson is a liberal education in and of itself.
Dawson possessed an abundance of imagination and integrity, and he used every ounce he could for the betterment of humanity. In his own personal life, he suffered doubt, anxiety, insomnia, and depression. Yet, what more could be said than: he lived, and he lived as man.
Reading The Judgment of the Nations immediately after 9/11, I’m sure, affected me in ways I didn’t realize at the time. Yet, here was a man who faced the extinction of western civilization. No matter what despair he felt, personally or otherwise, he embraced the second highest virtue in existence, hope.
It would be, of course, best to end with Dawson’s words and leave the book as a mystery for the new reader to discover.
By continued repression and stimulation, by suggestion and terrorization, the personality is subjected to a methodical psychological assault until it surrenders its freedom and becomes a puppet which shouts and marches and hates and dies at its masters’ voice. . . . But this is an impossible solution for the Christian, since it would be a sin against the Holy Ghost in the most absolute sense. Therefore the Church must once more take up her prophetic office and bear witness of the Word even if it means the judgment of the nations and an open war with the powers of the world.
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. Dr. Birzer is also author of The Humane Republic: The Imagination of Russell Kirk (forthcoming, University Press of Kentucky). He teaches Catholics in the Public Square for Catholic Courses.