Christopher Dawson and Johannine Divine Madness

As Maisie Ward, the famous biographer and co-founder of the Sheed and Ward publishing house, admitted to Dawson in 1961, “You were, as I said on Sunday, truly the spear-head of our publishing venture.”[7]  Ward put it into greater context in her autobiography, Unfinished Business.  “Looking back at the beginnings of such intellectual life as I have had, I feel indebted to three men of genius: Browning, Newman, and Chesterton,” she admitted.  “But in my middle age, while we owed much as publishers to many men and women, foreign and English, the most powerful influence on the thinking of both myself and my husband was certainly Christopher Dawson.”[8]  Even among the clergy, none held the reputation that Dawson did by the 1950s.  Again, as Ward noted rather bluntly in a letter to Dawson, “There is no question in my mind that no priest exists at the moment whose name carries anything like the weight in or outside the church that yours does.”[9]  This is an impressive claim, especially when one recalls the intellect and influence of a Martin D’Arcy, a John Courtney Murray, or a J. Fulton Sheen, all eminent priests.

Neo-Thomist historian and philosopher Etienne Gilson also acknowledged his profound admiration for Dawson in a 1950 letter to Frank Sheed.  Gilson especially appreciated Dawson’s Making of Europe (1932) and Religion and the Rise of Western Culture (1950).[10]  The latter “provided me with what I had needed during forty years without being able to find it anywhere: an intelligent and reliable background for a history of mediaeval philosophy,” Gilson admitted.  “Had I been fortunate in having such a book before writing my [Spirit of the Middle Ages,] my own work would have been other and better than it is.”[11]

American Trappist Monk and author Thomas Merton claimed to have found his purpose in life while reading Dawson’s 1952 book, Understanding Europe.  “Whether or not [Dawson] came too late, who can say?” Merton worried.  “In any case I have a clear obligation to participate, as long as I can, and to the extent of my abilities, in every effort to help a spiritual and cultural renewal of our time.  This is the task  that has been given me, and hitherto I have not been clear about it, in all its aspects and dimensions.”[12]

As Eliot’s best biographer, Russell Kirk, wrote, “Of social thinkers in his own time, none influenced Eliot more than Dawson.”[13]  For three decades, Eliot was quite taken with Dawson’s views, and it would be difficult if not impossible to find a scholar who influenced Eliot more.  In the early 1930s, Eliot told an American audience that Dawson was the foremost thinker of his generation in England.[14]  He explicitly acknowledged his debt to Dawson in the introductions to his two most politically- and culturally-oriented books, The Idea of a Christian Society and Notes Towards the Definition of Culture.[15]  One can also find Dawson’s influence in two of Eliot’s most important writings of the moral imagination, “Murder in the Cathedral” and “The Four Quartets.”[16]  Eliot continued to acknowledge a debt to Dawson after World War II.  In a speech to the London Conservative Union in 1955, Eliot told his fellow conservatives that they should understand conservatism as Dawson does, not as political, but as ante-political and anti-ideological.  Only then, Eliot argued, could English conservatives truly and effectively shape society.[17]

Dawson’s Life

On October 12, 1889, Mary Louisa and Henry Philip Dawson gave birth to a son, Henry Christopher.  Descended from a long line of Celtic aristocracy, Dawson was born in a Welsh castle.  

His mother’s family had great standing in the region, and Dawson remembered it as “a sort of Anglican theocracy” as “the landowners were largely clergymen and the clergy were either landowners or brothers of landowners, so that there was a complete unification of political, religious, economic and social authority and influence.”[18]  They also tended to be very high-church Anglo-Catholics.

At Hay Castle, Dawson felt “the immense age of everything, and in the house, the continuity of the present with the remote past, and the feeling was reinforced by the fact that nothing had changed since my mother had been a child in the same house and that all the family relations existed in duplicate, so that alongside of my parents, my nurse, and my uncles and aunts, I saw my mother’s parents and her nurse and her uncles and aunts.”[19]

His father’s side came from York, and most of the men had served in the military.   His father was a relatively famous explorer, having traveled to South America when it was still a treacherous and undeveloped place and having served as the lead British officer in the famous 1882-1883 International Circum-Polar Expedition.[20]

From his mother’s side, he learned the significance of family, myth, the saints, and tradition (which seemed bound up in one to Dawson). 

“From the time that I was thirteen or fourteen, I had come to know the lives of the Catholic saints and the writings of the medieval Catholic mystics,” Dawson wrote, for example, “and they made so strong an impression on my mind that I felt that there must be something lacking in any theory of life which left no room for these higher types of character and experience.”[21]

From his father’s side, he learned patriotism—especially a patriotism for western civilization (and a love of Dante).

Dawson was privately educated as a young boy and as a teenager.  He devoured every book he could get his hands on.  

Importantly, he explored the Welsh countryside whenever possible. Movement within and exploration of the vast rural landscapes and countryside—especially its churches and shrines—shaped Dawson as much as did his voluminous reading.  Indeed, as a young boy, Dawson claimed to have learned more “during my school days from my visits to the Cathedral at Winchester than I did from the hours of religious instruction in school.”[22]  The countryside came alive for him, as the mythic Celtic past seemed to weave itself through the land, the faith, and the books.  “What David Jones called his ‘Celticity,’” Dawson’s close friend Harmon Grisewood remembered, “gave Christopher insights and a poetic appreciation both of nature and history which is often lacking in one whose ancestry is wholly English.”[23]

He credited all of this with his real education.  “I got nothing from school, little from Oxford, and less than nothing from the new post-Victorian urban culture,” Dawson wrote in the 1920s.  “All my ‘culture’ and my personal happiness came from that much-derided Victorian rural home life.”[24]

Dawson, already taken with much Roman Catholicism (the theology from the Anglo-Catholics and the poetry from Dante), had a profound religious experience while visiting Rome during Easter, 1909.   The visit served “as a revelation . . . to a whole new world of religion and culture,” his daughter Christina wrote.[25]  On that day, Dawson stood at the Ara Coeli and had nothing less than a mystical revelation.  There, his daughter wrote, “he first conceived the idea of writing a history of culture” and, further, he “had great light on the way it may be carried out,” he confided to his diary.  “However unfit I may be,” Dawson wrote after his experience in Rome, “I believe it is God’s will I should attempt it.” [26]  

As Dawson put it in his 1926 autobiographical reflections on conversion, “It opened out a new world of religion and culture.  I realised for the first time that Catholic civilisation did not stop with the Middle Ages and that contemporary with our own national Protestant development there was the wonderful flowering of the Baroque culture.”[27]

In the fall of 1913, Dawson intellectually and spiritually assented to Catholicism.  He entered the church formally on Epiphany, 1914, at St. Aloysius in Oxford.

The “doctrine of Sanctifying Grace” found in the New Testament and the writings of Sts. Augustine and Aquinas, Dawson admitted, “removed all my difficulties and uncertainties and carried complete conviction to my mind,” he explained twelve years after his conversion.  “It was no longer possible to hesitate, difficult though it was to separate myself from earlier associations and traditional ties.”[28]  

Equally important, Dawson “realised that the Incarnation, the Sacraments, the external order of the Church and the internal working of Sanctifying Grace were all parts of one organic unity, a living tree, whose roots are in the Divine Nature and whose fruit is the perfection of the saints.”[29]  

Additionally, Dawson did not consider the saints as “a few highly gifted individuals.”  Instead, they are “the perfect manifestation of the supernatural life which exists in every individual Christian, the first fruits of that new humanity which is the world of the Church to create.”[30]

Too sickly to fight in WWI, Dawson spent roughly fourteen years just reading and preparing a writing career.  Had a very tolerant wife!

Kept journals of his notes and ideas during this study preparation period: influential writings included in his notes came from the significant historians and anthropologists from his day.  But, also, among others, Plato’s Laws and miscellaneous writings by Aristotle, Xenophon, and Heraclitus.  Additionally, Dawson took his notes a variety of languages, English, French, Greek, and Latin.[31]  

In the same notebook, presumably after reading the above authors, Dawson concluded: “All the events of the last years have convinced me what a fragile thing civilization is and how near we are to losing the whole inheritance which our age might have acquired [sic] enjoyed.”

In addition to his voluminous academic and scholarly reading, he loved Jane Austen, Henry David Thoreau, P.J. Wodehouse, Hilaire Belloc, G.K. Chesterton, H.G. Wells, R.H. Benson, Arthur Conan Doyle, and a huge selection of science fiction, historical fiction, American westerns, and English detective stories.[32]  

G.K. Chesterton, especially, influenced Dawson, as the latter regarded him as “one of the greatest champions of Christian culture in our time.”[33]  Chesterton’s most influential work on Dawson was his epic poem, The Ballad of the White Horse [read from this?].  This poem, perhaps the most significant call to arms for the 20th century Christian Humanists:

CSL, JRRT, and Russell Kirk as well.

Dawson also read a number of daily newspapers and listened to a variety of radio stations—English and foreign-language—to stay current on the world situation.[34]  

Dawson published his first book in 1929: The Age of the Gods, an in-depth study of primitive cultures—using a complex analysis with archeology, history, sociology, and anthropology.

Among his other works: Progress and Religion, Christianity and the New Age, Medieval Essays, The Making of Europe, Dynamics of World History.

Though a serious scholar, Dawson anted to target a general, well-read intelligent audience rather than an academic one: In a conversation with his close friend, the poet David Jones, Dawson complained, “I don’t care what that wretched dean said about me—it’s the kind of people who read the Daily Mirror I would like to be read by.”[35]  

He rarely sought academic appointments, as he did not want the pressure of academic publishing.  Instead, he believed that his writing should be directed toward the well-educated, intellectually curious, non-academic public.  “It is to this middle public that I have always directed my own work,” Dawson admitted. “In fact I deliberately renounced any attempt to pursue [university] research in order to cultivate this field which seems to me to be the area in which vital decisions will be reached.”[36]  

In this vein, then, Dawson sought to publish his work wherever possible, rarely seeking to make a profit from his writing.  “An agent inevitably thinks in terms of dollars, whereas what I am concerned about is teaching the right audience,” Dawson explained, “and often this means publishing in small reviews that do not pay well.”[37]

In the end, Dawson wrote over 20 books, most of which are slowly coming back into print.

Briefly had academic positions at smaller colleges in England, and a four-year stint at Harvard in America (1958-1962), but almost always a private, free-lance historian.

Context of CHism in the 20th Century—why they’re important

The nineteenth century witnessed the flourishing of progressivist thought in social relations, political relations, religion, and biology.  Everything was evolving, or so it seemed, for the better.  Smiles were more frequent, and lives just kept getting happier, as the citizens of the world were becoming one, homogenized, contented mass.  The blessings of modernity entangled everything, East to West, claiming that no more perfect offerings needed to be made.  Once properly educated and the childhood superstitions of the race outgrown, the prophets of modernity assured us, the masses collectively would speak as a god.  In a word, according to intellectuals such as Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells, it would soon be “utopian.”

It was all a lie. 

Modernity was a trap, and we were its greatest victims.  We failed to resist, and it greedily fed on us.  In democratic regimes, the brightly colored and candy-coated machines of bureaucracy and large corporations mechanized us, making us far less than human.  In non-democratic regimes, the damage proved much worse, nearly irreparable.  Indeed, beginning with the assassination of a relatively minor figure by an equally obscure terrorist group in 1914, the twentieth century drowned in its vast killing fields, gulags, holocaust camps, trench warfare, and weapons of mass destruction.  Whether in the camps of the European or Asian ideologues, some humans, convinced of the righteousness of their cause, viewed all other human persons as nothing more than a collection of parts, ready to be dismembered and reassembled in a Picasso-esque fashion, or perhaps simply quartered and then quartered again.  Armed with the ideological doctrines of fascism, National Socialism, and Communism, the twentieth-century became a century of the inverted vision of Ezekiel: wheels within wheels, endlessly spinning, the abyss ever expanding, ever within reach.  All that was sacred became irrelevant.  All who remained relevant were shot.  And, the State and its faithful companion, War, demanded the sacrifice of much blood to the restored gods.  Demos, Mars, and Leviathan became ascendant, taking possession of the field, and claiming victory, their appetites insatiable.

And, the Logos wept.

A brave, eccentric few stood at the precipice, peered into the Abyss, and defended what remained of the ancient and medieval realm of the West with all the force imaginable.  “To repeat: in this twentieth century of the Christian era the real contest is between the power of transcendent faith and the power of the totalist revolt against order,” Russell Kirk wrote pointedly in 1963.  “In our hour of crisis the key to real power, to the command of reality which the higher imagination gives, remains the fear of God.”[38]  Real men—such as Christopher Dawson, Russell Kirk, T.S. Eliot, Paul Elmer More, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, E.I. Watkin, Aurel Kolnai, Romano Guardini, Owen Barfield, Eric Voegelin, Nicholas Berdyaev, Thomas Merton, Frank Sheed, and Wilhelm Roepke—upheld the traditional concept of each human person as an unrepeatable center of dignity and freedom, deeply flawed but also bearing the Imago Dei.  In their many works of faith and scholarship, these men explained the innumerable terrors of the twentieth century and argued that the solution was really quite simple: to reclaim our faith in the True God and to reclaim His gift to us, our humanity.  Each was a Stoic, and each was a romantic.  Each of these men, though to varying degrees, also viewed St. Augustine as the saint of the twentieth century.  

Each of these men desired a well-ordered Christian society, rooted in the ancient traditions of Athens and Rome and informed by the moral and ethical rules as understood from St. Paul to John of Salisbury.  “All my life for fifty years I have been writing on one subject and for one cause,” Christopher Dawson stated in a 1959 speech at Harvard, “the cause of Christendom and the study of Christian culture.”[39]  T.S. Eliot, who served as an effective intellectual bridge between Dawson and Kirk, told an Oxford audience in 1933 that “we are convinced of the vital importance of the reunion of Christendom.”  There can be no other choice, Eliot continued, as “the Christian world-order, is ultimately the only one which, from any point of view, will work.”  Finally, Eliot argued, “any programme that a Catholic can envisage must aim at the conversion of the whole world.”[40]  And, in his path-breaking 1953 essay in definition, The Conservative Mind, Russell Kirk wrote: “Conservatives must prepare society for Providential change, guiding the life that is taking form into the ancient shelter of Western and Christian civilization.”[41]  In the absence of Christian culture and hope, Kirk continued in 1984, “the modern world would come to resemble a half-derelict fun-fair, gone nasty and poverty-racked, one enormous Atlantic City.”[42]

So, what can we learn from Dawson and his time that is applicable today as we move from modernity to post-modernity; from the manichaen cold war against communism to the rather distorted post-9/11 world of terrorism.  As we continue to venture into a brave new world of designer mood drugs and genetic engineering.  As we substitute values for virtues and believe that freedom consists of 1) either killing a baby or letting it live or 2) choosing between Xbox 360 or Playstation 3?  As we remove the 10 Commandments from our public square? 

Like St. Augustine, who looked across the Mediterranean to see the Goths sack Rome, Dawson looked across the English Channel, watching the new barbarians—the National Socialists, the Fascists, and the Communists—make their way into what was left of Christendom.  

Confronted with the ideologies of modernity, each of us, Dawson forcefully argued, must also act as a prophet and a saint: “The only remedy is to be found in that spiritual force by which the humility of God conquers the pride of the evil one,” he wrote.  The majority of men will fight against the prophet or saint, and “he must be prepared to stand alone like Ezekiael and Jeremy.”  

The world may very well shun or abuse him.  Therefore, “he must take as his example St. Augustine besieged by the Vandals at Hippo, or St. Gregory preaching at Rome with the Lombards at the gates.”  Taking his argument from the Beatitudes, Dawson reminds us that Christ’s words remain timeless.  “For the true helpers of the world are the poor in spirit, the men who bear the sign of the cross on their foreheads, who refused to be overcome by the triumph of injustice and put their sole trust in the salvation of God,” Dawson wrote.[43]

1.  We must promote art, not propaganda:

One of the great concerns of the Christian Humanists in general and Dawson in particular was the politicization of culture during the 1930s and for the remainder of the century.

This seemed especially true in art and in journals.  For an understanding of propaganda, one only has to look through the scholarly writings and the short stories (especially LEAF BY NIGGLE) of J.R.R. Tolkien.  Art is deep, meaningful, and often of universal application; propaganda is simplistic and in your face and, ultimately, offensive to our very humanity.

In August 1946, Dawson wrote, “One has to face the fact that there had been a kind of slump in ideas during the past 10 years.”  Instead of thinking creatively, intelligent men had turned to realism, science, and politics to explain everything.  “There is not only a positive lack of new ideas but also a subjective loss of interest in ideas as such.”[44]   

A few weeks later, Dawson wrote on the same topic, lamenting the rise of politics in all areas of thought.  “There is a terrible dearth of writers and of ideas at present, and even in France, things are not too good, judging from the little I have seen.”  

Dawson continued.  “Politics seem to be swamping everything and the non-political writer becomes increasingly uprooted and helpless.”  

Nothing in the world can improve if writers focus only on the sterile subject of politics, Dawson argued.  The world “won’t improve without new blood and new ideas and I don’t see at present where these are to be found.”[45]

2.  We must avoid all pure materialisms

The rise of capitalism, which attempts to make man “a subordinate part of the great mechanical system that his scientific genius has created.”[46]  Everywhere—in science, culture, and politics—Dawson believed, the machine ruled, and humans became merely cogs within it.  

To make matters worse, the materialistic states (capitalism and communism) created “the new bureaucratic state, that ‘coldest of monsters.’”[47]  

“The Communists may have deified mechanism in theory,” Dawson wrote, “but it is the Americans who have realised it in practice.”[48]

3.  Propaganda and materialism have lead to boredom: “The ordinary man will never stand for nihilism: it is against all his healthier instincts,” Dawson wrote in 1955.[49]  To find his substitute, man turns in many directions: utopianism, drugs, and cults, “leaving the enemy in possession of the field.”[50]

The only effective counter to modernity (and post modernity) is the grace of imagination.

Holy Spirit and Imagination

Imagination was vital to Dawson, as it had been to one of his exemplars, Edmund Burke.  It was a gift from—and allowed one to connect to—the Holy Spirit, to see something beyond the physical appearance of a thing.  

[Read from REFLECTIONS on the moral imagination; describe the parts of the soul]

Plato’s “Divine Madness”—the mind beside itself; the Logos from Heraclitus; John 1:9

The Church “has always used imagination as the normal means of transforming a notional assent into a real one,” Dawson explained in 1946.  “The imagination becomes a channel of the life of the spirit like the other powers of the soul.”[51]  

One might call it poetry, as Owen Barfield, one of the Inklings, did. In his 1928 book, Poetic Diction, Barfield had written: “A civilization which must look more and more to art—to the individualized poet—as the very source and fountain-head of all meaning.”[52]  

In it, Barfield followed Plato’s ideas of “divine madness”, arguing that not only did imagination allow one to understand his sense data, but also men “do not invent those mysterious relations between separate external objects, and between objects and feelings, which it is the function of poetry to reveal.”  Instead, Barfield continued, “These relations exist independently, not indeed of Thought, but of any individual thinker.”[53]  Further, men

have lost the power to see this one as one.  Our sophistication, like Odin’s, has cost us an eye; and now it is the language of poets, in so far as they create true metaphors, which must restore this unity conceptually, after it has been lost from perception.  Thus, the ‘before-unapprehended’ relationship of which Shelley spoke, are in a sense ‘forgotten’ relationships.  For though they were never yet apprehended, they were at one time seen.  And imagination can see them again.[54]

In 1978, Kirk wrote “Images are representations of mysteries, necessarily; for mere words are tools that break in the hand, and it has not pleased God that man should be saved by logic, abstract reason, alone.”  

“The image, I repeat, can raise us on high, as did Dante’s high dream; also it can draw us down to the abyss. . . . It is imagery, rather than some narrowly deductive and inductive process, which gives us great poetry and scientific insights. . . . And it is true of great philosophy, before Plato and since him, that the enduring philosopher sees things in images initially.”

 “It is a creative spiritual force,” Dawson wrote, “which has for its end nothing less than the re-creation of humanity.  The Church is no sect or human organization, but a new creation—the seed of the new order which is ultimately destined to transform the world.”[55]  Importantly, imagination “becomes a channel of the life of the spirit like the other powers of the soul.”[56]  The creativity of the Spirit, alone, will save civilization before it succumbs to self-destruction.[57]

So, the theologian must embrace imagination: Ultimately, then, the theologian must also be a poet, or his theology “may become nothing more than the application of logic to a series of dogmatic propositions.”[58]

So must the historian and embrace what Dawson called “Metahistory”.

“Metahistory is concerned with the nature of history, the meaning of history and the cause and significance of historical change.  The historian himself 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.”[59]

True history, according to Dawson is poetic:  “The mastery of” professional 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, 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.”[60]  

This might best be accomplished by a return to traditional and Catholic understanding of the liberal arts

Dawson rejected the notion of the servile arts and called for a return to the liberal arts.

Classical education and the renewal of culture worked in tandem.  “Virgil and Cicero, Ovid and Seneca, Horace and Quintilian were not merely school books, they became the seeds of a new growth of classical humanism in Western soil,” Christopher Dawson wrote in 1956.  “Again and again—in the eighth century as well as in the twelfth and fifteenth centuries—the higher culture of Western Europe was fertilized by renewed contacts with the literary sources of classical culture.”[61]  

The liberal arts are classical, but the Christian sanctified them—our project for the world.

The model, as mentioned earlier, must be St. Paul in Athens.  While standing on Mars Hill, he congratulated the Athenians for being religious.  Specifically, he noted, he was impressed with their statue to the “unknown God.”  Christ, he told them in no uncertain terms, was their unknown God.  All of their religion, philosophy, and culture had pointed them to Christ.  Paul even quoted approvingly, though sanctifying the meaning, of two Pagan philosophers and poets, Aratus, a Stoic, and Cleanthes, Acts 17:28: “‘In him we live and move and have our being’” and “‘For we are indeed his offspring.’”[62]

Following these teachings of the early Church, Gregory the Great best summed up the stance of the Faith in his famous letter to St. Augustine of Canterbury: 

“For things should not be loved for the sake of places, but places for the sake of good things.  Therefore select from each of the Churches whatever things are devout, religious, and right; and when you have bound them, as it were, into a sheaf, let the minds of the English grow accustomed to it.”

“The Christian concept of Revelation does not simply involve the intelligibility of a spiritual reality but a change in the nature of the creature which renders divine communication possible,” Christopher Dawson told his Harvard students in 1959.[63]  

Because each culture and person represents a singular image of God and God’s revelation, reason unaided can never be universal, but, instead, must be culturally specific.  “In every culture men possess the power of reasoning as they possess the power of speech, but the content of their reasoning is different as the knowledge that they possess depends on the culture to which they belong,” Dawson argued.[64]  

Language also enables man to wield his most powerful tool for survival as a species, that is, through the imagination of the culture and the individual human person, as best expressed in myth.  

We should embrace Mythos

“I believe the old myths are better not only intrinsically, but because they lead further and open a door into the mind as well as into the past,” Dawson noted in his autobiographical writings, entitled “Tradition and Inheritance.” Myth, Dawson forcefully argued, “was the old road which carries us back not merely for centuries but for thousands of years; the road by which every people has traveled and from which the beginnings of every literature have come.”[65]

Myth, though we have perverted the word, making it synonymous with lie, originally meant a story (mythos) involving the supernatural.  It was considered by many throughout the western tradition to be intimately linked with the Word.  Logos and Mythos are inseparable.  Properly understood, they lead us to the True, the Good, and the Beautiful, and the One behind them all.

We must work as groups

There was only one possible solution, Dawson believed, though it would be exceedingly difficult to implement.  “If one could meet this difficulty by producing a group of brilliant new writers who would make an immediate impression on public opinion, that would be the ideal solution.”[66]  As with imagination, ideas were becoming mere propaganda, mechanized, and, therefore, no longer really ideas.  Politics—with a rigid left and right—was quickly replacing poetry as the language of humanity.

Barfield, probably referring to the Inklings, wrote: We should “build up and maintain a common stock of thought rather than to startle with a series of sparkling individual contributions—like a commonwealth of the spirit, in which there is no copyright.” [Barfield, “Effective Approach to Social Change,” 1]

We must participate in Being

For any properly ordered soul or society, Dawson continued, man must recognize his true place in the universe, and he must acknowledge the supremacy of the Creator.  

God is the one Reality.  Apart from Him, nothing exists.  In comparison to Him, nothing is real.  The universe only exists in so far as it is rooted and grounded in His Being.  He is the Self of our selves and the Soul of our souls.[67]

In very Platonic and Stoic language, Dawson wrote, “Thus the whole universe is, as it were, the shadow of God, and has its being in the contemplation or reflection of the Being of God.”  And, reflecting rather strongly the Jewish Book of Wisdom, Dawson wrote: “The spiritual nature reflects the Divine consciously, while the animal nature is a passive and unconscious mirror.”[68]   

All created life, therefore, is an extension of God, and humans are dark mirrors, poorly reflecting the Pure Image of God.  Humans, therefore, represent the Metaxy—Greek for “the middle”—that is, a bridge between the material and the spiritual.  Unlike the angels or the animals, humans possess both the physical and the soul.  

Man, then, must order himself to the Will that has Created all, for his job is to bring all things back into the Divine Order. 

The predominately spiritualist—or what a Catholic would call the mystic—is as rare as the pure materialist.  The vast majority of men are somewhere in between the pure materialist and the mystic.  

Throughout human history, Dawson stressed, human societies have always recognized the supremacy of a Being or beings who transcend, limit, and give guidance (or hindrance) to humans.  Such a rule applies equally to primitive man and civilized man.[69]

Then, Dawson asked in the Essay, how should man order himself?  In contrast to the private judgment and individualism of Protestantism, the Roman Catholic must recognize that if God is the Beginning and the End, and if all things come from and through the Word, then man receives all of his life and his gifts from the Divine.  Man is derivative, a creature rather than a creator.  

All creation, though, forms a part of an organic whole, 

  • with a distinct beginning—the Word creating the Universe
  • a middle—the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of the Word
  • and an end—the Apocalypse in which the Word brings all things back to right order.  

While Dawson’s ideas match those found in scripture, they are equally rooted in the ancient Greek thought of Heraclitus and Thales and the others who attempted to solve the problem of the One, the Many, and the One.  

The Protestant Reformers—consciously or not, Dawson argued—attempted to destroy the organic unity of creation and time.

The divorce of dogma from intelligence that was inaugurated by the Reformers consummates itself in the dissolution of dogma itself in the interests of that moral pragmatism which is the essence of modern Protestantism.  Christianity, it is said, is not a creed but a life; its sole criterion is the moral and social activity that it generates.  And thus religion loses all contact with absolute truth and becomes merely an emotional justification for a certain behavior.[70]

But, from the beginning, even if one considers only history and not theology, one must recognize the organic whole of God’s plan and the place of humanity within it.  

After all, Dawson argued, even before the Word became flesh, “The One God had chosen for Himself one people and had bound it to Him by an eternal covenant.”[71]  

After the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of the Word, God created the Church with the power of the Holy Spirit, thus continuing the organic unity—and beginning of the healing of the disunity caused by the institutions of man—of all Creation.  “For the possession of the Holy Spirit was the essential characteristic of the new society,” Dawson wrote, and its creation, the Church, “enjoyed supernatural powers and authority.”[72]  Ultimately then, within the organic unity of existence, the “Church was itself the future kingdom in embryo.”[73]  

Sts. John and Paul especially recognized the organic unity of society and the Christian inheritance.  With “St. John’s identification of the Logos and the Messiah in the prologue to the Fourth Gospel,” Dawson argued,  Jesus “was not only the Christ, the Son of the Living God; He was also the Divine Intelligence, the Principle of the order and intelligibility of the created world.”[74]  Further, as discussed earlier, Christ serves as the nexus between the human and the Divine.  “In Him God is not only manifested to man, but vitally participated,” Dawson wrote, elaborating on St. John 1:9. “He is the Divine Light, which illuminates men’s minds, and the Divine Life, which transforms human nature and makes it the partaker of Its Own supernatural activity.”[75]  

Importantly, Dawson ended his first Essay in Order by noting that all such changes and sanctification of the world came only through the Church by the power of the Holy Spirit.  “The Church is no sect or human organisation, but a new creation,” Dawson wrote in the final chapter.  The Church is “the seed of the new order which is ultimately destined to transform the world.”[76]  Further, Dawson argued, “the creative element in human culture is spiritual.”[77]  

All progress, rightly understood, comes from man’s proper ordering of the soul to God, and that can be done only through the grace imparted to the Church through the sacraments.  Only such an understanding can defeat the collectivist, man-made ideologies that lead only to the machine and the mechanization of man and the destruction of the human person.  Unlike the humanism of a Babbitt or a Dewey, Dawson’s humanism demanded a proper understanding of the human person, not as the highest being in the universe, but as a being created in the Image of God, born in a certain time and place, tainted by original sin, but given the grace to be a being of Heaven. He finds his true self only when “united in a direct and personal relation with the Divine Word.”[78]  

Dawson concluded Christianity and the New Age with one of the most powerful paragraphs he ever wrote.  “Every Christian mind is a seed of change so long as it is a living mind, not enervated by custom or ossified by prejudice,” he wrote.  “A Christian only has to be in order to change the world, for in that act of being there is contained all the mystery of supernatural life.”  God has ordained the Church, through the grace of the sacraments, to “produce not merely good men, but spiritual men—that is to say, supermen.”[79]  In this function, the Church acts as the vital agent of the Love that created and moves the universe, an organic unity of matter and spirit, of heaven and earth, and of  time and eternity.  The Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, continues as well as it transforms the organic unity of Creation.  “The spirit breathes and they are created and the face of the earth is renewed.”[80]

Conclusion: Dawson was brought up on Celtic myth, and so we can’t sit under the shadow of the dome and at the home of the Fighting Irish and not do the same. As students at the University of Notre Dame, you should never forget: when the Celts most needed aid, the Lady of the Lake gave Arthur a sword of immense power.  When we most need it, Notre Dame du Lac will arm us as well.

God bless and thank you.


[1] F.J. Sheed, “Christopher Dawson,” The Sign (June 1938), 661.

[2] Arnold Sparr, To Promote, Defend, and Redeem: The Catholic Literary Revival and the Cultural Transformation of American Catholicism, 1920-1960 (New York: Greenwood Press, 1990), 24, 103

[3] T. Lawrason Riggs, “A Voice of Power,” Commonweal (August 4, 1933), 330.

[4] Thomas Corbishly, “Our Present Discontents,” The Month 173 (1939): 440.

[5] Waldemar Gurian, “Dawson’s Leitmotif,” Commonweal (June 3, 1949).

[6] Kenelm Foster, O.P., “Mr Dawson and Chistendom,” Blackfriars 31 (1950): 423.

[7] Maisie Ward, New York, to Dawson, Harvard, 1961, in the Christopher H. Dawson Collection, Box 11, Folder 25, “Frank Sheed 1960,” Department of Special Collections, University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, Minnesota (hereafter UST/CDC)

[8] Maisie Ward, Unfinished Business (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1964), 117.

[9] Maisie Sheed, London, to Dawson, October 1953, Box 11, Folder 18, “Frank Sheed 1953” in UST/CDC.

[10] Sheed to Dawson, 1936, in Box 11 (Sheed and Ward Papers), Folder 2, “Frank Sheed, 1936”, in UST/CDC.

[11] Etienne Gilson to Frank Sheed, 22 August 1950, in Box 11, Folder 16 “Frank Sheed 1950”, in UST/CDC.

[12] Thomas Merton, journal entry for August 22, 1961, Turning Toward the World: The Pivotal Year, ed. by Victor A. Kramer (San Francisco, Calif.: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995), 155.  See also Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (New York: Image Books, 1966), 55, 194-94; and Patrick Hart and Jonathan Montaldo, eds., The Intimate Merton: His Life from His Journals (San Francisco, Calif.: HarperSanFrancisco, 1999), 190.

[13] Russell Kirk, Eliot and His Age: T.S. Eliot’s Moral Imagination in the Twentieth Century (Peru, Ill.: Sherwood Sugden, 1988), 300.  On Dawson’s influence on Eliot, see also Bernard Wall, “Giant Individualists and Orthodoxy,” Twentieth Century (January 1954): 59.

[14] Christina Scott, A Historian and His World, 210.

[15] The two have been republished together as T.S. Eliot, Christianity and Culture (San Diego, Calif.: Harvest, 1967).

[16] Kirk, Eliot and His Age, 231-2, 299-300; and Joseph Schwartz, “The Theology of History in T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets,” Logos 2 (Winter 1999): 34.

[17] T.S. Eliot, “The Literature of Politics,” Time and Tide (23 April 1955), 524.

[18] Dawson, Tradition and Inheritance, 11.

[19] Dawson, Tradition and Inheritance, 12.

[20] E.I. Watkin, Part I of “Christopher Dawson, 1889-1970,” Proceedings of the British Academy (1971): 439-40; and Christopher Dawson, Devonshire, to Mr. Sheward Hagerty, London, 30 April 1958, in Box 15, Folder 72, UST/CDC.

[21] Dawson, “Why I am a Catholic,” Catholic Times, 11.

[22] Dawson, “Education and the Crisis of Christian Cultures,” Lumen Vitae 1 (1946): 208.

[23] Harmon Grisewood, “Face to Faith: The Ideas of a Catholic Tiger,” London Guardian (October 16, 1989).

[24] Watkin, Part I of “Christopher Dawson, 1889-1970,” Proceedings, 440.

[25] Scott, A Historian and His World, 47.

[26] Christina Scott, A Historian and His World: A Life of Christopher Dawson (1984; New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 1992), 49

[27] Dawson, “Why I am a Catholic,” Catholic Times, 11.

[28] Dawson, “Why I am a Catholic,” Catholic Times, 11.

[29] Dawson, “Why I am a Catholic,” Catholic Times, 11.

[30] Dawson, “Why I am a Catholic,” Catholic Times, 11.

[31] Dawson, “Notebook 18” dated 1922-25, in Box 9, Folder 18, UST/CDC.

[32] Dawson, “Frank Sheed Talks with Christopher Dawson,” The Sign (December 1958), 34; and Christina Scott, “The Meaning of the Millennium: The Ideas of Christopher Dawson,” Logos 2 (1999): 79.

[33] Dawson to Mulloy, July 1, 1954, in Box 1, Folder 16, ND/CDAW.

[34] Scott, “The Meaning of the Millennium: The Ideas of Christopher Dawson,” 79.

[35] Dawson quoted in Scott, A Historian and His World, 128.

[36] Dawson, Devon, to Mulloy, 17 May 1954, in Box 1, Folder 4, ND/CDAW; and Dawson, “Memorandum,” dated June 1955, in Box 1, Folder 15, ND/CDAW.

[37] Dawson, Boars Hill, to Mulloy, October 3, 1953, in Box 1, Folder 4, ND/CDAW.

[38] Russell Kirk, “The Struggle for Power with Communism,” in Edwin H. Rian, Christianity and World Revolution (New York: Harper and Row, 1963), 11-12.

[39] Quoted in Christina Scott, A Historian and His World: A Life of Christopher Dawson (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Press, 1992), 198.

[40] T.S. Eliot, “Catholicism and International Order,” in Essays Ancient and Modern (London: Faber and Faber, 1936), 113-114, 124.

[41] Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Santayana, 1st ed. (Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1953), 428.

[42] Kirk, “Religion in the Civil Social Order,” Modern Age (Fall 1984): 306.

[43] Dawson, Religion and the Rise of Western Culture, 124.

[44] Dawson, Oxford, to Wall, London, 26 August 1946, in Box 15, Folder 174, UST/CDC.

[45] CD, Oxford, to Bernard Wall, London, 9 September 1946, in Box 15, Folder 174, in UST/CDC.

[46] Dawson, Christianity and the New Age, 161.

[47] Dawson, Christianity and the New Age, 162.

[48] Dawson, Christianity and the New Age, 167.

[49]Dawson, Devon, ENG, to Father Leo Ward, Notre Dame, Ind., 20 February 1955, Dawson Papers, Notre Dame; and Dawson, “The Victorian Background,” 246.

[50]Dawson, “Christianity and the New Age,” 158.

[51] Dawson, Oxford, to Frank Sheed, London, 28 July 1946, in Box 11, Folder 12, in UST/CDC.  See also, Dawson, “The Future of National Government,” Dublin Review (1935): 250.

[52] Barfield, Poetic Diction, 148. 

[53] Barfield, Poetic Diction, 72.  Unless otherwise noted, all citations to Poetic Diction will be to the first edition of 1928.

[54] Barfield, Poetic Diction, 72-73.

[55] Dawson, Christianity and the New Age, 227.

[56] Dawson, Oxford, to Frank Sheed, 28 July 1946, in Box 11, Folder 12, UST/CDC.

[57] Dawson, The Historic Reality of Christian Culture, 93.

[58] Dawson, Oxford, to Frank Sheed, London, 28 July 1946, in Box 11, Folder 12, in UST/CDC.

[59] Dawson, Dynamics of World History, 303.  For a critique of Dawson’s position, see Hayden V. White, “Religion, Culture, and Western Civilization in Christopher’s Dawson’s Idea of History,”  English Miscellany 9 (1958): 247-87.

[60] Dawson, Dynamics of World History, 309-10.

[61] Dawson, “Christianity and Ideologies,” Commonweal, May 11 1956, 141.

[62] Scriptural commentary and analysis from The Navarre Bible, Gospels and Acts (Princeton, N.J.: Scepter, 2002), 832-35.

[63] Dawson, to Ruth Anshen, 7 November 1959, in Box 14, Folder 29, UST/CDC.

[64] Dawson, “The Relation of Philosophy to Culture,” dated September 7, 1955, in Box 1, Folder 15, ND/CDAW.

[65] Dawson, “Tradition and Inheritance,” 32.

[66] Dawson, Oxford, to Bernard Wall, London, 9 September 1946, in Box 15, Folder 174, in UST/CDC.

[67] Dawson, Christianity and the New Age, 201.  In this passage, it should be noted that Dawson is talking specifically about Asian Indian religion, but also showing the similarities to Christianity.  Hence, this passage applies to the Christian understanding of God as well as to the Indian conception.

[68] Dawson, Christianity and the New Age, 176.

[69] Dawson, Christianity and the New Age, 178ff.

[70] Dawson, Christianity and the New Age, 210-11.

[71] Dawson, Christianity and the New Age, 216.         

[72] Dawson, Christianity and the New Age, 219.

[73] Dawson, Christianity and the New Age, 220.

[74] Dawson, Christianity and the New Age, 222.

[75] Dawson, Christianity and the New Age, 222.

[76] Dawson, Christianity and the New Age, 227.

[77] Dawson, Christianity and the New Age, 238.

[78] Dawson, Christianity and the New Age, 240.

[79] Dawson, Christianity and the New Age, 242-43.

[80] Dawson, Christianity and the New Age, 243.