Christopher Dawson: Preparing to Fight Modernity

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 rapidly changing world situation.[4]  

After nearly a decade and a half of reading and thinking, Dawson finally published his first book in 1929: The Age of the Gods, an in-depth study of primitive cultures, employing, not surprisingly, a complex analysis with archeology, history, sociology, and anthropology.  Twenty more books soon followed, including Progress and Religion, Christianity and the New Age, Medieval Essays, The Making of Europe, and Dynamics of World History.

Though a serious scholar, Dawson targeted 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.”[5]  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.”[6]  He briefly had academic positions at smaller colleges in England, and a four-year stint at Harvard in America (1958-1962), but lived most of his adult life as a private, free-lance historian and scholar.

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.”[7]

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

All of this he directed toward one end: the fulfillment of what God had commanded to him in 1909. 

Like his patron saint, St. Augustine, who had 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 in his many books, the true person 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 reminded his audience 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.[8]

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.”[9]   

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.”[10]

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.”[11]  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.’”[12]  

“The Communists may have deified mechanism in theory,” Dawson wrote, “but it is the Americans who have realised it in practice.”[13]

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.[14]  To find his substitute, man turns in many directions: utopianism, drugs, and cults, “leaving the enemy in possession of the field.”[15]

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

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

[2] 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.

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

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

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

[6] 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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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