Tag Archives: Christian Humanism

Christopher Dawson: Preparing to Fight Modernity

Too sickly to fight in the Great War, Christopher Dawson volunteered for civilian duty and spent roughly fourteen years reading and drawing up ideas to prepare for a career in writing.  He had received a profound mystical vision on Easter, 1909, while visiting Rome.  In that vision, the nineteen-year old Anglo-Welshman believed God had commanded him to record the entire history of the world, showing him all times and all peoples at once.  Determined to live up to what God had asked him, he began building upon an already solid liberal education.

During these years, he kept extensive notes and journals influential writings included in his notes came from the significant historians, anthropologists, and thinkers from every school of thought from his day.  Generally, he took notes in the same language as the original texts, and he delved deeply into Plato’s Laws and the various writings by Aristotle, Xenophon, and Heraclitus.  In his journals, now residing at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, one can see vividly that Dawson readily moved through a variety of languages including English, French, Greek, and Latin.[1]  

In the same notebook, presumably after reading the above authors, Dawson concluded tellingly: “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 also devoured wht works of 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.[2]  G.K. Chesterton, especially, influenced Dawson, as the latter regarded him as “one of the greatest champions of Christian culture in our time.”[3]  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 twentieth-century Christian Humanists, equally inspired C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Russell Kirk.

[Please continue reading on page 2]

Christopher Dawson and Johannine Divine Madness

March 29, 2007

[Thanks to Phillip Carl Smith, the Orestes Brownson Council, and ISI for the invitation to speak at Notre Dame; it’s always a great pleasure to be here at Our Lady’s University; as was mentioned in my bio—I lived in Zahm for three years back when Fathers Tom King and Bill Miscamble were the rectors.  This past August, my wife, family, and I came over to the college for a day of research.  It happened to coincide with the arrival of the students.  As we pulled into the visitor parking lot by the library, my wife noticed a sign for Farley parking.  It said, “Farley, protecting its residents from Zahm since 1973.”  My wife hasn’t let me forget this.

I also want to thank Kevin Cawley, an amazing archivist over at the ND archives]

To put it simply (and perhaps a bit “simplistically”—but I prefer to think of it as “with fervor”), Dawson was one of the greatest historians of the twentieth century, certainly one of its greatest men of letters, and perhaps one of the most respected Catholic scholars in the English speaking world.

“For Dawson is more like a movement than a man,” his publisher and friend, Frank Sheed, wrote of him in 1938. “His influence with the non-Catholic world is of a kind that no modern Catholic has yet had, both for the great number of fields in which it is felt and for the intellectual quality of those who feel it.”[1]  

Additionally, prominent American Catholic colleges began teaching courses on the thought of Christopher Dawson and other figures of the Catholic literary revival as early as the mid-1930s.[2]  

In 1933, the American Catholic journal Commonweal stated that “the writings of Christopher Dawson demand the thoughtful attention of all educated men.”[3]  

Six years later, the Jesuit journal, The Month, claimed that to “commend Mr. Dawson’s work is unnecessary; nothing that he writes could be unimportant.”[4]  In 1949, Waldemar Gurian, a refugee from the Nazis and a professor at the University of Notre Dame, wrote, Dawson’s “very ability to make brilliant understatements and to display without pride, as something self-evident, his extraordinary broad knowledge make his synthesis particularly impressive.”[5]  

In 1950, the English Dominican journal, Blackfriars, claimed “that Mr. Dawson is an educator; perhaps the greatest that Heaven has sent us English Catholics since Newman.”[6]

[Please keep reading on page 2 of this post]

The Gray Eminence of Christopher Dawson

Without going deeply into Dawson’s thought—or any aspect of it—in this post, it is worthwhile cataloguing how many of his contemporaries claimed him important and his scholarship and ideas for their own.  This means, consequently, that while most Americans—Catholic or otherwise—no longer remember Christopher Dawson, they do often remember affectionately those he profoundly (one might even state indelibly) influenced.  The list includes well known personalities such as T.S. Eliot, Thomas Merton, J.R.R. Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis.  

In the world of humane learning and scholarship in the twentieth century, Dawson was a sort of John Coltrane.  Just as few non musicians listen to Coltrane, but EVERY serious musician does, the same was essentially true of Dawson.  And, yet, as with Coltrane, Dawson did enjoy long periods of widespread popularity and support in his own lifetime.

“For Dawson is more like a movement than a man,” his publisher and friend, Frank Sheed, wrote of him in 1938. “His influence with the non-Catholic world is of a kind that no modern Catholic has yet had, both for the great number of fields in which it is felt and for the intellectual quality of those who feel it.”[1]  As evidence, Sheed could cite much.  By the early 1930s, while Dawson was still in his early 40s,  American Catholic colleges began teaching courses on his thought, tying him to the larger Catholic literary movement of the day.[2]  In 1933, the American Catholic journal Commonweal stated that “the writings of Christopher Dawson demand the thoughtful attention of all educated men.”[3]  Six years later, the Jesuit journal, The Month, claimed that to “commend Mr. Dawson’s work is unnecessary; nothing that he writes could be unimportant.”[4]  In 1949, Waldemar Gurian, a refugee from the Nazis and a professor at the University of Notre Dame, wrote, Dawson’s “very ability to make brilliant understatements and to display without pride, as something self-evident, his extraordinary broad knowledge make his synthesis particularly impressive.”[5]  In 1950, the English Dominican journal, Blackfriars, claimed “that Mr. Dawson is an educator; perhaps the greatest that Heaven has sent us English Catholics since Newman.”[6]

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Beyond Tenebrae Now Available

My latest book, Beyond Tenebrae: Christianity Humanism in the Twilight of the West, is now out from Angelico Press. In it, I consider not the end of the West, but the twilight of the West and the individuals who have done so much to struggle against its demise.

Measuring the Influence of Russell Kirk and Other Conservative Authors ~ The Imaginative Conservative

As noted on the slide itself, this slide compares and considers, arguably, the seven most influential male conservatives of the 20th century: Irving Babbitt; Friedrich Hayek; Christopher Dawson; Eric Voegelin; Leo Strauss; Russell Kirk; and Harry Jaffa. [As a sidenote, had I included Paul Elmer More, his reputation would have paralleled, almost exactly, Irving Babbitt’s, so I left it off for sake of clarity.] This chart makes several things clear. First, and most significantly, the most important conservative thinker of the century came at its beginning, not its end: Irving Babbitt. At his height, Babbitt soared above all others, and he experienced three peaks. Second, the most important conservative as of 2008, without compare, is Leo Strauss. Yet, interestingly, his reputation declined rather shockingly during the Clinton years, and only rebounded with the election of George W. Bush. Third, Christopher Dawson and, to a lesser extent, Eric Voegelin each enjoyed considerable and sustained popularity over decades.
— Read on theimaginativeconservative.org/2019/05/russell-kirk-influence-conservative-authors-bradley-birzer.html