Tag Archives: Christopher Dawson

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.

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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]

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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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Early Christopher Dawson: The Land (1921)

I post this more out of interest rather than agreement. Here’s a young Christopher Dawson contemplating the intersection of property ownership, history, and culture. It was his fourth publication, but one can already see the penetrating thought and style that would characterize his more mature work.

98 years ago. . .

Source: Christopher Dawson, “The Land,” Blackfriars (June 1921): 137-145.

SEEKING CHRISTENDOM Now Available

I’m very proud to announce our third publication for SPIRIT OF CECILIA books, SEEKING CHRISTENDOM: AN AUGUSTINIAN DEFENSE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION.

This was a book–roughly 82,000 words–I wrote over Christmas break, 2002-2003, and then revised four times between 2003 and 2008. I wrote it in between writing the biographies of J.R.R. Tolkien and Christopher Dawson as a way to understand Christian Humanism. I wanted to know its scope as well as its limits, hoping to find something to move well beyond the simple and deceptive left-right spectrum.

Here’s the opening to the original version:

The nineteenth century witnessed the flourishing of progressivist thought in social relations, politics, religion, and biology.  Everything was evolving, or so it seemed, toward 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 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.  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.

If you’re interested, here’s the link to the amazon Kindle version ($4.99). If you’re interested in a copy to review for a print or online publication, please let us know through the contact button.

Thanks! And, enjoy.

On the nature and destiny of Man–Christopher Dawson

Christopher Dawson while at Harvard, ca. 1959

If there’s something the mighty Christopher Dawson (1889-1970) wrote that I have failed to love and appreciate, I have yet to come across it.  

The following quotes are my favorite from his 1920 essay, “On the Nature and Destiny of Man,” a quasi apology for his conversion to Catholicism. 

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