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Rediscovering Christopher Dawson | An Interview with Dr. Bradley J. Birzer, author of Sanctifying the World: The Augustinian Life and Mind of Christopher Dawson | Carl E. Olson | February 4, 2008

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In the mid-twentieth century, English historian Christopher Dawson (1889-1970) was widely considered to be one of the finest Catholic scholars in the English-speaking world. Today his name and work is largely unknown, even among Catholics. But that is beginning to change as Dawson is being discovered and recovered by a number of writers and historians. One of those is Dr. Bradley Birzer, Russell Amos Kirk Chair in American Studies and Associate Professor of History at Hillsdale College and author of the recently published book, Sanctifying the World: The Augustinian Life and Mind of Christopher Dawson (Christendom Press, 2007). Dr. Birzer is also Chairman of the Board of Academic Advisors for the Center for the American Idea in Houston, and has written extensively on J.R.R. Tolkien, James Fenimore Cooper, and the American frontier.

Carl E. Olson, editor of Ignatius Insight, recently interviewed Dr. Birzer about his new book, Christopher Dawson, and the complex and vital relationship between culture and religion.

Ignatius Insight: Who was Christopher Dawson? Why write a book about him?

Dr. Birzer: Hello, Carl. Thanks for the excellent questions. Well, I'm biased as I've spent much of my free time over the last seven years thinking about Dawson, but I consider him one of the most important Catholic scholars and writers of the twentieth century. I have yet to encounter someone in my intellectual life—outside of the greats of the ancient and medieval world—who seemed so utterly intellectual and ideas-driven, yet humane and Christian at the same time. I found his thoughts stimulating at most times and overwhelming at others. There was one moment when I was reading his letters, now housed on the sixth floor of the Hesburgh Library at the University of Notre Dame, to an American student. I found the letters and ideas so relentless and overwhelming, I started to get somewhat light headed. I left the library and stood outside to catch my breath. Indeed, in my reading of Dawson's books and letters, I found a traditional western and Christian mind, a believer in love, myth, Truth, Beauty, and Goodness, in the heart of modernity.

Born in a dilapidated castle in Wales in 1889, Dawson died in May 1970. Though he held very few formal academic positions during his life, Dawson was profoundly respected in the academic world. Between the 1920s and early 1960s, schools, publishers, and academics almost beyond count approached Dawson, asking for lectures, writings, and advice. Time magazine named him one of the great historians in the 1950s, and the poet and playwright T.S. Eliot regarded him as the most profound thinker of his generation. Astoundingly well read, Dawson had academic training in history, economics, sociology, and anthropology. Toward the end of his career, in the 1950s, when Dawson was teaching at Harvard University, Catholic colleges followed rather closely Dawson's arguments for a Catholic revival of the liberal arts.

Outside of the Catholic world, Dawson is sometimes remembered as one of the first "metahistorians" and one of the first world historians. Yet, with only a few notable and important exceptions, most scholars have forgotten about Dawson and his many contributions to scholarship.

In the last several years, I think, there's been a mini-revival of interest in Dawson and his works. He's being mentioned in First Things and other Catholic periodicals. His letters, diaries, manuscripts, etc. are housed at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota and at the University of Notre Dame under the loving archival care of Ann Kenne and Kevin Cawley, respectively. Gleaves Whitney, Joseph Pearce, Adam Schwartz, Gerald Russello, Aidan Nichols, and James Hitchcock, to name just a few scholars, have contributed significant work on Dawson and his many contributions to the intellectual world. Ed King tirelessly publishes the Dawson Newsletter several times a year. Hillsdale College (but especially under the encouragement of her very Christian Humanist Dean of Faculty, Mark Kalthoff, and her Provost and Associate Provost, Bob Blackstock and David Whalen, respectively) as a whole, the Center for the American Idea (Winston Elliott and John Rocha), the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (Jeff Cain, Jeremy Beer, and Mark Henrie), the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal (Annette Kirk and Bruce Frohnen), the Acton Institute (Sam Gregg), the McConnell Center (Gary Gregg), the Center for Ethics and Culture (Dan McInerny), the Center for Cultural Renewal (Barbara Elliott), the University of St. Thomas in Houston (John Hittinger and Dominic Aquila), Thomas More College (Jeff Nelson and William Fahey), and Eighth Day Books (Warren Farha) continue to promote the ideas of the Christian Humanists.

Ignatius Press, ISI Books, I.H.S. Books, and the Catholic University of American Press are publishing and republishing works by and about the Christian Humanists. Richard Gamble's The Great Tradition is probably the best and most penetrating work of Christian Humanism in the past year. So, lots of very good folks are doing amazing work, promoting and exploring Dawson's thought in particular and Christian Humanism in general.

And, perhaps most importantly, Pope Benedict XVI comes out of the same Augustinian tradition as does Dawson. I was recently reading the pope's Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures, and I was struck by the similarity of the arguments and the language of these two great men. At times, while reading this fine book, I thought I was reading a nearly perfect combination of Dawson and Eric Voegelin.

Ignatius Insight: We tend to think of historians as scholars who deal with dates and persons while describing a particular era or event. Dawson certainly did that, of course, but he approached history quite differently from most other historians, didn't he?

Dr. Birzer: Yes, definitely. Grounded in historical fact, Dawson read voraciously in all fields. Because he wrote about such a wide variety of topics and attempted to cover these topics and areas well, he sometimes overlooked some important ideas here or there, and he sometimes got a few of his facts wrong. I don't want to exaggerate this. Dawson got far, far more right than he got wrong. His slips are here and there, and, frankly, it's shocking he didn't make more, considering the vast amount of knowledge he possessed and attempted to synthesize. One of my close friends and colleagues, Harold Siegel, a medievalist by training and inclination, tells me that while Dawson got this or that date wrong in the Medieval period, for example, he almost always got the larger picture right, offering some excellent insight into the true meanings of history and the human person.

Indeed, Dawson believed the best historians were those who used their imaginations to understand the world and man's place within it. Counter to the progressive thinking of the beginning of the twentieth century, Dawson believed one knew the highest things from the faculty of the soul. Sometimes Dawson referred to this in Johannine and Stoic terms, and sometimes he employed the term "poetic." As Dawson explained it: "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, Dawson argued, 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."

Dawson believed that myth, theology, and a deep understanding of language should always inform one's understanding of history. History, too, should inform our understanding of myth, theology, and language.

Ignatius Insight: By the 1950s, Dawson was one of the most respected historians in the English-speaking world. But by the 1970s, he was largely forgotten or ignored. Why?

Dr. Birzer: This is an excellent question, but it's a very difficult one to answer, and I'm certainly not a historian of the 1960s or of Vatican II. Dawson's reputation wasn't the only reputation to suffer in the wake of the great council. I think most of the great Christian Humanists of his era suffered in terms of reputation following the vast cultural shifts that accompanied Vatican II. Guardini, Maritain, de Lubac, etc., all seemed to have been forgotten or ignored by the larger Catholic culture. Chesterton and Belloc's reputation suffered as well, and I think many scholars and readers found Chesterton's militant Catholicism embarrassing for a while.

John Paul II's call for a revival of Christian Humanism in the mid and late 1990s has helped lead to a revival of the thought of many of these thinkers. Several, though, such as E.I. Watkin, Tom Burns, Frank and Maisie Sheed, and Bernard Wall, all need good biographies written about them. There's certainly a great deal of work to be done in this area.

Two Catholics who survived Vatican II completely unscathed, Russell Kirk and J.R.R. Tolkien, did so because neither they nor their works were not openly identified as Catholic. Tracey Rowland has written brilliantly on the aftermath of Vatican II in her stunning Culture and the Thomist Tradition (2003), as has Pope Benedict in the pages of Communio. Ralph McInerny has written about the results of Vatican II with his usual penetrating wit as well.

Simply put, with Vatican II, came a vast series of changes in terms of liturgy as well as mindset. Anything prior to Vatican II, at least to many American Catholics, seemed outdated and part of the old Catholic ghetto. Dawson, no matter how far on the forefront of Catholic thought he stood in 1959, must, unfortunately, have seemed rather reactionary in 1967.

In many ways, though, Dawson actually anticipated the arguments found in the documents of Vatican II. I think this is most especially true in Dawson's understanding of the creativity and uniqueness of each human person.

By the way, none of this is meant to criticize the documents of Vatican II. Profoundly beautiful in language and teaching, these should be read and studied by all Catholics.

Ignatius Insight: Dawson was born into an Anglo-Catholic family and was raised in the Anglican tradition. How and why did he become Catholic? What role did the writings of Saint Augustine play in his conversion? What other thinkers influenced him in his decision to embrace Catholicism?

Dr. Birzer: For Dawson, Anglicanism seemed to be a stepping stone to Roman Catholicism. As he explained it, why would anyone accept the beauty of the Catholic liturgy, which the Anglicans shared, without the authority behind such beauty. Dawson believed ultimately Anglicanism would collapse because of its lack of authority; it would become decentralized and scattered. But, he never forcefully criticized the liturgy of the Anglican church, and he always held the Anglicans in high regard, even while he disagreed with significant aspects of their teachings.

Dawson's conversion to Roman Catholicism in January 1914 came at an incredibly high price. His mother, with whom he had a very close relationship as a young boy, never forgave him. She came from a long line of Anglican clergy, and she gave to her son a profound love of mythology and hagiography. From his father, Dawson learned of the greatness of Dante. Additionally, Dawson's best friend, E.I. Watkin, was a Catholic, and his wife, Valery Mills, was a Catholic. Dawson wrote of his own conversion in moving terms, noting St. Augustine, Cardinal Newman, R.H. Benson, and Charles Peguy as primary intellectual influences.

While much of the impetus to became Catholic came from personal friendships and intellectual rigor, Dawson also believed he had experienced a deep mystical vision at the age of 19. Standing at the Ara Coeli in Rome on Easter Sunday, 1909, Dawson suddenly understood the connection of history and culture, and he believed God called him to write a comprehensive history of the world. Whether this actually happened to Dawson or not, he lived the rest of his life attempting to fulfill what he considered a God-given mission.

Ignatius Insight: What are some of the ways in which Dawson displayed an "Augustinian mind"? How did it shape his approach to history?

Dr. Birzer: St. Augustine served as an important nexus in history, a bridge between the ancient and medieval worlds. When the barbarians descended upon Rome and the Roman Empire with relentless force in the fifth century, St. Augustine responded by writing the City of God over a fourteen-year period. Like Plato and Aristotle for classical Greece and Cicero for the Roman Republic, St. Augustine came at the end of an era, recording the best of what had preceded him. In the City of God, Augustine successfully brought together the thought of Plato, Cicero, and Virgil and Christianized it. He spent what time he had preserving the best of western and Christian civilization.

As with Augustine, Dawson believed himself at the end of an age. The long and relatively humane age of traditionalism, respect, and myth was about to implode, and the age of the ideologies was already beginning. In the various ideologies of the twentieth century, Dawson saw only the anti-Christ: propaganda, conformity, will power, and the destruction of the human person. Indeed, one only has to place oneself in Dawson's life, in say 1933, and imagine how horrifying the state of the world must have looked to someone of Dawson's upbringing. Far from the idyllic and agrarian period of Dawson's childhood—where the Catholic saints seemed as alive as one's mother or father—the National and International Socialists marched in their myriad rival factions and were setting up the Gulags and Holocaust camps of the world. Like an insane modernist painter, they deconstructed and reconstructed the human person, not in the image of God, but in the image of man.

Like Augustine, Dawson believed one must employ the imagination—the energy of the soul—to preserve the best of western and Christian civilization and defend each with all of the force imaginable.

Aidan Nichols, the English Dominican and one of the finest living Roman Catholic scholars, has called Dawson's work as a whole a "latter-day City of God." I agree completely with Nichols.

Dawson shared Augustine's vision of history, purpose of life, and understanding of the nature of evil. Augustine was Dawson's patron saint as well. Dawson, however, disagreed with Augustine's aesthetics. Otherwise, the English historian took most of his best and most "original" thoughts from the fifth century North African.

Part Two of "Recovering Christopher Dawson"


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