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 | IgnatiusInsight.com
Rediscovering Christopher Dawson | An Interview with Dr. Bradley J. Birzer, author of
World: The Augustinian Life and Mind of Christopher Dawson | Carl E. Olson | February 4, 2008
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,
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
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
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.
Ignatius Insight: You
write about how Dawson's work provoked, at times, quite a bit of controversy,
among both scholars and Church censors. Why was that?
Dr. Birzer: Though an excellent writer overall, he
had his flaws, and, equally important, he wrote in a variety of
styles—ranging from the very popular to the shockingly complex. At times,
he wrote assuming his audience had as much knowledge and background about a
given subject as he did. This led to some theological confusion. As mentioned
earlier, Dawson wrote often of the imagination and poetry as a divine light
reflected in the soul, taking this from St. John's Gospel, chapter one, verse
9. In some places he was clear that this light came from the Incarnate Word. At
other times, though, he seemed to argue it came from the Holy Spirit, and, at
times, its origin was unclear. I'm not sure how seriously one should take this
the criticism. A meaningful understanding of the Trinity, far from my very
limited spiritual and intellectual experience, seems to be reserved for the
deepest of mystics.
Additionally, while Dawson
had no love of the Reformation (though he very much preferred Calvin to
Luther), he believed Protestantism to be a fact of existence and one that
Catholics must accept as simply a part of reality. Bickering among
Christians—Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox—seemed downright
silly and counter-productive to Dawson, especially since any Christian had far
more to fear from a Nazi, a Communist, or even a secularist than he did from
other Christians. Dawson believed strongly that whatever theological
differences might exist, branch to branch, Christians had far more in common
with one another than they had differences. In his writings, and in his life,
Dawson promoted ecumenism. In the 1940s, this was a fairly controversial stand.
Suffering from insomnia,
depression, anxiety, and paranoia, Dawson could also be his own worst enemy. His
publisher, Frank Sheed, spent a considerable amount of time and energy trying
to convince Dawson of his personal worth.
Ignatius Insight: Sanctifying
the World has a
fascinating section about some of the various groups of Catholic intellectuals
that existed in the first half of the 20th century. Who were the
"Order" men and what was Dawson's involvement with their work? How
would you characterize Dawson's relationship with neo-Thomism, especially the
work of Jacques Maritain?
Dr. Birzer: Thanks, Carl, this was one of my
favorite sections of the book, and I had a blast researching and writing about
it. In the first half of the twentieth century, England had a number of
groups—groups of friends who wrote and discussed poetry and
philosophy—such as Order. Some were ideologically driven, such as the
Bloomsbury group, but the best were apolitical, motivated by a love of the
humane things. The most influential such group was the Inklings, made up
chiefly by J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. In the 1920s, Dawson belonged to the
"Order" men, men who had lived in the Chelsea neighborhood of London and
discussed ideas. They also produced four issues of a journal, entitled Order. It's a stunning, hilarious, and angry
journal, written by relatively young men—with ideas based on those of
Dawson and Jacques Maritain as well as St. Thomas Aquinas and Edmund
Burke—who wanted to reform the world. They believed English Roman
Catholics to be too timid, intimidated by the larger Anglican culture. The
Order men hoped to wake them up. Therefore, and somewhat ironically, they
promoted truth, beauty, and goodness, in an "in your face" sort of way.
The four issues of Order are very hard to find. Collectively, the
University of St. Thomas in Minnesota and Loras College, in Dubuque, Iowa, have
all four issues. The issues offer a lot of insight into English Catholicism in
the 1920s and deserve to be reprinted.
Out of the journal Order came Sheed and Ward's justly famous
"Essays in Order" series. Whereas Order had attempted to unite English Catholics, "Essays in Order"
took this a step further and openly hoped to create a Catholic Republic of
Letters, bringing together the best of English and Continental Catholics in one
series. Though lasting only sixteen volumes (seventeen if one properly counts A
Monument to St. Augustine
 as volume 0), the series received high praise from Catholic and
non-Catholic presses alike. Its authors included Jacques Maritain, Dawson,
Nicholas Berdyaev, Francois Mauriac, E.I. Watkin, Thomas Gilby, and Theodor
Haecker. G.K. Chesterton, Martin D'Arcy, Gabriel Marcel, Eric Gill, and
Ronald Knox were each listed as authors of future volumes in the series, but the
series collapsed before these were published. Regardless, the seventeen volumes
offer a wonderful picture of the profundity and sheer diversity of Catholic
thought and imagination between the two world wars.
As to Maritain, specifically,
Dawson had mixed views. While Dawson thought very highly of Maritain prior to
1936, he believed the post-1936 Maritain too concerned with politics. Sadly,
the two never met in person. Dawson, incorrectly, I believe, thought Maritain
lacked imagination in his own work and an understanding of imagination as
fundamental to the human person. The Maritain of Art and Scholasticism (1924) seemed long gone to Dawson by the
late 1930s. Scholars such as Notre Dame's Dan McInerny and the University of
St. Thomas's (Houston) John Hittinger have clearly and finally demonstrated the
role of imagination in Maritain's thought. Dawson was simply wrong on this
Ignatius Insight: In a
1930 note, Dawson listed five of the most important threats to liberty. In
reading them, one of is struck by how up-to-date and contemporary they are. In
what ways did Dawson (like Chesterton, it seems to me) anticipate the various
ideologies and belief systems that dominate both academic and popular debate
Dr. Birzer: Whereas Chesterton prophesized the rise
of the ideologues long before their actual appearance during and immediately
following World War I, Dawson, a generation after Chesterton, lived through the
Fascist, National Socialist, and Communist takeover of much of the world. The
results—the conformity and the mass executions—horrified him. Much
of what Dawson thought and wrote came from his reaction to the dehumanizing
policies of the ideologues of the left and right. As Dawson convincingly wrote,
there never existed a right-left spectrum on a horizontal line. Instead, the
only real division was vertical—Christ and anti-Christ.
Dawson correctly predicted
that democracy, as experienced and understood in America, would produce only
more ideological rigidity. He feared that Americans focused too much on what is
political and technological, ignoring the cultural and the humane. Toward the
end of his career, Dawson made a number of suggestions for a more humane
civilization. He specifically hoped some Catholics would create a religious
order dedicated to the promotion of the liberal arts and the role of
Catholicism in sanctifying the best of the ancient world. He also hoped
Catholic liberal arts colleges would arise throughout America, teaching and
promoting the best of the western tradition: the seven virtues, the great
ideas, and the sacrifice of many (from Socrates to St. Thomas More) for the
On some days, Dawson was
hopeful. On others, he believed western civilization would have to go through
numerous trials before it again embraced a humane understanding of the world.
I am confident Dawson
would've been shocked by several events after his death: the fall of communism
in Eastern Europe in 1989; the confidence and moral arguments of the fortieth
American president in helping bring about the fall of communism; the
pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI; and the vast dissemination of
Catholic theology and Christian Humanist belief in the works of his fellow
parishioner at St. Aloysius in Oxford, J.R.R. Tolkien.
He, however, would not have
been shocked by the re-emergence of radical Islam as a threat to the West. Dawson
believed Islam a heresy, and he recognized the threat Islam had posed to the
West and to Judaism and Christianity since the seventh century.
Ignatius Insight: Like
many other great Catholic thinkers (including Benedict XVI), Dawson believed
that culture was at the heart of the battle for the minds and hearts of men.
What were some of his basic beliefs about culture and how to reform or revive
Dr. Birzer: Dawson argued from 1929
forward that the cultus
[cult] stood at the heart of culture. Therefore, up until the French
Revolution, every people everywhere, as far as the evidence indicates, had
worshipped some form of divinity, greater than man. From the cult comes the
culture, and from the culture comes language, familial relations, law, economics,
etc. Only modern liberal secularists and progressive ideologues had attempted
to divorce the cult from the culture. But, to divorce the cult from the culture
means to destroy the culture itself.
Because the culture
originated in the cult, however, one only need to revive the cult to revive the
culture. Dawson considered T.S. Eliot's work, for example, as a model for the
revival and reform of culture. Eliot took rather modernist forms in literature
and poetry, but he sanctified them. In no place is this truer than in the
Quartets," which, in my humble belief, attempts to demonstrate the continuity
of Heraclitus's Logos with St. John's Logos.
Such a sanctification of the
pagan, according to Dawson, had been one of the great missions of the Christian
Church since St. Paul quoted the Stoic poets in Athens. Through imagination, a
Catholic, therefore, must discern what is good from what is bad in culture,
isolate the good from the bad, and Christianize it.
Insight: Why is Dawson still important today? What can we learn from him? For
those who have never read his work, where is a good starting point?
Dr. Birzer: Dawson is more
important than ever, as he reminds of us what it means to be human and he
reminds us to find strength and purpose in faith and in culture. Dawson's best
book is his World War II call to arms, The Judgment of Nations. Sadly, it's no longer in print. Catholic
University of America Press has been republishing his works, and they're doing
an excellent job with them. But, I would start with ISI's version of
of World History.
Thank you, Carl.
It's always a pleasure to talk with you, and it's always a pleasure to talk
about someone as meaningful and important as Dawson.
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