Christopher Dawson: Prophet at Harvard

by Fr. Herbert Musurillo, S.J.


Christopher H. Dawson has been called “the greatest English-speaking Catholic historian of the twentieth century.” This article written almost 50 years ago provides an insight into Dawson by one of his contemporaries.

Larger Work

The Homiletic and Pastoral Review



Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, December, 1958

For almost a generation now Christopher Dawson has been steadily growing into an heroic figure in the firmament of Catholic world scholarship. So immense, so profound is his achievement that it will perhaps require many years fully to evaluate his contribution to historical and sociological thought. And it is not only the depth and precision of his insight which have evoked admiration; there is also his incredible range, his prolific output, his command of many fields and their literature. In addition, he combines all these scholarly talents in the character of what the French have called the savant-poète, the vision of the poet-seer. He is the rare scholar that can turn his research into a kind of poetry. And seer indeed he has always been; for it is precisely some remarkable vision into the meaning of history that has ever been the fountainhead of all of Dawson's productivity. It may be that he had it as the shy young Yorkshireman who came up to Oxford in 1908; or perhaps as the fervent convert of 1914 who had won many friends among the Benedictines and the Jesuits at Oxford and the prominent converts of that era. In any case, after further studies at Oxford and on the Continent in sociology and history, Dawson's ideas seemed already singularly mature when he published his first article in The Sociological Review on "Sociology and the Theory of Progress." It was brief and, perhaps, tentative, but, like the mustard seed, big with the potentialities of future growth.


It has now been made easier for us to study the evolution of Dawson's philosophy of culture and history, from this earliest essay down to the present day, in a very timely anthology of his representative writings published by Sheed and Ward entitled The Dynamics of World History and edited by the Catholic sociologist, Mr. John J. Mulloy.1 Apart from Mr. Mulloy's excellent concluding essay, "Continuity and Development on Christopher Dawson's Thought," the collection is extremely valuable inasmuch as it reprints many inaccessible articles and reviews, as well as selections from the better known volumes, in a way that points up the development as well as the crucial areas of Dawson's thinking since 1921, the various influences which have helped to mould the world-view of one of the Church's greatest minds.

Indeed, I suppose it is only in such a brief compass that we, the epigoni, the late-born, should be able to sit in judgment and criticize the work of the masters. It is the irony of our age that there will never be a lack of critics who, though they may not be able to put brush to canvas themselves, will still presume; to criticize the strokes of the master, and what may seem at times to be exaggerated coloring or subjectivity of design. But even at the risk of oversimplification and the consequent misunderstanding of Dawson's ideas, let us hope that even in this anthologized form his work will come more and more to the attention of Catholics; especially since the only book which (to my knowledge) is completely devoted to an exposition of Dawson's thought, Father Daniel A. O'Connor's The Relation between Religion and Culture (Montreal: 1952), is not as widely known as it should be.

But surely it is now time for us to begin to assess and evaluate the enormous contribution that Christopher Dawson has made to Catholic thought: and Mr. Mulloy's excellent selection and penetrating summary essay might well serve us as a point of departure.

Perhaps Dawson's position can best be made clear in the light of his approach to the problem of metahistory, the meaning and dynamics of world history. In 1950 in a very brilliant article in the Month which Dawson did not fail to notice, C. S. Lewis brought forward a good deal of reasoned evidence to show that a philosophy of history, almost by its very definition, was an impossibility. If Lewis' view is correct, then it must follow that men like Vico, Hegel, Spengler, Croce, Toynbee were merely pursuing the notorious ignis fatuus; they were seeking something which, by definition, could not be found. It was a search which was perhaps expressive and symbolic of something within the mind and heart of man—like the quest for the philosopher's stone. But the controversy has been further sharpened by the contributions of men like Guardini and Pieper, both of whom have explicitly put forward the view that a philosophy of history is impossible without a Christian theology, that is, unless we view world history as the Fathers of the Church did in their exposition of the faith for the primitive catechesis. The core of the historical doctrine of the primitive kerygma was always the fact that the fullness of time had come, that we were now in the Last Age of the world, waiting for the final Apocalypse of Jesus Christ. Recent work in Scripture and the Fathers has only reinforced this point of view: even the Mass, the central Christian sacrament, was ultimately the memoria vitae et Passionis to show forth, as St. Paul tells us, "the death of the Lord until He come." Christian meta history, on this view, must be eschatological: while waiting for the Final Coming, we fill up what is wanting to the sufferings of Christ, we build and expand the pleroma of His Body, the Church.


Where does Dawson stand, then, on the problem of meta history? His is the patristic view, in which only theology can fill in the missing answers to the world-problem: Dawson's world-view is fundamentally Christocentric, in which the time-binding process in which man exists can have only one meaning, and that meaning is at once incarnational and eschatological. And, in a true sense, Sheed and Ward's new collection could well have been entitled A Theology of History; for history for Dawson is truly a theology, a revelation of God in a way that even Hegel had not perhaps dreamed. For Dawson, Croce's "hidden hand of God" in history has no meaning unless it is a hand of flesh, the flesh indeed of a God-Man and of the Christian growing unto God.


This, then, is Dawson's vision as one of the foremost prophets of our age. But with tireless energy, he has not been content with mere vision; he has devoted all the resources of modern historiography, anthropology and sociology to a calm and yet ruthless exposition of his point of view. Even his most bitter enemies, as for example Aldous Huxley, have had to agree that Dawson is indeed the "intellectual ascetic," never violent or rhetorical, who appeals rather to reasoned argument or else to evidence from the field, available for any scholar to check. But what men like G. G. Coulton, Huxley and their Mayfair followers most disliked about Dawson was neither his arguments nor his evidence, but what he stood for, and the calm atmosphere of faith which breathes from every page: this was a vision which they could not or would not understand.


Dawson's point of view was even a more extraordinary phenomenon when one considers the climate which prevailed at Oxford and Cambridge during and shortly after World War I. We must recall that the age of Chesterton had not yet dawned; Chesterton was not converted until the year 1922, although Belloc had by then written what were perhaps to be his greatest books, for example The Path to Rome (1902) and Europe and the Faith (1920). Ronald Knox was already an undergraduate at Oxford and was not to be converted until 1917. It was during the student days of Knox and Dawson at Oxford that the so-called Cambridge school of Comparative Religion was growing up around Jane Harrison, James Frazer and Gilbert Murray. And in a development of extraordinary scholarly enthusiasm, they had attempted to trace all the higher religions, including Christianity, to the "beastly devices of the heathen," to totemism, fetishism and the observance of magic and tabu. And strangely enough, despite the admitted exaggerations of the new comparative approach, many scholars both in England and on the Continent were accepting their full blown hypotheses as established fact. It was in this setting, in the twenties, that Dawson published his first articles in the Sociological Review; and then, like a Daniel come to judgment, he published his first two full-length books, The Age of the Gods (1928) and Progress and Religion (1929), as an earnest of a projected full-scale treatment of the entire history of civilization from a new, Christian sociological point of view. As Dawson himself has told us, his early intellectual climate was much indebted to Christian economists like Pierre Le Play (1806-1882), Adam Müller (1779-1829), Max Weber (1864-1920), Ernst Troeltsch (1865-1923) and Othmar Spann; Fr. Wilhelm Schmidt's work, especially The Origin of the Idea of God, had had a profound impression on him; he had read, he tells us, the usual things that informed historians and Catholics read. And yet, try as we might, we cannot uncover the long and complex chain of impressions and stimuli which must have played a part in the development of Dawson's first great books. Then, to name but a few, The Making of Europe came in 1939 and is now a classic; Religion and Culture (1948) is surely one of his greatest, and its theme is continued in Religion and the Rise of Western Culture (1950). Understanding Europe appeared in 1952; and Mediaeval Essays (1954) is in part a reprint of an earlier work with six new essays. I have necessarily had to skip over many of the books of the years between the wars; these, with a constant stream of important articles, lectures and essays over the years, constitute a prodigious output. Even Aquinas himself hardly produced more, and was surely not forced to control so wide and divergent a field.


Through all these long years, Dawson has, as it were, turned every stone in search of the data of anthropology, history and philosophy which would give added support to his fundamental vision. And, like a voice crying in the wilderness, his single message has not been heeded. His books at first, perhaps, repel the reader who is looking for superficial novelties or spectacular showmanship. His work, matured in the depths of thought and study, require a similar seriousness and concentration on the part of the reader. And yet one might say that his theme has ever remained an uncomplicated one; as one of his closest friends, E. I. Watkin, once expressed it: "Every step of human progress is shown to be directly or indirectly the result of a religious attitude to life, every culture a religious culture. In the service of the Mother Goddess men invented agriculture, in the name of Christ the Church built up the civilization of Western Europe from the ruins left by the fall of Rome" (Commonweal xviii [1933] p. 609). For Dawson, religion is at the basis of all culture—a thesis held by Catholic thinkers of the past like von Schlegel, Belloc, Acton; all religion is teleologically ordained toward Christianity, and thus it is under Christianity that, in God's providence, man is destined to attain the highest peak of culture and civilization. And yet, Christian fulfillment must depend on the co-operation of the human will; man's freedom can cause the frustration of the optimum collaboration between religion and culture. Thus in Europe, for example, Christian culture has been unable to maintain its Catholic structure because of the defects of the human material, as it were, and is beginning to disintegrate more and more. Symptoms of this disintegration for Dawson were the various schisms of the Reformation period, the gradual separation of politics, science, art, etc., from the Church, and the collapse of a unified system of education. Particularly now, since World War II, Dawson has pleaded for all Christians, forced to draw closer because of Communism, to end their quarrels and join hands on all those valuable possessions which they hold in common, their Christian cultural heritage. Only thus, in his view, can Christians overcome the "mystery of lawlessness" which somehow is at the root of separatism and disintegration. More recently still, Dawson has suggested, as a means of cultural unification, a reconsideration of our educational programme, especially in Catholic colleges and universities. The aim of the new course, so far as it can be made clear, would be to reconsider the socio-cultural dynamics of the Christian Middle Ages: how all the forces of the Church and the world combined in Europe to produce a fusion and a synthesis unequalled, in Dawson's view, in world history. Only by making this period central in our curriculum can we overcome, he feels, the powerful centrifugal forces, the "mystery of lawlessness," which operates for the disintegration of Christian society today.

I have necessarily been forced to compress and simplify; the only alternative to paraphrase is complete quotation. Dawson, like so many great thinkers, cannot be paraphrased; he must be read directly and in full. But even a brief summary of his thought must reflect his utter seriousness and the urgency of his challenge: for his writing, though ever sine ira et studio, will constantly provoke reaction and response, precisely because of the tacit assumption that is everywhere on his pages, that Christ is, after all, the center of the universe. Like a New Testament prophet, even his discussions of ancient history or of Near Eastern thought seem constantly to imply the Gospel challenge: "What think you of Christ? Whose Son is He?"


But this is not to say that all Christians will necessarily accept Dawson's methodology or his point of view. Some disagreement, in fact, is perhaps a better sign than complete acceptance—especially if it implies that we have seriously considered Dawson's arguments in the spirit in which they have been proposed. Dawson, too, has himself at times been most impatient with the work of historicists like Oswald Spengler, Collingwood, Croce and Toynbee. His issue with Hegel and, of course, with Spengler is clear: unless it can be adapted and modified, the crude Hegelian concept of history is somewhat too mechanistic and oversimplified; it allows neither enough scope for the truly individual nor for the self-determining creations of man.

Indeed, neither Hegel nor Spengler make sufficient allowance for the indeterminate in history, for the rise of the original and independent, or for the polygenetic development of similar though independent phenomena. Spengler's eight cultures (from the Egyptian down to the modern "Faustian") develop in an ineluctable cycle from birth to death, spring to winter, under the domination of Schicksal (Fate). Even Toynbee's morphology of cultures reveals a dependence on Spengler—although it so far outshines the Decline in breadth and vision. For Toynbee, for whom Dawson has understandably shown a greater sympathy, religion is somehow at the heart of historiography, if not at the basis of history itself; for it is man's religious quest that has, in Toynbee's view, forced him to probe into the meaning of history, even if the religious, in Dawson's sense, is not necessarily at the root of all culture. Now that the Study of History is complete, the cooperation between Toynbee's twenty one cultures, which tend to be regional, and the higher religions, which are supracultural, is clearer than it was in the early volumes of that sprawling work. The four higher religions which are active today, Christianity, Islamism, Hinduism and Buddhism, develop out of the cultures, in Toynbee's view, and once developed, tend to spread beyond cultural barriers and influence the different civilizations through which they develop. Toynbee's world-view is fundamentally religious; hence Dawson's quarrel with Toynbee—and it is a serious one—cannot be based on the same grounds which caused him to reject Hegel and Spengler.


Again, in Toynbee's analysis, the twenty-odd world civilizations constitute a kind of vital, expanding universe; and the organic interaction among these different cultures, when studied in retrospect, should yield some legitimate conjecture on the direction in which our cultural universe (or, perhaps, universes) is moving. Like a detached biologist observing the life and death-struggles of amoebae, Toynbee has painstakingly attempted to set down his final report, without being able, as his critics have so often reminded us, adequately to separate his conclusions from certain assumed hypotheses. For Toynbee, all the higher religions should ultimately be one, and cultural disunity should ultimately be terminated in a kind of Mahayana Buddhism. Toynbee is nonetheless a theist and, in his own way, a sincere Christian. In Dawson's own words, Dawson's fundamental criticism of Toynbee's work "is that it is too telescopic and that a true science of human cultures must be based on a more microscopic technique of anthropological and historical research" ("Arnold Toynbee and the Study of History," Dynamics, pp. 403 f.). And yet I think it is principally Toynbee's religious outlook which has caused Dawson to take issue with him. For Toynbee catalogues religious manifestations with the same indifference and impartiality that he pigeonholes cultures; whereas, as Dawson so often reminds us, the higher religions "must be studied theologically, if at all;" and in this way we can only point out that they represent "alternative and contradictory solutions to the religious problem" (ibid., p. 398); they cannot all be right.

For Dawson, on the other hand, man's history can in a sense be summed up in a centripetal movement which had its focus at the Incarnation and culminated in the cultural flowering of the eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth centuries; and a gradual centrifugal movement active since the Renascence, destroying, separating, disuniting—which it is nonetheless in man's power to arrest. In Dawson's view the complex forces of history operate, as it were, in a three-dimensional way: in the religio-cultural evolution of world society there are not only the sociological pressures as such, but also those which spring from individual self-determination, especially with regard to the ultimate problem of Good and Evil, Christ and Antichrist.


At the same time it is not difficult to see how such a theological view of history would not be acceptable to anyone who has not had the profoundly Christian background and the Catholic insights of Christopher Dawson. In this respect I sometimes feel that he has not perhaps been patient enough with those philosophers of history who do not share his theological intuition. For there is no doubt that if the Christian element in history could by hypothesis be set aside then indeed the only satisfactory view would be some sort of idealist structure such as we find in Hegel, or Collingwood or even Benedetto Croce. And it is for this precise reason that I am particularly sympathetic to the idealist view of history inasmuch as the time process, without the dimension which comes from the Christian apocalypse, would seem capable of interpretation as an ambiguous symbol—or, if you will, as the result of man's own subjective structuring of unstructured reality. Without the vision which comes through Christ, I think I could understand the position to which Croce is ultimately reduced: that all sciences, philosophy, literature, theology, are ultimately history; and that, all true history is but contemporary history. For the intrusion of the Transcendent into the order of Time—as Dawson has truly grasped it—has indeed given man's immersion in Time a new dimension of meaning. For now the world-symbol is no longer ambiguous; man's cultural development is not merely an infinitely expanding process: it now has direction, guidance, meaning. And thus the science of the history of cultures becomes not merely a game with men or movements for counters; it is the serious theologia which Dawson has taken it to be, and in which the ultimate fate of individuals as well as nations is deeply involved. In this sense, history is necessary for salvation.

Is such history—or call this new science what you will—really possible? The answer is that Dawson has written it, at least in large part, and he has carefully documented his long and very nuanced exposition over the period of the last thirty-five years by sheer hard labor and by what he himself has called "microscopic" research. There could be no greater commendation of his books—and, particularly, of the new and convenient Dynamics—to anyone who is seriously interested in man's historical origins and ultimate goal, and that is, or, at least, should be, all men of good will.


The present writer has, in the past, taken issue with Dawson, but only with regard to what seemed a startling innovation in our American Catholic educational curriculum; there was never any disagreement about fundamental aims or views, but only about specific means within the existing framework of Catholic higher education. The controversy is now perhaps a thing of the past; but certain gains were achieved, in particular, a clearer insight into the obscurity of our aims and, perhaps, the deficiency of our educational methods. And Dawson's plan, considered under various concrete forms as the controversy changed front from time to time, will perhaps always remain as a very great ideal, for us still remote and inaccessible. But there is a vast literature on this discussion and I must here refer the reader to the symposium published in Thought (Summer, 1955).

But such disagreements are fundamentally familial and, if possible, productive of good things. But to Dawson's less friendly critics, who have in the past charged him with a reactionary view of the evolution of man and religious history, it must be said that Dawson's conservatism comes from a deeply serious outlook; he has refused to change with every shifting wind of doctrine; he has refused to recognize the "autonomy" of the non-theological disciplines; and his constancy has been the product not of timidity but rather of courage. Surely this was the spirit which made him choose as his topic for the formal lecture to the British Academy in 1934 the serious limitations of Gibbon's view of history in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (in Dynamics, pp. 326 ff.).


This, then, is the man who has just been appointed the first incumbent of the Chauncey Stillman Chair of Roman Catholic Studies at Harvard. In speculating on the source of Dawson's tremendous power I cannot help but link him somehow in spirit with the inspired nebî'îm of Ancient Israel, those austere servants of Jahweh who delivered their oracles and discharged their sacred mission no matter how hostile the circumstances. The prophets' vision was primarily of the present and future, and Dawson's is primarily of the past. But his message is for the men of today, that we may learn the sources of modern man's spiritual power and of the decision that is thrust upon us for the redemption or destruction of Western civilization. And like the message of the prophets, what Dawson tells us may not always be palatable. For somehow, he believes, there must be self-denial before man's greatest flowering and highest cultural unity can be achieved. "Unless the seed die," neither the West nor Christianity can be one. His is a voice of supreme urgency, using the symbols of sociology and history to call his people back to the religion of their fathers. It is a continuation of Christ's priestly prayer "that they may be one." And thus Dawson's work becomes not only theologia but also kerygma, a call to all Christians to love one another and thus to share in the graces of the Atonement. Well may Dawson make his own the words of Joseph de Maistre, written in the context of an earlier European crisis (Dynamics, p. 468: from The Modern Dilemma):

Everything proclaims that we are moving towards a great unity which ... we must hail from afar. We have been grievously and justly broken, but if such eyes as mine are worthy to foresee the divine purpose, we have been broken only to be made one.

Before light of such clarity, the flimsy structures of Hegel and Spengler must scatter like stars before the moon. For this, in all its grandeur, is Dawson's ultimate vision of Man; this is the unity in Christ for which the primitive peoples of the earth had prepared the way in the dim millennia of prehistoric times. And yet it is no mere disembodied idea or Platonic, ivory-tower goal. It is a unity which, in Dawson's view, can only be achieved through a definite social activity, and by a peculiar operation of the Spirit, in bringing to fruition that seed that was cast into virgin soil when heaven and earth became one in the fullness of time.


1 Christopher Dawson, The Dynamics of World History, edited by John J. Mulloy (New York, Sheed and Ward: 1956). It is not completely clear what roles were played by author, editor and publisher in the organization and format of the volume. Mr. Mulloy has written an Introduction, pp. v-xi, explaining the organization of the book into two sections (Part I: Sociology of History; Part II: Conceptions of World History), as well as the excellent summary essay, pp. 413-468. The "sources" of the excerpts are listed, though perhaps not fully enough, on pp. 469-472, and from this it is clear that Dawson himself has modified some of the material slightly. There is a very helpful Index, pp. 473 ff. Quotations in the present article will be from this publication.

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