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The European Revolution

by Christopher Dawson

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Christopher Dawson on the European Revolution


Christopher Dawson here treats the cultural and intellectual developments of the two centuries preceding the French Revolution.

Larger Work

The Catholic World

Publisher & Date

The Missionary Society of St. Paul the Apostle, May, 1954

During the last two centuries the human race has experienced the greatest changes that it has known since the beginnings of history. Man has acquired a power over nature which surpasses the dreams of the magicians and alchemists of the past. The face of the world has been changed. New peoples have arisen in new worlds, the very existence of which was unsuspected by our medieval ancestors. The closed world of the ancient East has been thrown open and brought nearer to us than England was to Italy a century ago. Even the wild men of the jungle and the Tundras have been dragged out of their prehistoric isolation and forced to conform their dives in some manner to Western standards. Everywhere from Ireland to Japan and from Palestine to California men are wearing the same clothes, using the same machines, watching the same pictures, reading the same books and even thinking the same thoughts.

This vast transformation of human life is not due to external causes, although it may seem as universal and impersonal as the forces of nature. It is a result of the creative activity of human minds and wills: not of human mind in the abstract, but of the mind and will of concrete personalities living in a definite social environment and working in and through a definite historical tradition. For this world revolution, universal as it is in its effects, is not universal in its origins. It has its source in a particular society and a particular civilization and it has spread outward from this center by cultural expansion and diffusion instead of by a process of independent parallel development according to the old evolutionary conception of the law of Progress.

If then we would understand this process of change it is not enough to study it externally as a series of technical innovations and consequent material changes. We must study it from within as a living historical process which is material, social and spiritual. And above all we must beware of the one-sided unitary conception which interprets the whole development in terms of a single factor.

The European revolution is at once a political revolution, an economic revolution, and a scientific revolution, but none of the three was the cause of the rest. They are all parallel experiences of the organic process of change which has transformed Western society and the Western mind during the modern age.

In the first place we must make clear what is the social organism which is the source and origin of this movement of change. For it may be objected that when we speak of Western civilization or the European tradition we are making use of generalizations which are just as unreal as the abstract ideas of Civilization and Progress that have been the basis of liberal social philosophy.

In order to understand European history we must first understand what Europe is—not a mere geographical expression nor a heterogeneous collection of independent nationalities, but a true society of peoples possessing a common tradition of culture and of religion. In the past this social organism was known as Christendom, and it is in fact in medieval Christendom that its unity is most plainly visible.

It is true that in its origins Western Christendom was conterminous neither with Christendom as a whole nor with Europe. To an oriental observer it must have appeared little more than an outlying barbaric province of the Christian world, isolated between the pagan North and the Moslem South and unworthy to be compared with the wealthy and civilized society of Byzantine Christendom. Yet this semibarbarous society of Western Christendom possessed a vitality and power of growth that its more civilized neighbors lacked.

From its original center in the Frankish dominions it gradually extended its range until by the end of the Middle Ages it had embraced the whole of Western and Northern Europe and had begun its career of colonial expansion beyond the seas, while the fortunes of Eastern Christendom had steadily declined until Byzantium had become the capital of Islam and the Christian peoples of the Balkans were the slaves of the Turk.

This triumphant expansion was, however, accompanied by a loss of internal unity; Western Christendom was a synthesis of Nordic and Latin elements ordered and directed by the Church and the Papacy. The state, as it was under the tutelage of the Church and the clergy who possessed a monopoly of the higher education, took a leading part in its administration and policy. But with the decline of feudalism and the growth of a centralized monarchical power, the state asserted its independence and attempted to deprive the territorial Church of its international character and to weaken the bonds that attached it to the Holy See.

At the same time the development of national feeling and vernacular culture brought to the surface the underlying elements of racial and cultural diversity which had been held in abeyance but not removed by the unifying forces of medieval Catholicism. Both the Latin South and the Germanic North rejected the medieval synthesis as an impure mixture of discordant elements and attempted to go behind the Middle Ages and to recover the unalloyed traditions of classical culture and evangelical religion.

Thus the sixteenth century saw the first great European revolution, a revolt carried out by the Italian Renaissance in the name of the purity of culture and by the German Reformation in the name of the purity of the Gospel. The Middle Ages were rejected by the humanists as barbarous and by the reformers as superstitious and corrupt. To both alike they were the Dark Ages, and to both it seemed as though mankind after a thousand years of barbarism and error was being born again and that religion and culture were destined to be renewed after the model of primitive Christianity and classical antiquity.

But in spite of this parallelism between the two movements, they were so alien in spirit from one another that they often acted as enemies rather than allies and their effects on European culture were entirely different. The Renaissance gradually extended its influence throughout Europe, transforming Western art, literature and science, and creating a common standard of education and culture that transcended political and national frontiers and thus maintained the tradition of European unity in a new form.

The Reformation, on the other hand, was a source of strife and dissension that divided Europe between hostile religious camps and warring sects. For though the Protestant Reformation did stimulate the movement of reform in Southern Europe, it stimulated it by reaction, so that the movement of Catholic Reform was a Counter Reformation which declared open war against the Northern Reformation.

The inchoate growth of Mediterranean Protestantism was crushed out between the revival of Catholicism and the hostility of Northern Protestantism, and those Italian and Spanish reformers who escaped the hands of the Inquisition fell victims to the ferocious rigidity of evangelical orthodoxy, like Servetus at Geneva and Gentili at Berne.

The typical Southern reformers were not Ochino and Socinus, but Ignatius Loyola and Charles Borromeo. They were in almost every respect the antithesis of the Northern reformers, for they accentuated just those elements in the Christian tradition which the Protestants rejected: the principles of hierarchic authority, sacramentalism, asceticism and mysticism. And whereas the Northern Reformers destroyed the monasteries and abandoned the ideal of the contemplative life, the Counter Reformation found its center of action in the new religious orders.

The alliance of this movement for Catholic reform with the Papacy and the Austro-Spanish monarchy turned the tide of Protestant revolt and reconquered much of the ground that had been lost in Central and Southern Europe. For a time it seemed as if the Hapsburg powers would make the Holy Roman Empire a reality and restore the lost medieval unity as a centralized theocracy based on the military power of Spain and the gold of the Indies and the missionary zeal of the Jesuits. And though the realization of this dream of universal Catholic empire was frustrated by the stubborn resistance of the Huguenots and the English and the Dutch, the double monarchy of the Spanish and Austrian Hapsburgs remained the most imposing political power of seventeenth-century Europe.

Thus the influence of the Counter Reformation was not confined to religion and politics; it combined with the literary and artistic traditions of the Renaissance to produce a strongly marked type of culture which transcended the limits of the Mediterranean and extended its influence over the whole Catholic world.

Looked at from a Northern and Protestant angle the Baroque culture appears as a secularized version of medieval Catholicism; from its own standpoint, however, it represents rather the desecularization of the Renaissance and the reassertion of the power of religion and the authority of the Church over social life. All the resources of art, architecture, painting, sculpture, literature and music were enlisted in the service of Catholicism, and if to the Northerner the result appears theatrical and meretricious, this was due to no lack of spirituality. It was a passionate, ecstatic, mystical spirituality that has little in common with the sober pietism of the Protestant North, but it was intensely vital, as we see from the lives and writings of the Spanish saints and mystics of the sixteenth century who initiated the great movement of Counter Reformation mysticism which swept Catholic Europe in the first half of the seventeenth century.

This spirit inspired Baroque art with its striving after infinity and intensity of emotion which renders it more akin to the art of the Middle Ages than to the rational idealism of the classical Renaissance. It was as though the Gothic spirit was expressing itself anew in classical forms. Thus the seventeenth century saw the rise of a new religious art which insofar as it became the current artistic language of the Church represented a popularization of the more aristocratic Renaissance tradition and molded the popular taste of the Catholic world from Mexico and Peru to Hungary and Poland. Its predominance is especially marked in Southern Germany and Austria, where there was a great revival of ecclesiastical architecture after the Thirty Years' War, so that the Baroque style is as universal and typical of the churches and monasteries of central Europe as the Gothic is in England and France.

There was no similar movement in Protestant Europe. Lutheran Germany was overshadowed by the Baroque culture of the South, while in Holland and England the whole spirit of Calvinism and Puritanism was unfavorable to the development of a religious art. It was as ferociously iconoclastic as the early Moslems; it was not only that the Puritans condemned the aesthetic hedonism of Renaissance culture as pagan and worldly, it was that their religion left no place for aesthetic expression even in the spiritual sphere. Even divine grace had lost its graciousness and had become the irresistible engine of an inscrutable power. Human nature was so corrupted that man had become, as it were, God's natural enemy; his only hope was to be found in the bare fiat of divine will which miraculously transformed him from a child of wrath into a vessel of election predestined to fulfill the divine commands, almost in spite of himself by no virtue or merit of his own.

But the pessimism and fatalism of Calvinist doctrine did not lead as we might have expected to any loss of-the sense of personal responsibility, to the depreciation of practical activity or to an ascetic flight from the world. On the contrary, Calvinism was a school of moral discipline and effort which produced self-reliant men of action, who faced a hostile world with a grim determination to do their duty and to obey the dictates of conscience at whatever cost to themselves and others.

Such a spirit was the very antithesis of Humanism. Wherever the latter asserted itself in Northern Europe, as at the English court or in Dutch patrician society, it came into sharp conflict with Calvinist orthodoxy, as we see in Holland in the case of Grotius and Vondel and in England where the highest achievement of the Northern Renaissance—the Shakespearean drama—seems as completely alien from the contemporary religious development of English Puritanism, as though it belonged to a different world. Consequently there was no room for the development of a synthesis between Protestantism and the Renaissance tradition such as the Catholic achieved in the Baroque culture.

Calvinism found its true sphere of activity not in the courts and among the nobles, but among the new commercial and industrial classes that were coming into existence in the towns of Holland and England. There was a natural affinity between the Puritan spirit and the spirit of the bourgeois. The strict asceticism of the Puritan ideal, which severely repressed man's natural tendency to ease and enjoyment and condemned all outward display as worldly vanity, inculcated industry and frugality as the first Christian duties and thus gave a supernatural sanction to virtues that were naturally dear to the bourgeois heart.

Thus Calvinism gave the middle classes a spiritual and moral background which enabled them to assert their social independence and to build up a new order that depended on individual industry and enterprise rather than on corporate responsibility and hereditary social sanction. Already in the seventeenth century we can trace the emergence of a new type- -the hard, honest, respectable man of business who was destined to take the place of the noble and the courtier and the priest as the leading force in society.

Thus the contrast between the mature Baroque culture of Southern and Central Europe and the nascent bourgeois culture of Calvinist society was at once a contrast between opposing spiritual ideals and opposite social tendencies. The Baroque culture of Spain and Austria was that of a society of princes and nobles and peasants and priests which found its center in palaces and monasteries—even in palace-monasteries such as the Escorial— and left a comparatively small place to the tradesman and the manufacturer. It was an uneconomic culture which spent its capital lavishly, recklessly and splendidly, both to the glory of God and the adornment of human life.

The Puritan culture of Holland and England, on the other hand, was the culture of a society of tradesmen, yeomen and artisans whose life centered in the meeting house, the counting house, the farm and the workshop. They had neither time nor money to expend on artistic creation or external display. All their energies were concentrated on the task of saving their souls and earning their livings, and they reckoned every moment of time and every penny of expenditure as something for which they must render an exact account to the great Taskmaster in the day of final reckoning.

And so while the Baroque culture was spending its wealth on pilgrimage churches and palaces and monasteries, the Puritans were laying the foundations on which the capitalist order of the future was to be built.

We have only to compare Bernini with the brothers Adam or Saint Teresa with Hannah More to feel the difference in the spirit and rhythm of the two cultures. The bourgeois culture has the mechanical rhythm of a clock, the Baroque the musical rhythm of a fugue or a sonata.

The ideal of the bourgeois culture is to maintain a high average standard. Its maxims are "Honesty is the best policy," "Do as you would be done by," "God helps those who help themselves." But the Baroque spirit lives in and for the triumphant moment of creative ecstasy. It will have all or nothing. Its maxims are: "All for love and the world well lost." "Nada, nada, nada." "What cost thou seek for, O my soul? All is shine, all is for thee, do not take less, nor rest with the crumbs that fall from the table of thy Father. Go forth, and exult in thy glory, hide thyself in it and rejoice, and thou shalt obtain all the desires of thy heart."

The conflict between these two ideals of life and forms of culture runs through the whole history of Europe from the Reformation to the Revolution and finds its political reflection in the struggle between Spain and the Protestant powers. It is hardly too much to say that if Philip II had been victorious over the Dutch and the English and the Huguenots, modern bourgeois civilization would never have developed and capitalism, in so far as it had existed, would have acquired an entirely different complexion.

The same spirit would have ruled at Amsterdam as at Antwerp, at Berlin as at Munich, in North America as in South; and thus the moment when Alexander Farnese turned back, a dying man, from his march on Paris may be regarded as one of the decisive points in European history, for though the Baroque culture was rigid and unprogressive especially from the economic point of view, it was also extraordinarily stable and almost immune from internal revolutionary change. Where it had once set its foot, it remained; and it has left its imprint on regions like Flanders and Bohemia which were geographically far removed from its original center, and which had much closer natural and spiritual affinities to the Protestant world.

Had it not been for the existence of a kind of intermediate zone— Lutheran, Anglican, Gallican and Jansenist—between the two poles of Counter Reformation Rome and Calvinist Geneva, it is quite conceivable that Europe might have been divided between two entirely distinct and independent cultures which would have been as alien from one another as the Islamic world was from Medieval Christendom.

In the seventeenth century, however, the new Protestant bourgeois culture was only beginning to assert its social and political independence, and in Europe as a whole the old social structure of Medieval Christendom survived with comparatively little change. In spite of the expansion of overseas trade and the growth of the trading cities, European society was predominantly agrarian and was still organized according to the traditional social hierarchy of nobles, clergy and peasants.

It is true that the Reformation and the dissolution of the monasteries had rendered the clergy dependent on the government and the lay nobility throughout Protestant Europe, but the whole spirit of the Lutheran tradition was intensely conservative and the caste-like rigidity of the class system rendered the social effects of the dissolution of the monasteries mainly negative.

In England also the state Church of the Tudors and the Stuarts continued to uphold the medieval ideal of an organic functional social order and the control of economic relations by an authoritarian state, while the Church gave a religious sanction to their policy by asserting that "the most high and sacred order of kings is of Divine Right" and is entitled to the passive obedience of the subject.

The same ideas obtained in seventeenth-century France where the Gallican Church maintained the doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings as strongly as the Anglican. Indeed Bossuet in his treatise on politics drawn from Scripture invests the royal power with quasidivine character. The king is the image of God on earth and participates in the sovereignty and independence of the Divine power.

"The power of God," he writes, "makes itself felt instantaneously from one end of the world to the other, the royal power acts at the same time throughout the kingdom. It holds the whole kingdom in being, as God holds the world. Should God withdraw His hand, the world would fall back into nothingness and should authority cease in the kingdom, all would be confusion....

"To sum up the great and august things we have said concerning the royal authority. Behold an immense people united in a single person; behold this sacred power, paternal, absolute; behold the secret cause which governs the whole body of the state contained in a single head; you see in the king the image of God, and you have an idea of the royal Majesty" (Politique tiree des propres paroles de L'Ecriture Sainte. Book V. Art. IV. Prop. I.).

Such conceptions have more in common with the ancient Oriental and Byzantine ideal of a sacred monarchy than with modern political ideas and they show how deeply anchored European society still was in traditions of the past.

This social traditionalism prevented the revolutionary implications of both the Reformation and the Renaissance from being widely realized; it hardly entered into men's minds that the existing order could be radically transformed. The European social order was an organic development—the result of centuries upon centuries of unconscious growth. The family and the state, kingship and authority, the different orders and classes with their functions and privileges were not artificial creations. They had always been there and had gradually changed their form under the influence of new circumstances and different environments. And thus they were regarded as part of the natural order, ordained by God, and were accepted as men accepted the changes of the seasons and the other laws of nature.

So too, neither religious skepticism, which had already made its appearance in the sixteenth century, nor the new science of nature which had made such progress in the seventeenth, were yet strong enough to effect the religious background of social life. It is a mistake to suppose that European culture was secularized in the sixteenth century as a result of the Renaissance or the Reformation. Alike in Catholic and Protestant countries the seventeenth century was an intensely religious age. An occasional skeptic like Vanini or a materialist like Hobbes weighs light against the solid mass of preachers and theologians who formed public opinion and were almost the sole channels of popular instruction.

By the second half of the seventeenth century Europe seemed to have recovered from the disturbances that followed the Reformation and the age of religious war and to have returned once more to stability and order. The close of the Thirty Years' War left the exhausted lands of Central Europe craving only for peace and utterly submitting to the will of their princes. In England the Great Rebellion had ended in the restoration of the monarchy and the triumph of the Royalist sentiment, while in Scandinavia the royal power had rendered itself absolute, both in Denmark and Sweden. But it was in the France of Louis XIV that the triumph of authority and order was most complete.

By 1650 the forces of disorder had been finally vanquished and all the material and spiritual resources of the nation were united in the vast and imposing structure of the absolute monarchical state. The absolutism of Louis XIV was at once more completely centralized and more efficiently organized than that of Philip II or the empire of Austria. The success of French arms and diplomacy, the splendor of the court of Versailles, the national organization of economic life, the brilliant development of French literature and art under the royal patronage all contributed to raise national prestige and to establish the political and intellectual hegemony of France in Europe.

The leadership of Catholic Europe had passed from Spain to France and from the Hapsburgs to the Bourbons, and as the Baroque culture of the empire had dominated Europe in the early part of the seventeenth century so French culture formed the standards of European taste and public opinion during the Grand Siecle.

The two cultures were so closely akin that the French culture of the age of Louis XIV may be regarded as a specialized form of the national form of the Baroque. But it was also a rationalization of the Baroque culture which subjected the unskilled vitality of the Baroque spirit to the rules and formulas of classical order, in the same way that in the religious sphere it subordinated the spiritual passion of Counter Reformation mysticism to the moral discipline of the patristic tradition.

But while the French classical culture possessed a logical cohesion and order which the Baroque culture itself lacked, it was a more conscious and artificial order which tended to produce a feeling of tension and constraint. Even the splendor of court life became wearisome when a noble could not absent himself from Versailles without incurring the royal displeasure. Even the grandeur of the classical style became oppressive when it left no freedom of expression for individual tastes and feelings. There were many who sought to withdraw from the ever watchful eye of authority and to seek a freer atmosphere in which they could find relaxation and liberty to express their opinions.

This free atmosphere was not to be found in the schools and universities, which were still fortresses of authority and tradition, or in the new academies which represented the official regimentation of intellectual life, but in the houses of nobles like the Prince of Vendome and the salons of great ladies like Mme. de Sabliere and Mme. de Lambret in Paris or the Duchess of Mazain in London, where courtiers and men of letters could meet on good terms.

In such an atmosphere there was no room for the acrimonies of religious controversy, and intolerance became regarded as a mark of ill-breeding. Clarity of thought and wit were more highly esteemed than profundity or conviction, and the pleasures and arts of life banished the thought of death and eternity with which Puritan and Jansenist had been so painfully preoccupied. Throughout the seventeenth century there existed an undercurrent of epicurean and "libertine" thought which links the age of Montaigne and Giordano Bruno to that of Bayle and Voltaire; and the greatest religious genius of the century, Pascal, was already acutely conscious that it was this easy-going lighthearted skepticism and not Protestantism or metaphysical error which was the great danger that Catholicism had to face.

The mind of Pascal was incomparably more powerful and more profound than that of the skeptic. He had on his side all the resources of piety and scholarship and tradition. Yet he was the champion of a losing cause, while the little band of amateur philosophers who had few convictions and were more concerned with the pleasures of life than with preaching their opinions, were the forerunners of the great movement of secular enlightenment that revolutionized European thought and changed the whole spirit of Western culture.

This article was taken from the May 1954 issue of "The Catholic World", published by The Missionary Society of St. Paul the Apostle in the State of New York.


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