The Transfiguration

Why We Need Christopher Dawson

Glenn W. Olsen

“It is not just Dawson’s ideas about culture in general, and Christian culture in particular, that continue to be fertile, but his ideas about how specifically the West was formed.”

Historians have a rather short half-life. Whether one views historical writing as a branch of literature or as a kind of science, it is based on documentary research. As this advances more evidence becomes available by which to understand the past, making earlier narratives to that extent dated. Add to this the inevitable changes in perspective brought about by history itself, carrying the historian with it, and modifying ideas about what in earlier times is most valuable and important, and we find every generation rewriting the past. Even the historian most devoted to philology, that is to avoiding anachronism by using words and ideas only as they were used in the period he wishes to study, must begin with words and ideas as they are presently defined and laboriously work back to earlier meanings—and the present usage with which he must begin is itself shifting. The upshot is that few historians are read by many beyond their own times. If they are, it is because they are a Thucydides or a Gibbon, that is, historians of such great stature, intelligence, style, or insight as writers—in the case of Gibbon, so amusing and incisive—that we cannot lay their histories down. No matter that we may strongly disagree with the interpretive framework of a Gibbon, he draws us into his web, and we can always make allowances for the limitations of his perspective.

So why should we continue to read Christopher Dawson (1889–1970), now dead for more than a generation? Truth be told, some in the historical community, having asked that question, have suggested that Dawson is passé, an interesting and important writer in his own day, but now either not sufficiently up-to-date, or embodying perspectives once plausible, but now less so. We will consider one such critic below, but first we need to address the question at hand: why should we continue to read Dawson?

Probably most would agree that his greatest historical contribution was his writing of history around the idea of Christian culture, an innovation which in turn expressed his conviction that culture is embodied religion.2 At the heart of culture lies religion: Dawson’s genius lay in his working out of this insight in a series of books and essays. These all, in one way or another, dealt with the idea of culture, but perhaps it is fair to say that, once having defined the relation of religion to culture, he was more interested in using this idea to write history than in pursuing its final philosophical foundations. This latter is the goal toward which we move here. The claim is that Dawson is still worth reading not just because he was an illuminating historian and a fine stylist, but because his organizing ideas, true in themselves, continue to provoke reflection on the nature of culture. At the same time, this reflection should be useful even for historians, inasmuch as it points to the need to make room for, and give priority to, apprehended meaning as the causa causarum in history.

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Dawson’s great merit was to combine the Romantics’ approach to form with the new sociology of his day,3 which also sought to understand societies as cultures, commonly under some such language as “world views.” What held a society together was its shared ideas about and attitudes toward the world, and its shared practices. One could argue that Dawson’s most memorable books are written in pursuit of the overarching shared vision of life of this or that society as it evolved over time, and then of the subcultures that composed each society, its doctors, warriors, or chiefs. The merit of this approach might be illustrated by comparing it with the outline of history still present, despite the inroads of subjects such as World History, in the curricula of most history departments in the United States. Typically, while denying that they are Eurocentric, these divide the history of the world into three epochs derived from the periodization of European history: ancient, medieval, and modern, probably with some residue of the Petrarchan equation of ancient with “Golden Age,” medieval with “decline,” and modern with “return to or progress along the right path.” As a schema, this does little more than replicate with a slight Western flavor what Mircea Eliade judged the most basic pattern of mythical thought across the world religions, the loss of a “once upon a time” (Eden) in a sad present (history), but with an Eden of possible recovery shining before us (utopia or, on a slightly less grand scale, a world made safe for democracy).4 How much better to use the approach of Dawson, who despite attacks coming from the historical community on the metaphors used in the grandiose views of an Oswald Spengler or Arnold Toynbee, did not disdain to use a kind of biological metaphor to talk about the history of cultures.

Dawson consciously decided on “culture” as a better word than “civilization” to speak of his interests. “Civilization,” as derived from civitas, had too urban and intellectual an association for him. If he was to talk globally about human communal life, a good deal of which had not centered on cities, the better word was “culture,” for, coming from cultus, this could designate any habit of being or shared pattern of life, urban, rural, nomadic, agricultural, familial, or monastic. It also suggested that life, like religio, is typically tied to the gods, that is, that human communities commonly are part of a larger community of God and man. This is why culture is embodied religion. Only those of us who have inherited the prolonged attempt of recent centuries to undo the ties between religion and culture, to separate God from man, to marginalize religion, cannot see this. Man’s usual situation for most of history has been within a religious community composed of gods and men.


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