Spring 2008

Why We Need Christopher Dawson

Glenn W. Olsen

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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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3. Though I will be indicating some limits of Romanticism in what follows, I use the word as a historical label, not a four-letter word.

4. In addition to my “Problems With the Contrast Between Circular and Linear Views of Time in the Interpretation of Ancient and Early Medieval History,” Fides Quaerens Intellectum 1 (2001): 41–65, see the most recent of my studies of a specifically Christian form of Golden Age thought, the idea of the “Primitive Church”: “The Ecclesia Primitiua in John Cassian, the Ps. Jerome Commentary on Mark, and Bede,” in Biblical Studies in the Early Middle Ages, ed. Claudio Leonardi and Giovanni Orlandi (Florence, 2005), 5–27. The idea of progress was a minor theme in ancient and medieval thought, and does not fit well with a pattern of Golden Age, loss of Golden Age, recovery of Golden Age.