Christopher Dawson and a Catholic Philosophy of History by Roger Karny

The historian Christopher Dawson (1889–1970) was a professor of Catholic Studies at Harvard University in the mid-to-late 1900s. He was a traditionalist in the sense that he felt historians needed to portray a true sense of history and its important figures by immersing themselves in the times and psyches of their subjects. But besides using the past to give understanding to the present, Dawson also saw the need for a moral purpose in his writing. He believed history was guided by the hand of God and that the historian should illustrate the aspect of divine intervention.

Dawson saw a decline of Christianity in the society and culture of the 20th century. “The society or culture which has lost its spiritual roots is a dying culture, however prosperous it may appear externally,” he wrote. This became one of his main themes. Dawson was a “meta-historian,” one who believes that history has a transcendent meaning, a message, and that the historian can form a philosophy around that meaning.

According to Dawson’s daughter, Christina Scott, her father’s two favorite books before he attended Oxford University were Saint Augustine’s City of God and Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. They became the greatest influences on his life’s work. Augustine’s early, monumental opus not only gave all historical writing a foundation; it also introduced the idea of God’s working in and shaping of history. Dawson wrote that Augustine “gives a synthesis of universal history in the light of Christian principles” by comparing the “earthly” city with the “heavenly” one, and, using his knowledge of human nature and theology, writes in the mold of the Old Testament prophets with their predictions of the rise and fall of kingdoms for God’s purposes.

Like Augustine, Gibbon treated the fall of Rome in his work, but from a secular viewpoint. He declared that both the barbarians and the Christians caused its downfall. Augustine had defended Christianity against this claim and declared that it was the Christians who gave continuity to the learning and culture of Rome afterwards.

But how did Christianity give way to secularism? According to Dawson, with the advent of the Enlightenment, the Catholic Church came to be viewed as the main enemy of human progress, reason, and science. Philosophers such as René Descartes began to criticize old traditions and beliefs and extol the infallibility of reason. The French Revolution of 1789 and thinkers like Voltaire furthered this rationalistic approach and promoted anticlericalism, but also introduced the notion of democracy to modern Europe. The English and American Revolutions, along with the French, were birthed by the Enlightenment; Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson in America and the Swiss thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau (introducing the idea of “fraternity and equality”) were promoters of Enlightenment thought who still retained some semblance of religious belief. The English-born American philosopher and revolutionary Thomas Paine’s writing in the Rights of Man claimed that the concept of hereditary monarchy was not valid and that all humans were endowed with natural rights, an idea that led not only to common people gaining more freedom but also to a loss of political and social control by kings and clergy.

While Dawson was basically a political liberal, he regretted that “the religion of the Jacobins [the political and dogmatic beliefs of the French Revolutionists] was a religion of human salvation, the salvation of the world by the power of man set free by Reason. The Cross has been replaced by the Tree of Liberty, the Grace of God by the Reason of Man, and Redemption by Revolutions.” He further pointed out that the idealists of the French Revolution soon succumbed to a pragmatic denial of their beliefs as the nation came to prefer the dictatorship of Napoleon to the chaos and murder that the idealists had fostered. Dawson’s Catholic faith led him to write that “The true progress of history is a mystery which is fulfilled in failure and suffering and which will only be revealed at the end of time.”

While both Dawson and Karl Marx sought these more expansive frameworks for history, in his book The Movement of World Revolution, Dawson decried Marx’s use of the past for ideological propaganda and came out in favor of interpreting people’s thoughts and social institutions instead. Dawson analyzed how the emphasis in world events had been migrating from the West to the East, with revolutionary movements traveling in that direction as well. As this happened, both Christianity and humanism remained vibrant world forces, but the idealism characterizing revolutionary movements was dying. Revolutionaries gained power, but with the loss of their idealism, the result was nihilism. Today, as attention shifts from West to East, the center of Christianity may move there also. A spiritual unity derived from religion is needed to bring East and West together; while technology has brought some closeness, nationalism drives the two sectors apart.

Dawson lamented the lack of treatment of Christianity by modern historians and demonstrated how its development had influenced modernity. “The deeper spiritual needs of mankind must always remain,” he wrote, “unless we can accept George Orwell’s nightmare alternative of a completely de-humanized civilization.” According to Dawson, the Russians, including Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and the nihilists, brought about idealistic escapism rather than reform by their revolutionary zeal. He vigorously opposed the humanistic thought of Bertrand Russell, but favored the poet T. S. Eliot, who pointed to Christian culture in opposition to social and economic planners who exercised authoritarian control over their people.

Dawson continued these thoughts in his 1972 work The Gods of Revolution. Tracing nationalism, colonialism, and racism, he proceeded to analyze the grip of propaganda after World War I and the use of technology to control thought; Hitler’s appropriation of Nietzsche’s “will to power” and the subsequent near-destruction of Europe; and, finally, the resulting emergence of new technology in the United States. Dawson believed that the biggest trial of our time was the way in which Western culture must learn to integrate its conflicting passion for freedom with the need for unity. He felt that while relying on science, leadership, and technology, the West must also restore Christianity and Christian morality if modern civilization was to continue in any effective sort of way.

Writing some 50 to 60 years before our time, Dawson still provides great insight into what was to come on the world scene, particularly as it pertains to Christianity’s role in the unfolding drama of history. He did not foresee the fall of the Soviet Union, but he did realize the place of democracy in the world order and the emergence of formerly Third World nations into positions of greater prominence. He was a purist in his espousal of history for its own sake rather than as an ideological tool. He remains, with Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich, Jacques Maritain, and a few others, one of the prominent recent heirs to the Augustinian view of God’s sovereign intervention in history.

Roger Karny is a freelance writer living in Colorado, and a graduate of Swarthmore College. He worked for 30 years for social services. His articles have also appeared in the Industrial Worker.

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2 replies
  1. José Antonio Vergara
    José Antonio Vergara says:

    Thanks for this article, which I find useful for my understanding of the contribution by Christopher Dawson. I’m a Latin American Catholic concerned about the cultural and moral decline of the current world.

    I would like to call your attention to a little typo: “The historian Christopher Dawson (1819–1970) was a professor of Catholic Studies at Harvard University in the mid-to-late 1900s.” Of course, he was born in 1889.

    Greetings from Chile


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