“Order”: The Brief and Extraordinary Life of a Catholic Movement

How an intellectual journal from the late 1920s set off a chain of events that can rightly be described as the beginning of the “Catholic Literary Revival” of the twentieth century

Almost no one remembers the short-lived journal, Order, as it appeared over eighty years ago and only lasted four issues. But the journal, which appeared the late 1920s, set off a chain of events that can, in hindsight, be described as the beginning of the “Catholic Literary Revival” of the twentieth century. Of course, it had a lot of help, but Order as a periodical served as a catalyst to connect English-speaking Roman Catholics to their European (West and East) counterparts. Its story, though brief, reveals much about the absolute necessity of a Catholic Republic of Letters, especially in an age of terror and ideology.

Origins of “Order”

As is well known, literary groups and clubs sprang up throughout the United Kingdom in the first third of the twentieth century. There was the Bloomsbury Group, which included Leonard and Virginia Wolff, T. S. Eliot, and John Maynard Keynes. There was The Moot, which also included not only T. S. Eliot but also Owen Barfield. Barfield belonged to an even (at the time) more obscure but ultimately far more famous group, The Inklings. This last group, intensely artistic and ecumenical, included C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Lord David Cecil. These groups knew of one another and, as just indicated, often had over-lapping membership, but never did these groups—as wholes—interact with one another. Rather, the individual members came and went, but the communities remained autonomous. Groups such as Bloombury remained adamantly secular, while the Inklings was overtly Christian.

During the interwar years, artists and poets had to find their bearings again, as the First World War had turned the western world upside down. As the Blessed Virgin Mary had warned the three Portuguese children, the twentieth century would prove brutal and inhumane. True to her word, kingdoms fell, while empires and ideological regimes emerged to offer a New World Order built on the blood and disembodied remains of its countless victims.

As with so many interwar movements, these various literary and social groups sought to understand the world, to better it, and to prevent—obviously, unsuccessfully—a second world war. Even the more radical elements of the Bloomsbury group, though committed to anti-social and asocial norms, sought a form of human dignity in ways lacking in all ideological regimes, whether some variant of nationalism or socialism.

Tom Burns, who is now remembered chiefly for his editorship of English Catholic newspaper, The Tablet, had been disgusted by his older brother’s participation in the Bloomsbury Group. Their claims to social radicalism, he believed, were mere bizarre theatrics and led the western world away from, not toward, real progress. Only by reclaiming traditional morality and timeless ethics, the then young Burns believed, could the West be saved in the aftermath of the First World War. As though intentionally to mock Bloomsbury, he began what many considered a “never-ending party” at his Chelsea apartment. Naming themselves “Order Men,” Burns’s group included historian and philosopher Christopher Dawson, Jesuit Martin D’Arcy, actor Robert Speaight, BBC radio personality Harman Griesewood, poet W.H. Auden, journalist Bernard Wall, artist Eric Gill, and poet David Jones. An impressive group to be sure, with Dawson and D’Arcy being the seniors of the group, though each was only in their late 20s. Still, the other members deferred to the two older men, despite the relatively small difference in age.

Indeed, Dawson was not just one of the senior members of the group, he also served—along with the neo-Thomist Jacques Maritain, though absent—as the true intellectual touchstone of the group. Given his odd mixture of sheer brilliance and somewhat autistic social awkwardness, Dawson was playfully known to the other members of the group as “Tiger”. They never, however, called him this to his face, preferring, instead, the informal “Kit”.

Intellectual and spirtual foundations

Though never forming a corporate mind, the Order men did hold several beliefs in common. First, as noted, they admired the work of Maritain and Dawson. Though Dawson would not publish his first book, The Age of the Gods, until 1928 (the year Order began as as journal), he was already well known in English academic and literary circles because of his numerous penetrating essays published in a variety of leading journals. No less of a person than T. S. Eliot had noted that Dawson was a man much on the move by 1930. Maritain, however, held equal intellectual weight in the group, though he resided in France and never visited them in London. Almost every single conversation at Burns’s apartment began with some question raised by Maritain’s 1924 book Art and Scholasticism. From there, the conversation could and would range in any direction, but the group firmly embraced orthodox Catholicism, no matter where the logic led them.

Second, and equally important, the men of Order declared themselves enemies of every sort of utilitarianism. The human person, individually as well as in community, was sacrosanct, a being endowed with free will—lower than the angels, but higher than the animals, unrepeatable and yet made in the Image of Christ. No calculation, no matter how nuanced nor how motivated, could ever understand and do justice to the complexity of human existence. Grisewood once joked that if forced to sit with soldiers who killed or liberals who organized, he would prefer the former, for they do less damage in the long run. When he stated this, he spoke for the entire group.

Third, the Order men sought to harmonize the thought of Sts. Augustine and Aquinas, believing the two offered the necessary answers to the post-Great War world and, frankly, to all times and places. This had nothing to do with the individual intellects of the two men, though each possessed superior minds, but to their use of intellect to understand the hierarchy, nature, and being. Augustine and Aquinas were astounding not merely for their gifts, but for their surrender of those gifts to the Church and Christian order. It must be noted that the Order men believed the current state of western civilization and of the Catholic Church in England as anything but orderly. Each had compromised and each had lost its way. As Burns put it privately to the group, they would “ridicule” compromising Catholicism until it “burst” into nothingness. As Burns claimed, serious Catholics had more in common with serious Anglo Catholics than with compromising members of their own branch. Quoting Cato the Elder’s famous dictum against Carthage, Tom actually cried “Delenda Est” (“must be destroyed”) against the effete of his own church.

Fourth and finally, the Order men dedicated themselves to the promotion of Edmund Burke’s idea of the moral imagination, and the use of art and creativity to leaven the world rather than seek its conformity to some ideal or ideology.

Anonymous, Erudite Order

By 1928, the men had enough confidence and bravado to begin their own journal as an organ to express their ideas. For a brief but intense moment, Order became the rage in London among intellectuals. As one member of the group remembered, Order “was a bombshell—as it was meant to be.” Its first issue ran out immediately, and the group decided to reprint it with some editorial changes. No doubt the brazenness of the journal, its layout, and its use of woodcuts by David Jones did much to make it attractive. It’s equally true that English intellectual society of the interwar period loved good, intense, and humane argumentation. Despite representing a distinct minority and a religion often condemned for having a foreign ruler and being associated with terrorists such as Guy Fawkes, Order provided arguments with real verve.

As a means to focus on the argument, rather than the arguer, Order refused to give credit to any individual author. However well this anonymity worked for the authors and the journal, it remains a frustration for historians. Still, by looking at the writing style and exploring letters and diaries of the members of the group, it is possible to identify the authorship of several of the articles over its four issues. The editorship of Burns and the intellectual touchstone of Dawson hangs over every aspect of the journal’s brief run. Dawson, not surprisingly, wrote consistently for the journal, and his style is unmistakable. His articles dealt with the fundamental natures of civilization and cultures, sexuality, and psychology. Dawson’s best article appeared in the second issue. Entitle simply, “Civilisation and Order”, it could have served as the journal’s deeply Catholic and Stoic manifesto. “Civilisation is not due to the birth of absolutely new faculties or qualities, it is a higher order, a more spiritual and profound harmony of every element in human life from the lowest to the highest.” Real progress arises from justly recognizing the individual talents of the human person within community. Utility and equality, at least as understood in the post-war West, could only lead to decline, distortion, and degeneration. Nature makes nothing in vein, as Aristotle noted, but only grace perfects nature, as Aquinas explained.

Other articles in the journal—written by a number of the Order men and their allies—dealt with beauty, family, agrarianism, Chesterbellocism, and education. Given the ages of the authors at the time, the journal remains astonishingly erudite.

Though Order lasted just four issues as a journal, it evolved into something else rather than die. Though the exact details of what transpired remain unknown, the results are plain. In 1926, Burns began to work for the new Catholic publishing firm of Sheed and Ward. In 1928, he and Dawson began Order, and, a year later, Dawson published his first book (his second book, over all) with Sheed and Ward, 1929’s Religion and Progress. While Sheed had personally liked Burns, he found Dawson’s mind overwhelmingly attractive and saw him, rightly, as the lynch pin to the success of any Catholic literary movement. With Sheed on their side, Burns and Dawson proposed to the firm a book not only extending the ideas of Order to the European Continent but also soliciting a number of essays to commemorate the 1,500th anniversary of the death of St. Augustine. Sheed gladly accepted. The end product, A Monument to St. Augustine, published in 1930, is nothing short of astounding. Sadly, it was only reprinted in 1945 and now remains difficult to find, though it is as relevant now, two years away from the five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation as it was in 1930. (As a happy side note, my personal copy was owned by the once famous American mystery writer, Christopher Morley, and contains his insightful notes and marginalia.)

For all intents and purposes, A Monument was a “Who’s Who” of the Christian humanist movement of the last century. Christopher Dawson, C.C. Martindale, E.I. Watkin, Martin D’Arcy, Jacques Maritain, Erich Przywara, Etienne Gilson, and Maurice Blondel each contributed to it. As Burn wrote in the “compiler’s note”, the book represented not just a commemoration but fundamental “personal sympathy” for the fifth-century saint.

From journal to series to legacy

Critically well received and also selling well, A Monument further convinced Sheed of Dawson’s importance. Dawson and Burns then proposed making Order something more than a journal: a series of books, written by Roman Catholics from all parts of the western world and seeking a harmony of faith through the humanities. Again, Sheed responded enthusiastically, and his firm created the sixteen-volume series, Essays in Order. Each book, as envisioned by Dawson, Burns, and Sheed, would be intellectually valuable but written for the intelligent reading public. No book, no matter how deep or well written, should take more than an evening or two to read. And, the books should be small and light enough to fit in the pocket of a sports coat. Thus, each book should be greater than a journal but shorter than a proper book, roughly 15,000-20,000 words in length.

Maritain agreed to write the first volume, Religion and Culture, but Burns convinced Dawson to write a massive introduction to it, accepting his French philosopher’s celebrity but attenuating his influence on the series as a whole. True to original intent, however, Dawson recruited French Catholics, German Catholics (soon to be overrun by the Nazis), English Catholics, and even one Russian Orthodox, Nicholas Berdyaev, to write essays for the series. He invited others, such as G. K. Chesterton, who never completed his manuscript. Of the sixteen volumes of Essays in Order, Dawson’s Christianity and the New Age and The Modern Dilemma and Theodor Haecker’s Virgil: Father of the West were the best written, but all volumes received critical acclaim and sold relatively well to Catholic and non-Catholic audiences.

Nearly a century later, it would be difficult to exaggerate the importance of Order. From a “never-ending party” to a short-lived journal to A Monument to St. Augustine to a sixteen-volume series, Order certainly served as one of the most important intellectual movements in twentieth-century Catholicism. If nothing else, it continued the Republic of Western Letters that had begun with Heraclitus and the other first philosophers at Miletus and ran continuously—well, mostly—through Edmund Burke. Dominican priest and scholar Aidan Nichols has noted that Essays in Order served as the opening Catholic shot in a war to regenerate western culture. Certainly, Burns, Dawson, and Sheed viewed the series as a means by which the Holy Spirit would continue to sanctify the western intellectual and philosophical tradition.

Just as the French Revolution disrupted so much of the old West in Burke’s time, however, so the rise of fascism, national socialism, and communism did in the interwar period. Whatever Dawson and Burns had created in the 1920s could not sustain itself in the 1930s as the world succumbed to totalitarianism and, soon, a second world war.

In his memoirs, an older and somewhat jaded Harmon Grisewood captured the movement best:

The world was soon to be set on a course that was proletarian and ruthless; the fire of war was soon to devastate the green shoots that showed above ground in T. S. Eliot’s Criterion, in Tom Burns’ Essays in Order, in the Neo-Thomism of Maritain. The bitter frosts that followed the war were to finish the job. Scientific humanism at a crude level trampled the ground which had been leveled and seeded by philosophers of another sort. Politics ate up the autonomy which the arts had won. None of this did I foresee at the time; but I did see that a turning point had been reached and I knew that for me personally the turn things took was now for the worse. The kind of people who were now to be in the ascendancy would not be the sort of people we liked. We would be, culturally, in opposition. In the middle ages we would have been into exile with the King.

Sadly, Grisewood’s assessment has proven correct. No Thomistic king awaits in exile. Truly, the opening “progressivism” of the twentieth century, the devastation of the world wars, and the rise of governments perpetuated not by ideals but by the blood of the Gulag, the Killing Fields, and the Holocaust camps had torn apart a world. The Catholic church remains a safe haven, besieged, as we continue recklessly into a world of fundamentalisms, terror, and ideology. No Aragorn awaits, but possibly a second Christopher Dawson, a reborn Frank Sheed, and a new Tom Burns quietly and patiently wait for their time to come again, to connect us to the greats and voices of wisdom and of the past, allowing us to preserve the best of now for those yet to come.

About Bradley J. Birzer 12 Articles
Bradley J. Birzer is author of biographies of J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, and Christopher Dawson. He is Professor of History at Hillsdale College and was the second Visiting Scholar in Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado-Boulder. His most recent book is the acclaimed biography Russell Kirk: A Conservative Life (University Press of Kentucky, 2015). Visit him online at his personal website "Stormfields".