A Christopher Dawson revival?

Christopher Dawson

The Making of Europe: An Introduction to the History of European Unity
by Christopher Dawson
(London: Sheed and Ward, 1932; Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2003; new introduction and reprint)

We have waited a long time to see the works of Christopher Dawson reappear. One of the joys of the new millennium is to discover this expectation partially fulfilled. The reprints came out after the biography written by his daughter Christina Scott: A Historian and His World: A Life of Christopher Dawson, 1889-1970 (Transaction Publishers, 1991). 

Ignatius Press has given us The Formation of Christendom and The Dividing of Christendom as well as the wonderful related Christopher Dawsonstudy of Bradley Birzer, Sanctifying the World: The Augustinian Life and Mind of Christopher Dawson, originally published by Christendom Press in 2007.

The Catholic University of America Press currently lists twelve titles: Progress and Religion, Medieval Essays, The Crisis in Western Education, Christianity and European Culture, The Judgment of the Nations—which Patrick Allitt describes as “the most anguished work he ever wrote” [Catholic Converts, 267]—Enquiries into Religion and Culture,The Movement of World Revolution, and The Making of Europe as now again in print. Also from the CUA Press are two edited collections containing some of Dawson’s works, The Third Spring and Christianity and European CultureEuropean Culture contains The Historic Reality of Christian Culture (1960) and selections from The Making of Europe (1932), The Judgment of the Nations (1943), and Medieval Essays (1959). There was still until 2012 a void for his 1928 classic, The Age of the Gods, which Bernard Lonergan once said he had read several times. Religion and Culture is scheduled for 2013, the latest of CUA’s reprints.

Dawson had a fine British education, thanks in part to his religion. However, Dawson never had a university teaching position in Britain because he changed his religion in 1914. As a Catholic, he was refused when he applied for a post as professor at the University of Leeds shortly after the 1932 publication of The Making of Europe. The author of the new introduction, Alexander Murray, sees some good here. It made Dawson a kind of “historian prophet” who gained respect and an eager audience in the English-speaking world outside the academic establishment. Dawson finished only two of his planned major works, and The Making of Europe is one of them.

The Making of Europe treats the period between 300 BC and 1000 AD. Let us remember that the Renaissance mentality saw no real good after the classical period which effectively came to an end with the Emperor Constantine. The mood of the Enlightenment was even more severe in accepting nothing good from the past when it replaced “the myth of the golden age” with “the myth of progress”. Marxism pushed this further taking the stance that “all history is the history of oppression”. But Dawson brought light where there was darkness, and his work rejected the concept of the Dark Ages. His thought was original when he saw the complex history of Europe as more akin to the myth of the Phoenix—something new and vital arising from the ashes of the old when Christian Europe was born.

In just over 250 pages Dawson shows how conflicting movements eventually coalesced into a vibrant medieval unity. Roman institutions and learning, barbarian spirit and energy, contact with the East—both the Byzantine State and Islam, and the fusion of church and state in the Carolingian period, all had a role in the story. There had been partial revival and partial reversal with Justinian and Charlemagne, but by the eleventh century what we know as Western culture was in place, and it has continued without interruption to the present.

Though The Making of Europe dwells upon the past, it ends with a warning about the present. Dawson says that the deeper spiritual needs of man were met by the medieval synthesis which he has outlined in the manner of a “meta-history”. But in the last four centuries this spiritual aspect has been muted in favor of secular culture and material advantage. He warns that this is not enough. Surely since 1932 his warning seems correct. The fashionable Nihilism of our day does not satisfy, and Europe is poised either to regain her lost soul or to lose it to alien forces.

[An earlier version of this review-essay appeared in The Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly, vol. 27, no. 2 (Summer 2004): 43.]

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About Brian Van Hove, S.J. 0 Articles
Brian Van Hove, S.J., now retired, was for many years the chaplain to the Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Michigan.