A Historian and His World: A Life of Christopher Dawson, 1889–1970
by Christina Scott
London: Sheed & Ward, 1984. 240 pages.
reviewed by John Thompson
This book is the story of one man’s passion to write history, and to set it right, where he felt that others had failed to do justice to the vital principle of religion in general and Christianity in particular. The scene which Christopher Dawson set himself to survey was the history of culture, and his perspective was decidedly Christian. For most of his adulthood he was a committed Roman Catholic, but he never succumbed to the type of triumphalism that marked certain other English, Catholic intellectuals. On the contrary, he had a reputation for being irenic and ecumenical, fair and evenhanded. And from this perspective he taught and wrote—twenty-four books and nearly two hundred published essays and articles. He had the good fortune to conceive of his task in his youth, and then be enabled to carry it forward through a long and fruitful life. In this biography, A Historian and His World, Dawson’s daughter gives us a unique glimpse of her father’s vision and how he worked to communicate it to his fellowman.
Christopher Dawson was a product of the Victorian era. Born in 1889 to an Anglican family with a staunchly Anglo-Catholic father and a devout mother, Dawson was educated in his early boyhood at the family home in Yorkshire. Later, young Christopher went to boarding school where he suffered through difficult years that left him discouraged and scarred with the poor health that would plague him for the rest of his life. He eventually enrolled at Balliol College, Oxford.
For the most part, he did not benefit greatly from formal educational settings, and Oxford was no exception. He was fortunate, however, to have a tutor, Ernest Barker, who understood how to awaken the young lad’s wide-ranging interest without stifling it within the confines of the required syllabus. Perhaps an even stronger influence on Dawson at Oxford were the friendships that he formed there, particularly that of Edward Watkin. Dawson the Anglican and Watkin the Catholic became lifelong friends; Dawson’s own conversion to Catholicism in 1914 was in no small part due to his friend’s influence. And it was at Oxford that Dawson conceived of his life’s work. Here “Christopher developed a clear idea of becoming a historian and . . . his ambition was to write a history of culture.” (p. 57)
After his graduation from Oxford, his career plans were sharply limited by his doctor’s pronouncement that he was medically unfit for a full time occupation. His father agreed to provide him with a modest income, which also made it possible for him to marry Valery Mills, whom he had met at Oxford. In his case, ill health enabled him to read voluminously in history and literature and thereby laid the foundation for much of his later work.
In 1928, Dawson published his first book, The Age of the Gods, which gave a panoramic view of the development of civilization from the Stone Age to the end of the Bronze Age. This was actually intended to be the second volume of his projected five-volume series on the history of culture. It was not exactly a best seller (some 935 copies were sold in the first year), but it received positive reviews. The Age of the Gods was characterized by the strengths which were to become his trademarks: balance, breadth of perspective, and the ability to distill others’ research into intelligible form. As one historian commented, “I had always hoped that someone . . . would reassemble the dry bones served up by myself and other and . . . reanimate the frame of prehistoric humanity. The book before us is the most successful effort in that direction that I have come across.” (p. 85)
His second book was probably his most influential. In Progress and Religion he took up the gauntlet against popular belief in “Progress.” In contrast to those who were pointing to technological advances as an indication of the advance of civilization, Dawson stressed that there had to be a vision which underlay any great civilization, and that this vision was always rooted in religion, in a belief in the supernatural. The preoccupation with “technique,” as he called it, could only have ominous consequences if it was not tempered with a truly Christian conscience.
The three decades (1928–1958) after the publication of his first book were to be his most productive. During these years he would produce no fewer than 18 books and over 170 essays and articles. His ill health and his failure to obtain a full-time teaching position (he missed an appointment at Leeds University because he was a Catholic) providentially combined to give him time for writing. Ironically, because of this, he was able to reach a much wider audience than he could have with a faculty position. By the time that he had reached his mid-forties, Dawson’s opinions were being sought out by editors, publishers, and the BBC on topics ranging from sociology to politics to religion. His daughter writes:
He was the more valued in such matters because while he clearly and firmly expressed a Christian view, his temper was more ecumenical than controversial, and he had more command of his subject than some publicists. (p. 122)
As the threat of Fascism in Europe became more and more of a reality in the early thirties, Dawson turned his attention from ancient and medieval civilizations to the contemporary scene. He was a practiced observer of subtle shifts in civilizations and societies, and when he saw trouble on the horizon in Germany, he wrote to a friend in 1933 that
the German Revolution has depressed me exceedingly. It entirely blocks one line of advance, and it opens up a whole vista of horrible possibilities that are rapidly becoming probabilities. (p. 123)
Unlike many other critics of the time, however, Dawson was not content to limit his criticism to such regimes. The flaw, he felt, lay not simply in the totalitarianism but in the assumptions that were being made in all the European countries. He saw the danger in the belief that any political system could supply all human needs and usher in an era of “heaven on earth.” Blake’s idea of building an earthly Jerusalem simply could not be realized, he felt, not even in England’s “green and pleasant land”:
We must recognize that this determination to build Jerusalem at once and on the spot, is the very force which is responsible for the intolerance and violence of the new political order. There are it is quite true a number of different Jerusalems: there is the Muscovite Jerusalem which has no Temple, there is Herr Hitler’s Jerusalem which has no Jews, and there is the Jerusalem of the social reformers which is all suburbs: but none of these is Blake’s Jerusalem, still less that city which the Apostle saw ‘descending out of heaven like a bride adorned for her husband’. (p. 125)
Almost against his will, Dawson found himself drawn into commenting on developments in the European scene. He felt a responsibility, however, to encourage “all the positive intellectual and spiritual forces of Western culture to unite to defend their heritage.” (p. 136)
Curiously, for all his learning, formal recognition from the academic world did not come to Dawson until he entered his late fifties. Even though he had never had a full-time university appointment, in 1946 he was asked to give the prestigious Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh. This was a two-year appointment to give a series of ten lectures each year, and issued in the production of two more books, Religion and Culture and Religion and the Rise of Western Culture. His greatest honor, however, did not come until he was sixty-nine. In 1958, he came to Harvard University to begin a five-year term as the Charles Chauncey Stillman Guest Professor of Roman Catholic Studies. This opportunity of a lifetime gave him a new lease on life. “Dawson would prance out to classes,” the Harvard Theological Review wrote, “when he was in a condition that would have confined him to his bed when in England.” (p. 188)
Much to everyone’s surprise, Dawson was immensely popular with his American audiences, and he soon found himself in demand for speaking engagements all across the country. And he took full advantage of it, to the extent that his health permitted. He stated that
all my life for fifty years I have been writing on one subject and for one cause—the cause of Christendom and the study of Christian culture. When I began it was in the days of Charles Peguy and Belloc and Chesterton and my eyes were fixed on Europe and the European tradition. But today I have come to feel that it is in this country that the fate of Christendom will be decided . . . . There is a great opportunity in America today that may never be repeated. That is why I am here. (p. 198)
Because of two minor strokes and deteriorating health, Dawson was only able to complete four of the five years of his appointment. He and his wife returned to England in 1962 and spent their last years in retirement. Christopher died in 1970, and his wife died four years later. Before they left America, however, Cardinal Cushing of Boston had given him perhaps the most fitting tribute possible:
There are only a very few men in each generation of whom it may be said: “He changed men’s minds.” Tonight we honor just such a person. Christopher Dawson is one of those rare human spirits who stands back from the world in which he lives and takes the true measure of time and man. (p. 202)
Christina Scott gives an intriguing account of her father’s life, warts and all. Unquestionably, it is the work of a devoted daughter, a daughter also inclined to sermonize on occasion. Nevertheless, A Historian and His World is a well-rounded, painstakingly researched biography. It is a rare view of a man whose life began in the Victorian era and ended in our own, a man whose life was occupied with writing and academic concerns but who developed a passion for communicating his concerns to the layperson. About the man there can be no doubt: Christopher Dawson was remarkable, a man of great singleness of purpose, great breadth of understanding, and great loyalty to his church. Our own age needs as much. And perhaps the testimony of his work may challenge contemporary Christian scholars and critics to address the problems of our age with the same courage, wide learning, and deep insight, taking “the true measure of time and man”.
Not all readers of this review will have the opportunity to get a copy of this biography. Many of his works, however, are available in libraries or used book stores, and are well worth the effort to read them. The Making of Europe is probably the most popular of his books and is an excellent place to begin.
John Thompson is a librarian and professor at Waynesburg University, Waynesburg, Pennsylvania
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