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Christopher Dawson and the Making of Europe Christopher Dawson and the Making of Europe
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2008-01-28 09:22:16
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In 1932 Christopher Dawson published a book titled The Making of Europe which had enormous success and established his reputation as a scholar of incredible range and erudition who could communicate with great clarity and elegance. He had previously written two other books: The Age of the Gods (1928), and Progress and Religion (1929) but this was unique.

The book avoids the conventional burdensome footnotes, bibliographies and theoretical frameworks and reads like a romantic novel, hence its popularity. Indeed, 19th century Romanticism was a corrective to the previous century, the so called age of Enlightenment. It did this by questioning the rationalist conviction that the empirical physical sciences constituted the paradigm of all knowledge and thus reinstated Giambattista Vico’s revaluation of history against the Cartesian depreciation of it as mere gossip.

Vico had observed that the external world of nature is ultimately impenetrable, for the human mind can only attempt to manipulate it within the strict limits set by God who created it. The stream of history, on the other hand, is essentially the world that the human creative spirit has made, and therefore despite its recurring mysteries, it can come to be known by humans in an incomparably deeper sense. Dawson shared this revaluation of history as did Hegel when he declared history the highest form of knowledge: the self-realization of the absolute spirit in time.

And what was the single idea, the keynote of Dawson’s thought as found in The Making of Europe? I was this: religion is the soul of a culture and a society that has lost its spiritual roots is a dying society, however prosperous it may appear externally. The fate of our civilization was endangered not only by the fading of the vision of faith that originally formed it, namely Christianity, but the failure to integrate the world of reason and science with the world of the soul, which has lost the power to express itself through culture. In Dawson’s view this was the tragedy of modern man. Before writing his famous book Dawson had read and pondered deeply the works of Augustine (The City of God) and Edward Gibbon (The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire). He was also influenced by Lord Acton’s World History wherein Acton affirms that “religion is the key of history.” He slowly became aware of the continuity of history and of how the coming of Christianity had transformed the dying Roman Empire into a new world.

He spent fourteen years of intensive study before writing his twenty some books among which Enquiries into Religion and Culture (1934), Religion and Culture(1948), Religion and the Rise of Western Culture (1950), The Crisis of Western Education (1961), The Formation of Christendom (1961). All these books dealt with the life of civilizations. The underlying idea in them was the interaction of religion with culture and subsequently with civilization. Religion is discovered to be the dynamic element in every culture—its life and soul. He discovered that worship, prayer, the rite of sacrifice, and the moral law were common to all religions and so what the object of worship, and that moreover, the destiny of the human race was conditioned not only by material progress but by a divine purpose or providence working through history. Dawson also discovered that “the world religions have been the keystones of the world cultures, so that when they are removed the arch falls and the building is destroyed” (Progress and Religion, p. 140).

As he surveys the two millennia of Christianity Dawson noted four landmarks. The first one is the new element which defines the difference between the new faith and the old mystery religions of Europe: this is the principle of a dynamic and creative spirit that inspires the whole of life. The Christian religion has a power of renewal that has accompanied it through the ages.

The second landmark was the extraordinary development in the fourth century A.D. when Constantine declared Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. After centuries of living on the inherited capital of the Hellenistic culture, this fountainhead seemed to run dry. Yet the achievement of Greece and Rome were not rejected by this new faith. They were merely transformed. Classical learning and the Latin language became fused with the ideals of a Christian society that was founded not on wealth, tyranny and power but on freedom, progress, and social justice. Latin became “not only a perfect vehicle for the expression of thought but also an ark which carried the seed of Hellenic culture through the deluge of barbarism” (The Making of Europe, p. 49).

The third great change of thought, according to Dawson, came about in the 16th century with the Renaissance and the Reformation, which brought an end to medieval unity. The fourth came about after the industrial revolution in the 19th century and led to the 20th century. In one of his last books Dawson, the Crisis of Western Education Dawson calls our own era the age of Frankenstein, “the hero who creates a mechanical monster and then found it had got out of control and threatened his own existence” (p. 189).He had in mind atomic warfare and he argued that if Western society were to gain control over these forces there would have to be a reintegration of faith and culture, and that there is an absolute limit to the progress that can be achieved by perfecting scientific techniques detached from spiritual aims and moral values. This is similar to Einstein assessment of our era as one characterized by perfection of means and confusion of goals.

But let us go back to The Making of Europe which remains Dawson’s best-known book. In it he demonstrates that Christianity has been the spiritual force that created the unity of Western culture, indeed the commonwealth of Europe itself, from the chaotic world of myriad warring tribes. He shows in that book how the Dark Ages, the period between 400 and 1000 A.D., became a dawn witnessing to the conversion of the West, the foundation of Western civilization and the creation of Christian art and liturgy. And he then asked a crucial question: If such a transformation could happen in the age of the barbarians could it not be repeated now? Like the founding fathers of the EU Dawson, after the Second World War was already envisioning a new united Europe. But he soon realized that there was a problem which faced not only Europe but America too and all societies that consider themselves Western.

The problem was this: the disastrous separation of culture from its religious base brought about by the modern barbarians of the mind and assorted nihilists had not been stemmed by the modern educational system which considered the study of religion superfluous and in fact aimed at its liquidation. The unity of thought, which had prevailed in European civilization over a thousand years, was shattered by excessive specialization which allowed the educated elites to see the tree while missing the forest; moreover science, philosophy and theology had long since split apart. Education, rather than being a preparation for life, had become purely utilitarian and vocational. Humanistic studies needed to be resurrected in all schools and not preserved, almost as a relic of the past, in places like Harvard, Yale and Princeton universities as a sort of frosting on the cake of education. This was urgent since the neo-barbarians had already entered the citadel of learning and were hart at work to destroy it from the inside.

Humanism as integrated with Catholicism was at the forefront of Dawson’s speculation. It was that humanism which produced the medieval unity of the 13th century exemplifying Christian culture par excellence. For the flowering of art in every form reached its zenith in Europe between the 13the and 15th centuries with the poetry of Dante and Petrarch, the fresco painters of the Florentine school Giotto and Fra Angelico, and the sculptures of Michelangelo. It was also the age of saints and mystics, both men and women: St. Francis of Assisi, St. Dominick, St. Catherine of Siena, Julian of Norwich, Hildegard of Bingen, just to name a few.

It must be mentioned that Dawson was not advocating a return to the Middle Ages; neither was he commending the external apparatus of medievalism, nor Charlemagne’s so called Holy Roman Empire, but rather “a return to the forgotten world of spiritual reality” to which these centuries bear witness. He was not recommending a nostalgic evasion of the present day cultural dilemmas. He was indeed an intellectual for whom ideas were important but many of his colleagues noticed a paradox in him: together with the remote facts of history, he knew of the latest current events in remote corners of the world, and understood and spoke several European languages. Indeed, he had the gift of seeing deeper and further than many of his contemporaries because he had the capacity to interpret the present in the light of the events of the past. As he put it: “The more we know of the past, the freer we are to choose the way we will go.”

To conclude, it is a mistake to think of Dawson as an anti-modern. Rather, what he was advocating was a retrieval of spiritual values in a godless and nihilistic world. The reason he was assigned the first Chair of Roman Catholic Studies at Harvard University was that he had the reputation of being a very broad-minded scholar, able to contemplate opposite ideas and integrate them. He was in short a consummate humanist who understood the universal character of the Church, which belongs neither to East nor to West but stands as a mediator between the two. It was in fact his humanism which led him to conversion to Catholicism as it also happened for G.K. Chesterton, Graham Greene and David Jones. I hope that this brief sketch of a great and beautiful mind will motivate some readers to a deeper exploration of its ideas. You will not be disappointed.


   
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Emanuel Paparella2008-01-28 13:42:58

A footnote is in order: the word “catholic” means universal. Therefore in this article Dawson is meant to be presented not in a chauvinistic or denominational spirit, as a sort of champion of Catholicism and everything catholic; rather he is presented as someone whose thinking on religion and culture is relevant not only to those who practice the Catholic faith. but to anyone in the world who wants to seriously study and reflect on religion and its relevancy to any kind of vibrant cultural life, beyond shallow and unproductive caricatures. It also bears mentioning that even an atheist such as Santayana had no problems appreciating and admiring Dawson's thought.


Sand2008-01-28 14:24:39
Is it mere coincidence that the general decline of church attendance and the decrease of the power of religion in Europe have occurred during an extraordinary long period of peace and consolidation amongst the nations of Europe and one of the signal conflicts in the area in the former Yugoslavia was intimately involved with the religious differences in the population? And further, how many of the violent conflicts now plaguing the world have religion as their basis?


Emanuel Paparella2008-01-28 17:50:14
Is this an aspersion on Dawson’s life-time scholarship or on religion in general, or on anybody who sees it as a positive phenomenon in any culture? Be that as it may, it may be wiser and more rational to read Dawson first and then make up one’s mind on the issue.

Moreover, in logic 101, never mind history, the above argument would not pass much mustard: it begins by setting up a false premise; that religion is the cause of evil in the world and it does so adroitly by asking a question which begins with “is it a coincidence?” indicating that the one who asks the question is not interested in searching for an answer; he already has the answer in his mind (or what he considers a hard-wired computer of meat that mother nature (the goddess Gaia or the god Flying Spaghetti Monster has endowed him with) and now is looking for confirmation of his prejudices about religion.

Of course one can turn the above fallacious logic around and make an opposite fallacious argument by this question: is it coincidence that fallowing the fall or the Roman Empire civilization did not completely disappear never to return; that barbarism did not win out completely? Is it coincidence that the men of that period were not ten times as uncivilized and savages as they were considering that in fact they were that in a particular period of the allegedly civilized 20th century?

That too is a false premise, based on an hypothetical and just as false. On the other hand, as scholar such as Dawson studies the facts and the historical phenomenon for 14 long years and then speculates on them. The barbarian of the intellect then comes along and in five short minutes, perhaps consulting a dictionary or an encyclopedia, consigns his books to the virtual fire. That is not an hypothetical but a phenomenon observable in our brave new world. Pity.


Sand2008-01-28 19:07:33
James Madison, "A Memorial and Remonstrance", 1785: "What influence, in fact, have ecclesiastical establishments had on society? In some instances they have been seen to erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of the civil authority; on many instances they have been seen upholding the thrones of political tyranny; in no instance have they been the guardians of the liberties of the people. Rulers who wish to subvert the public liberty may have found an established clergy convenient auxiliaries. A just government, instituted to secure and perpetuate it, needs them not."


Emanuel Paparella2008-01-28 20:13:54
One way to befuddle an issue is to mix apples and oranges. We have now gone from the necessity and the beneficial effects of religion on a culture to clerical corruption and thus attempt to cast aspersion on religion and support one's prejudices and biases against religion. To throw the baby out with the bathwater is not a very intelligent and rational operation.


Sand2008-01-28 22:36:09
am not afraid of the priests. They have tried upon me all their various batteries, of pious whining, hypocritical canting, lying and slandering, without being able to give me one moment of pain.
-- Thomas Jefferson, letter to Horatio Gates Spafford, 1816


Sand2008-01-28 22:38:45
The priests of the different religious sects ... dread the advance of science as witches do the approach of daylight, and scowl on the fatal harbinger announcing the subdivision of the duperies on which they live.
-- Thomas Jefferson, letter to Correa de Serra, April 11, 1820,


Emanuel Paparella2008-01-29 08:18:24
“I have attended public worship in all countries and with all sects and believe them all much better than no religion"

--John Adams in a letter to Jefferson


Emanuel Paparella2008-01-29 08:22:37
“The general principles upon which the Fathers achieved independence were the general principles of Christianity…I will avow that I believed and now believe that those general principles of Christianity are as eternal and immutable as the existence and the attributes of God.”
[June 28, 1813; Letter to Thomas Jefferson]


Sand2008-01-29 08:41:21
My aim in that was, to justify the character of Jesus against the fictions of his pseudo-followers, which have exposed him to the inference of being an impostor. For if we could believe that he really countenanced the follies, the falsehoods and the charlatanisms which his biographers father on him, and admit the misconstructions, interpolations and theorizations of the fathers of the early, and fanatics of the latter ages, the conclusion would be irresistible by every sound mind, that he was an impostor. I give no credit to their falsifications of his actions and doctrines, and to rescue his character, the postulate in my letter asked only what is granted in reading every other historian.... That Jesus did not mean to impose himself on mankind as the son of God, physically speaking, I have been convinced by the writings of men more learned than myself in that lore.
-- Thomas Jefferson, letter to William Short, August 4, 1820, explaining his reason for compiling the Syllabus of an Estimate of the Merit of the Doctrines of Jesus and referring to Jesus's biographers, the Gospel writers.


Emanuel Paparella2008-01-29 10:04:27
"The reason that Christianity is the best friend of Government is because Christianity is the only religion that changes the heart."

--Thomas Jefferson


Sand2008-01-29 10:44:24
Considering the direction in which government has treated the average citizen in the USA I would consider that one of the most revealing ironic statements that Jefferson has ever uttered about both government and Christianity.


Emanuel Paparella2008-01-29 18:03:35
I seeeeeeeeeee! If it agrees with my prejudices it is a serious statement; if not, it is irony! A bit devious and slanderous, but what the eck, it works with mentally challenged individuals and five year olds. It deserves a high five!


Emanuel Paparella2008-01-29 18:12:49
I think enought quotes have been accumulated in this true to form unproductive exchange (to which I will desist to continue responding)to arrive at the sad conclusion that indeed the horse is being bashed and beaten to death and offered up to some sort of Spaghetti Monster; its owner cannot help himself.

Nietzsche must be turning in his grave together with Aristotle, and of course the dead horse. However, some have seen the horse Pegasus flying about with the Spaghetti Monster. We live in interesting times.


Sand2008-01-29 18:14:53
But you are running away just when it's starting to get interesting.


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