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 not worthy of a scholar’s attention.
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. As Einstein also observed later on, one cannot get out of the box of time and space by using the instruments that analyze time and space. 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.
Dawson can be located in the tradition of the grand narrative conducted at the level of civilization which includes the likes of Augustine, Gibbon, Spangler, Toynbee. A tradition this which rejects the false assumption that religion and the Middle Ages in particular had failed to contribute anything essential to the characteristics of Western Civilization.
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 very soul of a culture, and a society that has lost its spiritual roots and moorings is a dying society, however prosperous and all powerful it may appear externally. Obviously, this is a frontal challenge of Machiavellism and its tenets on political power.
Without denying the corruption and the abuses of religion which is after all practiced by a fallible creature, 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 which come to a head in Positivism or the privileging of the material and the measurable over the ineffable and the transcendent.
Before writing his famous book, Dawson had read and pondered deeply the works of Augustine (The City of God) and of 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. Far from destroying the Roman Empire, Christianity preserved it for a few centuries longer.
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. Not unlike Jung, he too 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 achievements 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 change came about after the industrial revolution in the 19th century and led to the 20th century. In one of his last books, 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’s 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 intellect” 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 with the disastrous result that the educated elites could see the tree and miss 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 Trojan horse of the neo-barbarians had already entered the citadel of learning and was hard 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 13th 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 nostalgic return to the Middle Ages, the so called world of Christendom; 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 an evasion of the present day cultural dilemmas. He was indeed an intellectual for whom ideas were important.
Many of Dawson’s 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. Both he and Vico have been so misguidedly branded. 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 well earned reputation of being a very broad-minded scholar, able to contemplate opposite ideas and integrate them harmoniously; something that the ancient Greeks were very good at. He was, in short, a consummate humanist who understood the universal character of a Church that brands itself as “Catholic” or universal, 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 the more reflective readers to a deeper exploration of its ideas. I dare say that those ideas have the power to save our floundering Western Civilization.