About Ignatius Insight
  Who We Are
  Ignatius Press
  Ignatius Press catalogs
  Catholic World Report
  Homiletic & Pastoral Review
  IP Novels site
  IP Religious Ed blog
  IP Critical Editions

The Vision and Principles of Christopher Dawson | David Knowles | Introduction to Christopher Dawson's The Dividing of Christendom | Ignatius Insight

Print-friendly version

In the early years of his long life of study Christopher Dawson set himself the task of surveying the history of European civilization in the light of a master-idea: that religion is the dynamic force, the basic constituent and the inspiration of all higher human activity, and that therefore the culture of an era depends upon its religion, and not vice versa.

This task was to him a very demanding one, for it presupposed an intimate and detailed knowledge of the history—political, intellectual, social , aesthetic, and economic—of the cultures he undertook to consider. His first major writing, The Age of the Gods, was the outcome of many years of research in the religion of primitive man, and the early civilizations of the East. It remained in many ways his greatest single achievement, and it received immediate critical acclaim. Forty years ago, before the immense success of Arnold Toynbee's work, readers of world-history had been gjven Spengler's sombre picture of the West in decline, and the tendentious outlook of the History of the World by H. G. Wells.

Dawson's work was very learned, but there was nothing difficult or esoteric about it. He did not impose patterns on events nor did he create a vocabulary to express his ideas. The ideas he used were those common to all human thought. His mind had the clarity of wisdom, not the simplicity of the superficial, and his style was lucid and free.

The second instalment should have covered the civilization of the classical world, and he would have been fully competent to present this, but he left it aside, perhaps because he felt that generations of fine minds had made it familiar, and wrote of what was then a less cultivated field, the twilight of classical civilization and the dawn of medieval Christian culture. He called the book The Making of Europe. This was a less attractive theme for many, but it was probably Dawson's most influential book as it filled a gap that had long existed in general historical knowledge, and set out persuasively and convincingly a twofold thesis: that medieval and modern civilization derived a very large part of its human and secular content from Greece and Rome, and that the spirit that gave life and growth to what seemed to be a ruin was the spirit of Catholic Christianity.

It told the strange story of the transmission of Christianity to the West, together with the basic ideas of ancient government and thought, by way of the circumference of Christendom and back to Northern Europe. It was a book that opened a new world to many readers, and though in the thirty-odd years that have passed many have explored the archaeology and art of the Dark Ages, no work has completely taken its place.

The books and lectures that followed did not treat any period in a consecutive way; they were re-statements in various keys and tones of the original thesis. The lectures printed here, however, are an outline of the final volume, or at least of its first half. They are valuable as the only presentation, by a mind of Dawson's quality, of the stretch of modern thought and sentiment between Italian humanism and the French Revolution. They set out in terms of history, and are well illustrated by, the television and printed survey of Civilization by Kenneth Clark.

In the past forty years much has been written of the period in European history between 1300 and 1550. The epoch of open religious conflict that began with the emergence of Luther in 1517 was indeed momentous, but in many ways the revolution in thought and theology had begun two centuries earlier, when Duns Scotus and William of Ockham departed from the tradition of philosophy as a body of accepted reasonings (philosophia perennis) and began the construction of personal systems that has continued ever since, while Marsilius of Padua and John Wyclif broke with the traditional views on the government of the church and primitive Christianity. Dawson saw this well, and began in this period with his story of the break-up of Christian thought. In the lectures that followed he described with great economy of words and an excellent sense of proportion the initial movement of European thought away from religious unity, and later its rejection of traditional religion of any kind.

Thoughts and sentiments have changed in spectacular ways in the past fifteen years. Dawson, who saw continuity between the classical civilization of Greece and Rome and the culture of the medieval and modern world, was at one with such thinkers as Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson in France in expounding a Christian humanism in terms of a realist philosophy. This is now an unfashionable outlook. The conception of a stream of historical influences, and of a 'realist' universe of which the individual mind is a part, indeed, but one that can within limits comprehend the whole and recognize truth, is currently under attack in favour of an existentialist or phenomenalist outlook, which is true only for the individual, while history is a series of 'cultures' which inform the thought and sentiment of the present generation but which, when past, have no more meaning for those who come after than the culture of the 'Beaker Folk' or the people of La Tène.

To some Christopher Dawson may seem to 'date' but when truly assessed he is dateless. The principles for which he stood, the truth and beauty that he saw, cannot be lost, even if they may for a time be obscured. It may be that the 'silent majority' here as elsewhere, will feel kinship with a great historian who saw the development of Europe 'steadily, and saw it whole'.

David Knowles

Regius Professor Emeritus of Modern History
University of Cambridge

The Dividing of Christendom, by Christopher Dawson

Foreword to 2009 Edition by Dr. James Hitchcock, St. Louis University

How did Catholics and Protestants come to be divided? What impact has their division had on Western culture? Historian Christopher Dawson answers these and other important questions in his classic study, The Dividing of Christendom. Based on Dawson's Harvard lectures, this book provides a highly readable, masterful overview of the factors that led to one of the deepest divides in Western history--one that endures and gave momentum to social, cultural and political changes whose consequences are still with us. The decline of medieval unity, the Renaissance, the Protestant and Catholic Reformations, the cultures of divided Christendom, the rise of modern secular culture, the Enlightenment, and the French Revolution are all presented in an engagingly, popular style.

This is a work for all Western Christians who want to understand the historical origins of their present divisions and possible ways of overcoming them. Dawson writes, "Of all divisions between Christians, that between Catholics and Protestants is the deepest and the most pregnant in its historical consequences. It is so deep that we cannot see any solution to it in the present period and under existing historical circumstances. But at least it is possible for us to take the first step by attempting to overcome the enormous gap in mutual understanding which has hitherto rendered any intellectual contact or collaboration impossible."

Ecumenism progressed significantly after Dawson penned those words, especially following the Second Vatican Council, but the problem of Christian disunity persists. This is a fitting subject for Christopher Dawson, whose genius was to present the broad sweep of history with verve, clarity, insight and authority. Only a deep appreciation of how the present Christian divisions arose, Dawson argues in The Dividing of Christendom, will permit an authentic return to full Christian unity.

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles and Excerpts:

An excerpt from "Christianity and the History of Culture" | Christopher Dawson | From Chapter 2 of The Formation of Christendom
Rediscovering Christopher Dawson | An Interview with Dr. Bradley J. Birzer
Are We At The End or The Beginning? | Glenn W. Olsen
His Story and the History of the Church | An Interview with Dr. Glenn W. Olsen

Christopher Dawson born in Wales and educated at Winchester and at Trinity College, Oxford, was a lecturer at Univeristy College and Exeter, as well as at Liverpool and Edinburgh Universities. In 1958 he became the first Professor of Roman Catholic Studies at Harvard University. Among his best known books are The Crisis of Western Education, The Formation of Christendom, The Dynamics of World History, and Religion and the Rise of Western Culture.

If you'd like to receive the FREE IgnatiusInsight.com e-letter (about every 2 to 3 weeks), which includes regular updates about IgnatiusInsight.com articles, reviews, excerpts, and author appearances, please click here to sign-up today!


World Wide Web


Place your order toll-free at 1-800-651-1531

Ignatius Press | San Francisco
Web design under direction of Ignatius Press.
Send your comments or web problems to:

Copyright © 2018 by Ignatius Press

IgnatiusInsight.com catholic blog books insight scoop weblog ignatius