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