Dynamics Of World History, by Christopher Dawson

Dynamics Of World History, by Christopher Dawson

Michael Lynch

by Christopher Dawson
(ISI Books, 2001, 500pp, $35.00. Available from AD Books)

As Catholics face the onslaught of the media in this country over abuse allegations, a book just republished by ISI Books can engender new hope and optimism, not only about the outstanding intellectual and cultural insights of a great Catholic historian, but also because of the main theme of his work. This theme is broadly that society and culture is shaped by religion and in the case of Western society by the Catholic Church.

This impressive work, which is useful for both the academic and the general reader, aims to provide an overview and summary of Christopher Dawson's writings from his earliest published article in 1921 to a later work in 1955, and in doing so to explain his unique concept of history.

Spiritual crises

It seems truly remarkable that this relatively unknown historian who lived between 1889 and 1970 could write works that continue to have such resonance in our own time. However, Dawson, a convert from Anglicanism, a product of an English landowning family and an Oxford graduate, was a brilliant and perceptive scholar able to understand the cultural and spiritual crises of his time and some of their future consequences.

He was one of a number of outstanding converts, such as Chesterton, Waugh, Knox and Muggeridge, to Catholicism in Britain in the 20th century. Each had a deep faith and was imbued with one of the strengths of the country's cultural life, namely an enduring love of tradition and some scepticism about the wilder claims of modernity.

The book begins with a series of excellent introductions by Dermot Quinn and also John Mulloy, who was responsible for the first edition of the book in the late 1950s. Quinn analyses the academic responses to Dawson's works as characterised by hostility and criticism of his thesis, indifference over the perception of him as out-of-date and finally the more recent re-evaluation and admiration of his work.

This book serves to whet the appetite for other Dawson works such as Progress and Religion (1929), The Making of Europe (1932), Religion and the Rise of Western Culture (1948) and The Gods of Revolution, published after Dawson's death in 1972. In doing so it reveals the perennial themes of his work and how relevant they are to the questions and issues of our present day. There are some absolute gems in this book which justify buying the whole text just to read them.

These include "Catholicism and the Bourgeois Mind", on the incompatibility of Catholicism and a certain middle class mentality, and "The Patriarchal Family in History". In the first of these articles, Dawson, while refusing to take a simplistic communist attitude to the bourgeois and admitting that in a sense we are all more or less bourgeois, alerts us to dangers both for society and the individual Christian.

On a societal level, an obsession with commercial values leads to the destruction of rural life, which is a part of society's natural foundation and of traditional arts and crafts. This view is particularly pertinent in view of the slow death of much of our farming sector and the small towns dependent on it. On the individual level Dawson is particularly critical of what he terms the bourgeois soul which with its spirit of calculation and worldly prudence becomes a soul closed to love and to grace.

The second article reveals to a generation reared on the notion that patriarchal is an offensive and politically incorrect term that we have been misled. It also shows us the prophetic role Dawson had in understanding issues which are topical in our own time.

Here he includes the destructive effects of contraception on a society which, by undermining the necessity and attractiveness of marriage, lead not only to a decline in population but also to social decay. In regard to both this matter of contraceptive techniques and the more recent ones associated with stem cell research, Dawson's concerns about science and technology, which are not underpinned by spiritual moral values, are particularly pertinent.

Way of life

One of the essential themes in this book is Dawson's emphasis on culture in the really broad sense of a common way of life. Dawson was unique in being able to move beyond a narrow concept of the nation state and in doing so to not only write political history but to look at how culture is shaped by forces such as the environment and the way in which a people works.

Here we are made aware of another of Dawson's strengths, one that made him, in a way, before his time. This was the use he made of sociology and anthropology in his historical writing, reflecting his broad view of culture and desire to move beyond the dry-bones-of- culture approach, which in his mind was leading to an anti-historical trend in society. So Dawson's writing is more than just a piling up of seemingly unrelated facts but an attempt to show the whole of a culture's tradition.

Ultimately, for Dawson, culture was influenced most importantly of all by what he broadly calls the psychological factor involved with the religious impulse.

The second section of the book, where Dawson looks at Christianity and the meaning of history, is both challenging and intellectually stimulating and should be required reading for anyone devising a history or cultural course for use in Catholic schools.

Dawson challenges us to think in regard to history outside the secular straitjacket. In an era such as our own, dominated as it is by post- modernism, this secular view tells us that history is just a series of meaningless and unrelated incidences or as in earlier days that it is all about some neat form of progress. It may be added that this view is hard to believe after the horrors of the 20th century or even of the more recent conflicts and disasters of the last few years.


By showing us wider themes and purposes for history, we can detect some of Dawson's beliefs about the real purpose of history. He notes that the doctrine of the Incarnation - where God directly enters into human life and from whence comes our chronological system - is fundamental to a Christian conception of history.

In a number of places, Dawson reveals his own source of inspiration in the writings of St Augustine who in his City of God helped to form much of the Western mind and the Church's reaction to the world. Given the propensity of many in our own time to bow down to the altar of progress and worldly wisdom, and the steep learning curve we are currently facing in regard to the world, and in particular the media, these reflections are timely.

In spite of the difficulties faced by the Church at the present time it may be that we in the West in the midst of own cultural and spiritual crisis are about to learn and understand a truth that Dawson had sought to promote. This is that our society's dynamism and very life are underpinned by spiritual values guarded and promoted by the Church. To Dawson, ignoring this fact meant that societies would face decay and decline. Whether we wish to be on the cutting edge in regard to intellectual trends or simply to have our faith and hope renewed by reading one of the Catholic greats' books, perhaps Dynamics of World History is the place to start.

Michael Lynch is completing a doctoral thesis on Christopher Dawson at Australian Catholic University (Brisbane).

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