The Pervasive Influence of Christopher Dawson

dawson with Harvard students

Though few—Catholic or otherwise—remember him now, Christopher Dawson once stood at the very center of the Catholic literary and intellectual revival the four decades preceding Vatican II.  “For Dawson is more like a movement than a man,” his publisher and friend, Frank Sheed, wrote of him in 1938. “His influence with the non-Catholic world is of a kind that no modern Catholic has yet had, both for the great number of fields in which it is felt and for the intellectual quality of those who feel it.”[1]  Excepting Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson—though only briefly and certainly with some hesitation—it would be difficult to find a more prominent Roman Catholic scholar not only in the English speaking world, but throughout the Catholic world and beyond during those forty years.[2]  As Maisie Ward, co-founder of and editor for Sheed and Ward, the most important Catholic publisher of the middle of the twentieth-century, admitted to Dawson, “You were, as I said on Sunday, truly the spear-head of our publishing venture.”[3]  Ward put it into greater context in her autobiography, Unfinished Business.  “Looking back at the beginnings of such intellectual life as I have had, I feel indebted to three men of genius: Browning, Newman, and Chesterton,” she wrote.  “But in my middle age, while we owed much as publishers to many men and women, foreign and English, the most powerful influence on the thinking of both myself and my husband was certainly Christopher Dawson.”[4]  Even among the clergy, none held the reputation that Dawson did by the 1950s.  Again, as Maisie noted rather bluntly, “There is no question in my mind that no priest exists at the moment whose name carries anything like the weight in or outside the church that yours does.”[5]

Certainly, it was in the 1950s that Dawson was at his most influential.  Throughout that decade, as the Iron Bloc divided East from West and the citizens of the western world were intensely interested in the meaning of the West and western civilization, invitations for Dawson to speak, write papers, and present his ideas in any form arrived from various countries, colleges, and religious denominations.  In the non-academic world, he was especially asked to consult on the formation and development/continuation of the UN and NATO.[6]  In the spring of 1959, Henry Luce, publisher of Time, Life, and Fortune, who had appreciated Dawson’s work since World War II, used the editorial column of the March 16th issue to promote Dawson’s work and theories.  Unlike the Marxists and their materialist positions or even the then-eminent position of the American Historical Association President Walter Prescott Webb, who had developed all of his views from his life in Texas, Dawson offered the world a broad vision.  The editorial admitted that most will find Dawson’s take to be “unfashionable,” but “such a theory is at least as scholarly as those merely ‘ideological’ (i.e., political or economic) interpretations which straitjacket many a man’s view of world events.”  Considering the bunk available, Life concluded, one should not dismiss Dawson, for his ideas “may well be true.”[7]  Additionally, Luce ordered a copy of Dawson’s then latest book, The Movement of World Revolution, for each of his nineteen editors at Time.[8]  Dawson, not the Marxists or the Texans, would shape Time editorial policy.

American colleges and religious institutions especially sought his influence, advice, and prestige, whether as a guest lecturer, a visiting professor, or a full-time faculty member.  Again, during the 1950s, lecture invites arrived from St. Paul’s University Chapel of the University of Wisconsin, from the University of Washington, from the University of Loyola-Chicago, from Mercyhurst College of Erie, Pennsylvania, from the University of Portland, from Mount St. Scholastica of Atchison, Kansas, Marymount College of Salina, Kansas, from the Archdiocese of Boston, from the University of San Francisco, from the University of Illinois Newman Club, from the Newman Club of Ohio State University, from Pennsylvania State University, from Manhattanville College of the Sacred Heart in New York, St. John’s University in New York, Bellarmine College in Louisville, Kentucky, and from the Paulists of Boston.[9]  Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, asked him to lead an eight-week seminar for historians and various scholars from all over North America, training them in the meaning of western civilization.  St. Benedict’s College of Atchison, Kansas, offered Dawson a one-semester position to teach a course on the meaning of the liberal arts.[10]  The Association of American Colleges requested something similar, hoping that Dawson might speak on “strengthening the intellectual, the religious and the cultural aspects of liberal education in the United States.”[11]  However tempting he might have found these offers, Dawson refused to accept a any permanent or semi-permanent position at an American university until a letter arrived in early 1958 from Harvard University.  Chauncey Stillman, a Harvard graduate and convert to Catholicism, put the money up for an endowed chair in Catholic Studies.  Dawson accepted the position and held the chair from 1958 until health forced him to resign in 1962.

Dawson also significantly influenced an impressive number of poets, scholars, and public intellectuals throughout his lifetime.  In his own writings and life, Dawson never failed to use his pen as a mighty sword.  Yet, he did so in a manner that was so intellectually respectable that even his academic detractors appreciated him, at least to the relative degree of taking him seriously.  Indeed, political views aside, scholars and public intellectuals from many parts of the political spectrum greatly respected Dawson.  Lewis Mumford, one of the most prominent public intellectuals, for example, wrote Dawson at the beginning of Dawson’s career, acknowledging, “I follow your writings with so much pleasure and profit that I cannot forbear to write you at last and make my acknowledgements.”[12]  On the other side of the spectrum, neo-Thomist historian and philosopher Etienne Gilson also acknowledged his profound admiration for Dawson in a letter to Frank Sheed.  Gilson especially appreciated Dawson’s Making of Europe and Religion and the Rise of Western Culture.[13]  The latter, “provided me with what I had needed during forty years without being able to find it anywhere: an intelligent and reliable background for a history of mediaeval philosophy.  Had I been fortunate in having such a book before writing my [Spirit of the Middle Ages,] my own work would have been other and better than it is.”[14]  Further, Gilson assured Sheed, he would be using the book as the background to his new series of lectures at the College du France.[15]

Other impressive twentieth-century thinkers, such as Dom Bede Griffiths, Thomas Merton, and David Jones also acknowledged an immense debt to Dawson.  “In the wider sphere of the relation of Christian thought and culture to other forms of culture and civilisation,” Griffiths wrote in his autobiographical reflections, The Golden String, “my guide was Christopher Dawson.”[16]  Thomas Merton claimed to find his purpose, finally, when reading Dawson’s 1952 book, Understanding Europe.  “Whether or not [Dawson] came too late, who can say?” Merton worried.  “In any case I have a clear obligation to participate, as long as I can, and to the extent of my abilities, in every effort to help a spiritual and cultural renewal of our time.  This is the task  that has been given me, and hitherto I have not been clear about it, in all its aspects and dimensions.”[17]  Dai Jones, a close friend of Dawson’s, especially in the 1930s and 40s, wrote his famous epic poem, “Anathemata,” using Dawson’s theories and works.  Christina Scott, one of Dawson’s daughters, described Jones as “a very good friend” and “an awfully nice man” in an interview with Joseph Pearce.  “My father and he had a lot in common: the Welsh side, the mystical side of religion and history.”[18]

Perhaps, first and foremost, in terms of Dawson’s influence was that on T.S. Eliot.  Eliot first contacted Dawson, through Dawson’s publishers, Sheed and Ward, in the summer of 1929.  He expressed his fondness for Dawson’s works, wanted to have Dawson contribute to Eliot’s journal, The Criterion, and hoped the two could meet.[19]  Eliot specifically hoped that Dawson would consider writing a piece on the “views of a practising Catholic layman about marriage reform, birth control, the relations of the sexes in general in the modern world.”[20]  Dawson agreed, and he wrote one of his most perceptive articles, also published in booklet form, “Christianity and Sex.”[21]  In it, Dawson argued that the ideological attack on the family, the true central institution in society, would inevitably lead to the increase of the power of the state, a theme that Dawson would take up in his next five books from 1931 to 1942.  For three decades, Eliot was quite taken with Dawson’s views, and it would be difficult to find a scholar who influenced Eliot more.  In the early 1930s, Eliot told an American audience that Dawson was the foremost important thinker in England.[22]  He explicitly acknowledged his debt to Dawson in the introduction to his two most political and culturally-oriented books, The Idea of a Christian Society and Notes Towards the Definition of Culture.[23]  One can also find Dawson’s influence in two of Eliot’s most important writings of the moral imagination, “Murder in the Cathedral” and “The Four Quartets.”[24]  Dawson’s influence on Eliot did not diminish.  In a speech to the London Conservative Union in 1955, for example, Eliot told his fellow conservatives to understanding conservatism as Dawson does, not as political, but as pre-political.  Only then, can English conservatives influence society.[25]  As Eliot’s best biographer, Russell Kirk, wrote, “Of social thinkers in his own time, none influenced Eliot more than Dawson.”[26]  They never became close friends socially, as “they were both very reserved,” but they certainly respected and influenced one another.[27]

Equally important a personage, but to a lesser extent than Eliot, C.S. Lewis was also influenced by Dawson.  Lewis seems not to have admitted this directly, but Dawson, assumed—probably correctly—that Lewis had taken much of the argument of the Abolition of Man from Dawson’s own 1929 work Progress and Religion.[28]  Though Dawson may have influenced Lewis intellectually, the two had next to nothing in common in terms of personality, at least in the beginning of their relationship.  Humphrey Havard, the physician affectionately known to Lewis as the “Useless Quack,” brought Lewis and Dawson together one evening during the second world war, and the results were disastrous.

About this time Christopher Dawson wanted to meet Lewis, and one evening I brought him round to Magdalen.  Dawson was a physically frail, shy, disappointed man, in every way a contrast to Lewis.  He was a historian but at that time had no academic appointment.  He had written much on the philosophy and history of religion.  (The Making of Europe is perhaps his best-known book.)  In comparison with Lewis his style is tortuous, full of qualifications and abstractions.  If, as has been said, ‘The style is the man,’ the contrast between the two could not have been greater.  Lewis did his best to draw Dawson out; but he shrank from our vigorous humour and casual manners.  For once the evening was a frost and it was not repeated.[29]

Still, a friendship of sorts, or at least an alliance based on mutual respect, developed.  When Dawson took over the editorship of The Dublin Review in 1940, he made a list of roughly twenty persons he wanted as permanent contributors and reviewers.  Prominent in the list was Lewis and “Lewis’s Oxford Group,” better known as the Inklings, which included Charles Williams, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Owen Barfield.[30]  And, by 1941, Lewis wrote to Dawson, “Dear Dawson (If we might both drop the honorific now?).”[31]  In such a formal time, the dropping of the honorific meant something.  Religion and Culture, Dawson’s first set of Gifford Lectures, especially pleased Lewis.  After praising the book and especially its “magnificent ending” in a letter of appreciation to Dawson, Lewis concluded, “Thanks very much: you have given me a great treat.”[32]  Lewis also invited Dawson to participate in his famous Socratic Club.[33]

The founder of modern American conservatism, Russell Kirk, was also significantly influenced by Dawson.  As early as Kirk’s first and most famous book, The Conservative Mind, originally published in 1953, Kirk noted that the first problem that conservatives must solve is the “problem of spiritual and moral regeneration,” citing Dawson approvingly.[34]  Indeed, it is impossible not to notice Dawson’s influence on Kirk’s historical understanding.[35]  Kirk, himself, admitted in his autobiography, “strongly influenced by Christopher Dawson and Eric Voegelin, Martin D’Arcy and Mircea Eliade,” he had “come to conclude that a civilization cannot long survive the dying of belief in a transcendent order that brought the culture into being.”[36]  At the time of his death in 1994, Kirk was planning on editing the collected works of Dawson, and he and his wife had just returned from a trip to England, tracing Dawson’s path there.  In his own introduction to Christina Scott’s biography of her father, Kirk wrote, “A historian endowed with imagination, Christopher Dawson restored to historical writing both an understanding of religion as the basis of culture and a moving power of expression.”[37]

Obviously Dawson’s influence went well beyond Kirk, Lewis, Eliot, Merton, Jones, and Griffiths, each of whom had developed his own reputation.  By the late 1950s, Dawson was arguably the most influential Roman Catholic scholar and public intellectual in the world.  With only a few exceptions, Dawson’s mind rivaled any within the Roman Catholic Church.  As Maisie Ward told him in 1953, “There is no question in my mind that no priest exists at the moment whose name carries anything like the weight in or outside the church that yours does.”[38]



[1] F.J. Sheed, “Christopher Dawson,” The Sign (June 1938), 661.

[2] Aidan Nichols, O.P., “Christopher Dawson,” in Catholic Thought Since the Enlightenment: A Survey (Pretoria: University of South Africa Press, 1998), 127-29.

[3] Maisie Ward, New York, to Dawson, Harvard, 1961, in the Christopher H. Dawson Collection, Box 11, Folder 25, “Frank Sheed 1960,” Department of Special Collections, University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, Minnesota (hereafter UST/CHD)

[4] Maisie Ward, Unfinished Business (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1964), 117.

[5] Maisie Sheed, London, to Dawson, October 1953, Box 11, Folder 18, “Frank Sheed 1953” in UST/CHD.

[6] See the various correspondence in Box 14, Folder 3, General Correspondence, 1950-1959, in UST/CHD.

[7] Editorial, “Welcome, Son, Who are You?” Life (March 16, 1959), 32.

[8] Sheed, New York, to Dawson, Harvard, 16 March 1959, in Box 11, Folder 24 “Frank Sheed 1959,” in UST/CHD.

[9] See the various correspondence in Box 14, Folder 3, General Correspondence, 1950-1959, in UST/CHD.

[10] Father Tim Fray, OSB, St. Benedict’s College, Atchison, KS, to Dawson, Devon, ENG, 15 April 1958, in Box 14, Folder 3, General Correspondence, 1950-1959, in UST/CHD.

[11] Norwood Baker, Association of American Colleges, New York, to Dawson, Devon, 3 February 1958, in Box 14, Folder 3, General Correspondence, 1950-1959, in UST/CHD.

[12] Lewis Mumford, New York, to Dawson, 8 May 1924, in Box 15, Folder 58, “Mumford, Lewis”, in UST/CHD.

[13] Sheed to Dawson, 1936, in Box 11 (Sheed and Ward Papers), Folder 2, “Frank Sheed, 1936”, in UST/CHD.

[14] Etienne Gilson to Frank Sheed, 22 August 1950, in Box 11, Folder 16 “Frank Sheed 1950”, in UST/CHD.

[15] Etienne Gilson to Frank Sheed, 22 August 1950, in Box 11, Folder 16 “Frank Sheed 1950”, in UST/CHD.

[16] Bede Griffiths, O.S.B., The Golden String (London: Harvill Press, 1954), 150.

[17] Thomas Merton, journal entry for August 22, 1961, Turning Toward the World: The Pivotal Year, ed. by Victor A. Kramer (San Francisco, Calif.: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995), 155.  See also Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (New York: Image Books, 1966), 55, 194-94; and Patrick Hart and Jonathan Montaldo, eds., The Intimate Merton: His Life from His Journals (San Francisco, Calif.: HarperSanFrancisco, 1999), 190.

[18] Pearce, Literary Converts, 208.

[19] TSE, London, to Dawson, through Sheed and Ward, London, 16 August 1929, in Box 14, Folder 120, “Eliot, T.S.”, in UST/CHD.

[20] TSE, London, to Dawson, 10 December 1929, in Box 14, Folder 120, “Eliot, T.S.”, in UST/CHD.

[21] Christopher Dawson, Christianity and Sex (London: Faber and Faber, 1930).

[22] Christina Scott, A Historian and His World, 210.

[23] The two have been republished together as T.S. Eliot, Christianity and Culture (San Diego, Calif.: Harvest, 1967).

[24] Russell Kirk, Eliot and His Age: T.S. Eliot’s Moral Imagination in the Twentieth Century (Peru, Ill.: Sherwood Sugden, 1988), 231-2, 299-300.

[25] T.S. Eliot, “The Literature of Politics,” Time and Tide (23 April 1955), 524.

[26] Kirk, Eliot and His Age, 300.

[27] Quoted in Pearce, Literary Converts, 267.

[28] Record of Dawson Conversation, August 21, 1953; Christopher Dawson Papers, Notre Dame; CDAW; Dawson/Mulloy Collections; Box 1 of 1, Folder 2.

[29] Havard, in Como, ed., C.S. Lewis At the Breakfast Table, 223

[30] Untitled paper, list of possible Dublin Review contributors, Box 14, Folder 117, “Dublin Review”, in UST/CHD.  On Tolkien’s intellectual relation to Dawson, see Bradley J. Birzer, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle-earth (Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 2002).

[31] Lewis, Magdalen College, Oxford, to Dawson, Oxford, 20 August 1941, in Box 15, Folder 32, “Lewis, C.S.”, in UST/CHD.

[32] C.S. Lewis, Magdalen College, Oxford, to Dawson, 27 September 1948, in Box 15, Folder 32, “Lewis, C.S.”, in UST/CHD.

[33] Pearce, Literary Converts, 227.

[34] Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind, 1st ed. (Chicago, Ill.: Henry Regnery, 1953), 414.

[35] For a full comparison and treatment of Dawson’s and Kirk’s intellectual sympathies, see Bradley J. Birzer, The Christian Humanist Mind (forthcoming).  See also, James E. Person, Jr., Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind (Lanham, Maryland: Madison Books, 1999), 58.

[36] Russell Kirk, The Sword of Imagination: Memoirs of a Half-Century of Literary Conflict (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdman’s, 1995), 474.

[37] Russell Kirk, “Introduction to the Transaction Edition,” in Scott, A Historian and His World, 5.

[38] Maisie Sheed, London, to Dawson, October 1953, Box 11, Folder 18, “Frank Sheed 1953”, in UST/CHD.

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