The Gray Eminence of Christopher Dawson

bbirzer_dawson_lgTo put it simply (and perhaps a bit “simplistically”—but I prefer to think of it as putting it “with fervor”), Christopher Dawson was one of the greatest historians of the twentieth century, certainly one of its greatest men of letters, and perhaps one of the most respected Catholic scholars in the English speaking world.  I’ve have had the opportunity and privilege to argue this elsewhere, including here at the majestic The Imaginative Conservative.  I would even go so far as to claim that Dawson was THE historian of the past 100 years.

Without going deeply into Dawson’s thought—or any aspect of it—in this post, it is worthwhile cataloguing how many of his contemporaries claimed him important and his scholarship and ideas for their own.  This means, consequently, that while most Americans—Catholic or otherwise—no longer remember Christopher Dawson, they do often remember affectionately those he profoundly (one might even state indelibly) influenced.  The list includes well known personalities such as T.S. Eliot, Thomas Merton, J.R.R. Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis.

In the world of humane learning and scholarship in the twentieth century, Dawson was a sort of John Coltrane.  Just as few non musicians listen to Coltrane, but EVERY serious musician does, the same was essentially true of Dawson.  And, yet, as with Coltrane, Dawson did enjoy long periods of widespread popularity and support in his own lifetime.

“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]  As evidence, Sheed could cite much.  By the early 1930s, while Dawson was still in his early 40s,  American Catholic colleges began teaching courses on his thought, tying him to the larger Catholic literary movement of the day.[2]  In 1933, the American Catholic journal Commonweal stated that “the writings of Christopher Dawson demand the thoughtful attention of all educated men.”[3]  Six years later, the Jesuit journal, The Month, claimed that to “commend Mr. Dawson’s work is unnecessary; nothing that he writes could be unimportant.”[4]  In 1949, Waldemar Gurian, a refugee from the Nazis and a professor at the University of Notre Dame, wrote, Dawson’s “very ability to make brilliant understatements and to display without pride, as something self-evident, his extraordinary broad knowledge make his synthesis particularly impressive.”[5]  In 1950, the English Dominican journal, Blackfriars, claimed “that Mr. Dawson is an educator; perhaps the greatest that Heaven has sent us English Catholics since Newman.”[6]

Maisie Ward, the famous biographer and co-founder of the Sheed and Ward publishing house, admitted to Dawson in 1961, “You were, as I said on Sunday, truly the spear-head of our publishing venture.”[7]  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 admitted.  “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.”[8]  Even among the clergy, none held the reputation that Dawson did by the 1950s.  Again, as Ward noted rather bluntly in a letter to Dawson, “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.”[9]  This is an impressive claim, especially when one recalls the intellect and influence of a Martin D’Arcy, a John Courtney Murray, or a J. Fulton Sheen, all eminent priests.

Neo-Thomist historian and philosopher Etienne Gilson also acknowledged his profound admiration for Dawson in a 1950 letter to Frank Sheed.  Gilson especially appreciated Dawson’s Making of Europe (1932) and Religion and the Rise of Western Culture (1950).[10]  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,” Gilson admitted.  “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.”[11]  High praise, indeed.

American Trappist Monk and author Thomas Merton claimed to have found his purpose in life while 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.”[12]

As Eliot’s best biographer, Russell Kirk, wrote, “Of social thinkers in his own time, none influenced Eliot more than Dawson.”[13]  For three decades, Eliot was quite taken with Dawson’s views, and it would be difficult if not impossible to find a scholar who influenced Eliot more.  In the early 1930s, Eliot told an American audience that Dawson was the foremost thinker of his generation in England.[14]  He explicitly acknowledged his debt to Dawson in the introductions to his two most politically- and culturally-oriented books, The Idea of a Christian Society and Notes Towards the Definition of Culture.[15]  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.”[16]  Eliot continued to acknowledge a debt to Dawson after World War II.  In a speech to the London Conservative Union in 1955, Eliot told his fellow conservatives that they should understand conservatism as Dawson does, not as political, but as ante-political and anti-ideological.  Only then, Eliot argued, could English conservatives truly and effectively shape society.[17]

One cannot imagine C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man without Dawson’s scholarship in his 1929 book, Progress and Religion.  The same is true of J.R.R. Tolkien’s best academic essay, “On Fairie-Stories,” delivered at the University of St. Andrews in 1939.  While the essay in its thought is purely Tolkienian, the English philologist and fantasist relies on the scholarship of Dawson very openly.  All three knew each other well, and Tolkien and Dawson even attended the same parish in Oxford.

There are so many lessons to be learned from all of this.  First, we should never take the influence of Christopher Dawson for granted.  Second, it should also give each person hope.  We should, of course, do our best in whatever we do.  What others do with it is beyond our will, but we put it out there, nonetheless, and we hope.  Dawson’s story—at least this aspect of it—makes us realize that we can play a vital role in the times, even if our own individual ego has not been soothed.

Originally published at The Imaginative Conservative.

Notes

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

[2] Arnold Sparr, To Promote, Defend, and Redeem: The Catholic Literary Revival and the Cultural Transformation of American Catholicism, 1920-1960 (New York: Greenwood Press, 1990), 24, 103

[3] T. Lawrason Riggs, “A Voice of Power,” Commonweal (August 4, 1933), 330.

[4] Thomas Corbishly, “Our Present Discontents,” The Month 173 (1939): 440.

[5] Waldemar Gurian, “Dawson’s Leitmotif,” Commonweal (June 3, 1949).

[6] Kenelm Foster, O.P., “Mr Dawson and Chistendom,” Blackfriars 31 (1950): 423.

[7] 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/CDC)

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

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

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

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

[12] 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.

[13] Russell Kirk, Eliot and His Age: T.S. Eliot’s Moral Imagination in the Twentieth Century (Peru, Ill.: Sherwood Sugden, 1988), 300.  On Dawson’s influence on Eliot, see also Bernard Wall, “Giant Individualists and Orthodoxy,” Twentieth Century (January 1954): 59.

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

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

[16] Kirk, Eliot and His Age, 231-2, 299-300; and Joseph Schwartz, “The Theology of History in T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets,” Logos 2 (Winter 1999): 34.

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

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