Friday, May 25, 2012

Christopher Dawson, RIP

The great historian Christopher Dawson died on this day in 1970. According to this site:

A gifted, eloquent and prolific writer, Dawson wrote more than twenty books and numerous articles on the nature of Christian culture. This topic concerned him so deeply that he considered it his vocation to explore the cultural role of religion, the relationship between Christianity and world cultures, and the specific history and institutions of the Christian religion. As a result of this vast research, he emphasized the need to recover the spiritual tradition at the root of the Western European history.

A life dedicated to the study of world cultures led him to claim that: "It is the religious impulse which supplies the cohesive force which unifies a society and a culture... A society which has lost its religion becomes sooner or later a society which has lost its culture." Writing against the positivistic and nihilistic attitude of his age, Dawson challenges commonly held assumptions about culture and history, and unmasks Western religion of progress. His contentions have as much relevance today as they had when he wrote them.

Dawson brilliantly applies Christian principles to the world of historic events, and sees the inner world of spiritual change "as the dynamic element in history and as a real world-transforming power." It is his vast erudition, coupled with his singular vision and talent to present a coherent and global vision of the different aspects that dominate the changing course of history, that have led some to consider him one of the greatest historians of our age, "more realist and convincing than Spengler or Toynbee."

I have benefitted greatly from Christopher Dawson's books and have read several of them, including The Formation of Christendom, The Dividing of Christendom, Religions and the Rise of Western Culture, and The Historic Reality of Christian Culture. Remarkably, Dawson anticipated much of the late twentieth/early twenty-first revisionist historiography of the English Reformation in The Dividing of Christendom. I also really enjoyed this study of life and works: Sanctifying the World: The Augustinian Life and Mind of Christopher Dawson by Bradley Birzer. More here.


  1. I'm reading Dynamics of World History right now, a collection of his articles and essays. What a historian!

  2. I knew of him but never journeyed into his writings. I've a feeling based just on what is written here and the titles of his books, that everything he sought to engender in the English speaking world has been over thrown and gone down the wrong road. I am putting his works on my 'to read' list just now.

  3. I've worked through /The Formation of Christendom/ and am working on /The Dividing of Christendom/. Both very illuminating and relevant. My longtime test of genius has been how well someone can distill complex topics down for easy understanding. Dawson passes easily.

  4. Thank you very much for your comments! Dawson also wrote a book about the French Revolution, but I cannot recall the title.