In Part I of this series, I mentioned Dawson’s view of history centered on culture versus the more prominent view of distinct time periods (ancient, medieval, modern) and the impact it has on how we view history. From what I gather reading Glenn W. Olsen’s essay, this is Dawson’s most enduring contribution to historical studies. In this post I will attempt to elaborate on Dawson’s overall view of history with respect to the way history is generally viewed. As is usual with my posts, I will let the author speak for himself, as I could and do not have anything to add. I should also mention that the author in this case is Glenn W. Olsen, not Christopher Dawson. Although, Olsen will serve as a useful introduction to the thought and enduring legacy of Dawson. That is, after all, the point of this series of posts.
So let’s get right to it. In the following passage, Olsen sets up for us the contrasting views of history (from “Why We Need Christopher Dawson”, Communio, Spring 2008):
One could argue that Dawson’s most memorable books are written in pursuit of the overarching shared vision of life of this or that society as it evolved over time, and then of the subcultures that composed each society, its doctors, warriors, or chiefs. The merit of this approach might be illustrated by comparing it with the outline of history still present, despite the inroads of subjects such as World History, in the curricula of most history departments in the United States. Typically, while denying they are Eurocentric, these divide the history of the world into three epochs derived from the periodization of European history: ancient, medieval, and modern, probably with some residue of the Petrarchan equation of ancient with “Golden Age,” medieval with “decline,” and modern with “return to or progress along the right path.” As a schema this does little more than replicate with a slight Western flavor what Mircea Eliade judged the most basic pattern of mythical thought across the world religions, the loss of a “once upon a time” (Eden) in a sad present (history), but with an Eden of possible recovery shining before us (utopia or, on a slightly less grand scale, a world made safe for democracy)…
This brings us to Dawson’s particular method, centering historical inquiry on the cultures in which the history takes place. Olsen continues:
Dawson consciously decided on “culture” as a better word than “civilization” to speak of his interests. “Civilization” as derived from civitas, had too urban and intellectual an association for him. If he was to talk globally about human communal life, a good deal of which had not centered on cities, the better word was “culture,” for, coming from cultus, this could designate any habit of being or shared pattern of life, urban, rural, nomadic, agricultural, familial, or monastic. It also suggested that life, like religio, is typically tied to the gods, that is, that human communities commonly are part of a larger community of God and man. That is why culture is embodied religion. Only those of us who have inherited the prolonged attempt of recent centuries to undo the ties between religion and culture, to separate God from man, to marginalize religion, cannot see this. Man’s usual situation for most of history has been within a religious community composed of gods and men.
That said, Dawson thought the best way to study any culture was over its life-cycle, from origin to maturity, the latter being the point at which its form was most realized (here he was closest to the Romantics), to decline and afterlife. Few cultures actually die, most pass on something of themselves after their moment of greatest flourishing to successors, and in a sense live to the present. Homer and Sophocles are still read today. Thus it makes little sense to speak of a Roman period simply succeeding a Greek period. Rather, after a kind of fulfillment in the so-called Classical period of the fifth century B.C., Greek culture continued to develop in the Hellenistic period and was central, for instance, to the articulation of Christian theology…
Though Dawson knew a great deal about and wrote about many of the cultures of the world, arguably he most fully illustrated his idea of the formation of culture in his studies on Christian culture. This he saw as foreshadowed by Israel, formed around the figure of Christ, and facilitated by the Roman Empire; then under the influence of Greek philosophy as passing into a kind of intellectual and spiritual maturation in the patristic period, followed by the bringing of entire peoples to Christianity in the middle ages, along with further cultural innovations, such as the chansons de geste, Gothic architecture and scholasticism. This culture, called Christendom by the time of Charlemagne, was divided in the sixteenth century and subsequently laid under siege, especially by modern nationalism, but again, in certain respects continues to the present.
So what difference does it make if we view history through the cultures in which the history is contained, or if we view history as a succession of time periods, ancient (“golden age”), medieval (“decline”), modern (“rebirth”)? Olsen elaborates:
In any case, Dawson propsed that, so far as the history of Christianity is concerned, our basic historical schema should be the stages of the development of Christian culture. This leads to a rethinking of still current assumptions about the relation between Christianity and Western history.
First of all, the so-called middle ages, viewed as a stage of the development of Christian culture, was not just a middle period between two times of high achievement, a period so lacking in distinctive characteristics that it was to be labeled “middle.” Rather, the medieval stage of the formation of Christian culture was to be seen as a time of the first great missionary expansion of Christianity, when, against great odds, whole peoples had been joined to Christendom and the Church had in fair measure communicated a sense of the faith. It was a time when the Christian literary and artistic imagination blossomed.
Moreover, the so-called Renaissance (if ever the characterization of a period has taken the part from the whole, it is in regard to the Renaissance), was not in general a time of de-Christianization, though that might, especially according to geography and social class, have been one’s experience. As such fine historians since Dawson’s time as Augustine Thompson have now shown for the early Italian Renaissance, this was a time when – say in the great cities of Italy – life continued to be lived according to a Christian, liturgical, rhythm.
Finally, the Reformation and Counter-Reformation were in important respects attempts to form the most thoroughly Christian society yet, in which, as a stunning book by Brad Gregory on the willingness of early modern Christians to die for their faith has shown, the Christian hold on Europe continued to develop (W. H. Lewis long ago suggested that the seventeenth was the most Christian of centuries). Certainly an argument can be made that the Baroque, Catholic and Protestant, represents the most distinctly Christian and European art form ever conceived, finding the Christian, incarnate, God in all things and seeing the world as a stage on which the Christian drama plays out. And so it goes.
The point, then, is that overly to separate the various stages of Christian development into too-distinct periods obscures the fact that they were all part of a living and continuing entity, Christendom or Christian culture.