In the Spring 2008 issue of Communio, Glenn W. Olsen wrote a rather lengthy essay entitled “Why We Need Christopher Dawson”. I haven’t read too much in the way of scholarly history, but I’ve read enough to understand the differing views on the nature of history (i.e. what can we “know” from historial inquiry?). I find the topic fascinating and thus far* have not read a better treatment of it than N. T. Wright in Part II of The New Testament and the People of God. So when I read Olsen’s essay on Christopher Dawson’s approach to history through culture, I was very intrigued. I found myself agreeing with much of the essay, and can second Olsen’s opinion that we need more of a Christopher Dawson view of history in the world.
I will attempt to do a series of posts (how many I don’t know) on Olsen’s essay. This will also serve as an introduction to Dawson’s thought, which is the primary reason for me to do this series of posts. Also me typing this out will help me remember it better. See. My reasoning can be very simple at times. I should also note that this touches on some of the discussion that has been had recently over at the fides quaerens intellectum blog.
By way of introduction, here is how Olsen starts out his essay, which serves to set the stage for a discussion about Dawson:
Historians have a rather short half-life. Whether one views historical writing as a branch of literature or as a kind of science, it is based on documentary research. As this advances more evidence becomes available by which to understand the past, making earlier narratives to that extent dated. Add to this the inevitable changes in perspective brought about by history itself, carrying the historian with it, and modifying ideas about what in earlier times is most valuable and important, and we find every generation rewriting the past. Even the historian most devoted to philology, that is to avoiding anachronism by using words and ideas only as they were used in the period he wishes to study, must begin with words and ideas as they are presently defined and laboriously work back to earlier meanings – and the present usage with which he must begin is itself shifting. The upshot is that few historians are read by many beyond their own times. If they are, it is because they are a Thecydides or a Gibbon, that is, historians of such great stature, intelligence, style, or insight as writers – in the case of Gibbon, so amusing and incisive – that we cannot lay their histories down. No matter that we may strongly disagree with the interpretive framework of a Gibbon, he draws us into his web, and we can always make allowances for the limitations of his perspective.
So why should we continue to read Christopher Dawson (1889-1970), now dead for more than a generation? Truth be told, some in the historical community, having asked that question, have suggested that Dawson is passé, an interesting and important writer in his own day, but now either not sufficiently up-to-date, or embodying perspectives once plausible, but now less so. We will consider one such critic below, but first we need to address the question at hand: why should we continue to read Dawson?
Probably most would agree that his greatest historical contribution was his writing of history around the idea of Christian culture, an innovation which in turn expressed his conviction that culture is embodied religion. At the heart of culture lies religion: Dawson’s genius lay in his working out this insight in a series of books and essays. These all, in one way or another, dealt with the idea of culture, but perhaps it is fair to say that, once having defined the relation of religion to culture, he was more interested in using this idea to write history than in pursuing its final philosophical foundations. This latter is the goal toward which we move here. The claim is that Dawson is stil worth reading not just because he was an illuminating historian and a fine sylist, but because his organizing ideas, true in themselves, continue to provoke reflection on the nature of culture. At the same time, this reflection should be useful even for historians, inasmuch as it points to the need to make room for, and give priority to, apprehend meaning as the causa causarum in history.
I can second that statement about (Edward) Gibbon. I am working through his The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire now, and I must say it is easily the most enjoyable history book I have ever read.
After the exceprt above, Olsen goes on to contrast Dawson’s view of history as cultural evolutions versus the generally held view of cut and dry “time periods” (e.g. ancient, medeival, modern). It is surprsing to me how the differing approaches to history impact what we can learn and how we understand history. But more on that in a later post. I will also add – because I know you were wondering – that Glenn W. Olsen is a professor of history at the University of Utah with a PhD in the history of the Middle Ages.
* “thus far” doesn’t mean all that much as I readily admit that I am not well read in this area.