Christopher Dawson on 19th-Century Critics of Liberalism

As Christopher Dawson attempted to discover the sources of the ideological disruptions of the twentieth century as well as solutions to the death and terror they caused, he often produced some of his most impassioned work. Indeed, he often comes across, for lack of a better way of putting it, as inspired, a prophet, ready to share his vision and his insight to a suffering world. The forerunner to such brutal terrors as Communism and Fascism was liberalism. In his own research and writing, Dawson then took a special interest in those things which countered the growth of liberalism. From their successes and failures, this twentieth-century Augustinian figure thought the world might re-discover its follies and unify around some healing solution.

As Dawson understood it, four forces worked against the growing power of liberalism, to varying degrees of success: the rise of Evangelicalism; the anti-Revolutionary traditionalist thought of Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre; and the Romantic movement; and John Henry Cardinal Newman. John Wesley, a High Church Anglican, heavily influenced by the pietism of German Moravians, led the first counter-liberal movement. In daily sermons, given throughout England, he preached the need for a rigorous personal and moral discipline as well as for an intense pietism and a personal relationship with Christ. Methodism decreased the chances of a liberal or radical revolution by serving as a conservative force attracting the disenfranchised and economically downtrodden in England and, through the revivalists George Whitefield and Francis Asbury, numerous and various peoples of all backgrounds in the American colonies.

In almost every way, the Wesleyan movement ran counter to the liberalism and Deism of its day. “Wesley was undoubtedly one of the greatest Englishmen of the eighteenth century and a great religious genius,” Dawson wrote in his unpublished Return to Christian Unity. “But no man of his religious stature was more unphilosophical and more anti-metaphysical, and more out of touch with the new intellectual currents of his time than Wesley.” Wesley’s movement, despite its many successes, shared the flaw that all Protestantism shared, according to Dawson. It was individualistic, decentralized, and, hence, unable to deal effectively with social and cultural problems.

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The anti-Revolutionary movement of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries found its greatest intellectual representatives in the brilliant Joseph de Maistre and Edmund Burke. De Maistre, a Frenchman by birth, “hid the spirit of a Hebrew prophet,” attempting to discern “the problem of suffering and evil and the justification of the obscure purposes of God in history.” “The contempt of Locke is the beginning of wisdom,” de Maistre firmly believed. He focused on the dark side of creation, however, so that he eventually could only see darkness as the cause of anything. According to Dawson, de Maistre was an extreme Augustinian who believed that man was so dark that “impersonal forces which move to their appointed ends” moved men, denying them any free will. This resulted in war and revolutions as natural parts of humanity. He viewed the French Revolution as the birth of “a new age” of “hollow abstractions.” Still, de Maistre conceded, perhaps God intended the Revolution as a necessary punishment and purifier for men and their sinful ways. Though he understood that contemporaries may not see the how or why, God ultimately would use the violence and terror of the revolution to remake Christendom. “We have been grievously and justly broken,” de Maistre wrote, “but if such eyes as mine are worthy to foresee the divine purpose, we have been broken only to be made one.”

Dawson cautioned that de Maistre took this view too far, veering into a heterodox view closely resembling the Hindu belief of Karma, in which an evil will be repaid with an evil. Interestingly, despite de Maistre’s minor heterodoxies, Dawson strongly identified with him. “On the whole I would say that my thought is in the tradition of the medieval English scholasticism–a theological absolutism combined with a philosophical relativism, and it is also the tradition of the French Catholic traditionalists like Bonald and de Maistre,” Dawson wrote in a private letter in 1957.

As he did with de Maistre, Dawson also considered the Anglo-Irish statesman Edmund Burke a kindred spirit. Dawson never read Burke during his formative intellectual period, but he valued his thoughts on ideologies greatly, especially in the 1930s. “Burke has said certain things better than any one else can hope to again,” Dawson told John J. Mulloy. Dawson especially appreciated Burke’s organic approach to culture and history. Society, Burke knew, was never merely political or legal. At its most fundamental, society was spiritual, transcending any one generation, but embracing all living beings, past, present, and future. It was from this standpoint that Burke attacked the French Revolutionaries as the harbingers of terror not just for the French, but for all of Christendom. Their movement was the unloosing of chaos upon the world. “Out of the tomb of the murdered Monarchy in France, has arisen a vast, tremendous, unformed spectre,” Burke wrote in his final work, Letters on a Regicide Peace, “in a far more terrific guise than any which ever yet have overpowered the imagination and subdued the fortitude of man.”

Much of Burke’s and de Maistre’s thought re-surfaced with the early nineteenth-century Romantics. The Romantics, being highly individualistic, were diverse in their thought, and though they often shared de Maistre’s and Burke’s fears of pure rationalism, they were just as likely to reject the traditionalist love of order, often preferring chaos and anarchy as free and liberating. Still, the Romantics typically agreed that the rationalism of the Enlightenment came from the dividing of Christendom and the Protestant attempt to de-mythologize the sacraments and Creation. Hence, those Romantics that embraced theism, more often than not embraced a medieval form of Roman Catholicism. Even William Blake, one of the greatest of the Romantics, traversed a tortuous path from spiritual darkness and Gnosticism “among beasts and devils” to Christian heterodoxy to something closely resembling Catholic orthodoxy. Through it all, he conceded, he had traveled “on the strength of the Lord God,” finding his greatest enemy in the rationalist, liberal Deism of his day. But, according to Dawson, Blake embraced the Logos and the moral imagination as a “Divine Vision.” It, and it alone, could heal the divisions of Christendom. And, though “religion failed to reconquer and reunite European Civilization,” as the traditionalists and Romantics had desired, Dawson argued, “it recovered its vitality and once more asserted itself as an autonomous force in European culture.”

John Henry Cardinal Newman offered the last great opposition to the rising tide of liberalism before it turned into the deadly ideologies of the twentieth century. As with many of the other figures mentioned above, Dawson felt a true kinship with Newman. Both had been converts to Roman Catholicism, both were Augustinians, and both did everything in their intellectual power to combat liberalism. Indeed, Dawson considered his book on the Oxford Movement, The Spirit of the Oxford Movement, one of his two greatest intellectual accomplishments. Newman’s Development of Christian Doctrine and his Apologia especially influenced Dawson. The former impressed Dawson because it had been “inspired by an intense faith in the boundless powers of assimilation which the Christian faith possessed and which made it a unitive principle in life and thought.” Dawson admired Newman’s Apologia because it recognized that “it was only in history that the divine process of progressive revelation and spiritual renovation could be fulfilled.” Because all of history had a purpose, Newman argued, history seemed to have changed its direction with the coming of Christ. It no longer runs straight forward, but is, as it were, “continually verging on eternity.”

Newman’s near-mysticism and inspired foresight—his understanding of being on the edge of eternity—also impressed Dawson. Newman, more clearly than any of his contemporaries, understood the coming war of the Church against the ideologues. Evil and iniquity were attempting to enter the world in any way that they could, and they found their vehicle in the French Revolution, utilitarianism, and secularization, Newman feared. “A confederacy of evil, marshalling its hosts from all parts of the world, organising itself, taking its measures, enclosing the Church of Christ as in a net.” Newman’s vision can best be seen in the poetry of William Butler Yeats, the fiction of Father R.H. Benson, and the gulags and killing fields of the twentieth century. Newman’s words were a call to arms in defense of the Church before the Enemy gained control of its institutions. Ultimately, Dawson argued, future scholars would remember “the personality and genius of Newman … as a key point of the whole development” of nineteenth-century religious thought, “as at once the embodiment and contradiction of the spirit of his age.” According to Dawson, Newman was the greatest and best defender of the West and Christendom in his day.

Editor’s note: This column first appeared June 2, 2017, on the Imaginative Conservative website and is reprinted with permission. Please see the original version for footnotes.


  • Bradley Birzer

    Bradley Birzer is the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in History and Director of the American Studies Program at Hillsdale College, Michigan. He is the author of many books including Sanctifying the World: The Augustinian Life and Mind of Christopher Dawson, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle-earth and Russell Kirk: American Conservative. Birzer is Chairman of the Board of Academic Advisors for the Center for the American Idea in Houston and co-founder of The Imaginative Conservative website.

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