Handicapping History

Christopher Dawson’s prophetic The Making of Europe (1932) ends where the Gentle Reader might expect such a book to begin. Dawson begins his history in the third century, with the Diocletian restoration and persecution, then traces the twilight of Late Antiquity, the many migratory shocks, and finally the eight century recovery under Charlemagne. It ends however in the terrible tenth century, when all hope of the Millennium finally died under the swords of the Norse and resurgent Islam. The Making of Europe ends with the Carolingian collapse.

“It is difficult to exaggerate the horror and confusion of the Dark Age that followed the collapse of the Carolingian experiment,” Dawson summarizes. “The one principle of the new society was the law of force and the need for protection. Personal freedom was no longer a privilege, for the man without a lord was a man without a protector.”

In closing, Dawson gives a brief sketch of the tenth century anarchy: feudalism’s warrior “beasts of prey,” the collapse of commerce, the isolation of desolate cities, the brothel monasteries and the Mafia papacy. Then surprisingly he announces: “Nevertheless, the state of affairs was not so hopeless as one might conclude from the spectacle of all these scandals and abuses.” Really? “They were the birth-pangs of a new society, and out of the darkness and confusion of the tenth century, the new peoples of Christian Europe were born.”

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Then he ends the book! In the mid-tenth century! Over a hundred years before the University of Bologna and First Crusade, two centuries before St. Denis and the mendicants, and three centuries before the Summae and Comedia. How could the cringing, half-literate or illiterate clerics of Aquitaine, Bohemia or Flanders possibly have imagined a Gothic cathedral or Scholasticism?

They could not, and that is Dawson’s point. For the previous six hundred years, following the floods of Goths, Vandals, Huns, Saxons, Muslims, Lombards, Danes and Magyars, all the responsible missionaries and statesmen had striven with all their prayer and politicking to resuscitate the old Empire. They tried repeatedly to rebuild what they once had—the court of the Imperial High-Priest—only to be smacked down time and again. Smacked down, until they no longer had the past in front of them. Smacked down, until whatever they built next would satisfy anew the perennial longing for purpose, order, and beauty.

No-one living then could have understood it, certainly not the jealous baron-bishops, saying the same, identical Mass from the Vistula to the Tagus. Dawson describes that age as a ubiquitous spiritual unity awash in total administrative anarchy. When Providence kicks over our blocks, few are left stacked.

It will surprise no one if we say, today, that we are experiencing a civilizational collapse just as despairing as the tenth century. The statistical indices (cheered by the nihilists) are undeniable: the circuses, the promiscuity, infertility, family breakdown, addiction, psychotic violence, infanticide, senicide, suicide, mass migration and (decisively) depopulation, and all the real human wreckage that the numbers represent. Today, however, we have the obverse of the tenth century: we have spiritual anarchy overlaid with a theatrical administrative unity.

We have no way of knowing whether this twenty-first century collapse is yet another momentary stumble (like the sixth century collapse of the Gothic kingdoms) or finally the Dark Age. Like good Carolingians, however, we keep looking backwards for our recovery, trying to rebuild what we once had. We are incapable of seeing new growth under our feet, because we have no vocabulary for it. We see only what we are losing; only for that do we have the words.

The collapse has admittedly been obscured. In the tenth century, communication was most expensive. To find out what was happening one town over, you had to risk a horse and rider. So the culture was thrown back on local, self-sufficient manors and villages, solidly rooted in the agricultural rhythms of olives-and-grapes or beans-and-hops. In contrast, communication today is cheaper than bottled water. So, just as Africa over-leapt expensive copper wire, going straight to cell-phone banking, we’ve given up customary etiquette and real family alliances in favor of shallow memes and podcasts. Up in the blogosphere, the Chicago police can tell you how many 8-to-17-year-old boys were murdered last week—when and with what—but they are powerless to stop the carnage at street level.

The persistence of cheap modern communications conveys an illusion of administration. There’s a psychotic shooting in a distant suburban school, and federal authorities send in the Flying Squad, to prove they’re Doing Something. Meanwhile, outside the gated communities, “the man without an Identity is a man without a protector.” The only growing cohort is the Dependency Class, particularly of our young males, violent in the urban east-end, distracted and impotent in their suburban basement bedrooms. The modern industrial plant feeds us all (and our dead-weight bureaucracy). But welfare and allowances can’t satisfy resentment and anomie, the spiritual vacuum. No “policy” can fix it. Nothing can “fix” it. What we now call our “culture” is simply chronicling the collapse, thanks again to our cheap communications.

Still, we repeat with Gandalf: we cannot stand in judgment of our own age. We must steer between the extremes of Traditionalism and Progressivism: between praising yesterday’s alleged virtues, in condemning today’s vices, or praising today’s alleged virtues, in condemning yesterday’s vices. In the revealing ancient Greek idiom, our future is behind us. We are walking backwards into tomorrow, capable of seeing only where we’ve been, not where we’re going. This is not despair. This is reality. We cannot see the future.

We cannot know what or when, but we can know that something will indeed seize the human heart—someday, something liturgical, in the grand sense of the Gothic, Renaissance or Baroque, because the human heart demands it. And it may well come quickly. Four centuries stretched between the Siege of Paris and Notre-Dame de Paris, but they didn’t have the Internet and low-cost air carriers.

Ever since Napoleon’s paste-board classicism, we’ve had way too much “making history” and “building culture,” like Bauhaus boobies erecting Stalinist blocks or Brecht pimping beauty for cynical progressivists. However, we may rightly suspect that the collapse cannot be arrested by any “reform of the public service.” The disease of the Tenth Century was anarchy, and yet its warrior elite instinctively chafed at any surrender of their rights and privileges—as if the antidote for a poison was more of the same. Conversely, modern bureaucratic despotism generates the adolescent dependency that it serves (as de Tocqueville predicted). So across the developed world, the public service grows increasingly sclerotic, strangling the productivity of the economies that feed it. And despite occasional checks, its instinctive cure is increased regulation and taxation. So our new culture will arise perforce “outside the public economy.”

The future is built only by responding to the real needs of real people, particularly real children, and trusting human nature to knit the pattern. Our electronic age has brought a plague of loneliness, particularly among our young, so we may guess that the next epoch will bring a Culture of Domesticity. But we will get there only with parent-run schools, handy-man classes, home-cooking, families welcoming shirt-tail relatives, gentle fiction, sensible architecture and suburban villages. Still, this is only a guess. Meanwhile, we should take seriously the possibility that the new culture will come surprisingly quickly.

The primary purpose of “culture” (as in viniculture) is training our youth (like vines) in a common good, an untangled way of life that is not merely economically productive, but most importantly that shared culture itself. Our public schools today, indentured to the universal and homogenous public administration, teach little more than interest-group activism and political dependency. However, look out over the land, you will see a growing array of independent schools, recovering “Western Civ” and choir, lost for two generations—the iconic Chesterton Academy, the two-dozen Great Hearts charter schools, the half-dozen Basis schools, the four-dozen Nashville Dominican schools, schools totaling into the thousands, and independent colleges, almost as numerous. As Dawson said of the tenth century, in the midst of collapse, the future is already budding. We simply can’t see what we’re growing yet.


  • Joseph Woodard

    Joseph Keith Woodard, PhD, was until retirement the Citizenship Judge for Calgary, Canada. He has degrees from the University of Alberta, Dalhousie, St. John’s College, and Claremont Graduate School. He taught at too many universities; was the religion editor at Western Report and Calgary Herald; and he has one wife, three sons, and seven daughters, now bearing grandchildren.

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