In Defense of Christopher Dawson


January 11, 2012

I would like to present a qualified defense of Christopher Dawson and his essay, “Catholicism and the Bourgeois Mind.” Jeffrey Tucker, John Zmirak and Fr. John Peter Pham each mount a strong defense of the bourgeois and the world they created, and Tucker in particular argues that thinkers like Dawson are dangerously reactionary world when they criticize the bourgeois for destroying “almost” everything worthwhile.

And there is in Dawson’s essay support for their critique.  Dawson is seeking an alternative to a purely economic culture that he dislikes.  He himself was a child of rural England who saw the destruction made possible by the industrial methods of the First World War, and he never lost that nostalgia for a strong rural presence in human life a preference of some conservatives that, as I have discussed elsewhere, I personally do not share.  One can be a conservative and defend bourgeois civilization, as writers like John Lukacs – himself also an admirer of Dawson – have shown.  Insofar as that nostalgia clouded Dawson’s vision and perception of the benefits of modern capitalism, we can all agree that the benefits of robust economic growth outweigh those of rural life when one also includes the costs. And further, Dawson completely ignores the explosion of philanthropy that that culture has created, allowing individuals previously-untold possibilities for helping others.

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But to imply, as Tucker does, that somehow Dawson should be lumped in with those (whoever they are — Pol Pot, maybe?) who want their citizens to lose children in childbirth and sleep on infested straw mattresses, takes things too far.  Dawson, in this essay, is not opposed to industrialism or economic growth.  Rather, as often in his work, he is trying to explore and explain the habit of mind and thought that form a culture.  Is there a unique “bourgeois” sensibility, and is that sensibility in accord with the historical religious tradition of Europe?  In this particular essay, he is trying to compare a certain kind of religious sensibility, which he associates in this essay variously with Baroque Europe and rural England, and the modern, bourgeois culture he sees emerging.  His argument is that insofar as the bourgeois spirit triumphs completely, something important in that older culture is lost.

Indeed, some of Dawson’s words now seem quite relevant. He writes,

The bourgeois lives for money, not merely as the peasant or the soldier or even the artist often does, but in a deeper sense, since money is to him what arms are to the soldier and land is to the peasant, the tools of his trade and the medium through which he expresses himself, so that he often takes an almost disinterested pleasure in his wealth because of the virtuosity he has displayed in his financial operations. In short the bourgeois is essentially a moneymaker,at once its servant and its master, and the development of his social ascendancy shows the degree to which civilization, and human life are dominated by the money power.

Now, this is a sharp critique, yet it covers quite clearly the attitude of many Wall Street masters of the universe. Substitute “derivatives” for “financial operations” and you pretty much have the modern financial industry.

Dawson is not speaking here of the stolid burgher, but the new form of financial engineering that is replacing, as a social type, the older model not just of the bourgeois but of the yeoman or rural vicar.  This kind of “bourgeois” does not in itself create anything — as Tucker and Zmirak imply of all bourgeois — but serves as an intermediary transmitting money between others who do.  Now this function, as any economist will tell you, is an important one:  the appropriate allocation of capital is a critical feature of a modern economy.  But Dawson’s point is not that capital should not be properly allocated, or even that the bourgeois should not be doing it.  Rather, his point is that Catholics should be sensitive to the changes in a culture that occur when such a role is elevated as a model to the exclusion of others.

Moving from a culture where the parable of the talents is replaced with adulation for Warren Buffet has effects, and Catholics should not ignore that some of those cultural changes may effect the culture for the worse.   Dawson also saw where this would lead:  not to the Marxian workers’ paradise, or to the (Ayn) Randian capitalist utopia, but to the smothering welfare state, extracting huge taxes and enacting harmful policies, trying to maintain for citizens a safe, bourgeois standard of living as the highest good.

Admittedly, Dawson may have ignored the straw mattresses and poor dental hygiene of his preferred past, and for that we should offer a corrective to his critique.  But those trumpeting our bourgeois civilization need not look far for a catalogue of social ills that are directly related to our own elevation of Ropke’s “consumer,” who may choose what goods he wills, even when those goods are “lifestyles” that harm others. Millions of children dying in childbirth is a bad thing and we all owe a debt to the culture that developed the scientific medical research to increase our health and longevity.  But that same culture now sees children as dispensable and the medical advances are used for quite different ends.  Dawson is merely exploring whether that possibility is a result of the animating spirit of a type of bourgeois culture that elevates instruments over ends.

Lurking behind Zmirak and Tucker’s defense of the bourgeois is its own nostalgia, for middle-class workers bringing home a family wage, going to church on Sunday, and limited government involvement. That is not, to put it mildly, the economy the West currently has. Its prototypical bourgeois is not the Irish Catholic steelworker or Italian bakery owner, but government contractors, lobbyists, or intellectuals such as Christopher Hitchens, who from his post in Washington cast aspersions on the baroque life of Mother Theresa.  Indeed, in a wholly bourgeois world, Mother Theresa is incomprehensible.

Lament for a lost “golden” age is a temptation for everyone, and Tucker is right to remind us of the harsh realities of those past times and not to indulge even thinkers such as Dawson in assessing accurately the benefits of bourgeois civilization.  However, recognizing that temptation does not vitiate the goods of those past societies, any more than our current enjoyment of the best living standards in the history of the world justifies our evils.


  • Gerald J. Russello

    Gerald J. Russello is a Fellow of the Chesterton Institute at Seton Hall University and editor of The University Bookman. He is also the editor of the 2013 edition of Christopher Dawson’s Religion and Culture from Catholic University of America Press.

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