The Liberal Arts: Dawson’s Prerequisite for the Reconstruction of Christendom

One of the greatest Catholic intellects and writers of the twentieth century, Christopher Dawson (1889-1970), worried deeply about the ideological, political, and cultural crises of the western world during the entirety of his adult life. The root of the problem, Dawson had come to believe between the two world wars, was the fundamental decline in the significance, love, and cultivation of ideas and respect for the faculty of imagination.

For nearly a century, Dawson feared, the western world had, in all of its technological and scientific “progress” simplified its understanding of the immense complexities of man. The great intellects of the nineteenth century—men such as Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, and Sigmund Freud—had narrowed the understandings of what motivates a man, be it economics, biological adaptation, or misunderstood sexual longings at a young age. While any one of these things might be true, it is far more likely that each is true, along with millions of other complicated and complicating factors. Man, Dawson knew, could not be understood in merely simplistic, materialist terms. By his very nature of bearing the infinite Imago Dei, finite man carried a uniqueness within him that was genuine and irreplaceable, no matter how hidden such gifts might be to the person himself.

By the 1930s, ideological regimes—democratic as well as fascist and socialist—were centralizing, collectivizing, and mechanizing. One only had to look at the ideological armies, unfurling flags of red (communist), blue (liberal/capitalist), pink (socialist), black (conservative), and brown (National Socialists) to see how ridiculous things had become. As if any person, persons, or idea worth any thing could be symbolized by a color…. The narrowing of ideas in the 19th century had become the very narrowing of reality in the 20th century. Propaganda had replaced art, the pamphlet had replaced literature, and the greats of western civilization were dismissed as elitist and irrelevant to a modern world. How wrong all of this was, Dawson knew. Such propaganda demeaned the human person as it appealed to the lowest parts of him—his emotions, his passions, his instincts. Man “becomes a subordinate part of the great mechanical system that his scientific genius has created,” Dawson lamented. “In the same way, the economic process, which led to the exploitation of the world by man and the vast increase of his material resources, ends in the subjection of man to the rule of the machine and the mechanisation of human life.”[1]

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To follow the course of the ideologues, Dawson feared in 1938, would only end in the “mechanical monster,” and the regulation and de-personalization of every aspect of life. Such mechanization would homogenize every human person and every individual culture into one cosmopolitan, bland mess. Already, modernity had brought about horrible mechanization. Even something as seemingly innocuous as the automobile, meant to make life more convenient, had done nothing but “bring mutilation and death to large numbers of harmless people. We see it on a large scale in the way that the modern industrial system, which exists to serve human needs, nevertheless reduces the countryside to smoking desolation and involves whole populations in periodic troughs of depression and scarcity,” Dawson lamented. “But we see it in its most extreme and devilish form in modern warfare which has a nightmare quality about it and is hardly reconcilable with a human origin or purpose.”[2] Mass society will lead to the destruction of true individuality, and society will “dissolve into a human herd without personality.”[3]

The result of such conformity, Dawson argued, would be “the Kingdom of Antichrist.”[4] After all, the new ideological states are “inevitably contaminated with all sorts of impure elements and open to the influence of evil and demonic forces.”[5] The situation was as bleak as could be imagined. “For the first time in the world’s history the Kingdom of the Anti-Christ has acquired political form and social substance, and stands over against the Kingdom of God as a counter-church with its own creed and its own moral ideals, ruled by a centralized hierarchy and inspired by an intense will for world conquest.”[6]

In these fears and beliefs, Dawson was not alone. A number of humanist and Christian Humanist thinkers—Irving Babbitt, Paul Elmer More, T.S. Eliot, C.S. Lewis, Jacques Maritain, and Romano Guardini, to name a few—had made similar arguments.

The decline, as noted above, had begun at the beginning of the 1930s, but it had only worsened by the mid 1940s. “One has to face the fact that there has been a kind of slump in ideas,” he confided to his closest friend. “There is not only a positive lack of new ideas but also a subjective loss of interest in ideas as such” (Dawson, private letter, August 26, 1946). Mars had hastened the growth of Leviathan. “We are still living much under the shadow of war and the uncertainty of the future of Europe is unfavourable to creative work,” Dawson wrote in a private letter, Sept. 9, 1946. Ideological limitations and propaganda were quickly pervading thought, art, and music in the various Christian churches (Catholic and Protestant), Dawson argued. “The modern theologians in ceasing to be poets have also ceased to be philosophers” (Dawson, private letter, July 28, 1946).

While the reconstruction of Christendom, should it even be possible, Dawson argued in a series of articles and books between 1946 and 1962, would prove exceedingly difficult, it must begin with a proper understanding of the liberal arts and the western tradition. The two were intimately related, one to another. “Virgil and Cicero, Ovid and Seneca, Horace and Quintilian were not merely school books, they became the seeds of a new growth of classical humanism in Western soil,” Christopher Dawson wrote in 1956. “Again and again—in the eighth century as well as in the twelfth and fifteenth centuries—the higher culture of Western Europe was fertilized by renewed contacts with the literary sources of classical culture.”[7]

The liberal arts must also embrace and engage, at a fundamental level, the faculty of imagination. Only the latter would prevent the narrowing decay of an understanding of the world and the human person. Indeed, the imagination should not only allow a person to place himself within the created order and realize his relations with God and other men (a play on the classic definition of justice, to “give each man his due”), but it should also reveal to the human person just how extraordinarily complicated the world is. Consequently, the liberal arts humble and elevate the human person simultaneously, connecting a person to both time and eternity.

During the sixteen years prior to a series of strokes that forced Dawson into retirement, the English Roman Catholic offered a number of suggestions as to how to revive the liberal arts. He developed a four-year curriculum for Catholic Colleges, began to edit a series of works on the lives of the saints (the real movers of history, from Dawson’s perspective), and the formation of a new religious order dedicated to the Christian intellect. Unfortunately, poor health, poor administration skills, and poor fund-raising abilities hindered Dawson in each of these efforts.

Still, Dawson never ceased to remind us of the necessity of the liberal arts as citizens of the West and of Christendom. It is appropriate to end with his words, a challenge to each of us.

Western man has not been faithful to his Christian tradition. He has abandoned it not once, but again and again. For since Christianity depends on a living faith and not merely on social tradition, Christendom must be renewed every fresh generation, and every generation is faced by the responsibility of making decisions, each of which may be an act of Christian faith or an act of apostasy.[8]

This essay first appeared October 10, 2012 on the Imaginative Conservative website and is reprinted with permission.

[1] Dawson, “Christianity and the New Age,” 162. See also, Dawson, “European Democracy and the New Economic Forces,” The Sociological Review 22 (1930), 33.

[2] Dawson, Beyond Politics, 5-6.

[3] Dawson, Beyond Politics, 79.

[4] Dawson, Beyond Politics, 113.

[5] Dawson, Beyond Politics, 132; and Dawson, “The Hour of Darkness,” The Tablet (December 2, 1939), 625.

[6] Dawson, quoted in The Ave Maria (2 June 1934), 695.

[7] Dawson, “Christianity and Ideologies,” Commonweal (May 11 1956), 141. See also Richard M. Gamble’s masterful, The Great Tradition: Classic Readings on What it Means to be an Educated Human Being (Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 2007).

[8] Dawson, Historic Reality of Christian Culture, 17.


  • 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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