Christopher Dawson’s Cultural Mind
Joseph T. Stuart. Christopher Dawson: A Cultural Mind in the Age of the Great War. Washington DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2022.   The English historian Charles Petrie attended the 1932 Rome Conference that Mussolini arranged to discuss the European situation, and his memoirs provide the following anecdote regarding the proceedings: “[A] long-winded German… The post Christopher Dawson’s Cultural Mind appeared first on VoegelinView.




Joseph T. Stuart. Christopher Dawson: A Cultural Mind in the Age of the Great War. Washington DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2022.


The English historian Charles Petrie attended the 1932 Rome Conference that Mussolini arranged to discuss the European situation, and his memoirs provide the following anecdote regarding the proceedings: “[A] long-winded German was getting well into his stride when Lord Rennell suggested that he and I should retire for a drink. When we had done so, he remarked, ‘Let me give you a word of advice as an old man to a young one. When Germans talk about things that end in –ismus, and Frenchmen about things that end in –ologie, it is wisest for an Englishman to withdraw to the bar.”[1] While humorous, and potentially prudent advice for some, the English-speaking world can be thankful that the Catholic historian Christopher Dawson was also in attendance as an official delegate at the conference, and he was not the kind to slip away. While some may have the opportunity to avoid the jargon filled debates and conflicts of ideologies, the history of the twentieth century was scarred by the results of these conflicts, and then as now we need scholars like Dawson with the fortitude to analyze and discuss these issues.
Christopher Dawson’s capacious scholarly career was intimately connected with the European situation of the twentieth century as he personally endured the crisis of World War I and its long-lasting ideological aftermath, but he has not traditionally received as much attention as some contemporaries. Readers who appreciate the scope of Eric Voegelin’s research and writing as well as his sensitivity to the religious components of ancient and contemporary issues may also share an appreciation for Christopher Dawson, but they may not be well versed in his entire corpus. In part this is because before becoming Harvard University’s first professor of Catholic Studies, Dawson labored as an independent scholar without an academic position for the majority of his life. Joseph T. Stuart’s Christopher Dawson: A Cultural Mind in the Age of the Great War is aimed to redress the neglect of Dawson’s work as well as to situate his emphasis on “culture” within the wide range of Dawson’s scholarly development, reading, and historical and political application.
Stuart’s near-exhaustive treatment of Christopher Dawson’s understanding and application of culture frames the first part of his treatment. While culture is a term commonly used in various academic disciplines, it is possible to overlook how his cultural analysis differentiated the scholarship that Dawson produced from his contemporaries. Where other historians might focus their narratives around “states, civilizations, or institutional churches” as organizing principles, Dawson could escape these limitations by examining culture as “the common way of life of a people, including their vision of reality.” According to Stuart, “Dawson studied world cultures as common ways of life that develop through interaction with their environments and each other. In doing so…he acquired a ‘cultural mind,’ by which he attempted to push beyond the specialization of modern knowledge to ‘see things whole,’ to account for both visible and invisible forces in the synchronic structures of cultures and in their diachronic evolution.” Stuart’s book similarly attempts to “see things whole” by resisting the standard periodization of the twentieth century in which Dawson lived. When the book’s subtitle refers to the “Age of the Great War,” he is not referring simply to the years closely proximate to 1914. According to Stuart’s analysis, the age of the great war “last[ed] from 1914 to 1991, when the Soviet Union – spawned by the Russian Revolution in 1917 – disintegrated.” Therefore, Stuart seeks to situate the work of Christopher Dawson as responding to the broadest issues of the twentieth century. Given the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine, we may even wonder if the year 1991 is too limited a date for analyzing the fallout from the Great War, but this only further suggests the advantages of considering Dawson’s cultural mind.
Stuart’s introduction outlines what he takes to be the “four rules of the cultural mind” that Dawson utilized to navigate the diverse and wide-ranging research for which he is known. First, “intellectual architecture” as opposed to simplification, “Dawson’s cultural mind was attempting to view a given problem in light of the whole picture and to put everything in its right place.” Second, “boundary thinking” or “reasoning appropriate to each discipline,” this respects “the integrity of each discipline and acknowledged its limits.” Third, “intellectual bridges” work to connect a vast array of material from different areas of research; “Dawson’s cultural mind constantly sought to draw diverse fragments of the world together, to bridge whole disciplines, from art to economics and theology – connecting them in new ways to link distant regions of intellectual architecture together.” And fourthly, “intellectual asceticism,” though Dawson achieved expert status in multiple fields, he “refrained from writing simply for fellow intellectuals, seeking instead to make the fruits of his specialized scholarship accessible to a general audience.” The remainder of the first part of the book – consisting of five chapters – develops Dawson’s cultural mind by examining his formation “through practicing an interdisciplinary science of culture,” namely the fields of anthropology, sociology, history, and comparative religion. While Dawson is primarily known as a historian, and there are two chapters in part one addressed to the discipline of history, Stuart considers chapter five on comparative religion to be “the heart of the book” “because it makes a case for one of Dawson’s main arguments: that religion plays a central role in cultural unity and development and is thus key to interpreting and explain world cultures.”
After such lengthy work situating Dawson’s cultural mind, part two applies his scholarly framework to the political and educational problems that existed in his day, and which remain pressing still. Chapter six and seven consider politics under the rubric of first describing the crises of “The Expansion of Politics” during the age of the Great War, and then turning to Dawson’s proposed solution for “The Containment of Politics.” By the expansion of politics, Stuart means the development of what Voegelin also refers to as “political religions.” Dawson recognized that, “Secularization is unstable and, in fact, fosters conditions conducive to sacralization of temporal realities” in the form of ideologies centered on the class (communism), the state (fascism), or race (Nazism). “The Containment of Politics” focuses on Dawson’s work after World War II and his understanding that opposing political religions would require not just military combat, but also an “inner fight to defend the souls of people from colonization by the totalitarian spiritual atmosphere.”
Stuart’s work will certainly be regarded as a pillar within the growing field of Dawson studies to which Stuart has long contributed, but it is difficult to pinpoint precisely how to best recommend the book for different readers or audiences. On the one hand, it is too light on Dawson’s personal biography and too detailed on his relationship to various academic disciplines for a general readership who are looking for an accessible introduction. Those without experience in Dawson’s work should not view this new book as a replacement for reading Dawson themselves. In fact, those with limited prior engagement may be better off first familiarizing themselves with Bradley Birzer’s Sanctifying the World: The Augustinian Life and Mind of Christopher Dawson. On the other hand, specialized scholars in anthropology, sociology, history, or comparative religions will wish the entire book was dedicated to Dawson’s relevance for their own fields as opposed to the individual chapters they each receive. Further, readers familiar with Eric Voegelin may wish to move directly to chapters 6 and 7 for the discussion of the crisis of political religions and Dawson’s work to resist sacralization and contain the dangers of totalitarian politics. Whereas Catholic educators interested in the “Dawson plan” for developing an educational curriculum and program that supports the development of a “cultural mind” may focus primarily on chapter 8 on education. Perhaps we might say that the difficulties of seeking to convey the vast scope of Dawson’s formation and analysis as well as the significant importance of Dawson’s writings have created the problem of how to treat his work in one single volume. Pointing out the difficulties of the subject in some sense increases the credit to Stuart in producing such a work, and he has certainly made his case that Dawson deserves further attention today.


[1] Charles Petrie, Chapters of Life (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1950), 186.

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