I almost titled this entry “Why I Study History,” but I figured that no one would read it if I did. “Why I Study History” has a “Why I Collect Matchbooks” sort of ring to it. “The Democracy of the Dead,” on the other hand, has a unique and mysterious tone. It conjures up visions of dead men casting their votes and making their long-lost voices heard.
It is typical of our time that the more doubtful we are about the value of philosophy, the more certain we are about the value of education. That is to say, the more doubtful we are about whether we have any truth, the more certain we are (apparently) that we can teach it to our children. (Chesterton, Illustrated London News 1-12-07)
Chesterton was always able to unmask the ugly phantom-face of an absurdity. Sadly, what he points out here in his Illustrated London News column of January, 1907 remains one of the great ironies of our own time: the very people who assert that the truth is relative are at one and the same time great champions of the cause of education. There is no truth, but we mustn’t fail to teach it to our children.
As the school year begins anew, let us be mindful of our great responsibility to affirm the truth strongly. "That is the one eternal education; to be sure enough that something is true that you dare to tell it to a child." (Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World)
There are a number of places on the world-wide-web where one can learn a few things about Christopher Dawson. Chief among them seems to be the so-called Christopher Dawson Archives, where one can find, amongst other things, a few essays written about Dawson, a few essays written by Dawson, a bibliography covering Dawson’s corpus of published work, as well as a weblog which, unfortunately, is updated rather infrequently. Here one will find a wholly inadequate introduction to Dawson on Wikipedia. There is also this essay from the Christendom Awake website, as well as another from CatholicAuthors.com. Fascinatingly, the Acton Institute’s website lists Dawson among a select group of people (including J.R.R. Tolkien!) as being "in the liberal tradition." On the same site one will also find a brief introduction to Dawson’s life and work. The Gifford Lectures website has a decent introduction to Dawson containing the core insight that his "central concern was to articulate the centrality and dynamism of religion for all cultures, but particularly for European culture." And, lastly, the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture has this to say about Dawson.
Of course, I should not fail to refer my readers to the website of the wonderful Christopher Dawson Collection at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN.
Closed-circuit to Dave:
"Pedid y se os dara, buscad y encontrareis, llamad y os abriran."
If baseball is America’s quintessential game, then wiffleball is our backyard national pastime.
…dixit Ecclesiastes, vanitas vanitatum et omnia vanitas.
I’ll be absent a few days. Do come back and visit soon.
Now would be a great time to thank all of those faithful bloggers who requested prayers for my little boy during a dark hour. Particularly I’d like to thank my brother Judd, my brother Dave, the Troglodyte, young Jenny, and her sister Emily over at the Shrine.
Here is proof that your prayers were answered!
G. K. Chesterton may be "the most unjustly neglected writer of our time," as Dale Ahlquist writes, but I can’t think of any 20th century writer as unjustly neglected as Christopher Dawson.
Interestingly, Chesterton and Dawson make for a remarkable comparison. This hit me one day when I was interviewing Dr. Adam Schwartz, Assistant Professor of History at Christendom College. Dr. Schwartz was in the Twin Cities for the Annual Chesterton Conference some time ago when I interviewed him on behalf of a local Catholic journal. At one point in our interview, he explained to me that Dawson had distinguished himself from the other historians of his day particularly by means of his meta-historical approach to history. According to Dr. Schwartz,
English historiography particularly at this time—early to mid 20th century—was much more based on putting together facts and telling you exactly when things happened. Dawson thought that was absolutely necessary and didn’t like it when historians didn’t do that, but he also believed in what he called metahistory, which was trying to divine the meaning of events as well as the matter of them. For Dawson, of course, metahistory meant looking at history from a theological standpoint. He articulated very well, and better than any of his English counterparts did, a very explicitly Christian Catholic view of history, which saw the Incarnation as not only an important moment in salvation history but in secular history; it was the turning point in all of history. That was his main lodestar for how he understood history, and that set him apart from many of his peers, who either didn’t have a metahistorical view at all or, if they did, had a more philosophical one—Marxist, or something like that, but not a supernaturalist viewpoint.
I well remember that as Dr. Schwartz was explaining all of this I couldn’t help but think of Chesterton and his very fine book The Everlasting Man, after which, of course, this site is named. And so I went ahead and brought it up. "Your description of Dawson’s historical vision sounds a great deal like that of G.K. Chesterton’s in The Everlasting Man." To which he responded,
Very much so. I don’t know that Dawson was particularly influenced by that book. At least, we don’t have any evidence of that. But he certainly knew of and admired Chesterton’s work. And it actually worked vice versa. Although Dawson was writing toward the tail end of Chesterton’s career, Chesterton was aware of his work and did praise it in a couple of Illustrated London News columns. So they did know of each other. As far as intellectual affinities go, you are absolutely right. They both had that sense that the pivotal event for understanding history was God becoming human. Dawson worked it out in slightly more philosophical terms—Chesterton in more imaginative terms. But they had the same basic insight.
[As it turns out, Dr. Schwartz has done a great deal of work on Dawson and Chesterton.]
It was about six years ago that I first heard the name Christopher Dawson.
It was one of those lovely days in the month of May when one is finally rewarded for enduring a Minnesota winter. My sophomore year at the University of St. Thomas had just come to an end, and most of my friends were packing up their things to go home for the summer. I was one of the last people to leave the dorms that spring. I don’t know why. I think I had the sense even then that those were good days. Having just completed my final paper of the term, I was breathing the freshness of the open air again. I think you know what I mean. I had that feeling that one gets when he has just finished a very long project and finally has the chance to do whatever he wants. Two years into my undergraduate studies, I was just beginning to take a serious interest in the liberal arts.
It was then, amidst all of the hustle and bustle of students gathering up their things to go home, that I first heard of Dawson. I had wandered into the room of a friend who was to graduate in just a couple of days. He was packing his up his books, box by box, when he came upon a particular volume and hesitated. Looking back on that moment, I think he was holding a copy of Christianity and European Culture; at any rate it was a book written by Christopher Dawson. My friend seemed most interested in this little volume, and so I asked him what it was all about. I vividly recall him telling me what I have since come to know very well: that Dawson was a Catholic historian who understood that cultures are the basic units of historical inquiry, and that religion is the basis of culture. Since that day I’ve spent a great many nights reading Dawson’s work, and I don’t think I could improve upon this brief description.
It was just a few months later that I first read Dawson for myself, and I’ve hardly put him down ever since.
It is difficult to know the manner in which one should begin his web-logging. I mean, does he simply start post-plopping and leave it to the reader to make sense of it all? Or is there some sort of commencement protocol, some sort of unwritten law which states that the writer must begin by articulating some grand vision for his space and set forth some sweeping statement of purpose at the outset, like the Preamble to the American Constitution?
I’m afraid I do not have one of those. Forced at swordpoint to answer for myself, I suppose I would say that I only wish to have a bit of fun within these pages and perhaps further my writing skills a bit. I certainly make no pretense at being able to offer insight.
Perhaps some explanation of this space’s title is in order. The first two posts should suffice to explain the title’s origin. It comes from the name of a very good book written by G. K. Chesterton. As to why I’ve chosen to employ Chesterton’s book as my title, I can only answer that I never did. It was, in fact, chosen for me by my brother, who put me in possession of this domain on my 23rd birthday. That was about two years ago.
The title, nevertheless, is a worthy one. It is so worthy, in fact, that I am altogether intimidated by being its guardian. Allow me to be very straightforward in pointing out that I am in no way attempting to carry Chesterton’s torch. That is a fire no writer should ever play with, lest it engulf him. If anything, I wish only to locate my own basic historical assumptions within the framework of Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man.
The book was written as a kind of rebuttal to H.G. Wells’ popular book, The Outline of History. Chesterton said that Wells was like an author who disliked the main character in his book. Wells glossed over the two biggest points in history. The first is the uniqueness of the creature called man and the second is the uniqueness of the man called Christ.1
So much for introductions.
There is a sort of absurdity about these initial posts. The absurdity is that no one will read them, because no one has any knowledge their existence. Or if someone does happen to read them, he will probably do so several months after they have already been written. That is assuming, of course, that these pages will outlast a few phases of the moon.
Here you will find Dale Ahlquist’s brief summary of The Everlasting Man by G. K. Chesterton.
Visit the American Chesterton Society website to learn more about Chesterton and his works, and to find an answer to the nagging question:
It is simply false to say that the other sages and heroes had claimed to be that mysterious master and maker, of whom the world had dreamed and disputed. Not one of them had ever claimed to be anything of the sort. Not one of their sects or schools had ever claimed that they had claimed to be anything of the sort. The most that any religious prophet had said was that he was the true servant of such a being. The most that any visionary had ever said was that men might catch glimpses of the glory of that spiritual being; or much more often of lesser spiritual beings. The most that any primitive myth had ever suggested was that the creator was present at creation. But that the creator was present at scenes a little subsequent to the supper-parties of Horace, and talked with tax-collectors and government officials in the detailed daily life of the Roman Empire, and that this fact continued to be firmly asserted by the whole of that great civilisation for more than a thousand years–that is something utterly unlike anything else in nature. It is the one great startling statement that man has made since he spoke his first articulate word, instead of barking like a dog. Its unique character can be used as an argument against it as well as for it. It would be easy to concentrate on it as a case of isolated insanity; but it makes nothing but dust and nonsense of comparative religion.
–G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man