Christopher Dawson is perhaps the greatest historian of the 20th century, but one of the most frequently overlooked. In contrast to the dominant historiographies of the period, which placed emphasis on factors such as economics and race in the development of cultural life, Dawson instead emphasized the importance of the thought, the human element. Rather than seeing man as the product of his location, his genetics, or his work, as did so many historians of his time and as do so many of ours, Dawson instead saw culture as the product of man in creative cooperation with those factors.
For Dawson, the first and foremost element of this creative cooperation is religion. Religion, according to Dawson, proceeds from the way in which man confronts the environment into which he is placed and chooses to either cooperate with it or fight against it. From this, there ensues a process in which religion at first recognizes and reveres the power of nature. These nature religions, however, are eventually shown to be deficient in that nature is itself a deficient guide. Man, then, looks to heaven as a more sufficient guide, exposing the deficiencies of nature and seeking to bring himself and the entirety of creation into relation with and submission to this higher order. From this point many religions slip into a kind of world-denying gnosticism (i.e. Hinduism, et al.) or nihilism (i.e. Buddhism, et al.).
The unique strength of Christianity in this regard, however, is the idea of the Incarnation, which has reconciled the material and spiritual orders, forbidding either the nature-worship of the primitive religions or the life-denying escapism of the spiritual religions. By bringing the two into harmony, Christianity has opened Europe especially to the universality of the human experience and the beauties of this world when in proper relation to the higher order.
Dawson’s theories are a necessary and timely corrective to the materialistic determinism of Marxism, genetics, nationalism, and other modern movements. What he presents is, properly speaking, a coherent Christian historiography which, while drawing on the historians of Christianity’s past (St. Augustine most especially), also acknowledges the contributions of and provides a rebuttal to later non-Christian or post-Christian developments.
This book in particular is a worthy introduction to Dawson’s ideas, as it presents a number of essays, articles, and selections taken from other of Dawson’s works. I recommend this book for anyone interested in history and the restoration of the proper perspective of and in Western Civilization.