Book Review: A Historian and His World: A Life of Christopher Dawson by Christina Scott

Christopher was almost certainly the greatest historian of the 20th century. In his thought and work, he overcame the materialist reductionism of both the racialists and the Marxists, who would find the driving impetus behind the movements of human history in biological and economy, respectively. Instead, Dawson, in continuity with the great Christian tradition of insisting upon man’s radical free will, posited that it is the spiritual element in man which is the great catalyst of history. For Dawson, the creative element — the “human factor,” as he calls it in some of his works, or, simply “religion” — is the most important factor in the shaping of civilizations.

With this as his basic premise, Dawson proceeded to open up the workings of history, beginning with his first book, an examination of prehistory in the light of his thesis. Unfortunately, some of the future planned volumes in a series that would cover the full scope of human history were never completed. Dawson was forced by the circumstances of World War II and the precipitate decline in interest in their own civilization among Westerners which followed the war to publish a long series of books in which he attempted a corrective to the course upon which our civilization had set itself.

Dawson noted that just as religion is the driving factor behind a civilization, so it must be that when a civilization abandons its religion en masse, as Western Civilization began to do in the early part of the 20th century, the civilization itself must cease or at least become something altogether different. Dawson’s belief was that the salvation of Western Civilization lay in education. If the young could be made to understand and appreciate their great heritage, there might yet be a future for this heritage and Western Civilization, the greatest that the world has seen, might yet produce more wonders. Only time will reveal whether Dawson was as right on this final prognosis as he was on so much else.

This short biography of Dawson by his daughter, Christina Scott, is at once both a touching and a fascinating read. One is allowed to peer into the personal living space of one of the most erudite scholars of the modern era, to see the forces in his life which shaped him, and to see his struggle with his own genius. Mrs. Scott’s love for her father, one that extends beyond filial duty into the realm of real and fervent admiration, is evident throughout. The attentive reader cannot help but come to partake of it.

The conclusion of the book with the first several pages of a planned autobiography by Dawson, a project which never extended beyond these first few pages is an addition that further strengthens this intimacy. In these short few pages, Dawson opens himself up in a way he could not do in his other works, whether academic in nature or oriented toward a more popular audience. The reader is given the ability to see into the earliest memories of Dawson, which again reveal the various influences his upbringing had upon him.

Every human life is a work of art. The artist is given the preexistent materials. In the case of a painting, the paints, the canvass, and the brushes. In the case of sculpting, the chisel and the stone. In life, this is, as Dawson himself pointed out, our biology, our geography, our economy, and our spiritual element. It is the task of the human being to take up the creative potential within the spiritual element and with this to shape the other, material factors. This is what Dawson did with his own life. He immersed himself within that world that is the peculiar domain of human beings, the world of ideas, and through his ideas worked to expose the means by which the wider world is shaped, thereby himself shaping this wider world.

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