Review: Judgment of the Nations by Christopher Dawson

This is Dawson at his finest amid the world at its worst. Written at the height of Nazi power in Europe in 1942, Dawson here takes on the prophetic voice indicated by the title. He announces the events swirling about him, engulfing Europe, and destroying its culture as what they are: the judgment of the nations.

Dawson begins by exploring the rise of Western Civilization. He pinpoints those features that have been its strongest and most fundamental elements, including Christian faith, scientific reason, and the notion of human freedom. He shows how each of these ideas led to the great flourishing of creative activity in art, literature, and thought that have been the mark of Western Civilization for over two thousand years.

He then goes on to show the slow but steady dissolution of these elements beginning already in the Renaissance, progressing in the Protestant Reformation and the Scientific Revolution, and finally reaching their boiling point at the turn of the 20th century. Dawson highlights the fracturing of Christendom, the turn to secularism, and the failure of 19th century liberal ideals as the driving forces behind the tumult of Europe.

Finally, having assessed and diagnosed, Dawson provides the prescription: a return to the center of European unity in the Christian idea of the Incarnation and its ramifications for thought on man, on society, and on the world. Through this recognition of its own center, the West can once again restore a proper view of humans and of the states, communities, and civilizations of which they are members. There is hope, Dawson assures us, even at the darkest hour of civilization, but this hope requires decisive action on the part of people.

I recommend this book for anyone interested in the rise and decline of Western Civilization and its consequences. I also recommend this for anyone interested in history and historiography more generally.

Hume and the Nazis

David Hume’s ethical concepts stem from his belief, expressed in his Treatise of Human Nature, that “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” In this assertion, Hume departs radically from nearly all Western thinkers before him, who saw reason as separate from and the intended master of the passions. Because of his unique ideas regarding the relationship between reason and the passions, Hume concluded that ethics cannot be a matter of reason and that ethics should instead flow from the emotions. Specifically, Hume believed that the feeling of sympathy is and should be the source of morality.

Annette Baier, in an evaluation of Hume from a feminist perspective, finds a place of agreement with Hume on this point. She sees Hume’s ideas as an early version of the views elucidated by ethical thinkers like Carol Gilligan, whose studies have found that men and women tend to think differently in moral matters, and that the latter tend to make ethical determinations based on sentiment and emotion. According to Baier, in positing that ethics should be based on sentiment and emotion, Hume advocates adopting a woman’s viewpoint in ethics.

As Hume’s views on ethics are such a radical departure from nearly all previous and most contemporary and subsequent thought it is not difficult to find a number of systems and ideas which run in direct contradiction to his or to imagine some of the arguments the proponents of these rival systems might launch against Hume’s ideas. One obvious flaw in his ideas, for instance, is that it does not offer a stable basis for ethical ideas and actions. Rather, all that is offered is the rather unstable basis of human emotion and individual preference. If mere sympathy and sentiment are the sole basis of ethics, the question is how this provides us with any motivation for radical change.

Think of someone with Hume’s ideas living in Nazi Germany, for instance. If this person has no personal sympathy for Jews, which is a very real possibility, he or she has no reason to intervene on their behalf, according to Hume. Even if this person has sympathy for them, he or she has no basis for the kind of self-sacrificing radical action that is called for in such extreme circumstances. In the end, Hume’s ethics are really a description of man at his worst and his most animal: a being of mere instinct and with the will only for survival and self-perpetuation.