Friday, May 2, 2014

On Christopher Dawson

Dawson’s, The Making of Europe, subtitled, “An Introduction to the History of European Unity” was written in 1932.  He argues against subordinating the past to the present, but it seems to me he is doing that very thing when he writes,

“Modern scientists rightly insist on the way in which the existence of modern man is conditioned by the inheritance of his prehistoric past.  But if this is true of our remote Neolithic ancestors, it is much more so of those immediate ancestors whose influence still directly molds our lives and determines the very language which we speak and the names of the places in which we live.  For this was the period in which the age-long prehistoric tradition of our race emerges into the full light of history and acquires consciousness through its first contact with the higher civilisation.  Without this creative process there would have been no such things as European civilisation, for that civilisation is not an abstracted intellectual concept, like the ‘civilisation’ of eighteenth-century philosophers, it is a concrete social organism, which is just as real and far more important than the national unities of which we talk so much.

“The fact that this truth is not generally realized is due, above all, to the fact that modern history has usually been written from the nationalist point of view. Some of the greatest of the nineteenth-century historians were also apostles of the cult of nationalism, and their histories are often manuals of nationalist propaganda.  This shows itself in the philosophic historians, who were affected by the Hegelian idealization of the State as the supreme expression of the universal idea, as well as in writers like Treitschke and Froude, who were representatives of a purely political nationalism.  In the course of the nineteenth century this movement permeated the popular consciousness and determined the ordinary man’s conception of history.  It has filtered down from the university to the elementary school, and from the scholar to the journalist and the novelist.  And the result is that each nation claims for itself a cultural unity and self-sufficiency that it does not possess.  Each regards its share in the European tradition as an original achievement that owes nothing to the rest, and takes no heed of the common foundation in which its own individual tradition is rooted.  And this is no mere academic error.  It has undermined and vitiated the whole international life of modern Europe.  It found its nemesis in the European war, which represented a far deeper schism in European life than all the many wars of the past, and its consequences are to be seen to-day in the frenzied national rivalries which are bringing economic ruin on the whole of Europe.”

Comment:  One can sympathize with a European historian living in 1932 and watching the rise of National Socialism, but here in 2014 it seems to me Dawson did the same thing he excoriates.  He subordinates medieval history to the idea that Europe is one culture and one “race.”  Setting aside his use of the term “race,” can we find evidence that Western (for I assume he means “Western”) Europeans are a single culture and tradition?  I don’t think so.  Giving a life-span to these terms from Dawson’s perspective, we see them as being longer than the memory of the people who are supposed to embody them.  If the British have no recollection of their Anglo-Saxon-Viking-Jute-Frisian-Norman forebears; then their idea of British culture can understandably be described as ignoring them.  And if the Spaniard has no recollection of the Visigoth or Saracen that dominated his land, isn’t he justified in taking little more than a superficial interest in whatever they did in the past? Let the historian tell the Spaniard that Barcelona was named after the powerful family of Barca in Carthage and that Cordova is traced to its primitive form “Kartah-duba” meaning “an important city,” but is he going to make use of that in any but a superficial way?

On the other hand, the Britain understands that his history is different from the Spaniard’s.  Didn’t his ancestors defeat the Spanish armada?  Didn’t his privateers make Britain rich on the plunder from Spanish galleons?  Didn’t the British Empire succeed far beyond Spain’s?  So what can we point to that might convince the British and Spanish that they share one “culture”?  They share some history, that is true, but their ancestors played different roles.  What can Dawson point to (and this will be an unjust criticism because I have been reluctant to read Dawson far enough to put this criticism to a fair test) that might convince the British and Spanish that they share one culture? 

No doubt there are different definitions of the term “culture” but Dawson must be defining it narrowly as something that Europeans can understand as a unifying concept:  Here it is!  Look!  Now gather together all ye Europeans and sing a unifying anthem.

I suspect Dawson is a Continentalist rather than an Atlanticist, but assuming his assertions, where am I going to get my American “culture”?  I had my DNA checked through and am 100% European (perhaps 80% from the British Isles), but despite knowing a fair bit of the history Dawson is describing, I identify my cultural underpinnings here in this land the British began as a colony.  I do think we in the U.S. have a cultural affinity with Britain, and not so much with Spain despite the Spanish having been here in Southern California before the descendants of Britain descended upon it.

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