The Judgment of the Nations


Christopher Dawson (1889-1970) is recognized as one of the most important Catholic historians of the twentieth century, authoring numerous books, articles, and scholarly monographs. Dawson was lecturer in the History of Culture, University College, Exeter; Gifford lecturer; Charles Chauncey Stillman Chair of Roman Catholic Studies at Harvard University from 1958 to 1962; and editor of the Dublin Review.
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Christopher Dawson (1889-1970) is recognized as one of the most important Catholic historians of the twentieth century, authoring numerous books, articles, and scholarly monographs. Dawson was lecturer in the History of Culture, University College, Exeter; Gifford lecturer; Charles Chauncey Stillman Chair of Roman Catholic Studies at Harvard University from 1958 to 1962; and editor of the Dublin Review.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780813218809
  • Publisher: Catholic University of America Press
  • Publication date: 11/28/2011
  • Series: Works of Christopher Dawson Series
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 200
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Christopher Dawson (1889-1970) is recognized as one of the most important Catholic historians of the twentieth century, authoring numerous books, articles, and scholarly monographs. Dawson was lecturer in the History of Culture, University College, Exeter; Gifford lecturer; Charles Chauncey Stillman Chair of Roman Catholic Studies at Harvard University from 1958 to 1962; and editor of the Dublin Review.

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By Christopher Dawson

The Catholic University of America Press

Copyright © 2011 The Catholic University of America Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8132-1880-9

Chapter One

The Hour of Darkness

A hundred years is a relatively short period. It does not even exceed the span of a single human life. Yet the last hundred years have changed human life more completely than any period in the history of the world. It is as though the stream of time had been transformed from a slow flowing river to a roaring cataract. A hundred years ago the greater part of the human race was still living as it had always lived. The Far East was still a closed world as remote in thought from Europe as though it had been a different planet while the Far West was still empty, and tropical Africa still unknown. In the space of three generations the whole world has been opened up, brought together and changed. There has been a breathless advance in population, wealth and knowledge. The cities have not only increased in numbers and size: they have drawn the world together into a single society. The time is approaching when the cities become one city—a Babylon which sets its mark on the mind of every man and woman and imposes the same pattern of behaviour on every human activity.

In a sense this development has fulfilled and even exceeded the hopes of the men of a century ago. It was the heyday of liberal optimism when the romantic despair of the previous generation had given way to a faith in the boundless possibilities of science, material progress and political freedom.

... in the march of mind, In the steamship, in the railway, in the thoughts that shake mankind.

Yet even the most optimistic failed to realize the speed and scale of the movement that was beginning to gather momentum and which was to lead in so short a time to the conquest of time and space and the complete subjugation of nature to human purpose. For a generation from i840 to i870 things went very much as the Liberals had expected, disappointing the visionary hopes of idealists like Mazzini and fully satisfying the progressive nineteenth century public opinion which found its embodiment in statesmen like Cavour and Gladstone. Then for forty years there was a period of uneasy peace, in which men gradually lost their faith in the ideals of nineteenth century liberalism, though material prosperity and scientific knowledge continued to increase. In that restless calm when the energies of the western world seemed absorbed in money-making and the exploitation of the weaker peoples, a few prophetic voices were heard announcing the approaching end of the age—but they were the voices of men possessed, like Nietzsche and Dostoevski, who had no place in that fool's paradise which is called the real world.

But during the last thirty years this artificial reality has collapsed like a house of cards; the demons which haunted the brains of those outcasts have invaded the world of men and become its masters. The old landmarks of good and evil and truth and falsehood have been swept away and civilization is driving before the storm of destruction like a dismasted and helmless ship. The evils which the nineteenth century thought that it had banished for ever—proscription and persecution, torture and slavery and the fear of sudden death—have returned and with them new terrors which the past did not know. We have discovered that evil too is a progressive force and that the modern world provides unlimited prospects for its development.

Thus it is no accident that the period that has seen the culmination of the modern development of scientific and economic power should have brought Western civilization to the brink of ruin. For it is our power that is our destruction, and the world is drunk and poisoned with power, as primitive peoples have been poisoned by the gin and germs and gunpowder of a more advanced civilization.

There is in fact an even wider gulf between the external conditions of our life and those of our ancestors a century ago than there was between the civilization of the Spanish Conquistadors and that of the natives of the New World. The motor car and the aeroplane represent a far more revolutionary change in the relation of man to his environment than the coming of the armoured horseman who destroyed the civilization of Mexico and Peru. But the change has been too sudden for men to adapt themselves to the new conditions. Human nature changes slowly and the men who have conquered time and space and acquired almost unlimited material power are no more super-men than were their great-grandfathers of i840. Yet they have been made super-men in spite of themselves—they have been taken from the plough and the cobbler's bench and have been given power which even the deified autocrats of the old world empires never possessed.

These are the conditions that have led to the rise of the totalitarian state. It is an attempt to solve the problem of mass power by force and thus it produces a new series of tensions and conflict which intensify the destructive character of the crisis. The problems of power cannot be solved by power alone, nor can they be solved by science, since science has become the servant of power. Liberty and reason are being destroyed by the powers that they created and humanity is slipping blindly and helplessly towards the abyss. For humanity cannot save itself by its own efforts. When it is left to itself it perishes, and the greater its power and material resources, the more complete is the catastrophe.

This is the truth which was recognized by every civilization that the world has known but which has been forgotten or denied by modern man in the intoxication of his newly acquired power. Nevertheless it has not been left without a witness. Throughout the last hundred years the Church has not ceased to maintain the principle of the dependence of human society and human law on an order which transcends politics and economics, and to warn men of the inevitable catastrophe that must result from the attempt to create a civilization which knew no law but man's own needs and ambitions. In the first of the three periods of which I have spoken these warnings were summarily dismissed as mere reactionary obscurantism. Nevertheless, when Pius IX condemned Liberalism, he did so, not because it freed the nations from despotism and limited the powers of the state, but because he saw in it the denial of the subordination of human society to divine law and the assertion of a new principle of unrestricted power which was more far-reaching than any royal prerogative.

The implications of this principle became still clearer in the second period, when the liberal idealism of Mazzini and Lamartine gave place to the triumphant secularism of the later nineteenth century state. It was then that Leo XIII summed up Catholic social principles in that great series of encyclicals which are the classical expression of the ideals of Christian humanism and Christian liberalism that have been the inspiration of Western culture. But his warnings were equally disregarded. When in i878 the Pope declared that the human race was being hurried onwards to the verge of ruin and warned society to prepare for the impending crisis before it was too late, his words made no impression on a civilization that was growing in material prosperity and still relatively stable. It is only during the last thirty years that the world has awaked to the reality of the dangers of which the Papacy has spoken so long. During the last three pontificates the true issues have been revealed with appalling clarity, and the Church no longer seems a disregarded witness of forgotten truth, but stands at the very heart of the struggle in which every human being is involved. Today the enemy is not the humanitarian liberalism which was a kind of secularized version of Christian moral idealism. It is a new power which tramples every human right and ideal under foot. Under the shadow of this threat the partial conflicts that have divided Western culture no longer have the same meaning, and the cause of God and the cause of humanity have become one. The law of charity is not alien to human nature and does not stand in opposition to the ideals of freedom and social progress that have inspired Western culture in modern times. On the contrary, it is the only law that can save mankind from the iron law of power which destroys the weak by violence and the strong by treachery. For the new paganism has nothing in common with the poetical idealization of Hellenic myth by the humanists and classicists of recent centuries: it is the unloosing of the powers of the abyss—the dark forces that have been chained by a thousand years of Christian civilization and which have now been set free to conquer the world. For the will to power is also the will to destruction, and in the last event it becomes the will to self-destruction.

In these dark times there must be many who feel tempted to despair when they see the ruin of the hopes of peace and progress that inspired the Liberal idealism of the last century, and the perversion of the great achievements of human knowledge and power to serve the devilish forces of destruction. Never, perhaps, has a civilization suffered such a total subversion of its own standards and values while its material power and wealth remained almost intact, and in many respects greater than ever.

To Christians, however, the shock and the disillusionment should be less severe than to those who have put their faith in the nineteenth-century gospel of secular progress. For the Christian faith never minimized the reality of the forces of evil in history and society, as well as in the life of the individual, and it has prepared men's minds to face the extreme consequences of the external triumph of evil, and the apparent defeat of good. Yet none the less it is no defeatist philosophy; it is a triumphant affirmation of life—of eternal life victorious over death, of the kingdom of God prevailing over the rulers of this world of darkness.

Fifteen centuries ago the ancient world was faced with a crisis that threatened civilization with destruction almost at the moment when the Church had won the victory over paganism. For one thousand years the Mediterranean world had lived securely in the light of Hellenic culture. Now its sun had set, and the darkness and cold of the barbarous north descended on the world. The East German warrior peoples driven from South Russia and the Danube, by the advance of the Mongol hordes from beyond the Volga, broke through the defense of the Empire and wrecked the imposing fabric of Roman order. Yet St. Augustine had his answer. He could stand above the conflict because though he was a loyal Roman and a scholar who realized the value of Greek thought, he regarded these things as temporary and accidental. He lived not by the light of Athens and Alexandria, but by a new light, that had suddenly dawned on the world from the East only a few centuries earlier. Imperial Rome was, after all, the daughter of Babylon, the incarnation of human pride and material wealth, the persecutor of the saints, and the oppressor of the poor. Man's true destinies were realized elsewhere, in Jerusalem, the City of God, which was being built up through all the ruin and destruction of human kingdoms and empires by the irresistible momentum of a divine purpose.

But for us, today, the answer is far more difficult. For the civilization which has been undermined, and is now threatened by total subversion, is a Christian civilization, built on the spiritual values and religious ideals of St. Augustine and his like; and its adversary is not the simple barbarism of alien peoples who stand on a lower cultural level, but new Powers armed with all the resources of modern scientific technique, which are inspired by a ruthless will to power, that recognizes no law save that of their own strength. This is almost a reversal of the situation envisaged by St. Augustine. In his day the world was falling, and the gates of the Church stood open as a city of refuge for a defeated humanity. Today the world is strong: and it has no pity for weakness and suffering. It has no use for Christianity which it despises as the most dangerous form of escapism and defeatism. It has its own religion—a religion which reverses the Christian moral values, which says "Blessed are the strong for they shall possess the earth," but which, no less than Christianity, demands unlimited sacrifices and an undivided allegiance of the whole man. Thus the situation that Christians have to face today has more in common with that described by the author of the Apocalypse, than with the age of St. Augustine. The world is strong, and it has evil masters. But these masters are not vicious autocrats like Nero or Domitian. They are the engineers of the mechanism of world power: a mechanism that is more formidable than anything the ancient world knew, because it is not confined to external means, like the despotisms of the past, but uses all the resources of modern psychology to make the human soul the motor of its dynamic purpose.

Hence, while the fundamental Augustinian principles of the Two Loves and the Two Cities retain their validity, they have assumed a new form in these times, unlike anything in the previous experience of the Church. For today a deliberate attempt is being made to unify and energize human society from its lower depths: to bring Jerusalem—the spirit of Man as the vessel of the Spirit of God—into servitude to Babylon—the spirit of man degraded into the blind instrument of a demonic will to power. There is no room here to discuss the origin and development of this evil. It is sufficient to say that the revolutionary tendencies in modern civilization which were originally inspired by a positive humanitarian optimism have become perverted into a "Revolution of Destruction." And the main cause of this, as Nietzsche pointed out, has been the loss of the Christian moral values which "prevented man from despising himself as man, from turning against life, and from being driven to despair by knowledge."

For when once morality has been deprived of its religious and metaphysical foundations, it inevitably becomes subordinated to lower ends; and when these ends are negative, as in revolution and war, the whole scale of moral values becomes reversed. It is possible to understand how this moral nihilism may be combined with a kind of fanatical idealism in a subterranean revolutionary movement. But it becomes a much more evil thing when it is adopted as the creed of a Government, and is used by the ruling power to defend violence and injustice, when the revolutionary terrorism of the secret society blends with the repressive terrorism of the secret police to produce a new totalitarian technique of government by force and by fear which undermines the psychological foundations of moral freedom.

From the Christian point of view, the most serious feature of the situation is that evil has become, as it were, de-personalized, separated from individual passion and appetite, and exalted above humanity into a sphere in which all moral values are confused and transformed. The great terrorists from Robespierre and St. Just to Dzershinski have not been immoral men, but rigid puritans who did evil coldly, by principle, without any thought of personal advantage, while the new mass dictatorships associate the highest and lowest qualities of human nature—self-sacrifice and boundless devotion, as well as unlimited violence and vindictiveness—in the assertion of their will to power.

This is the new evil that has spread from Russia, westward, into the very heart of Europe. It is no longer necessarily associated with Communism. On the contrary, it spreads by opposition, even more than by imitation. As soon as men decide that all means are permitted to fight an evil, then their good becomes indistinguishable from the evil that they set out to destroy. The subordination of morals to politics, the reign of terror and the technique of propaganda and psychological aggression can be used by any Power or Party that is bold enough to abandon moral scruples and plunge into the abyss.

This is the greatest difficulty that faces us at the present time. For it is an evil that thrives by war, and the necessity of opposing the spirit of unlimited aggression by force of arms, creates the atmosphere which is most favourable to its growth. Hence we have the hard task of carrying on simultaneously a war on two fronts. We have to oppose, by arms, the aggression of the external enemy, and at the same time to resist the enemy within—the growth in our own society of the evil power that we are fighting against. And this second war is the more dangerous of the two, since it may be lost by victory as well as by defeat, and the very fact that we are driven to identify the evil with that manifestation of it that threatens our national existence, tends to blind us to the more insidious tendencies in the same direction that are to be found in our own social order. The disintegration of Western culture under the moral and economic strain of war is not a danger that can be lightly dismissed. Nor can it be accepted by Christians in the same spirit in which they accepted the fall of the Roman Empire. For that was an external disaster, which left the sources of spiritual vitality unimpaired, while this is a spiritual catastrophe which strikes directly at the moral foundations of our society, and destroys not the outward form of civilization but the soul of man which is the beginning and end of all human culture.

Chapter Two

Democracy and Total War

When the war began there was a tendency in many neutral quarters to minimize the importance of the issues, to view it as a war in the old style between certain European powers in which only their own national interests and prestige were at stake, or even to regard it as a sham fight put up to cover a strategic retreat to new diplomatic positions.

Today it is no longer possible for anyone to deceive himself with such illusions. This "phoney war" has revealed itself as a total war which takes no account of national sovereignty or international conventions or human rights, and the conflagration spreads with such rapidity that no state is so strong or so remote that it can reckon on remaining isolated. Whatever the issue may be, it must affect the whole world and the future of every people and civilization.

Much has been written on the war aims and the peace aims of the Allies, but the real issue is a very simple one: to check the power of the greatest military machine in the world before it conquers Europe and dominates the world.

Thus whatever their faults and whatever the defects of their own social systems, Britain and America stand today as the bulwark of the freedom of the world. If that bulwark is broken, no one knows what will come next—universal chaos or universal slavery. In any case it is foolishness to suppose that the consequences can be limited to Europe. The Atlantic world itself is a unity, on which the Pacific world in turn depends. If the two pillars of Atlantis are broken, the whole of the Western hemisphere will be shaken.


Excerpted from THE JUDGMENT OF THE NATIONS by Christopher Dawson Copyright © 2011 by The Catholic University of America Press. Excerpted by permission of The Catholic University of America Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction Michael J. Keating vii

Part I The Disintegration of Western Civilization

1 The Hour of Darkness 3

2 Democracy and Total War 11

3 The Religious Origins of European Disunity 23

4 The Failure of Liberalism 39

5 The Failure of the League of Nations 49

6 The Secularization of Western Culture 63

Part II The Restoration of a Christian Order

1 Planning and Culture 77

2 Christian Social Principles 89

3 The Sword of the Spirit 103

4 Return to Christian Unity 110

5 The Building of a Christian Order 125

6 Christendom, Europe and the New World 139

Index of Subjects 153

Index of Names 157

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