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Understanding Europe

Understanding Europe

by Christopher Dawson
In a time of remarkable but selective amnesia in the West reflected perhaps most dramatically in the denial of the Christian roots of Europe in the first drafts of the European constitution, Understanding Europe is as relevant today as it was on its first appearance in 1952. Christopher Dawson wrote of the uneasiness that characterized twentieth-century Western


In a time of remarkable but selective amnesia in the West reflected perhaps most dramatically in the denial of the Christian roots of Europe in the first drafts of the European constitution, Understanding Europe is as relevant today as it was on its first appearance in 1952. Christopher Dawson wrote of the uneasiness that characterized twentieth-century Western civilization in the aftermath of two disastrous global conflicts and the attempt to build a new secular civilization on impersonal economic forces. He desired a unified Europe, but one unified by a common Christian religion.

Recognizing the emphasis on economic utility and mass productivity in European culture, Dawson argued that a renewed study of Christian faith and culture was essential in order to recover the deeper sense of European unity. In Understanding Europe, Dawson expresses a desire for Europe to rediscover and renew its foundational Christian sources in order to recover a deeper sense of integrity.

This edition includes an introduction by George Weigel.

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Catholic University of America Press
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By Christopher Dawson

The Catholic University of America Press

Copyright © 2009 The Catholic University of America Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8132-1544-0

Chapter One

How to Understand Our Past

No one can look at the history of Western civilization during the present century without feeling dismayed at the spectacle of what modern man has done with his immense resources of new knowledge and new wealth and new power. And if we go back to the nineteenth century and read the words of the scientists and the social reformers or the liberal idealists and realize the mood of unbounded hope and enthusiasm in which this movement of world change was launched, the contrast is even more painful. For not only have we failed to realize the ideals of the nineteenth century, we are all more or less conscious of worse dangers to come-greater and more destructive wars, more ruthless forms of despotism, more drastic suppression of human rights. It is no good going on with the dismal catalogue, we know it all only too well. There is no need to listen to the alarmist predictions of writers like George Orwell or Aldous Huxley: it is enough to read the newspapers to convince ourselves that the cause of civilization is no longer secure and that the great movement of Western man to transform the world has somehow gone astray.

Whatever may be the ultimate cause of this crisis, it is certain that it is a spiritual one, since it represents the failure of civilized man to control the forces that he has created. It is due above all to the loss of common purpose in Western culture and the lack of a common intelligence to guide the new forces that are changing human life. Yet this failure is certainly not due to the neglect of education in modern society. No civilization in history has ever devoted so much time and money and organization to education as our own. And it is one of the most tragic features of the situation that our failure has been the failure of the first society to be universally educated, one which had been subjected to a more systematic and completely national education than any society of the past.

In spite of this, there is no doubt that the modern European and American system of universal education suffered from serious defects. In the first place, the achievement of universality was purchased by the substitution of quantitative for qualitative standards. Education was accepted as a good in itself and the main question was how to increase the total output: how to teach more and more people more and more subjects for longer and longer periods. But in proportion as education became universal, it became cheapened. Instead of being regarded as a privilege of the few it became a compulsory routine for everybody. It is difficult for us to imagine the state of mind a man like Francis Place, labouring to all hours of the night after a hard day's work, out of sheer passion for knowledge.

In the second place, the establishment of a universal system of public education inevitably changed the relations of education to the state.

It is this above all else which has caused the mind of our society to lose its independence, so that there is no power left outside politics to guide modern civilization, when the politicians go astray. For in proportion as education becomes controlled by the state, it becomes nationalized, and in extreme cases the servant of a political party. This last alternative still strikes us here in England as outrageous, but it is not only essential to the totalitarian state; it existed before the rise of totalitarianism and to a great extent created it, and it is present as a tendency in all modern societies, however opposed they are to totalitarianism in its overt form.

For the immense extension of the scale of education and its ramification into a hundred specialisms and technical disciplines has left the state as the only unifying element in the whole system. In the past the traditional system of classical education provided a common intellectual background and a common scale of values which transcended national and political frontiers and formed the European or Western republic of letters of which every scholar was a citizen.

All the old systems of primary and secondary education presupposed the existence of this intellectual community which they served and from which they received guidance and inspiration. The primary school taught children their letters, the grammar school taught them Latin and Greek, so that educated men everywhere possessed a common language and the knowledge of a common literature or two common literatures.

Now from the modern point of view this traditional education was shockingly narrow and pedantic. It was also useless, since it had no direct bearing on the life of the modern world, on the world's work and on the techniques of modern civilization. Therefore the nineteenth-century reformers insisted first that education should be widened to include the whole realm of modern knowledge, and secondly that it should be made practically useful in order to produce skilled technicians and trained specialists or research workers.

These two great reforms have been generally applied, not without success, all over the world during the last fifty or a hundred years. But what has been the result? The domain of universal knowledge is too vast for any mind to embrace, and the specialization of the technician and the research worker has become so minute that it leaves no common intellectual bond between the different branches of knowledge.

A Russian expert in applied research on plant biology, a French specialist in the history of the romance lyric, an English worker on atomic research, an American expert in social psychology-all these do not belong to any sort of spiritual community like the humanist republic of letters. They are just individuals with special jobs, and there is a much stronger bond between all the Russians and all the Frenchmen and so on, than between scientists as such or technicians as such. No doubt the discipline of scientific research does produce a common type of intelligence and even a common type of character, but so did the older professional disciplines, so that there is a considerable similarity between staff officers or drill sergeants in the armies of the different great powers. But a similarity of this kind on the level of technique does not necessarily make for a similarity on the level of culture. And the same holds good for the scientific specialist. Indeed under present conditions the two types are rapidly becoming assimilated, so that the scientific expert and the military expert are alike instruments of the unified power organization of the modern state.

Up to a point this is inevitable, granted the complex nature of the modern scientific and technological order. But if it is allowed to develop uncriticized and unchecked, it is fatal to the old ideals of Western culture as a free spiritual community. It leads to the totalitarian state, and perhaps even beyond that to the completely mechanized mass society, to the Brave New Worlds and the nightmares of scientific utopianism in reverse.

How is it possible to preserve the guiding mind of civilization and to salvage the spiritual traditions of Western culture?

The philosopher, the religious leader, the statesman and the educationist all share this responsibility-all have a part to play. But the responsibility of the educationist is perhaps the most immediate and the heaviest of all, because it is in the sphere of education that the immediate decisions must be taken which will determine the outlook of the next generation.

In the past, as we have seen, education attempted to perform this higher function by means of the traditional classical discipline of humane letters-in other words of Latin and Greek. But we must be careful to distinguish between this particular form of higher education and higher education in general; and not to reduce the central inescapable problem to the old controversy between conservative classicism and radical modernism. It is quite possible that the traditional form of classical education has become completely antiquated and can no longer provide the universal unifying element which our civilization requires. But the fact that classical education no longer fulfils that purpose does not mean that civilization can dispense with such a unifying element altogether or that it can be found on a purely technological level.

On the contrary we need it more than ever before-and the more widely we extend the range of education, the more necessary it is to provide some principle of cohesion to counterbalance the centrifugal tendencies of specialization and utilitarianism.

Every form of education that mankind has known, from the savage tribe to the highest forms of culture, has always involved two elements-the element of technique and the element of tradition; and hitherto it has always been the second that has been the more important. In the first place education teaches children how to do things-how to read and write, and even at a much more primitive level how to hunt and cook, and plant and build. But besides all these things, education has always meant the initiation of the young into the social and spiritual inheritance of the community: in other words education has meant the transmission of culture.

Now the old classical education was a rather specialized and stylized type of this procedure. It took the tradition of humanism as embodying the highest common factor of Western culture and trained the young to appreciate it by an intensive course of philological discipline. At first sight it seems highly absurd to take an English farmer's son or the son of a German shopkeeper and drill him into writing imitation Ciceronian prose or copies of Latin verses. Yet for all that, it did set the stamp of a common classical tradition on a dozen vernacular European literatures and gave the educated classes of every European country a common sense of the standard classical values.

But it was only able to succeed in this specialized intellectual task because it was an intellectual superstructure that was built on a common spiritual tradition. Classical education was only half the old system of European education-below it and above it there was the religious education that was common to the whole people, and the higher theological education that was peculiar to the clergy, who provided the majority of the teachers in both the other departments of education.

Now the lowest level of this structure, which has been least studied and least regarded, was the most important of them all. It is true that it differed considerably in different parts of Europe, but for religious rather than material reasons. In Protestant Europe it was founded on the Bible and the catechism, whereas in Catholic Europe it was based on the liturgy and on religious art and drama and mime, which made the Church the school of the people. But in either case it provided a system of common beliefs and moral standards, as well as the archetypal patterns of world history and sacred story which formed the background of their spiritual world.

Thus considered as a means for the transmission of culture, classical education, important as it was, formed only one part of the whole system of social education by which the inheritance of culture was transmitted, so that even if it were possible to preserve or to restore classical education it would by itself prove quite ineffective as a solution for our present problem. What we need is not merely to find a substitute for the classical humanistic element in the old system; it is the system as a whole from top to bottom which has disappeared, and if the spiritual continuity of Western culture is to be preserved, we must face the problem as a whole and remember the importance of the common spiritual foundation on which the superstructure of higher classical education was built.

It is the failure to recognize this fact which has been largely responsible for the separation of higher education from its spiritual roots in the life of the people, so that our idea of culture has become a sublimated abstraction, instead of the expression of a living tradition which animates the whole society and unites the present and the past.

If we are to make the ordinary man aware of the spiritual unity out of which all the separate activities of our civilization have arisen, it is necessary in the first place to look at Western civilization as a whole and to treat it with the same objective appreciation and respect which the humanists of the past devoted to the civilization of antiquity.

This does not seem much to ask; yet there have always been a number of reasons which stood in the way of its fulfilment.

In the first place, there has been the influence of modern nationalism, which has led every European people to insist on what distinguished it from the rest, instead of what united it with them. It is not necessary to seek for examples in the extremism of German racial nationalists and their crazy theories, proving that everything good in the world comes from men of Germanic blood. Leaving all these extravagances out of account, we still have the basic fact that modern education in general teaches men the history of their own country and the literature of their own tongue, as though these were complete wholes and not part of a greater unity.

In the second place, there has been the separation between religion and culture, which arose partly from the bitterness of the internal divisions of Christendom and partly from a fear lest the transcendent divine values of Christianity should be endangered by any identification or association of them with the relative human values of culture. Both these factors have been at work, long before our civilization was actually secularized. They had their origins in the Reformation period, and it was Martin Luther in particular who stated the theological dualism of faith and works in such a drastic form as to leave no room for any positive conception of a Christian culture, such as had hitherto been taken for granted.

And in the third place, the vast expansion of Western civilization in modern times has led to a loss of any standard of comparison or any recognition of its limits in time and space. Western civilization has ceased to be one civilization amongst others: it became civilization in the absolute sense.

It is the disappearance or decline of this naive absolutism and the reappearance of a sense of the relative and limited character of Western civilization as a particular historic culture, which are the characteristic features of the present epoch. And at the same time we have begun to doubt the validity of the nationalistic approach to history and culture, and to realize the evil and folly of the blind sectarian feuds that have broken up the social unity of Christendom during recent centuries.

Thus it would seem as though the main obstacles to the understanding of Western civilization as a historic reality have begun to break down and the time is ripe for a new a positive approach to the whole problem.

But there remains one serious obstacle-or rather there has arisen a new obstacle which was not present in the past. The events of the last forty years have inflicted such a blow to the self-confidence of Western civilization and to the belief in progress which was so strong during the nineteenth century, that men tend to go too far in the opposite direction: in fact the modern world is experiencing the same kind of danger which was so fatal to the ancient world-the crisis of which Gilbert Murray writes in his Four Stages of Greek Religion as "The Loss of Nerve".

There have been signs of this in Western literature for a long time past, and it has already had a serious effect on Western culture and education. This is the typical tragedy of the intelligentsia as shown in nineteenth-century Russia and often in twentieth-century Germany: the case of a society or a class devoting enormous efforts to higher education and to the formation of an intellectual elite and then finding that the final result of the system is to breed a spirit of pessimism and nihilism and revolt. There was something seriously wrong about an educational system which cancelled itself out in this way, which picked out the ablest minds in a society and subjected them to an intensive process of competitive development which ended in a revolutionary or cynical reaction against the society that produced it. But behind these defects of an over-cerebralized and over-competitive method of education, there is the deeper cause in the loss of the common spiritual background which unifies education and social life. For the liberal faith in progress which inspired the nineteenth century was itself a substitute for the simpler and more positive religious faith which was the vital bond of the Western community. If we wish to understand our past and the inheritance of Western culture, we have to go behind the nineteenth-century development and study the old spiritual community of Western Christendom as an objective historical reality.


Excerpted from UNDERSTANDING EUROPE by Christopher Dawson Copyright © 2009 by The Catholic University of America Press. Excerpted by permission.
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