Sunday, August 23, 2009

Dawson: Religion and the Rise of Western Culture

Dawson, Christopher. Religion and the Rise of Western Culture. New York: Doubleday, 1991.

Christopher Dawson seeks out an explanation for the European achievement by tracing the relationship between religion and culture through the Christianization of the barbarians, the rise of the Carolingian and Byzantine orders to the great Western movement toward reform and unity that brought about the apex of Papal power, the mendicant orders and the university.

Dawson views the dualism between cultural leadership and political power, which emerged as the Roman Empire declined in the West and the Church was left as the teacher and law-giver to the barbarian peoples, as the particular source of the dynamism and freedom that has marked European culture. This dualism of sacred and secular power created an internal tension which was a fertile source of criticism and change, leading to a series of renaissances.

Dawson sees the fullest expression of the medieval synthesis in the city life which re-emerged beginning in the tenth and eleventh centuries. The medieval city, marked by the development of communes and guilds, is "a pattern of Christian society as we find it in Thomist theory," according to Ernst Troeltsch (Dawson, 162): a complex hierarchical organism, yet without total subordination or slavery. It was a community of communities, where liberties and rights applied equally to the whole and the parts:
For the medieval idea of liberty, which finds its highest expression in the life of the free cities, was not the right of the individual to follow his own will, but the privilege of sharing in a highly organized form of corporate life which possessed its own constitution and rights of self-government. (172-173).
At the same time, the movement toward greater unity and intellectual synthesis bore fruit in the medieval universities and the mendicant orders--both with the encouragement and direction of a Papacy allied with the movement for reform.

Due to several factors, this synthesis ultimately fell apart. The victory of the Papacy in its struggle with the Empire and its use of temporal power for the end of spiritual reform led to new temptations and problems, tarnishing its moral prestige to the point where it lost leadership of the reform movement. Simultaneously, the rise of the new monarchies threatened the international elements in European culture and the movement toward intellectual synthesis reversed itself.

Still, it is the medieval university that brought about the formation of the professional intellectual classes, which have ever since dominated Western culture, and the medieval scholastic discipline that is the source of the critical intelligence and scientific enquiry, which came to differentiate European thought. Contrary to the impression produced upon the modern mind by the Renaissance humanist and Enlightenment critique of the remnants of the medieval synthesis, it is precisely here--rather than in distant Greece or Rome--that we find the emergence of the distinctive spirit of the West.

My sense is that, since the substance of this book was first given as the Gifford Lectures of 1948-49, Dawson's broader conception of the roots of Western thought have gained some ground as the presuppositions of the Enlightenment have fallen under greater scrutiny. I found, for instance, a similar emphasis on the importance of the medieval reform in Charles Taylor's explanation of the emergence of modern secularity in A Secular Age, without, as far as I recall, any direct dependence on Dawson--Taylor seemed to be simply interacting with other prominent explanations of modernity. This still hasn't kept generations of students from being taught the history of Western civilization as the two bright lights of the ancient world and our own age separated by a mostly irrelevant interlude of ignorance and superstition. Thus, Dawson's work remains an important corrective to popular misconceptions.

My only major criticism would be that I found myself wishing that some of the threads had been a little better resolved, but this probably due to the format more than anything else, and I sense that if I had read its predecessor, Religion and Culture, which contains Dawson's lectures from the previous year, I would have had a better sense of the larger ideas he was getting at, as this volume represents, in some sense, a case study for illustrating the theories outlined in that book.

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