The Annotated Quotable Dawson


Christopher Dawson, the greatest Catholic historian of the twentieth century, remains the final authority on the relation between religion and culture and is one of the most original thinkers of the modern era. The Annotated Quotable Dawson is a gateway to his work, offering the reader a glimpse of the astonishing breadth and depth of his learning and wisdom.

Christopher Dawson

Since his death in 1970, Christopher Dawson's reputation as a pioneer of the history of Christian culture has endured, suffering neither decline nor eclipse. Some part of the reason for this durability lies in his gifts as a writer. He was the master of a clear and strong prose style that can be described as classical in the sense assigned to the term by G.K. Chesterton, as meaning more than it says. Dawson's paragraphs are packed with allusion; they open on vistas beyond the confines of their subject. Although concise, he is not a writer of aphorisms, and quotations from his work often require several sentences or a paragraph. The object of the present collection is to introduce the reader to the range and depth of his thought in the hope of inducing him to seek more from the source.

The annotations from the works of G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc may seem an unwarranted liberty involving some violence to the autonomy of these two writers, who are posthumously forced into a role they seem never to have sought in life. This is, I think, regrettable. The active lives of the three men overlapped by several years, although Dawson was the youngest by almost a generation. Moreover, they shared a passionate commitment to the defence of the Catholic faith to which each brought different arms. Dawson was a profound scholar with an astonishing range of knowledge, of whom it was said that while he had not read absolutely everything, there was nothing that it was safe to assume he had not read. He has been described as the last of the amateur historians, and for nearly all of his active life stood outside the mainstream of his profession in his methods, but especially in his fundamental emphasis on religion as the source of culture and the motor of history.

Chesterton was a journalist, literary critic, and political activist for Distributism, with a creative historical imagination whose insights bear the stamp of genius.

Belloc was a writer "on everything" (as he entitled one collection of essays) whose literary gifts and fiercely polemical spirit were put at the service of his faith.

Beside their common faith, these men shared, in varying degrees, an indifference to modern methods of historiography; all three writers placed great importance on the value of tradition as against the contemporary emphasis on documents. An almost complete lack of footnotes in their work strikes the modern reader immediately. It is, therefore, somewhat ironic that the present work reduces Chesterton and Belloc to the status of footnotes. The uneven distribution of the latter reflects some divergence of interest among the three; there are, for example, few annotations under the rubric "Saints." Even more striking are the infrequent divergences of opinion: Belloc and Chesterton are closer to one another in their views on the French Revolution than they are to Dawson. Chesterton's approval of nationalism is the counterpart of his anti-imperialism and of his sympathy for Catholic Ireland and Poland; for Dawson, nationalism is a force for fragmentation of culture and destruction of civilization. Dawson's view of the English aristocracy is in sharp contrast to Chesterton's. Nevertheless, the most striking aspect of this enforced colloquy is the extent to which the views expressed confirm and illumine one another. Dawson himself recognized this synchrony in his comment that he and Chesterton were "doing the same work" in different fields. Christopher Dawson would probably have had some reservations about this book; it is my hope that he would not have objected to it.

John Gay
Ottawa, April 24, 2010



Arnold, Matthew

1. ... I do not think it can be said that his influence was great on the thing that mattered most and on which he was most right, namely the spiritual foundation of culture. Not only so, but he was himself in part responsible for the general unpopularity and bad odour into which the idea of culture has fallen in this country.[1] For Matthew Arnold was what is now known as a high-brow, and the war which he declared against the enemies of culture[2] was ultimately followed by that reaction against culture and that Philistine reign of terror under which we live today.

UE 248-249

Alexander the Great

2. The age of Alexander was one of the great turning points in the history of humanity. It was the abrupt and spectacular creation of a new world. If ever an individual has changed the history of the world, that man was Alexander. He tore the Hellenic world from its traditional moorings and launched it on a new course across an unknown sea. For centuries, East and West had followed their own destinies, and had diverged more and more widely from one another, alike in thought, in art, and in political organization. Alexander, by his conquest of the East, brought the two halves of humanity together again and from their union created a new world civilization. This at least was the conscious aim of his later policy, and it was only partially frustrated by his premature death.

DN VIII, 2, p.13


3. ... architecture is not merely a question of styles and individuals; it rests on deep social foundations,[3] [and] is the vital expression of a great society.[4]

The Sociologic Review. Vol. XVI 1924, p.76


4. A great art[5] is the expression of a great society, as much as of a great individual, or rather it is the expression of a great society through a great individual.

The Sociologic Review. Vol. XIV 1922, 226

5. It is in Religion and Art that we can best see the vital intention of the living culture, ... in the case of Art, it is not enough to look at the psychic impulse of the individual artist. It is only in times of cultural decadence and social dissolution that Art is a "refuge from reality" for the individual mind. Normally it is an expression of mastery over life. The same purposeful fashioning of plastic material which is the very essence of a culture, expresses itself also in Art. The Greek statue must first be conceived, then lived, then made, and last of all thought. First Religion, then Society, then Art and finally Philosophy.[6] Not that one of these is cause and the others effects. They are all different aspects or functions of life.

ERC 122

6. ... Art, in the widest sense of the word, is the great bridge which crosses the gulf of mutual incomprehension that separates cultures.

DWH 68

Art, Baroque

7. Nevertheless, in spite of this reaction against the Middle Ages, it is impossible not to recognize that Baroque art is more akin to the art of the Middle Ages than to the rational idealism of the classical Renaissance. It expressed in fact the Gothic spirit through classical forms. It is not merely that Baroque art served the same religio-social functions and employed the same religious symbolism as that of the Middle Ages. It resembles Gothic architecture – especially the flamboyant Gothic of the later Middle Ages – in its attempt to transcend the limits of matter and space by mobility of line, and a restless striving after infinity. This attempt produced a break with the fixed lines and strict rationality of classical architecture by a bold use of sweeping curves, vast proportions and sharp contrasts of light and shade. In the same way, it is characterized by an extraordinary luxuriance of imagery and ornament which utilizes every available space and makes every church a treasury of religious symbolism.[7] So too in painting, after the serenity of Raphael and the exuberant paganism of Correggio we find the dark fire and ascetic ecstasy of the Spanish masters El Greco, Ribera, and Zurbaran.

DC 192

8. ...the centres of the Catholic Renaissance were also the centres of the artistic production, so that Catholic art became one of the great channels for the diffusion of Catholic culture. Thus it was that the new Baroque art has given its name to the new culture which became the last great corporate expression of Western religious ideals. For the expansion of the Baroque culture was not merely an ideological movement, like the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century or of the diffusion of nineteenth-century Liberalism. It appealed to the heart as well as the head and satisfied the emotional as well as the intellectual needs of human nature. And thus, it was never merely the culture of an educated minority, since its religious ideals, embodied in painting and architecture and music, were the common heritage of the people as a whole and not the exclusive possession of a privileged class.

MWR 43-44


1 Arnold kept a smile of heart-broken forbearance, as of the teacher in an idiot school, that was enormously insulting. One trick he often tried with success. If his opponent had said something foolish, like "the destiny of England is in the great heart of England," Arnold would repeat the phrase again and again until it looked more foolish than it really was. Thus he recurs again and again to "the British College of Health in the New Road" till the reader wants to rush out and burn the place down. Arnold's great error was that he sometimes thus wearied us of his own phrases, as well as of his enemies".

G.K.C.: The Victorian Age in Literature, 38

2 He was not naturally a humble man; he might even be called a supercilious one. But he was driven to preaching humility merely as a thing to clear the head. He found the virtue which was just then being flung in the mire as fit only for nuns and slaves: and he says that it was essential to philosophers. The most unpractical merit of ancient piety became the most practical merit of modern investigation...But he had not the feeling of familiarity with the loves and hungers of the common man, which is the essence of the egalitarian sentiment. He was a republican, but he was not a democrat. He contemptuously dismissed the wage­earning, beer­drinking, ordinary labourers of England as 'merely populace'. They are not populace; they are merely mankind. If you do not like them, you do not like mankind. And when all the role of Arnold's real glories has been told, there always does remain a kind of hovering doubt as to whether he did like mankind.

G.K.C.: G.K.C. as MC, 19

3 If anyone wishes to know why the Gothic architecture was among all architectures unprecedentedly alive, luxuriant, exciting, complicated, and comic, the answer is in one word: because it was didactic. It had to be interesting as a schoolmaster has to be interesting. It had to be exciting as a demagogue has to be exciting. All architectures, presumably, must have taught; but this was the one that talked. And it is just here we come upon the real objection to rebuilding, as conducted at the present. These stones were meant to talk; and the question is whether we know what they were meant to say.

G.K.C.: Lunacy and Letters, 174

4 But the ancients raised monuments everywhere, even in the smaller towns, of a character and endurance, of a nobility to the eye, and of a permanence in intention, which our modern civilization fails to reach. There has been, perhaps, but one modern moment comparable to the many centuries of the pagan civilization in the magnificence of its building, and that was the time of Louis XIV. The spirit did not last; it fell from grandeur to prettiness, and after that, save for the brief classical interlude of the end of the First Republic and of the
Empire, nothing worthy has appeared.

H.B.: Many Cities, 108

5 The Arts exist, as we should put it in our primeval fashion, to show forth the glory of God; or, to translate the same thing in terms of our psychology, to awaken and keep alive the sense of wonder in man. The success of any work of art is achieved when we say of any subject, a tree or a cloud or a human character, "I have seen that a thousand times and I never saw it before."

G.K.C.: The Thing, 56

And again: For the whole meaning of the strange thing called Art is merely this, that by copying a thing, by making it over again, and above all by making it over again with a slight difference, we can see something of the primary wonder of it, a spasm, as it were, of the enduring astonishment of God.

G.K.C.: The Poetic Quality in Liberalism in The Chesterton Review, VIII, 2, 5/82, 116

6 Art, as I have said, has exactly the opposite aim of science. Science connects a thing with everything, that it may be natural and expected. Art isolates a thing from everything, that it may be unexpected, that it may be supernatural.

G.K.C.: The Poetic Quality in Liberalism
In The Chesterton Review, VIII, 2, May 1982

7 Baroque architecture is not architecture, but it is art. It is rather as if I, for one, should say that Walt Whitman's poetry is not poetry, but it is literature. Baroque architecture seems to me to belong rather to the art of painting, and especially, as I have said, of scene painting. It is in fact simply painting a Renaissance picture in three dimensions instead of two. It is attempting to give solidity and substance to those dreams of Rococo curve and colour which we all recognize, without much resentment, in the corresponding school of pictures. A column and a cloud and a sunburst and a careering seraph are normal enough in any number of pictures; but here they are deliberately turned into furniture. They are given thickness and stereoscopic solidity and all that is necessary for seeing them from all sides like a statue. But a cloud and sunburst and a seraph are not building; they could not possibly build anything or assist in the building of anything, and as a matter of fact they are not meant to. It may have been an exaggeration to call them false, for they were meant to construct. But it is not an exaggeration to call them sensational, for they were meant to make a sensation and not to make a building. When all this was allowed for, we can enjoy what is really fascinating and stimulating in such fancies, as we should in our childhood have enjoyed a transformation scene in a pantomime; and only a too sensitive reverence will be very much annoyed if the transformation is called a transfiguration. But there does remain a vast distance between that sort of thing and the strong craftsmanship that can make a thing ornamental in the very act of making it useful. The medieval tradition is still superior in so far that it can make a beautiful tool, which is not merely a pantomime sceptre or a property sword. There is a simpler and nobler sort of work, which has from the beginning made a boat beautiful because it could float and a building beautiful because it can stand. But Rome is not the place where one can reasonably look for such simplicities. By the very nature of its complex story, it has every virtue except simplicity.

G.K.C.: The Resurrection of Rome, 160




John Gay, editor. excerpts from The Annotated Quotable Dawson (Ottawa, ON: Justin Press): 8-17.

Reprinted by permission of John Gay, editor.


Christopher Dawson (1889-1970) was most likely the most penetrating student of the relationship of religion and culture who has ever written. "Every culture," he wrote, "is like a plant. It must have its roots in the earth, and for sunlight it needs to be open to the spiritual. At the present moment we are busy cutting its roots and shutting out all light from above." In order to address this situation, he proposed the study of Christian culture. He believed this study to be essential to the secularist and Christian alike, because it is the key to the understanding of the historical development of Western civilization. His lucid analysis of the driving forces of world history, as well as his championing of the contributions of the Christian faith to the achievements of European culture, won him many admirers, including T. S. Eliot and Arnold Toynbee.

Christopher Dawson wrote twenty-two books. Among those currently available are Religion and the Rise of Western Culture, The Making of Europe, Medieval Essays, Dynamics of World History, and Progress and Religion. Also available is A Historian and His World: A Life of Christopher Dawson written by Christopher Dawson's daughter, the late Christina Scott. All works by Christopher Dawson © Julian Philip Scott, 2003.

Copyright © 2010 Justin Press

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