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The Study of Western Culture


One of the chief defects of modern education has been its failure to find an adequate method for the study of our own civilization.


The old humanist education taught all that it knew about the civilization of ancient Greece and Rome, and taught little else. In the nineteenth century, this aristocratic and humanist ideal was gradually replaced by the democratic utilitarianism of compulsory state education, on the one hand, and by the ideal of scientific specialization, on the other.

The result has been an intellectual anarchy imperfectly controlled by the crude methods of the examination system and of payment by results. The mind of the student is overwhelmed and dazed by the volume of new knowledge which is being accumulated by the labor of specialists, while the necessity for using education as a stepping-stone to a profitable career leaves him little time to stop and think. And the same is true of the teacher, who has become a kind of civil servant tied to a routine over which he can have little control.

Now the old humanist education, with all its limitations and faults, possessed something that modern education has lost. It possessed an intelligible form, owing to the fact that the classical culture which it studied was seen as a whole, not only in its literary manifestations but also in its social structure and in historical development. Modern education has lacked this formal unity, because it has never attempted to study modern civilization with the care and earnestness which humanist education devoted to classical culture. Consequently, the common background of humanist culture has been lost, and modern education finds its goal in competing specialisms.

It is in America that this centrifugal tendency in modern education has found its extreme development, and it is here that attempts are now being made to find a cure for the disease. Typical examples of this movement are to be seen in the Columbia Introduction to the Study of Western Civilization, the similar course at Princeton and the Annapolis Great Books programme. We may also mention the proposals of Dr. A. E. Bestor for the study of American civilization as a foundation for liberal education, which are contained in the final chapter of his book Educational Wastelands (1953). All the programmes are concerned in one way or other with the study of Western culture as an intelligible unity. They accept the existing situation of vocational studies and multiple specializations, and they attempt to correct these centrifugal tendencies by giving students a common cultural background and the consciousness of the existence of a world of thought and cultural activity which includes and transcends every specialized study.

Though the courses are devoted to Western civilization as a whole, by far the greater part of the modern material used is provided by five countries England, the United States, France, Germany and Italy. Nevertheless, though a change of distribution would have done more justice to the contribution of the smaller nations to European culture, it would have made very little difference to the general character of the whole. For the main strands of Western civilization are so closely interwoven that all of them are represented in each of its several parts.

This organic unity of Western culture is so strong that even the modern developments of extreme nationalism have been incapable of creating any real cultural and spiritual autarky. Indeed, if they go beyond a certain point in this direction they prove fatal to the existence of the national culture itself, as the catastrophic development of national socialism in Germany has shown. Every great movement in the history of Western civilization from the Carolingian age to the nineteenth century has been an international movement which owed its existence and its development to the cooperation of many different peoples.

The unitary national state which has played so great a part in modern history is no doubt a characteristically European institution. Yet it represents only one aspect of Western civilization. On the other side there is the still older tradition of cooperation between cities and institutions and individuals. This existed before the unitary state was ever thought of, and still survives in so far as the tradition of European religion and science still preserves its vitality. The intercourse between the Mediterranean and the North or between the Atlantic and Central Europe was never purely economic or political; it also meant the exchange of knowledge and ideas and the influence of social institutions and artistic and literary forms. The conception of a community of Western culture is no new idea. It has always been accepted in one form or another as a fact of daily experience and as an axiom of historical thought.

No doubt there have been great differences of opinion as to the nature of this community; nor is this surprising since, whatever its nature, the unity of Western civilization is certainly not a simple thing. In contrast to the monolithic simplicity of the great oriental cultures, the civilization of the West is like a Gothic cathedral, a complex mechanism of conflicting pressures which achieves its unity by the dynamic balance of thrust and counterthrust.

The two great traditions that have contributed most to the development of Western civilization the inheritance of classical culture and the Christian religion have always produced an internal tension in the spirit of our culture which shows itself in the conflict between the extreme ideals of other-worldly asceticism and secular humanism. Yet the coexistence of both of these elements has been an essential condition of the Western development, one which has inspired all the great achievements of our culture. But there is also a third element, which was ignored or taken for granted in the past and which has only attained full consciousness and intellectual expression during the last two centuries.

This third element is the autochthonous tradition of the Western peoples themselves, as distinct from what they have received from their teachers and school-masters: the original endowment of Western man, which he derives from a remote prehistoric past, which is rooted in the soil of Europe and which finds expression in his languages if not in his literature. This is the factor which has been stressed, often in very one-sided and exaggerated forms, by the modern cult of nationalism, a movement which has resurrected forgotten languages and re-created submerged peoples. It has not only changed the map of Europe, but has had a revolutionary effect on European education and on European literature.

Even if we regard modern nationalism as subversive of the unity of Western culture, even if we accept the saying of the great Austrian poet that the path of modern culture leads from humanity through nationality to bestiality, we must still admit its importance as a characteristic product of the Western development and a vital factor in modern history. Nor is its importance confined to Europe, since it has proved capable of adaptation and transmission to non-European peoples and has become a world-wide movement which threatens to destroy the hegemony of Western civilization.

It was the creed of the Enlightenment that Western civilization was destined to expand by the progressive influence of science and trade and humanitarian ideals until it became a true world civilization, so that in the distant future our descendants might hope to see the Parliament of Man, the Federation of the World. This is no ignoble ideal, and it still commands the allegiance of the enlightened elements in Western democracy. But though we have achieved the Parliament of Man and the Federation of the World in the form of the United Nations, we have not got a world civilization; and the very existence of Western civilization itself is in question.

The sublimated idealism of the Enlightenment, the spirit of the League of Nations and of the United Nations Charter have not proved strong enough to control the aggressive dynamism of nationalism. The new type of politics, as we saw it in Fascism and as we see it today in Communism, is a technique of organ­ized violence which may be directed by a cool and realistic will to power, but which owes its driving power to the blind, sub­conscious forces of racial aggressiveness and social resentment.

No doubt Western civilization has in the past been full of wars and revolutions, and the national elements in our culture, even when they were ignored, always provided an unconscious driving force of passion and aggressive self-assertion. But these elements were kept in check in the past by common spiritual loyalties and by the discipline of an objective intellectual tradition. In fact the history of Western culture has been the story of the progressive civilization of the barbaric energy of Western man and the progressive subordination of nature to human purpose under the twofold influence of Christian ethics and scientific reason. Above all, no other culture in the world has devoted so much attention to the problem of political power and the moral principles of political action as that of the West. It has been debated down the centuries by Dante and St. Thomas, by Machiavelli and Bodin, Hobbes and Harrington, Locke and Burke, Montesquieu and Rousseau, Hegel and Mill, de Maistre and Proudhon.

This freedom of political discussion on the highest level is something which Western civilization has in common with that of classical antiquity, but with no other. It presupposes the existence of an international body of educated opinion which is not the creature of the state and which is free to discuss ultimate social and political principles in an atmosphere of relative impartiality. It takes all it can from the common treasure of European culture and rejects with hostility and contempt all that it cannot claim as its own. It divides the republic of letters by a civil war of rival propaganda which is as ruthless and unscrupulous as civil wars have always been. At the same time, the state has armed itself with the new weapons of psychological warfare, mass suggestion and disintegration which threaten mankind with a spiritual tyranny more formidable than anything that the world has hitherto known.

These tendencies are equally fatal to the unity of Western civilization and to the creation of an international world order such as has been envisaged by the Charters of the League of Nations and the United Nations. The conflict is therefore not one between Europe and the other world cultures. It is a malady that is common to modern civilization in all its forms and in every continent. But there is no doubt that the crisis appears in its most acute form in Europe, where more than twenty national states, including some of the most highly developed military and industrial powers in the world, are crowded together in a smaller area than that of the United States. Under these conditions, every European war has the characteristics of a civil war, and the creation of an international order is no longer the dream of political idealists but has become a practical necessity without which Europe cannot hope to survive.

The great question of the present century is whether Western civilization is strong enough to create a world order based on the principles of international law and personal liberty that are the fruits of the whole tradition of Western political thought, or whether we are witnessing the emergence of a series of gigantic continental mass states which will organize the world into a small number of exclusive and antagonistic spheres of power.

At the present moment the prospects of the realization of the second alternative seem threatening enough, and Europe has been so disintegrated by war and political conflicts that it has lost its old position of cultural leadership. Nevertheless, it would be unsafe to judge the situation on the present balance of material resources. The forces of Western civilization are greater than the economic and military resources of the states of Western Europe. One of the greatest of the non-European world powers, the United States, is so profoundly impregnated with Western traditions and ideals that America cannot accept the complete disintegration of Europe without imperiling her own cultural existence.

Whatever may be the political future of Europe and however dark are her economic prospects, Europe retains her historic position as the source of Western civilization, and this is bound to influence the future as well as the past. For it is hardly too much to say that modern civilization is Western civilization. There are very few forces living and moving in the modern world which have not been either developed or transformed by the influence of Western culture.

It is therefore as important as it ever was to understand the nature of Western civilization and how it was that this relatively minute group of European states came to transform the rest of the world and to change the whole course of human history. Hence a systematic study of Western civilization has become a necessary part of education, not only in Europe itself, but still more in the non-European lands which still belong to the tradition of Western civilization. It is necessary too, in the Oriental societies which are ceasing to be politically and economically dependent on Western imperialism but which still have to find a synthesis between their traditional cultures and the new ideas and the new ways of life which they have derived from the West.

Even if the Western attempts to create an international world order as a safeguard of peace and freedom prove an illusion and the world descends into a twilight of barbarism and a new dark age begins, this task at least remains.

For even the Dark Ages that followed the fall of the Roman Empire did not entirely destroy the continuity of culture, owing to the fact that an elementary knowledge of classical civilization was preserved and transmitted by the monks and schoolmen who were the educators of the Christian barbarians. No doubt the culture of the ancient world was more easily transmissible than our own because it was infinitely simpler and because it had behind it the strong unitary traditions of the Roman Empire and the Christian Church. Nevertheless even our own complex and many-sided civilization is not entirely formless. It has an intellectual tradition which is capable of being formulated and transmitted no less than that of classical culture. How this can best be done is the greatest problem of modern education, and we are still far from finding a solution. In some respects it may prove easier to approach the problem in America than in Europe, not only because the New World is able to see the European achievement in perspective, but also because from the American standpoint there is a clear intelligible relation between the history of the United States and that of Europe as a whole. In Europe itself this is not the case. The student starts with one particular national tradition, and he becomes involved in a study of the intricate pattern of conflicting national traditions before he has become fully aware of the existence or the nature of European civilization as an organic whole.

In the United States, however, there is a general agreement today that nationality provides too narrow a basis for historical study and there is consequently a general move towards some wider alternative. But what are the alternatives? World history or the study of civilization in general is too vast a study to be covered, even superficially, in a two or three year course. If we follow Dr. Arnold Toynbees concept of the true unit of history being the civilization, then Western civilization is the obvious subject for study. But, as Dr. Toynbee himself has shown, Western civilization is inseparable from Christian civilization, and the latter is the more fundamental and intelligible unit. By studying Christian culture in its several forms we are led to understand Western civilization from within outwards; whereas it is much more difficult to achieve a unitary study if we begin with the centrifugal multiplicity of Western civilization and attempt to discover its principle of unity by going from without inwards. But if we begin our study with Christian culture we immediately discover the sources of the moral values of Western culture, as well as the sources of the intellectual traditions that have determined the course of Western education.

For, as I have written elsewhere:

The activity of the Western mind, which manifested itself alike in scientific and technical invention as well as in geographical discovery, was not the natural inheritance of a particular biological type; it was the result of a long process of education which gradually changed the orientation of human thought and enlarged the possibilities of social action. In this process the vital factor was not the aggressive power of conquerors and capitalists, but the widening of the capacity of human intelligence and the development of new types of creative genius and ability.1


  1. Religion and the Rise of Western Culture (1950), p.10.

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Dawson, Christopher. The Study of Western Culture. Chapter IX in The Crisis of Western Education (New York Sheed & Ward, 1961), 119-128.

Reprinted by permission of Julian Philip Scott, grandson of Christopher Dawson.

The Author

progressandreligionHistorianandhisworld 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 © 2004 Christopher Dawson

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