Deus Ex Machina

"This is the generation of the great LEVIATHAN, or rather, to speak more reverently of that mortal god, to which we own under the immortal God, our peace and defense." -Thomas Hobbes: Leviathan

European Unity as Historical Myth; A Review of Christopher Dawson’s “The Making of Europe”

His efforts at exact courtesy and formal tenderness had no defect for her. She filled up all blanks with unmanifested perfections, interpreting him as she interpreted the works of Providence, and accounting for seeming discords by her own deafness to the higher harmonies. And there are many blanks left in the weeks of courtship, which a loving faith fills with happy assurance…

George Eliot, Middlemarch

A friend of mine recommended The Making of Europe: An Introduction to the History of European Unity by the Roman Catholic historian Christopher Dawson, what follows is my review.

Some Technical Quibbles

We have to first realise that Dawson wrote his book in 1932 and as such, some outdated historical scholarship is to be expected. For example there is a lot of dependence upon Harnack and his Hellenistic thesis, which academicians for the last fifty years have been moving away from. There is also a lot of analysis based on very broad vague macro concepts like “Hellenism” and the “Oriental” mind, etc. I admit that my eyes glazed over those sort of terms which doesn’t really seem to mean much in the light of contemporary more careful reading of the ancient texts which refuses to posit too great a discrepancy between the “Hebrew” or “oriental” mind and the “Hellenistic” mind. But Dawson can’t really be blamed for using the academic categories in vogue in his time.

Otherwise, the book is not that terribly difficult to read. Although it does feel a little cluttered at times with a lot of facts and names, I don’t think there is much reason to question much of the factual claims. While Dawson, being the good Roman Catholic, occasionally could not help himself to a bit of Roman apologetics of asserting the primacy of Peter and the essentiality of a succession of apostolic office and the institutional form of the Church, etc, but well, who could blame him for sticking up for his team.

What is Dawson Trying to Prove?

The book is quite ambitious and attempts to cover a lot of ground. Since there are too many things mentioned in his book for me to chase down, and since a lot of it is beyond my learning and knowledge, as well as the fact that I think most of it is sound, I won’t really be focused on questioning the factual content of his book.

What I would like to examine however is on the overall form and shape of the book, the manner in which the facts were structured. It is here where I think the book is at its most problematic to the point of self-contradictory. Dawson states near the beginning of his book in the very first chapter, and I quote:

…even in culture the unity of Europe is not the foundation and starting-point of European history, but the ultimate and unattained goal, towards which it has striven for more than a thousand years.

Let us break down this statement down a bit. First he states, categorically with quite frank honesty, that there was never a culturally united Europe. This goal of unity was “unattained”.  He admits quite bluntly as a matter of historical fact, there never was any united European culture. But then he goes on to posit the cultural unity of Europe as its ultimate “goal” which Europe was striving towards, as if Europe was supposed to be culturally united, was meant to be united, intended to be so. But on what basis does he posit such a teleological goal for Europe? Intended by whom? God? In positing this teleological goal of unity beyond the fact of its empirical disunity, Dawson has abandoned the historian chair and is attempting to do theology, or more specifically, theological history, attempting to discern the hand of Providence guiding the historical forces at work in Europe to its yet unseen and unattained goal.

There is nothing wrong with a theologian attempting to read the sign of the times and discern the divine will for those particular historical moments. Dawson however specifically disavows doing theology in his introduction.

If I have written at length on these matters [theological and ecclesiastical matters], it is not to prove a theological point or to justify a religious point of view, but to explain the past…

Thus, unlike the confident verses of Rule Britannia!, Dawson is not proclaiming the existence of a heavenly command summoning Europe out of the azure main, nor speaks he of any divine charters hymned by guardian angels establishing a united Europe firmly upon a divine will. He’s not saying that it is the will of God for Europe to be culturally unified.

So, the cultural unity of Europe is not a historical fact. Neither is it part of the divine intention, or at least, he doesn’t dare to so boldly proclaim as such. Yet his book still contains the subtitle “Introduction to the History of European Unity”. What unity? It seems that this “unity” exists merely as an ideal, an idealised goal as can be seen in this passage:

It is true that Otto III’s ideal of the Empire as a commonwealth of Christian peoples governed by the concordant and interdependent authorities of Emperor and Pope was never destined to be realised in practice; nevertheless, it preserved a kind of ideal existence like that of a Platonic form, which was continually seeking to attain material realisation in the life of mediaeval society.

He’s barely making any sense here. Unless he believes in some kind of demiurge shaping the world according to platonic forms, platonic forms are not living things. They don’t have goals, intentions or seek to do anything. In Christian theology, even if one were to be a Christian platonist, these forms exist only in the divine mind. Yet we have already established ex hypothesi that no one is arguing for a culturally united Europe as part of the divine intention. Whose ideals are these? God’s? Otto III? Or Dawson’s? Who desires or seek to realise this culturally united Europe? Either Dawson wants so desperately for his ideal to be real that he starts projecting anthropomorphic qualities unto it, or he has been drinking too deeply from the wells of Protestant German idealists and Hegelians that he starts to believe in non-angelic “geists” trying to “realise” themselves in historic reality. His ideal hovers ambiguously between existence and non-existence, between fantasy and reality. He is virtually flirting with paganism. Note for instance the following argument:

The evil of nationalism does not consist in its loyalty to the traditions of the past or in its vindication of national unity and the right of self determination. What is wrong is the identification of this unity with the ultimate and inclusive unity of culture which is a supernational thing. The ultimate foundation of our culture is not the national state, but the European unity. It is true that this unity has not hitherto achieved political form, and perhaps it may never do so; but for all that it is a real society, not an intellectual

First he says that European culture does not have European unity as its “foundation and starting-point”, then he criticises the nationalists for not believing that the ultimate foundation of their culture is in European unity? He argues that this is a “real society, not an intellectual abstraction”, then he goes on to say that this society or culture was never realised and is in fact a mere ideal and not real. He can’t seem to make up his mind as to whether or not European unity is a foundational fact, a real society or merely an ideal goal.

His charges of the “evils” of nationalism which refuses to identify national unity with European unity is mere posturing. He has yet to justify this ideal by which he judges others since he concedes that it is not a fact. Why stop at Western European unity and not the unity of both Eastern and Western Christendom? Why stop at Europe at all and not include North Africa or even the whole of the Middle East (given that in his book he so successfully traces genealogical influences of Middle Eastern “Orientalism” to Western culture)? The measure by which he expresses his moral indignation is never justified.

For example, one of his central theses is that the Catholic Church constituted one of the foundation of European unity (whether as the cause or goal is ambiguous as has already been noted.) However, he could not have been ignorant that the rise of Constantinian patronage of the Church led to intense persecution and eventually the suppression of Christian churches in Persian lands which accused Christians of being Roman agents. Rather than grapple honestly with the mixed blessings of a church unified to a particular empire, he posits this unity as ideal, as it should be, come what may the effects upon the church or Gospel.

I would not have judged Dawson so harshly if he had said outright that he believes that it is God’s will for Europe to be culturally unified with the church as its foundation, that that will is the basis for all the efforts of the various historical players “striving” towards the realisation of this divine goal despite all the attempts to thwart the divine will by Persian persecution or whatever, and whose efforts he is reporting or recording in his book. I would strenuously disagree with the premise, but I would have respected this task as theological history. However he doesn’t say this. Instead he pulls this ideal out of nowhere and then frames his historical narrative to suit this ideal. This ideal seems to be totally arbitrary and has never been justified.

Survival Narratives versus Unity Narratives

As I’ve already said, at the factual level there is not much to object to, however his narratives and structures lacks coherence and sometimes to the point of being self-contradictory.

For example Dawson attempts to account for the “premature arrest and decline of Eastern European culture” by arguing that the Byzantine culture failed to communicate their culture down to the local levels and to its diverse peoples. Their “spiritual and social life was cast in the fixed mould of the Byzantine church-state” despite there being “one all embracing organ of culture” in the East. One can infer that Dawson is trying to argue that because Byzantine culture was so unified to the state that it perished the moment the state collapsed with the Ottoman invasion. He contrast this unity and centralisation with the West where

every country or almost every region had its own centres of cultural life in the local churches and monasteries, which were not, as in the East, entirely dedicated to asceticism and contemplation, but were also organs of social activity.

Thus presumably the culture of Western Christendom could survive the collapse of the imperial state apparatus given that it has so successfully diffused to the local levels.

But surely he must surely realise that his triumphalistic narrative of how Western culture could survive, via decentralisation, even national centralisation, contradicts his narrative of the cultural unity of the West. It even outright contradicts his postulated ideal of the unity between empire and church. First he congratulates the West for surviving by precisely not following Eastern Christendom in culturally unifying state/empire with the church,  by diffusing culture to its local and even national levels, then he upholds this unity between state/empire with the church as the ideal cultural goal?

He can’t have it both ways. Either the unity of state/empire and the church is the ideal cultural goal, in which case the fall of the former would drag the latter down with it, making its survival perilously dependent upon state power, or the culture is necessarily disentangled from the state/church, fragmented along national lines, but able to survive the waxing and waning of empires.

This tension comes out again with his earlier account of the church after the collapse of the central Western Empire and how it merged with the culture of the various barbarian nations. He writes:

The bishop became a territorial magnate, like the count, and the greater was his wealth and power, the greater was the danger of the secularisation of the office. The monarchy had no direct intention of interfering with the prerogatives of the Church, but it naturally claimed the right of appointing to an office which took such an important share in the administration of the kingdom…

First he notes that the Western church’s decoupling from the empire lead to its union with the local national society, he realises that this threatens not only secularisation but localisation, local kings and monarchs claiming the right of episcopal appointment. This issue would become a burning one with the Investiture Controversy which threatened the unity of Western Christendom. However he chooses again not to grapple with the difficulty which this fact poses for his church as locus-of-unified-European-culture-narrative. He conveniently employs this “localisation of the church” fact to buttress his narrative of Western Christendom’s ability to survive post-empires but ignores it when it poses difficulties for his culturally united Western Christendom narrative.

The Foundations of European Disunity

However the most glaring problem and incoherence to his narrative has already been noted, he could never make up his mind as to whether or not European cultural unity is a foundational fact or an ideal. The two would often contradict each other in his writings.

For example in the first part of his book is ambiguously titled. It is called “Foundations”. In that he postulates three “foundations” of Europe, the Roman Empire, the Catholic Church and the Classical Tradition. It is one thing to argue that these three components constitutes Europe, it is another thing to argue that these three components were a unifying force for Europe. Historical entities are often constituted by things in tension with one another, often to the point of contradiction. There’s nothing controversial about that. It is however another thing to argue and pick out a specific component within that entity which attempted to unify the diverse elements. For example in China, language wasn’t initially the source of unity in the Chinese Empire. A common script was the product rather than the cause of unity in the Chinese Empire. The cause of unity was properly the state, or more specifically, Qin Shi Huang who willfully unified China by standardising a lot of things and eliminating all other differences.

However the components which Dawson identifies as the “foundation” of European culture themselves contain the source of its dissolution and disunity. Take his exposition on the classical tradition:

It is true that this rhetorical and literary habit of mind has its defects, and it is perhaps partially responsible for that artificiality which is one of the greatest weaknesses of our civilisation. Moreover, the coexistence of two intellectual traditions [the Bible and the Hellenistic] of disparate origin has tended to produce a certain dualism and disharmony in European culture that is absent in civilisations of a simpler or more uniform type.

[Italics mines]

Is he not frankly admitting that at the very foundations of European culture lies a tension, a dis-unifying  force which threatens the unity of European culture? Yet he doesn’t attempt to grapple with the difficulties this poses for his overall narrative. And unlike his postulated ideal of a culturally united Europe, this tension did eventually explode violently with the Enlightenment and the French Revolution where the “classical” Greco-Roman ideal were often held in contrast to the barbarism of medieval Christendom.

To his credit as a historian he doesn’t deny the facts, but he doesn’t attempt to deal with them either, especially when it contradicts his narrative. He simply chooses to ignore them. With the same facts one could have very well simply have entitled Part I “The Foundations of European Disunity” and quite as easily have spun a narrative as to how Europe failed to become culturally unified because it was constituted by contradictory components perpetually in tension, if not in some cases outright war, with each other.

Conclusion: The Makings of Europe as a Secular Sermon

Towards the end of his conclusion Dawson writes:

To-day Europe is faced with the breakdown of the secular and aristocratic culture on which the second phase of its unity was based. We feel once more the need for spiritual or at least moral unity. We are conscious of the inadequacy of a purely humanist and occidental culture. We can no longer be satisfied with an aristocratic civilisation that finds its unity in external and superficial things and ignores the deeper needs of man’s spiritual nature. And at the same time we no longer have the same confidence in the inborn superiority of Western civilisation and its right to dominate the world. We are conscious of the claims of the subject races and cultures, and we feel the need for protection from the insurgent forces of the oriental world and for closer contact with its spiritual traditions. How these needs are to be met, or whether it is possible to meet them, we can at present only guess. But it is well to remember that the unity of our civilisation does not rest entirely on the secular culture and the material progress of the last four centuries. There are deeper traditions in Europe than these, and we must go back behind Humanism and behind the superficial triumphs of modern civilisation, if we wish to discover the fundamental social and spiritual forces that have gone to the making of Europe.

This is probably the most illuminating passage in the entire book and describes accurately the true aims and intention of this book. Dawson lived in the wake of the devastation of the First World War. No doubt all Europe was tramautised by the destructive fragmentation of Europe in that war. Already many Europeans are feeling in their souls the setting of their time, their inevitable decline.

Eventually his book appeals, not to historical empirical facts or even to divine revelation or God’s will, it appeals to what we feel we need, what we feel we want. Europeans, or at least some of them, want Europe to be united once more, they want for there to exist some sort of unified Europe, culturally, spiritually or politically or otherwise, especially after the horror of WWI. Dawson is a peddler in fictitious hopes. He coddles our desires, marshal facts to feed our wants, he helps us to continue to maintain what we want to believe to be true through an enchanting narrative, a literal myth, not only because it is unreal, he admits it as such, but because of the way it functions to foster social cohesion and to encourage men unto action.

But eventually this is a lie, it is nothing more than a wish-fulfillment, a projection of his desires, of what he wants to be true, even needs to be true. His ideal of a culturally united Europe exists nowhere, not in history, not even in the divine will. It exists only in his narrative, he hopes that it would be sufficiently appealing, he hopes that it would so satisfy the cravings of some European man that it would dull their critical faculties and bewitch their assent.

More importantly ultimately Dawson is impious to the point of blasphemous. The great irony is that his call to return to the “spiritual foundations” of Europe to restore European unity contradicts the very spiritual foundations which he preaches. The men who built Europe did not do so because they sought to found a new civilisation or empire or create a united historical entity. He himself ironically notes this when speaking of the collapse of the Roman Empire:

Yet it was in this age of universal ruin and destruction that the foundations of the new Europe were being laid by men like St. Gregory, who had no idea of building up a new social order but who laboured for the salvation of men m a dying world because the time was short. And it was just this indifference to temporal results which gave the Papacy the power to become a rallying-point for the forces of life in the general decadence of European civilisation.

The very spiritual foundations which Dawson alludes too couldn’t give a fig for European unity or temporal results. They weren’t trying to unify Europe or build an unified society. They sought merely salvation and obedience to the will of God. Dawson doesn’t preach or proclaim the will of God. In a cynical Napoleonic manner he wants to use the Christian faith, use the Catholic Church to build Europe, but he cares nothing for the contents of that faith, whether it be truly in accords with the will of God or not. Like Napoleon, he wants the Pope to be present at the coronation of his new empire, but he refused to be crowned by him. He wants the Church Catholic to bless his ideal, but he ignores its witness to the divine will which may contradict his ideal. He wants to subject the Church whom Christ bought with his own blood to worldly empire or civilisational building projects, as if Christianity existed for Europe rather than the other way round.

When Thomas Hobbes was accused of being an “atheist”, they weren’t accusing him of denying the existence of God but of divine providence, of the divine intention and will towards the world, of postulating a god of the epicureans who had no intentions or care towards the world. Dawson is such an “atheist” or a secularist. He is preaching a secular sermon, appealing to the desperate needs and wants of the European man in the midst of ruin, yet he comforts them not with the truth, not with a call of repentance to the divine will, but with enchanting myths and lies. Lacking faith in the divine will for a united Europe, he attempts to disguise his atheism (in the Hobbesian sense) with all the trickery of Protestant German idealism. He is a preacher of another gospel, the gospel of a Unified Europe hoping to lull enough men into sharing what he wants or needs. Like Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach, the Sea of Faith has retreated, he is now issuing forth a call for all men of Europe to “be true to one another!” That in the face of an inscrutable God we still have our myth, our ideal, of a unified Europe, believe and repent!

Perhaps we could forgive him as a human, tramautised with the events of the First World War, but as a scholar an academician, for his dishonesty, his impiety, there shall not be forgiveness either in this world or the next. Yet I think Dawson’s narrative would grow more attractive and more popular with time. It remains an enduring classic to this day because European decay and ruin is becoming more evident than ever, another scholar has already noted the popularity of such historical myths of ruin or civilisational restoration projects here among high church Christians here. And as long as there are desperate disoriented European man who would cling to any lie to orient himself, Dawson’s narrative would retain all its glow, its shine, even its beauty.


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This entry was posted on March 21, 2015 by in Uncategorized.
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