Monday, March 4, 2019

Civilization and Morals

NOW IT SEEMS CLEAR that it is impossible to have a purely "practical" morality divorced from an interpretation of Reality. Such a morality would be mere social custom and essentially unprogressive. Progress springs very largely from the attempt to bring actual conditions and social habits into harmony with what are conceived as the laws or conditions of real life. The very conception of morality involves a duality or opposition between what "is" and what "ought to be." Moreover from the very earliest conditions of primitive savagery up to the highest degree of intellectual culture, the ethical standard can be shown to be closely connected with some kind of world-view or conception of reality, whether that is embodied in a mythology, or a philosophy, or is vaguely implicit in the customs and beliefs of the society.

Now the great obstacle to the attainment of a purely rational system of ethics is simply our lack of knowledge of Reality. If we can accept some metaphysics of Absolute Being, then we shall quickly possess an absolute morality, as the Platonists did. But if we limit ourselves to positive and scientific knowledge of Reality, it is at once evident that we are limited to a little island of light in the middle of an ocean of darkness. Unfortunately, Herbert Spencer's attitude toward the Unknowable will not help us here, for the machina mundi is a dynamic unity, and the part of it we know shares in the movement of the unknown whole. Most philosophies and religions have supposed that there is some kind of meaning or reason in the world process; though there are thinkers like Lucretius (and perhaps Bertrand Russell) who deny this, and yet try to fashion a kind of "island" morality for reasonable humanity shipwrecked amidst the chaos of an irrational universe. Nevertheless the great majority of modern thinkers, in fact modern men, believe profoundly in the existence of progress, and not merely a progress of succession but a progress of improvement. "Life moves on to ever higher and richer forms. Here is an adequate goal for moral effort! Here is justification of moral values! Here is a true foundation for a modern system of ethics!"

But from a purely rational point of view what does all this amount to? So far from explaining the problems of human existence, it adds fresh difficulties.

~Christopher H. Dawson: Dynamics of World History I, I, 4.

"Substitutes for religion"

"THREE forms of activity─the consecration of place, the consecration of work, and the consecration of the social bond itself─are the main channels through which religion finds social expression and acquires a sociological form. . . . But our own culture . . . has been growing progressively more secular. . . . The three main substitutes for religion in the modern age, Democracy, Socialism, and Nationalism, which are typical of the age of transition from a religious to a secular society, are each of them based one one of these fundamental errors. Democracy bases it's appeal on the sacredness of the People─the consecration of Folk; socialism on the sacredness of Labour─the consecration of Work; and nationalism on the sacredness of the Fatherland─the consecration of Place. These concepts still arouse a genuinely religious emotion, though the emotion has no basis in transcendent religious values or sanctions. It is religious emotion divorced from religious belief. Social activities are no longer consecrated by being brought into relation with the transcendent realities and values which are the proper objects of religion. They are, as it were, 
consecrated to themselves and elevated into substitutes for the ends to which they were formerly subjected."

~Christopher H. Dawson: "Prevision in Religion." (1934)

Friday, January 11, 2019



Wednesday, September 5, 2018

"The rise of a democratic totalitarianism"

“Four years ago I wrote a small book on Religion and the Modern State which was an attempt to reconsider the problem of the relations of Church and State as they were affected by the rise of the new political ideologies. I pointed out that the issue was not merely a conflict between Democracy and Dictatorship or between Fascism and Communism. It was a change in the whole social structure of the modern world, which affects religion and culture as well as politics and economics. The forces that make for social uniformity and the mechanization of culture are no less strong in England and the United States than in Germany and Italy, so that we might expect to see the rise of a democratic totalitarianism which would make the same universal claims on the life of the individual as the totalitarian dictatorships of the Continent.

“I think that events have justified this diagnosis of the situation and that few people to-day will question the existence of this totalitarian trend in our own country. It has indeed become the most vital and urgent problem of our time, how this trend is to be reconciled with the traditions of liberty and individualism on which not only the English State but the whole fabric of English culture and social institutions has been built.”

~Christopher Dawson: Beyond Politics. (1939)

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Education and Christian Culture

“…Christian culture is nothing to be ashamed of. It is no narrow sectarian tradition. It is one of the four great historic civilizations on which the modern world is founded. If modern education fails to communicate some understanding of this great tradition, it has failed in one of its most essential tasks. For the educated person cannot play his full part in modern life unless he has a clear sense of the nature and achievements of Christian culture: how Western civilization became Christian and how far it is Christian today and in what ways it has ceased to be Christian—in short, a knowledge of our Christian roots and of the abiding Christian elements in Western culture.

“When I speak of Western culture I am not using the word in the limited sense in which it was used by Matthew Arnold and the humanists, who were concerned only with the highest level of cultivated intelligence, but in the sense of the anthropologists and social historians, who have widened it out to cover the whole pattern of human life and thought in a living society. In this sense of the word a culture is a definite historical unity, but as Dr. Toynbee explains so clearly in the Introduction to his Study of History, it has a much wider expansion in space and time than any purely political unit, and it alone constitutes an intelligible field of historical study, since no part of it can be properly understood except in relation to the whole.”

~Christopher H. Dawson: The Crisis of Western Education, Chap. X—The Case for the Study of Christian Culture.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Darwin's Influence

"THE NATURALIST conception of man has above all been influenced by the Darwinian doctrine of the Origin of Species, and by the evolutionary theories to which this gave rise. The doctrine of a continuous development through the whole of animate nature, and the gradual evolution of the human species under the influence of natural selection, seemed to show that no principle external to the material world need be invoked to account for man: he was of a piece with the rest of nature. Further, the theory of evolution was linked with the earlier liberal theories of political and social advance to form the modern doctrine of unlimited and inevitable material progress, a doctrine fundamentally unscientific and based on an irrational optimism, but which has nevertheless become a part of the mental furniture of the ordinary modern man. As yet, however, the naturalist movement has not received its definitive philosophy. There has been no lack of ambitious attempts to elaborate naturalistic syntheses, but none has been final. Neither Condorcet nor Holbach nor Bentham nor Comte nor Spencer nor Haeckel can be said to be the philosopher of the movement. Nevertheless, in their doctrine of man there is a large element common to all these philosophers. Whether they be Deists, Materialists, or Agnostics, they generally agree that man is a part of the material world; that in the knowledge, the control, and the enjoyment of this world he finds his true end, and that no spiritual principle can intervene in this closed order governed by uniform physical laws. Taking it as a whole, however, modern naturalism is due not so much to any philosophic theory, as to the material triumphs of modern civilization and man's conquest of nature. The realm of mystery before which man feels himself humble and weak has withdrawn its frontiers. Man can know his world without falling back on revelation; he can live his life without feeling his utter dependence on supernatural powers. He is no longer the servant of unknown forces, but a master in his own house, and he intends to make the most of his new-found powers."

~Christopher H. Dawson: Enquiries. (1933)

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Humanism and the New Order

IN science, the growth of man’s knowledge and his control over nature is accompanied by a growing sense of man’s dependence on material forces. He gradually loses his position of exception and superiority and sinks back into nature. He becomes a subordinate part of the great mechanical system that his scientific genius has created. In the same way, the economic process, which led to the exploitation of the world by man and the vast increase of his material resources, ends in the subjection of man to the rule of the machine and the mechanization of human life. Finally, in the political and social sphere, the revolt against the medieval principle of hierarchy and the reassertion of the rights of the secular power led to the absolutism of the modern national state. This again was followed by a second revolt—the assertion of the rights of man against secular authority which culminated in the French Revolution. But this second revolt also led to disillusionment. It led, on the one hand, to the disintegration of the organic principle in society into an individualistic atomism, which leaves the individual isolated and helpless before the new economic forces, and, on the other, to the growth of the bureaucratic state, the “coldest of cold monsters,” which exerts a more irresistible and far-reaching control over the individual life than was ever possessed by the absolute monarchies of the old regime.

So we have the paradox that at the beginning of the Renaissance, when the conquest of nature and the creation of modern science are still unrealized, man appears in a god-like freedom with a sense of unbounded power and greatness; while at the end of the nineteenth century, when nature has become conquered and there seems no limits to the powers of science, man is once more conscious of his misery and weakness as the slave of material circumstance and physical appetite and death. Instead of the heroic exaltation of humanity which was characteristic of the naturalism of the Renaissance, we see the humiliation of humanity in the anti-human naturalism of Zola. Man is stripped of his glory and freedom and left as a naked human animal shivering in an inhuman universe.

Thus humanism by its own inner development is eventually brought to deny itself and to pass away into its opposite. For Nietzsche, who refused to surrender the spiritual element in the Renaissance tradition, humanism is transcended in an effort to attain to the superhuman without abandoning the self-assertion and the rebellious freedom of the individual will—an attempt which inevitably ends in self-destruction. But modern civilization as a whole could not follow this path. It naturally chose to live as best it could, rather than to commit a spectacular suicide. And so, in order to adapt itself to the new conditions, it was forced to throw over the humanist tradition.

Hence the increasing acceptance of the mechanization of life that has characterized the last thirty years. Above all, in the period since the war [WWI] there has been a growing tendency toward the de-intellectualization and exteriorization of European life. The old fixed canons of social and moral conduct have been abandoned, and society has given itself up to the current of external change without any attempt towards self-direction or the preservation of spiritual continuity. But this acceptance of new conditions is in itself negative, and possesses no creative quality. It points to the dying-down and stagnation of culture rather than its renewal. Nor is this surprising. For centuries, Western civilization has received its impetus from the humanist tradition, and the dying-away of that tradition naturally involves the temporary cessation of cultural creativeness.

~Christopher H. Dawson: Christianity and the New Age, Chap. 1.

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