Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Alexis de Tocqueville and metahistory

THUS THE PROBLEM of the relations between history and social anthropology is essentially different from that of their relations to metahistory, which is common to them both. The case of Toynbee is a difficult one because he is at the same time an historian, a sociologist of comparative culture with his philosophy of history and treating both of them as equally metahistory.

But Toynbee does not stand alone in this respect. Even more complex and more remarkable is the case of Tocqueville who is generally admitted by the academic historians to be one of the great historians of the nineteenth century. Yet Tocqueville is not only an historian and a sociologist: he is also a metahistorian, and his metahistory is religious as well as philosophical. He opens his greatest work by a bold profession of faith in the religious meaning of history and the religious vocation of the historian. “The whole book,” he writes, “which is here offered to the public has been written under the impression of a kind of religious dread produced in the author’s mind by the contemplation of the irresistible revolution that has advanced for centuries in spite of such amazing obstacles, and which is still proceeding in the midst of the ruins it has made. It is not necessary that God Himself should speak in order to disclose to us the unquestionable signs of His will; we can discern them in the habitual course of nature and in the invariable tendency of events.” The modern reader may dismiss such utterances as mere conventional rhetoric. But if he does so he will be profoundly mistaken, for Tocqueville was expressing his deepest convictions. As he wrote to a friend, he regarded his work as “a holy task and one in which one must spare neither one’s money nor one’s time, nor one’s life.”

If the metahistorical approach is inconsistent with historical subjectivity, if, as Mr. Bullock writes, history will not “bear the weight of the systems of moral absolutism after which so many people hanker,” then Tocqueville’s preface to Democracy in America is enough to condemn his book from the start as morally pretentious and historically worthless. Yet, somehow he gets away with it, and his two great works still stand today as classical examples of the art of the historian. And he succeeds not in spite of his principles but because of them. If we compare his work with that of his contemporaries who wrote good, straight narrative history like Mignet or Thiers, one must admit that Tocqueville is incomparably the greater historian; he is greater because he is more profound and his profundity is due to the breadth of his spiritual vision and to the strength of his religious faith.

The only conclusion that I can draw from this is that metahistory is not the enemy of true history but its guide and friend, provided always that it is good metahistory. There are other historians of Tocqueville’s generation who also conceived of their task in metahistorical terms—for example, Michelet and Carlyle, but the metahistory of the one consists of superficial generalizations and that of the other is a bombastic and interminable sermonizing. Better an antiquary or an annalist than a minor historian who writes like a minor prophet. The academic historian is perfectly right in insisting on the importance of the techniques of historical criticism and research. But the mastery of these techniques will not produce great history, any more than a mastery of metrical technique will produce great poetry. For this something more is necessary—intuitive understanding, creative imagination, and finally a universal vision transcending the relative limitations of the particular field of historical study. The experience of the great historians such as Tocqueville and Ranke leads me to believe that a universal metahistorical vision of this kind, partaking more of the nature of religious contemplation than of scientific generalization, lies very close to the sources of their creative power.

~Christopher Dawson: from The Problems of Metahistory. (1951)

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

"Separation of Church and State"

“IN the United States above all, the principle of the absolute separation of Church and State has been carried so far that it involves a refusal to recognize the Church as a corporate entity, so that anything of the nature of a concordat would be regarded as a violation of the Constitution. Similarly, in the domain of public education, the principle of the separation of Church and State is now interpreted so rigorously as to ban any kind of positive Christian teaching from the school, with the result that the educational system inevitably favors the pagan and secularist minority against the Christian and Jewish elements who probably represent a large majority of the population.”

~Christopher Dawson: The Crisis of Western Education.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

"St. Augustine...the founder of the philosophy of history"

“St. Augustine’s work of The City of God was, like all his books, a livre de circonstance, written with definitely controversial aim in response to a particular need. But during the fourteen years—from 412 to 426—during which he was engaged upon it, the work developed from a controversial pamphlet into a vast synthesis which embraces the history of the whole human race and its destinies in time and eternity. It is the one great work of Christian antiquity which professedly deals with the relation of the state and human society in general to Christian principles; and consequently it has had an incalculable influence on the development of European thought. Alike to Orosius and to Charlemagne, to Gregory I and Gregory VII, to St. Thomas and Bossuet, it remained the classical expression of Christian political thought and of the Christian attitude to history. And in modern times it has not lost its importance. It is the only one among the writings of the Fathers which the secular historian never altogether neglects, and throughout the nineteenth century it was generally regarded as justifying the right of St. Augustine to be treated as the founder of the philosophy of history.”

~Christopher Dawson: from St. Augustine and the City of God.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

"If mankind is to survive"

“THE new scientific culture is devoid of all positive spiritual content. It is an immense complex of techniques and specialisms without a guiding spirit, with no basis of common moral values, with no unifying spiritual aim. This was not evident so long as modern science was confined to the peoples of the West and maintained its connection with the ideology of Humanism and liberalism, but now that it has become truly world-wide, its spiritual neutrality or vacuity has become evident, since it can be taken over en bloc by any state which is able to train specialists and buy machinery and equipment, as Japan has done in the last sixty years.

A culture of this kind is not culture at all in the traditional sense—that is to say it is not an order which integrated every side of human life in a living spiritual community.

Indeed it may become the enemy of human life itself and the victory of technocracy may mean the destruction of humanity since it is impossible to ignore the way in which the latest triumphs of applied science have been turned to destructive ends.

*   *   *
The events of the last few years portend either the end of human history or a turning point in it. They have warned us in letters of fire that our civilizations has been tried in the balance and found wanting—that there is a an absolute limit to the progress that can be achieved by the perfectionment of scientific techniques detached from spiritual aims and moral values.

There are many, as for example H. G. Wells in his last days, who have drawn the extreme conclusion and believe that the process of disintegration that threatens the existence of civilization cannot be arrested or diverted.

If there were no alternative to the total secularization of culture, this pessimism would be justified.

But if, on the other hand, the movement of secularization represents only one aspect of human life—if mankind possesses other resources which have been temporarily neglected but which still remain available—it is possible to see the present situation as a temporary crisis due to the over-secularization in a particular direction, which will be corrected by a swing of the pendulum in the opposite directions. This movement of alternation has always been part of the normal development of culture, and the recent movement of secularization is unique only in its extent and in the immensity of the forces it has generated. But there is no reason to believe that it will not ultimately be succeeded by a movement in the other direction towards religious belief and spiritual integration, as has been the case with all the more limited movements towards secularization and the disintegration of the synthesis between religion and culture in the past.

Religion is still a living force in the world-today. No doubt it is difficult to estimate the hold religion possesses over men’s minds and lives, for it is not a force which can easily be measured by statistical methods.

There are authorities like Professor Latourette who assert that so far as Christianity is concerned, the last century and a half have seen its widest expansion and its largest effect upon the human race.

There are others who argue that this advance has been superficial and peripheral, and that religion has lost more by the secularization of culture than it has gained by internal organization and missionary activity. However this may be, there can be no question that, on the one hand, it survives and in certain respects flourishes, and on the other hand that it has lost the organic relations with culture which it possessed in the great religion-cultures of antiquity of the Middle Ages.

Thus we have a secularized scientific world culture which is a body without a soul; while on the hand religion maintains its separate existence as a spirit without a body.

This situation was tolerable as long as secular culture was dominated by the liberal humanist ideology which had an intelligible relation with the Western Christian tradition, but it becomes unendurable as soon as this connection is lost and the destructive implications of a completely secularized order have been made plain.

We are face with a spiritual conflict of the most acute kind, a sort of social schizophrenia which divides the soul of society between a non-moral will to power served by inhuman techniques and a religious faith and a moral idealism which have no power to influence human life. There must be a return to unity—a spiritual integration of culture—if mankind is to survive.

The whole history of culture shows that man has a natural tendency to seek a religious foundation for his social life and that when culture loses its spiritual basis it becomes unstable. Nothing has occurred to alter these facts. Indeed during the last century and a half they have often found a powerful expression in the thought of the age, though not in its social life. Even thinkers who have lost their religious faith, like Comte and Renan and Matthew Arnold, have continued to recognize the sociological necessity of such a relation.

Nor is there any necessary reason why a synthesis should not be possible between a scientific world civilization and a universal transcendent religion. On the contrary, there is a natural affinity between the scientific ideal of the organization and rationalization of the material world by human intelligence, and the religious ideal of the ordering if human life to a spiritual end by a higher law which has its source in the Divine Reason.

It is almost an historical accident that man’s achievement of control over his material environment by science should have coincided with his abandonment of the principle of spiritual order so that man’s new powers have been made the servants of economic acquisitiveness and political passion.

The recovery of moral control and the return to spiritual order have now become the indispensable conditions of human survival. But they can be achieved only by a profound change in the spirit of modern civilization. This does not mean a new religion or a new culture but a movement of spiritual reintegration which would restore that vital relation between religion and culture which has existed at every age and on every level of human development.  

~Christopher Dawson: from Religion and Culture (1948)


Sunday, September 14, 2014

“The story of the Cross”

“FOR the Christian view of history is a vision of history sub specie aeternitatis, an interpretation of time in terms of eternity and of human events in the light of divine revelation. And thus Christian history is inevitably apocalyptic, and the apocalypse is the Christian substitute for the secular philosophies of history.

“But this involves a revolutionary reversal and transposition of historical values and judgments. For the real meaning of history is not the apparent meaning that historians have studied and philosophers have attempted to explain. The world-transforming events which changed the entire course of human history have occurred as it were under the surface of history unnoticed by the historians and philosophers. This is the great paradox of the gospel, as St. Paul asserts with such tremendous force. The great mystery of the divine purpose which has been hidden throughout the ages has now been manifested in the sight of heaven and earth by the apostolic ministry. Yet the world has not been able to accept it, because it has been announced by unknown insignificant men in a form which was un-acceptable and incomprehensible to the higher culture of the age, alike Jewish and Hellenistic. The Greeks demand philosophical theories, the Jews demand historical proof. But the answer of Christianity is Christ crucified—verbum crucis—the story of the Cross: a scandal to the Jews and an absurdity to the Greeks. It is only when this tremendous paradox with its reversal of all hitherto accepted standards of judgment has been accepted that the meaning of human life and human history can be understood. For St. Paul does not of course mean to deny the value of understanding or to affirm that history is without a meaning. What he asserts is the mysterious and transcendent character of true knowledge—“the hidden wisdom which God ordained before the world to our glory which none of the rulers of this world know.” And in the same way he fully accepted the Jewish doctrine of a sacred history which would justify the ways of God to man. What he denied was an external justification by the manifest triumph of the Jewish national hope. The ways of God were deeper and more mysterious than that, so that the fulfilment of prophecy towards which the whole history of Israel had tended had been concealed from Israel by the scandal of the Cross. Nevertheless the Christian interpretation of history as we see it in the New Testament and the writings of the Fathers follows the pattern which had already been laid down in the Old Testament and in Jewish tradition.”

~Christopher Dawson: The Christian View of History.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Education and the State

Universal education

IT IS moreover a continually expanding force, for when once the State has accepted full responsibility for the education of the whole youth of the nation, it is obliged to extend its control and further and further into new fields: to the physical welfare of its pupils—to their feeding and medical care—to their amusements and the use of their spare time—and finally to their moral welfare and their psychological guidance. 

Thus universal education involves the creation of an immense machinery of organization and control which must go on growing in power and influence until it covers the whole field of culture and embraces every form of educational institution from the nursery school to the university.

Hence the modern movement towards universal education tends to become the rival or the alternative to the Church, which is also a universal institution and is also concerned directly with the human mind and with the formation of character. And in fact there is no doubt that the progress of universal education has coincided with the secularization of modern culture and has been largely responsible for it.

In the philosophy of the Enlightenment which inspired the educational policy of the French Revolution and of Continental Liberalism, the Church and the influence of religion were regarded as powers of darkness that were responsible for the backward condition of the masses, and consequently the movement for universal education was a crusade of enlightenment which was inevitably anti-clerical in spirit. Even in England, as recently as 1870, Joseph Chamberlain could declare that “the object of the Liberal party in England, throughout the continent of Europe and in America has been to wrest the education of the young out of the hands of the priest, to whatever denomination they might belong.”

In practice no doubt, universal education in England as in Germany and many other countries was the result either of a process of co-operation between Church and State or at least of some kind of modus vivendi between them. Nevertheless at best it was an unequal partnership: the fact that secular education is universal and compulsory, while religious education is partial and voluntary, inevitably favors the former and places the Church at a very great disadvantage in educational matters. This is not merely due to the disproportion in wealth and power of a religious minority as compared with the modern state. Even more important is the all-pervading influence of the secular standards and values which affects the whole educational system and makes the idea of an integrated religious culture seem antiquated and absurd to the politicians and the publicists and the technical experts who are the makers of public opinion.

Moreover we must remember that modern secularism, in education as in politics, is not a purely negative force. Today, as in the days of the Enlightenment and the Revolution, it has its ideals and its dogmas—we may almost say that it has its own religion. One of the outstanding exponents of this secular idealism in recent times was the late Professor Dewey, whose ideas have has a profound influence on modern American education, as I have described in the last chapter.

Now Dewey, in spite of his secularism, had a conception of education which was almost purely religion. Education is not concerned with intellectual values, its end is not to communicate knowledge or to trains scholars in the liberal arts. It exists simply to serve democracy; and democracy is not a form of government, it is a spiritual community, based on “the participation of every human being in the formation of social values.” Thus every child is a potential member of the democratic church, and it is the function of education to actualize his membership and to widen his powers of participation. No doubt knowledge is indispensable, but knowledge is always secondary to activity, and activity is secondary to participation. The ultimate end of the whole process is a state of spiritual communion in which every individual shares in the experience of the whole and contributes according to the formation of “the final pooled intelligence,” to use Dewey’s expression, which is the democratic mind.

Now it seems to me obvious that this concept of education is a religious one in spite of its secularism. It is inspired by a faith in democracy and a democratic “mystique” which is religious rather than political in spirit. Words like “community,” “progress,” “life,” and “youth,” etc., but above all “democracy” itself, have acquired a kind of numinous character which give them an emotional or evocative power and puts them above rational criticism. But when it comes to the question of the real significance and content of education we cannot help asking what these sacred abstractions really amount to. Do not most primitive and barbarous peoples known to us achieve these great ends of social participation and communal experience no less completely by their initiation ceremonies and tribal dances than any modern educationalist with his elaborate programs for the integration of school and life and the sharing of common experience?

The forefather of modern education, who was more consistent than his descendants, Jean Jacques Rousseau, would perhaps have approved of this, since he believed that civilization was on the whole a mistake and that man would be better without it. But the modern democrat usually has rather a na├»ve faith in modern civilization, and he wishes to accept the inheritance of culture, while rejecting the painful process of social and intellectual discipline by which that inheritance of culture has been acquired and transmitted.”

~Christopher Dawson: The Crisis of Western Education, Chap. 8.


"The forgotten world of spiritual reality"

“SO long as the Christian tradition of higher education still exists, the victory of secularism even in a modern technological society is not complete. There is still a voice to bear witness to the existence of the forgotten world of spiritual reality in which man has his true being.”

~Christopher Dawson: The Crisis of Western Education.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Economic imperialism and the modern state

“AS Comte had foreseen, the progressive civilization of the West, without any unifying spiritual force, and without any intellectual synthesis, tended to fall back into social anarchy. The abandonment of the old religious traditions did not bring humanity together in a natural and moral unity, as the eighteenth-century philosophers had hoped. On the contrary, it allowed the fundamental difference of race and nationality, of class and private interest, to appear in their naked antagonism. The progress in wealth and power did nothing to appease these rivalries; rather it added fuel to them, by accentuating the contrasts of wealth and poverty, and widening the field of international competition. The new economic imperialism, as it developed in the last generation of the nineteenth century, was as grasping, as unmoral, and as full of dangers of war, as any of the imperialisms of the old order. And, while under the old order the state had recognized its limits as against a spiritual power, and had only extended its claims over a part of human life, the modern state admitted no limitations, and embraced the whole life of the individual citizen in its economic and military organization.”

~Christopher Dawson: Religion and the Life of Civilization.

"Catholicism was not, as the Reformers believed...."

“WITH the advance if historical scholarship in the nineteenth century, it finally became clear that the dogmatic tradition of Christianity could not be separated from its ecclesiastical and sacramental elements. Catholicism was not, as the Reformers believed, the result of the apostasy of the medieval Papacy; it was a continuous process of organic development which is as old as Christianity itself.”

~Christopher Dawson: Christianity and the New Age.

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