Recent Reading: Dynamics of World History

I've been wanting for a long time to read more of the work of historian Christopher Dawson, having read one or two of his essays on the relationship between Christianity and Western civilization. Dawkins wrote through the middle of the twentieth century, and was widely held in high esteem until about the late 1960s, when a rigidly secularist view became de rigueur in academic circles and any historian who acknowledged religion as a force in the shaping of history became persona non grata.

That, at least, is the explanation that Dermot Quinn offers for Dawson's disappearance from the canon of important historical scholars taught to history students in American universities these days. I refer to Quinn's introduction to the third edition of Dynamics of World History (ISI Books, 2002), a compendium of Dawson's essays compiled and edited by John J. Mulloy. Mulloy has arranged the essays into five sections grouped in two parts: Part One -- Toward a Sociology of History and Part Two -- Conceptions of World History. Part One has three sections: "The Sociological Foundations of History," "The Movement of World History," and "Urbanism and the Nature of Culture"; Part Two consists of two sections: "Christianity and the Meaning of History," and "The Vision of the Historians." The book begins and ends with a preface and an afterword by John Mulloy.

I've never studied historiography in an academic setting, although I have wanted to. But I've been interested in history ever since I began to realize that "history" is not just the boring series of dates and wars that it seemed to be in high school classes. One of the works that helped convert me from that juvenile concept of history was an essay by political philosopher Hannah Arendt. This essay, The Concept of History, Ancient and Modern, (which you can read online by clicking the link) turned me on to the idea that history is not merely a series of historical facts but a way of understanding those facts. That is, "history" is never simply objective and factual, but always involves interpretation. This seems rather self-evident to me now, but at the time it was an important new insight.


Arendt describes three different general views of the nature of history, which spring from the ancient pagan, the (chiefly medieval) Christian, and the modern views. The pagan view, based on observation of the seasonal changes of nature, saw history as cyclical. The Christian view, based on the Bible, sees history as being guided by God's purpose, a story with a beginning, middle, and end, all of which are written according to God's plan. The "modern" view also sees human history as an ongoing story, but it differs from the Christian view in that it sees the story being written by human achievement -- not the achievement of individual heroes, as in pagan history and legend, but the achievement of the human race in the abstract; this story is one of gradual, but continual progress, expected to culminate someday in the perfection of human society and Man's control of his environment.

To the three worldviews that Arendt identifies, we might add a fourth, the Marxist view. Marxists agree with Dawson and Arendt that history is not merely a collection of facts but a particular interpretation of selective facts, but they would deny the modern view that the human race has made inexorable progress through history. The Marxist materialist dialectic is essentially a repudiation of the progressive dialectic described by the German philosopher Hegel, insisting that human history consistently witnesses a huge underclass of workers constantly being subjugated by a tiny overclass of the rich and powerful. The identities of these two classes may shift over time (those who had composed the worker class gain the ascendancy and become the new overlords), but the basic situation of rulers and the ruled never changes.

Che Guevara cultural marxism propaganda poster
Americans students
are encouraged to undermine
their own culture.

That is why Marxist ideology rejects the notion of progress as a natural development of human history, and insists that for anything to change fundamentally the entire existing culture must be utterly destroyed, razed to the ground and the ground salted, even more thoroughly than Rome once did to Carthage. So the Marxist Manifesto, which still governs Marxist influence throughout the world, insisted that all aspects of the existing culture -- religion, history, ideas, art -- must be obliterated, the slate wiped clean. Once this is achieved, the world can be "re-educated" to believe in a world where all are equal, no one is subjugated, and class strife is no more, because there are no separate classes to struggle against one another. Marxist will go beyond acknowledging that history is a particular interpretation of the facts (i.e., the propaganda of the ruling class), to insist that "facts" themselves are meaningless and so may be erased from the history books when they don't support the ruling ideology. Whatever is not erased is rigorously edited to serve as propaganda for the "classless" society that is the aim of the Marxist project.

Bizarro cartoon
Christianity reduced to
just another tall tale.
This helps to explain why Christopher Dawkson, a preeminent historian in the twentieth century, has disappeared from the curricula of American universities; the success of the Frankfurt School's infiltration of American academia has successfully obliterated (or at least undermined and marginalized) all competing ideologies, of which the Christian view is the most feared and reviled. All the more reason for Catholics concerned about the present culture wars to become familiar with the work of Christopher Dawson, who is famous for emphasizing the important role that religion plays in shaping our idea of history and, particularly, for showing that one cannot really understand Western history without adequately acknowledging the role Christianity has played in shaping Western culture.

By the way, you can find an attractive and affordable edition of Christopher Dawson's Dynamics of World History, as well as a number of articles and lectures about him, on the web site of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.

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