Birzer’s History of a Historian

Bradley Birzer, professor at Hillsdale College, has written the first extensive (and likely the definitive) biography of English historian Christopher Dawson—Sanctifying the World: The Augustinian Life and Mind of Christopher Dawson. It offers not only a perceptive intellectual study but an intimate portrait of this champion of Christian culture. As Birzer explains in in his preface:

In the attempt to view the world as Dawson did… I have drawn upon Dawson’s works, his unpublished letters, the published and unpublished letters of those friends and adversaries around him, contemporary news stories about him, and interviews with and about him. Each of these sources… reveal Dawson to be a man of the mind, a person who put ideas and intellectual and spiritual interpretations above all things. Indeed, he was a man of letters in a democratic and ideological era that had forgotten or shunned the natural aristocracy and the liberal arts. The sources also reveal that Dawson lacked much in the way of social skills and suffered from long incapacitating bouts of depression.  But what awkwardness he may have suffered in the presence of others was made up for in his intense and anxious intellect.

One of the things that I admire about Dawson is his opposition to pseudo-philosophies which have come to dominate Western society and academia. He noted three disruptive factors that emerged in sixteenth century Europe—the development of propaganda, the emergence of ideology, and the creation of the centralized (and increasingly secularized) state. According to Dawson: “The ideological diversity and tension of modern Europe is comparable to, and to some extent caused by, the religious diversity and tension of post-Reformation Europe.” Religious teaching became not only fragmented but, over time, devalued and replaced by surrogate belief systems that actually made more intrusive demands on individuals. Meanwhile the elimination of the Church’s role removed an important moral and physical buffer between the state and the citizen.

Of course there’s more to Birzer’s book than sociological analysis. In one respect I think he excels Dawson, as an observer of personal life (something that never greatly interested the historian), giving us a portrait that is both critical and respectful. By the end, I came appreciate the Catholic thinker not only for his immense contributions to modern scholarship, but also as a human being who ultimately overcame his own weaknesses and won the affection and admiration of many of his contemporaries.

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