Like any other illness, the malady that affects modern man needs to be acknowledged before it can be treated. Of this fact the disease itself is acutely aware, and, like a devious tapeworm, takes steps to prevent its detection, masking its necrotizing effects with soothing material comforts and personal freedoms.
However, there are moments of clarity amidst the carefree fog of these artificial pleasures, when the disease’s numbing, placating distractions dissipate enough for the pain and emptiness festering beneath to exert themselves with inescapable acuteness. It is in these moments of anguish and apathy that the modern man realizes that something is awry, that the modern life is not a healthy one. With his realization that something is wrong, he can now turn to the counsel of a good doctor, and none is better to address his particular state than Christopher Dawson.
Strictly speaking, Christopher Dawson is not a doctor. Though he is considered by some to be “the greatest English-speaking historian of the twentieth century,” and was selected to be the first Koch Chair of Catholic Studies at Harvard University, Dawson never actually earned a doctorate degree. But free of the confines of academia, he developed a broad and holistic understanding of the modern condition, one that makes him particularly suited to advise those who are suffering from it.
More than Dawson’s knowledge of the “modern dilemma,” as he called it, is his approach to addressing it. In this regard, Dawson is like a good doctor in three ways: he is an insightful diagnostician; he helps his patients understand how they came to their current condition; and, perhaps most importantly, he never fails to prescribe a hopeful remedy. Dawson is less of a historian and more of a health expert, specializing in the evaluation of a culture’s vitality.
Dawson employs this technique in many of the aspects of modernity he approaches, from the bourgeois mind to the technological order to understandings and practices regarding sex, and a longer essay could certainly trace the consistency of his methodology across these different topics and more. For present purposes, however, it is sufficient to highlight a work where the Dawsonian technique is perhaps most clearly discernible.
In The Modern Dilemma, which he wrote in 1932, Dawson is not merely concerned with a symptom or a dimension of modernity’s failure; instead, he addresses head-on what he believes to be the very root cause of the modern age’s sickness. With calm directness, he diagnoses our disorder in the very first sentence: “The modern dilemma is essentially a spiritual one, and every one of its main aspects, moral, political and scientific, brings us back to the need of a religious solution.”
Spirituales defectus is the name of our particular ailment, and Dawson, like a patient doctor, explains to us exactly what this means. Society, he tells us, needs a set of “common principles and common ideals” upon which its unity and vitality rests. While individuals may give in to a negative attitude of critical skepticism, a society that abandons positive beliefs—absolute ideas that order its activity—“is powerless to resist the disintegrating effects of selfishness and private interest.”
In healthy societies, religion has provided this unifying principle. In fact, Dawson calls religion “the vital centre of the whole social organism,” and notes that “if the state did not already possess a common religious basis, it attempted to create one artificially.” This was the case with the Caesar-worship of Imperial Rome, just as it was the case with the system of Communism in the USSR of Dawson’s age. Dawson sees something similar happening in the Modern West, where the traditional source of cohesion, Christianity, is being replaced by a “purely secular type of culture which subordinates the whole life to practical and economic ends.”
Ultimately, however, such artificial constructs are insufficient because they fail to satisfy man’s spiritual nature. They lack anything transcendent in them. In this sense, a society needs religion not merely because it provides some source of unity; it needs religion because man is sick without it. If a civilization lacks this authentically spiritual element, Dawson writes, it:
cannot be permanently successful. It produces a state of spiritual conflict and moral maladjustment which weakens the vitality of the whole social organism. This is why our modern machine-made civilization, in spite of the material benefits it has conferred, is marked by a feeling of moral unrest and social discontent which was absent from the old religious cultures, although the lot of the ordinary man in them was infinitely harder from the material point of view.
Modern society, incapable of satisfying man’s spiritual needs and unable to come up with a permanent alternative, is in danger of succumbing to the “disintegrating effects” that Dawson believes characterize a culture stricken with spirituales defectus.
Now that modern man knows his condition, its characteristics, and his outlook (should his condition remain untreated), he should be told how the present state of affairs came to be. How did the West, the cradle of Christendom, come down with a bad case of spirituales defectus? If spiritual vitality is the basis of societal unity, why didn’t Western society respond with hostility to these changes as any organism would to something that threatened its healthy equilibrium? Dawson, like a good doctor explaining to his patient why he contracted some exotic disease, is willing to connect the dots.
Dawson argues that the virulent forces that are hostile to religion embedded in modernity are not new tendencies. Rather, they are like a virus that quietly worked beneath the surface in Europe for hundreds of years:
The whole modern period from the Renaissance to the 19th century was a long process of revolt by means of which the traditional order of life and its religious foundations were being undermined by criticism and doubt … it was an age of individualism … it was an age of secularism in which the state substituted itself for the Church as the ultimate authority in men’s lives and the supreme end of social activity. And finally it was an age which witnessed the triumphant development of scientific materialism, based on a mechanistic theory of the world that seemed to leave no room for human freedom or spiritual reality.
Today, we see this process carried out to its logical conclusion to the point at which “there is hardly anything left to revolt against.” Societies can now be observed attempting to erect some new foundation on top of the rubble of the old one, which is how Dawson characterizes communism and socialism, positive movements whose conceivers felt “the insufficiency of the liberal revolutionary tradition and the need for a new effort of social construction.”
But these movements fail to provide a satisfactory set of positive beliefs, a unifying principle, for the same reason that liberalism was so successful in undermining the immune system of Christendom: both liberalism and collectivism rely on a materialistic theory, a substance that is indeed corrosive but is incapable of providing a satisfactory foundation for human life, let alone human society.
At this point in the appointment, the modern man is probably beginning to sweat. Dawson has informed him that he suffers from a condition that is marked by symptoms of “moral unrest” and “social discontent” and, if untreated, can terminate in “disintegration.” He has also told him that the factors that caused this disease in the first place also crippled the organism’s natural response mechanisms in the process, like some cultural auto-immune disorder. But fortunately for the modern man, Dawson never sends a patient away without first prescribing a plan, brimming with hope, for treatment.
His solution is, in a way, simple. “We must abandon the vain attempt to disregard spiritual unity and to look for a basis of social construction in material and external things,” Dawson tell us. “The acceptance of spiritual reality must be the basic element in the culture of the future, for it is spirit that is the principle of unity and matter that is the principle of division.”
Of course, considering the hostility and levity with which modernity treats the spiritual, this prescription is easier recommended than practiced. Recall that modernity doesn't only make man sick; it suppresses his ability to respond appropriately to this sickness, not only because it anesthetizes the symptoms but because it disables the spiritual impulse. Telling the modern man that accepting spiritual reality as “the basic element” of culture is his cure is a little like telling someone with muscular dystrophy that the key to his recovery is vigorous exercise.
Nonetheless, Dawson considers the religious sense to be such a “primary intuition” that it can never be thoroughly done away with. As the Soviets responded to the negative revolution of liberalism with Communism, the man of the Modern West will respond to it with his own system of positive values and absolutes. In fact, Dawson goes so far as to suggest that “the return to religion promises to be one of the dominant characteristics of the coming age.” The question then becomes: To what religion will the modern man return?
If he wants to be healthy, Dawson is clear that man's religion cannot be the “secular ideal of social progress or economic efficiency,” neither of which are capable of transcending “the relative value of the economic and political world.” Man's religion must be a religion of faith and spirit. In other words, it must be an actual and authentic religion, not an artificial construct like Communism or Caesar-worship. Dawson rejects out of hand the idea that we must craft some new religion or alter some old one so as to make it a fit to our present condition. Instead, it is our condition that must change to allow for religion. “The only way to bring religion into touch with the modern world is to give it the first place in our own thought and in our own loves,” he says. “If we wish to be religious, we must submit to religious authority and accept the principles of the spiritual order.”
Dawson is also clear about which religion will provide modern man with the most complete recovery and the healthiest life. Like all religions, Christianity acknowledges the existence of the spiritual order, but it is unique in its ability to reconcile the spiritual with the material, a difficulty that had been insurmountable for the Classical Greek, Confucian, and Indian thinkers alike. Christianity bridges the divide between these two worlds, prompting Dawson to call it “nothing less than the spiritual integration of humanity.”
If Christianity is to regain its influence, Dawson says it must recover its “unity and its social activity.” This, he says, is only achievable if Christianity is:
embodied in a real society, not an imaginary or invisible one. And this society must not be merely part of the existing social and political order, like the established churches of the past; it must be an independent and universal society, not a national or local one.
Such a real society, independent and universal, social but also transcendent, already exists: the Catholic Church. In Dawson’s view, no religion other than Catholicism is capable of curing modern societies and saving them from disintegration. Even other sects of Christianity are inferior, because they lack unity and authority, making their claims “no more than a mass of divergent opinions dissolving under the pressure of rationalist criticism and secularist culture.” In a way, this solution makes plain sense, as Catholicism is what united Europe in the first place.
But Dawson warns that seeking to restore the influence of the Church “because it is necessary to society is destructive of its real essence. Nothing,” he says, “could be more fatal to the spirit of Christianity than a return to Christianity for political reasons.” For while Christianity is the principle of unity and life of a civilization, in and of itself it is not civilization. And while religion may be necessary for social unity and vitality, this is not what religion is primarily concerned about. Religion is concerned about souls and salvation, and it’s this transcendental principle that gives it the power to “satisfy the needs of the world.”
Dawson is undoubtedly an instructive mind and, as demonstrated in The Modern Dilemma, his three-fold technique makes him uniquely suited to tell the modern man not only what is wrong with him and how he came to be this way, but what he should do about it. Dawson also has impeccable bedside manner and his works are thoroughly enjoyable reads. Of course, none of this would matter if Dawson weren’t right in his diagnoses and prescriptions. If his diagnosis was off, his assessment of causes was errant, and his prescribed solution was nothing more than wishful thinking, he would have nothing to offer, no matter how helpful his methodology.
Ultimately, what makes Dawson worthwhile is the fact that he is right in these ways. As Christianity is the bridge between the spiritual and the material, Dawson is a bridge between religious truth and historical analysis. He is successful where other historians are not because he is a Catholic who acknowledges that the Church is what she says she is, and allows this truth to illuminate his thought. In this way, he demonstrates perfectly what C.S. Lewis called “looking along the beam,” instead of merely “looking at the beam.” And Dawson is more helpful than most Catholic thinkers because he is a brilliant historian who employs a nuanced and edifying methodology. Together, these factors make Dawson inimitably suited to address the most pressing challenges and deeply rooted dilemmas of modernity.
The modern man should seek Dawson's counsel. Unlike other doctors, with unpredictable office hours and tight schedules, he is always in.