Monday, February 18, 2013

Christopher Dawson and the History We Are Not Told

by Jeffrey Hart

The first impression one has upon opening a book by Christopher Dawson is of what can be called the romance of learning, a romance experienced as an independent aesthetic category apart from the substance of that learning. We experience here the aesthetic appeal of sheer erudition, the sort of excitement that pervades Montaigne’s Essays, Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, Browne’s Religio Medici, and many passages in Paradise Lost. It is the special aesthetic appeal of Old Books, an appeal that Walter Pater and T. S. Eliot knew well how to exploit.

Dawson did not publish until he was forty, but from early youth, he was a man of books-thousands of volumes of them in various languages. You encounter in Dawson names you have never heard of, connections and comparisons  you have never seen before, scholarly vistas unthought of suddenly opening before you. His erudition, however, works in the service of a large central project: recovering the continuities of Western culture and reshaping in a dramatic way our sense of the history of Western civilization.