Changing Views of History: Ancient, Modern, Christian, Marxist
[UPDATE JANUARY 2021: When I went to share this post on the “Christopher Dawson” Facebook page, I received a message that the page is “not available at this time.” Coincidence? Or unfortunate irony?]
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.
Although I’ve never made a formal study of historiography in an academic setting, I’ve been interested in history ever since I began to realize that “history” is not just a boring series of dates and wars, the way it was presented in high school. 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 purely 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.
Worldview Shapes Concept of History
In her essay, Arendt describes three different general views of the nature of history, springing 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. Outstanding individuals, according to this view, can achieve lasting fame by their outstanding deeds (the closest thing to true immortality that the ancient mind could conceive), but the repeated rise-and-fall cycle of history was as inexorable and unbreakable as the turning of the seasons. 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 (which is really derived from the modern view). The Marxist materialist dialectic harks back to the pagan view, insofar as it sees history as cyclical (although not based on the cycles of nature), but the Marxist insists that this cycle not only can but must be broken. Marxist historiography is essentially a repudiation of the progressive dialectic described by the German philosopher Hegel; according to this view, the cycle of history continually witnesses a huge underclass of workers that is subjugated by a tiny overclass of the rich and powerful. Although the identities of these two classes shifts over time, as those who once inhabited the downtrodden worker class gain the ascendancy and become the new overlords, the basic tension between the subjugated working class and the idle ruling class who oppress them never changes.
|Americans students are encouraged to undermine their own culture.|
Since Marxist ideology rejects the modern notion of human progress, it insists that, for the human condition to improve 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. Thus, the Communist 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, where no one is subjugated, and where class strife no longer is possible because there simply are no separate classes to struggle against one another. Going far beyond acknowledgment that all history is a particular interpretation of the facts (i.e., the propaganda of the ruling class), Marxism is far more radical, insisting that “facts” themselves are meaningless and therefore 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.
|Christianity reduced to just another tall tale.|
This helps to explain why Christopher Dawson, a preeminent historian in the twentieth century, has disappeared from the curricula of American universities; the success of the “cultural revolution” instigated by the Marxist infiltration of American academia has obliterated (or at least severely 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, an attractive and affordable edition of Christopher Dawson’s Dynamics of World History, published by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI), is available in both print and electronic editions from Amazon and other online booksellers. You can also find a number of articles and lectures about Dawson on the ISI web site.