Tag Archives: Christianity and Politics

Dawson, “The Gods of Revolution”

This is a new edition of a work by the brilliant historian, Christopher Dawson,Dawson final sketch.indd first published in 1972. The book (Dawson’s last monograph, a short work published posthumously with an introduction by Arnold Toynbee) is The Gods of Revolution, reissued by CUA Press and with a new introduction by Joseph Stuart. In a college course in the intellectual history of western civilization many years ago, one of the required readings was the last chapter of Dawson’s book. I went back and looked at it, and have the following line highlighted: “And a free society requires a higher degree of spiritual unity than a totalitarian one, hence the spiritual integration of western culture is essential to its temporal survival.” The publisher’s description follows.

In The Gods of Revolution, Christopher Dawson brought to bear, as Glanmor Williams said, “his brilliantly perceptive powers of analysis on the French Revolution. . . . In so doing he reversed the trends of recent historiography which has concentrated primarily on examining the social and economic context of that great upheaval.”

Dawson underlines the fact that the Revolution was not animated by democratic ideals but rather reflected an authoritarian liberalism often marked by a fundamental contempt for the populace, described by Voltaire as “the ‘canaille’ that is not worthy of enlightenment and which deserves its yoke.” The old Christian order had stressed a common faith and common service shared by nobles and peasants alike but Rousseau “pleads the cause of the individual against society, the poor against the rich, and the people against the privileged classes.” It is Rousseau whom Dawson describes as the spiritual father of the new age in disclosing a new spirit of revolutionary idealism expressed in liberalism, socialism and anarchism. But the old unity was not replaced by a new form. Dawson insists the whole period following the Revolution is “characterized by a continual struggle between conflicting ideologies,” and the periods of relative stabilization such as the Napoleonic restoration, Victorian liberalism in England, and capitalist imperialism in the second German empire “have been compromises or temporary truces between two periods of conquest.” This leads to his assertion that “the survival of western culture demands unity as well as freedom, and the great problem of our time is how these two essentials are to be reconciled.”

This reconciliation will require more than technological efficiency for “a free society requires a higher degree of spiritual unity than a totalitarian one. Hence the spiritual integration of western culture is essential to its temporal survival.” It is to Christianity alone that western culture “must look for leadership and help in restoring the moral and spiritual unity of our civilization,” for it alone has the influence, “in ethics, in education, in literature, and in social action” sufficiently strong to achieve this end.

Classic Revisited: Hamburger, John Stuart Mill on Liberty and Control

The historian of political ideas, Joseph Hamburger, who spent nearly all of his long and distinguished professional career in the Yale Department of Political Science, was an expert in 18th, but particularly 19th, century British intellectual history.  My little essays on Sir James Fitzjames Stephen as well as some book-related research on Edmund Burke have brought with them the great good luck of an introduction to the writing of this immensely thoughtful and erudite scholar.  Fairly recently, I picked up Professor Hamburger’s book on John Stuart Mill: John Stuart Mill on Liberty and Control (1999).

The thesis of the book is that the strong and unqualified libertarian understanding of Mill — the view that Mill was an unadulterated champion of freedom for its own sake — is very much mistaken.  Relying on the major works (the Logic, On Liberty, Utilitarianism, The Subjection of Women, etc.) as well as on many less well-known writings and letters, Hamburger argues that what interested Mill was liberty and control, and fairly substantial and intrusive types of state and social control at that:

[A]n explanation of Mill’s overarching argument in On Liberty must explain the coexistence of these two apparently opposite positions.  This is made necessary because the provisions for controls were not small exceptions to a general presumption that in most circumstances an expansive liberty ought to prevail . . . . [T]he range of cases in which [Mill] would punish, his approval of punishments for mere dispositions toward conduct that would injure others, and above all, his explanation of his purposes to [his friend] George Grote indicate that his rationale for liberty in combination with control  requires a different explanation.  It is also necessary to explain how, for Mill, the provisions for both control and liberty were not contradictory, but in fact were compatible means of implementing a coherent plan of moral reform.  (18-19)

Professor Hamburger proceeds in the following chapter to discuss the movement of Mill away from an interest in institutional reform (something which always greatly interested Bentham) toward a more ambitious plan for cultural and moral reform (in tandem with and inspired by his wife, Harriet).  He then spends several very interesting chapters discussing Mill’s aim to vanquish Christianity as the de facto social morality and replace it with a “religion of humanity” — the new moral system which would strike the balance between liberty and control properly:

The real task of religion was to direct emotions and desires away from low objects and to be “paramount over all selfish objects of desire.”  Moreover, it ought to make us disinterested: “It carries the thoughts and feelings out of self, and fixes them on an unselfish object, loved and pursued as an end for its own sake.”  Christianity, however, in Mill’s view, did anything but this:

The religions which deal in promises and threats regarding a future life, do exactly the contrary: they fasten down the thoughts to the person’s own posthumous interests; they tempt him to regard the performance of his duties to others mainly as  a means to his personal salvation; and are one of the most serious obstacles to the great purpose of moral culture, the strengthening of the unselfish and the weakening of the selfish element in our nature.  (43, quoting “Utility of Religion”)

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