I’m really happy with this way this article turned out. It is published at Crisis. The editor John Zmirak had initially sent me a piece by the legendary historian Christopher Dawson and asked me to respond. I generally avoid this sort of debate so I didn’t bother to look at the piece for probably ten days or so. In fact, I didn’t really accept the challenge.
Then I read the piece. It was quite incredible. Dawson sweeps his scholarly hand over vast continents and epochs and makes wild claims entirely abstracted from the real experience of humanity. Nowhere does he show the slightest interest in the plight of the common man and his quality of life. He is happy to declare the middle ages to be this wonderful time of faith and order and then proceeds to blast away all of the last several hundred years as hopelessly corrupted by materialism. His target is what he calls the bourgeoisie, and here he admits that his thinking is in line with Karl Marx. But there is a difference. Whereas the Marxists posited a hopeless conflict between capital and labor, his model posits a conflict between real faith and material provision. The two are irreconcilable.
The real danger of the Dawson piece is its erudition in big things and its deep disengagement with the small things that make life good, like clean clothes, medical care, running water, job opportunities, access to food to feed the children, and the like. He cares nothing for these things. He is content to simply praise the past for its Michelangos and Berninis and condemn the present for its Lady Gagas and Justin Beibers. It’s really a cheap trick and an obvious one: pick the best of the past and the worst of the present and you can paint a picture of relentless decline.
My response points to the dramatic change that took hold of the world in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, a change that created what we call the middle class today. It gave life to hundreds of millions of people. Without the bourgeoisie and the capitalist marketplace they sustain, the world could not support seven billion. Surely a high-minded cultural historian like Dawson should care about things like this? Surely!