On the beginnings of “Europe”

The foundations of the modern world were laid in 11th and 12th centuries

This is part 1 of my notes on the thoughts and ideas of Christopher Dawson. (In brackets the page numbers of each quote from TRBRAC, unless another book mentioned. “PwG” refers to my own thoughts.)     

In the 11th century Europe finally emerges from the “Dark Ages”: “But with the eleventh century a movement of progress begins which was to continue almost without intermission down to modern times.” The foundations of the modern world were laid then “by the creation of institutions that were to remain typical of our culture” and “by the formation of that society of peoples which, more than any mere geographical unit, is what we know as Europe.” (159, my emphasis)

My (PwG) thought on this: Today, governments around the world are replacing those institutions with ones that conform more to their will to power. And in Europe specifically, the nation states, which weakened the church, are now trying to recreate the unity of the continent that previously this church had formed, in particular in the 13th century.  

A reviewer called Edward I. Watkin wrote about some of Dawson’s work, saying that it provided a kind of counternarrative to a secular interpretation of the history of mankind, as e.g. exemplified by the work of H.G. Wells, and writes: “Every step of human progress is shown to be directly or . . .  indirectly the result of a religious attitude to life, every culture a religious culture. In the service of the Mother Goddess men invented agriculture, in the name of Christ the Church built up the civilisation of Western Europe from the ruins left by the fall of Rome.” (163/64, my emphasis)

(PwG:) Here, Rodney Stark’s work provides a lot of supplementary information. See in particular his “The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success (2005)”

(PwG:) “Every culture is a religious culture”: That leads to the question: What “religion” underlies the current culture? Because it certainly ain’t Christianity. Our current culture may include some fading remnants of Christianity, but that’s about it.

Should we “go back” to the middle ages? No, says Dawson: “We cannot of course regard the mediaeval civilisation as the model of what a Christian civilisation should be – as an ideal to which modern society should conform itself. It is admirable not so much for what it achieved as for what it attempted – for its refusal to be content with partial solutions, and for its attempt to bring every side of life into vital relation with religion.” (172/73, my emphasis)

(PwG:) This smacks a little of totalitarianism. However, there are at least two differences between the medieval attempt at a comprehensive “living out” of a religion and today’s attempt to subjugate and unify everyone and everything under one ruling narrative. One: It was done openly and honestly, not incrementally. Two: It was done under the lived-out faith in a creator God ruling above even the most powerful worldly leaders. Today’s creed is imposed manipulatively, incrementally, and under the deceptively and dishonestly used term of “diversity”. And any faith in a creator God is mocked and derided. Instead, (wo)man is elevated into a god-like position, either individually or collectively, with disastrous results. So obvious are those disasters, that people are now looking for another god, and hoping to have found it in the Earth as “mother goddess”. A sign of regress, not progress.     

“In the early thirteenth century, it seemed as though the foundations were being laid in Europe for a unitary religion-culture, but the second half of the century marks a turning-point and a moment of crisis. The medieval ideal of a unified Christian civilization was destroyed by the rising power of the territorial secular state.” (178)

(PwG:) Unfortunately, no explanation is given in TRBRAC as to why the secular state arose there and then. Connor only quotes Dawson at this point, saying essentially the same thing. When I go to the source (Christopher Dawson: “Religion and the Rise of Western Culture”) I find that, at the time, there was some “intense political conflict” between the Popes and the Hohenstaufen, who had taken over the “Holy Roman Empire” after Emperor Frederick II (1194–1250) had died. This conflict ended victoriously for the Papacy, “but with a serious loss of moral prestige”. (p. 215/16 of “Religion and the Rise …”) “This crisis of the reforming movement and the decline of the unifying energy of medieval culture found outward expression in the two great external catastrophes of Dante’s generation – the end of the crusading states [in the Middle East] and the destruction of the great crusading Order.” “The destruction of the Templars by Philip IV [of France], … was far more serious, since it marked the complete victory of the temporal power of the new monarchy over the international elements in medieval society.” (p. 216/17 of “Religion and the Rise …”) At the same time, “the region between the Mediterranean and the Iranian plateau which had been the focus of world civilization for four thousand years lost its position of cultural leadership and became stationary and decadent . . . Now for the first time Europe is forced to follow untrodden ways and to find new goals, and at the same time becomes conscious of its own powers, critical of accepted traditions and ready for new ventures.” (p. 217 of “Religion and the Rise …”)

(PwG:) It appears ironic, and even providential, that this new role for the West started at exactly the time when the culturally unifying force of Christianity first began to fade.