Christopher Dawson: The Seven Stages of European Culture (Part I)

From Understanding Europe; published by Image Books, New York, 1960. By permission of Christina Scott, Literary Executor for the late Christopher Dawson.

THE EXISTENCE of Europe is the basis of the historical development of the modern world, and it is only in relation to that fact that the development of each particular state can be understood. Nevertheless it is a submerged reality of which the majority of men are only half conscious. For the last century and more, the whole trend of education and politics and public opinion has tended to develop the consciousness of nationality and to stress the importance of the nation-state, while leaving Europe in the background as a vague abstraction or as nothing more than a geographical expression. The main reason for this is, of course, the cult of nationalism which, owing to its double appeal to political passion and to cultural idealism, exerts an exceptionally strong influence in the popular mind. But behind this there is a further cause which has not perhaps been sufficiently recognized. This is the tradition of education which has provided the framework of Western thought, and in this tradition the conception of Europe has never held a definite place. On the one hand, there was the history of the ancient world -of classical Greece and Rome- which was regarded as an essential part of education: on the other, and on a very much lower plane, there was the history of a man’s own country and people, which every educated person was supposed to be familiar with but which did not possess the same prestige as classical history or humane letters or even natural science. A transition from one to the other was provided by such works as Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and it was books of this kind, which were the nearest approach to a study of Europe that the old tradition of education provided. But they were obviously partial and unsatisfactory, so that the consciousness of Europe as an historical reality was something which somehow had to be picked up on the road that led from ancient Rome to modern England (or whatever one’s country might be), and it was only an exceptionally enterprising mind which troubled to enquire where and how it made its first appearance and what was its essential character.

From this defect in our education all modern culture has suffered. In fact the bitter harvest we are reaping to-day was in large measure the fruit of this initial error.

To ignore Europe and to concentrate all our attention on the political community to which we belong, as though it were the whole social reality, leads in the last resort to the totalitarian state, and National Socialism itself was only this development carried out with Germanic thoroughness and Prussian ruthlessness.

The democratic states have, on their part, no doubt refused to accept the extreme consequences of the nationalist heresy. They have preserved some contact with the tradition of Natural Law and a real sense of international obligation. Yet they also have ignored the existence of Europe as a social reality and oscillated between the reality of the nation-state and the ideal of a cosmopolitan liberal world order which was theoretically co-extensive with the human race, but it was in practice dependent on the economic realities of international trade and finance. Yet apart from Europe, neither the one nor the other would have existed. For Europe is more than the sum of the nations and states of the European continent, ant it is much more than a subdivision of the modern international society. In so far as a world society or a world civilization can be said to exist, it is the child of Europe, and if, as many peoples believe to-day, this ideal of world civilization is being shipwrecked before it has achieved realization, then Europe remains the most highly developed form of society that humanity has yet known.

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