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

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

6. The Age of Revolution

This highly stylized aristocratic civilization of post-Renaissance Europe, which reached its full development in the age of Louis XIV, differed from the earlier phases of European development in its lack of religious foundations.

The stronger became the culture of the courts, the weaker became the culture of the Churches, so that by the eighteenth century European society began to undergo a process of rapid secularization which changed the whole character of Western culture. The alliance of the courts with the humanist culture and with the scientific movement which was still predominantly humanist in spirit generated the new ideas of enlightened despotism and of the rationalization of human life by the diffusion of scientific knowledge. The movement was strongest in France, where it possessed a consciously anti-Christian character and carried on a crusade of enlightenment against the dark forces of fanaticism and superstition which it saw embodied in the Church and the religious orders. From France the movement spread with extraordinary rapidity throughout continental Europe, using the courts and the aristocratic salons as its channels of diffusion, and extending even as far as Russia and Portugal.

Only in the England did the movement take a different form. Here alone in Europe the court culture was relatively unimportant and the center of power had passed to the great landowners who ruled the country through parliamentary institutions and were practically emancipated from royal and ecclesiastical authority. Under their rule, English society also underwent a process of secularization, but it was less complete and far less revolutionary than that of the Continent. The main energies of English society were directed to practical ends -to commercial and industrial expansion and to the revolution of economic life by capitalism and scientific invention. There was no sudden breach with religious tradition. Indeed in England, unlike the Continent, the eighteenth century witnessed a popular movement of religious revival which had a deep effect on the common people and the middle classes of English society. Thus in England the movement towards the secularization of culture followed a very uneven and irregular course. There was no sharp conflict between religious tradition and the scientific enlightenment, but a number of dissident sectarian or party movements which broke up the traditional unity of religion and culture and created their own separate creeds and ideologies. Some of these movements, like the Unitarians, were in close sympathy with the Enlightenment and were led by philosophers and scientists like Joseph Priestley; others, like the Wesleyans, were inspired by the ideal of personal sanctity and evangelical simplicity. But they all acted, consciously or unconsciously, as a ferment of social change, and prepared the way for the reforming movements of the following century.

On the Continent, and especially in France, where these intermediate sectarian groups did not exist, the secularization of culture was far more complete, and the conflict between the movement of Enlightenment and the forces of tradition was far more acute. By degrees the Enlightenment became transformed into a kind of counter-religion, and the spiritual forces which were denied their traditional religious expression found their outlet in the new revolutionary cult which was embodied in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and was inspired by an irrational faith in Reason and by boundless hopes for the progress of humanity when liberated from the age-long oppression of priests and kings. Political democracy and economic liberalism were the practical corollaries of these beliefs, and the attempt to realize them by a drastic breach with the past and the introduction of new rational institutions led to the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror and the Caesarean imperialism Of Napoleon.

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