Europe in Eclipse

Christopher Henry Dawson

EVER since the end of the first World War there has been a growing demand for a universal history. The old national histories no longer sufficed for an age which had seen historic empires falling like rotten trees and new States and nationalities springing like mushrooms. At the same time it is doubtful whether it is yet possible to write a world history in the full sense of the word. There are still too many tracts that are almost unexplored, and still more which have only been explored in a partial and one-sided manner. Above all, there exists no educated public which can compare the histories of different civilizations and judge between them. Oriental history is still the preserve of the comparatively small number of specialists who are masters of the oriental languages, and there is little common ground between them.

Under the circumstances the history of a single civilization seems the most that we can hope to achieve. It is here that European culture seems to offer the best starting point for an approach to world history, for its transforming influence on the other world cultures has been far greater than that of any of the Oriental civilizations. This is partly because its geographic features have made Europe peculiarly open to cultural contact, although one cannot ignore the dynamic character which the European peoples themselves have manifested. Nevertheless, it is possible to regard “Europe” from many points of view, and amongst these the geographical point of view is by no means the most important. Considered from the point of view of cultural inheritance, Europe is only a link between the ancient East, which was the source of higher civilization, and the new world of transoceanic cosmopolitan culture. Even if we exclude both the whole vast field of prehistoric antiquity and the cosmopolitan culture of the present century, we shall find that what we are dealing with is not one civilization but three. First there is the culture of the Mediterranean orbis terrarum which was created by the Greeks and organized and extended to the West by the Romans; secondly there is the culture of mediaeval Christendom, and thirdly the culture of the European society of nations, as it existed from the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries.

It is only this third culture which is European in the full sense of the word. In spite of the Greek origin of the word, and its occasional use in the Middle Ages, “Europe” is a peculiarly modern concept, which was introduced by the scholars of the Renaissance to distinguish the new orbis terrarum from the old. The cradle-lands of Hellenic culture were lost, but they dreamed of the re-flowering of the same classical tradition, first in Italy and then in the lands beyond the Alps. Thus for them “Europe” was not a continent but the comparatively small society of peoples who shared the same ideals of literary culture and civilized behaviour. And so “Europe” and “civilization” became interchangeable terms. The Turks were “barbarous,” but so were the Muscovites. Sir Thomas More and Cardinal Pole were humane and civilized persons, but so was Bessarion, the Asiatic Greek.

This ideological conception of “Europe” has endured almost to our own times, so that as the area of communication grew the idea of Europe extended with it. But now the modern world is passing through a period of acute cultural crisis which affects every continent and race and people, and which is especially serious for those peoples who have inherited the tradition of Western culture. During the last centuries the expansion of the European peoples by conquest and colonization, by trade and industry, by science and technology, has unified the world as never before and laid the foundation for a world civilization. But at the moment when this process was approaching its climax, the political and economic power of Europe was shattered by forty years of world war and revolution. Today Europe has lost her political hegemony and the Great Powers of the nineteenth century have either ceased to exist or have become dwarfed and over-shadowed by the rise of the new world powers which control whole continents and number their population by hundreds of millions.

Moreover, this end of the European age of history is not simply due to the decline in the political and economic power of the European peoples; it is also the result of a loss of faith in the uniqueness of European culture and of the claim of the oriental and non-European peoples to an equality of cultural status. This is a revolutionary change, for hitherto, right down to our times, the identification of European culture with Civilization in the absolute sense of the word has been accepted almost without question, not only by the man in the street but by the scholar and the man of science. Today all this is changed. Not only is Europe reduced to insignificance by the giant powers to which she has given birth, but it is difficult to find any people, however weak and backward, who will admit her claim to cultural superiority. Even peoples who emerged only yesterday from the darkness of African barbarism now regard themselves as culturally equal or superior to the old Western lords of the earth.

Nevertheless this new order of cultural equality is itself a European creation and part of the inheritance of Europe. The wave of defeatism that is affecting Western Europe and the aggressive nationalism of the non-European peoples are secondary phenomena in comparison with the vast changes which are transforming the life of humanity. But these changes are the work of Western man through the science and technology and the institutions and ideas that he has created or invented. Whether this is good or bad is another question. We still do not know whether this will be the foundation of a new world order or whether Western man, like Frankenstein, has created a monster that will destroy him.

To the Christian the answer must depend mainly on spiritual factors – above all on whether the new civilization is open or closed to the influence of Christianity. For Christianity has been the centre of the whole European culture-complex round which the other elements revolve, and so long as this centre remains, the continuity of culture and the preservation of its spiritual inheritance is secure. But at the present time the prospects of such a development are unfavourable. The great age of Western expansion has also been the age of the secularization of Western culture. What has expanded has been – first, Western political and economic power; secondly, Western technology and science; and thirdly, Western political institutions and social ideals. Christianity has also expanded, but in a far lesser degree.

During the nineteenth century, Liberalism, the creed of progress and enlightenment, of liberty and humanity, was the effective religion of Western culture, and it succeeded in winning converts all over the world – in India and the Near East, in Japan and China. But now that Liberalism is in eclipse and no longer possesses the power to unite the world, the cosmopolitan culture of the modern world is like a body without a soul, and the void is being filled by new totalitarian ideologies like Communism, which threaten to divide the world rather than to unite it.

Thus at the present time it seems unlikely that Europe will succeed in handing on its cultural tradition to the new peoples in the way that ancient Rome handed on its tradition to the mediaeval world. Nevertheless it must be remembered that the prospects were no better in third century A.D. A Roman of that age witnessing the failure of the Empire to withstand the barbarian invasions in the West and the growing power of the Persian monarchy in the East, would never have imagined that Rome would become the center of a new spiritual empire in the West or that the new Rome on the Bosphorus, which did not yet exist, was destined to maintain the tradition of the Empire and of Greek Christian culture for more than a millennium.

The fact is that the fate of civilization is not determined solely, or even predominantly, by political and economic causes. The age of the decline of the Roman Empire was also an age of spiritual rebirth, which prepared the way, not only for the coming of mediaeval Christendom, but also for the civilizations of Byzantium and Islam. It proved to be the great water-shed that divided the streams of Western and Eastern culture and determined the channels in which they were to flow for a thousand years.

Now our own age is also an age of transition, in which the frontiers between East and West are changing from the ruins of the old. What is most important however, is not the change in the balance of power and international relations, but the deeper changes that take place below the surface of political events and of which we may be almost unconscious. For the spiritual forces on which the vitality of a civilization depends often manifest themselves in unlooked for ways which escape the attention of publicists and historians. In order to discover them it is necessary to look at our civilization as a whole, in the past as well as the present, and to see what have been the formative elements in the Western culture process and how far they are still living today.

Now the civilization of the West is the embodiment of a two-fold tradition. On the one hand it inherits the traditions of the classical culture of Rome and the Hellenistic world, and on the other it is the heir of Christendom and of a religious tradition which reaches back behind the classical world to the ancient East. From the one side, Europe has inherited the tradition of Greek philosophy and science and Roman law and literature; from the other, Europe has received its moral values and its spiritual ideals: its conception of God and Man, of divine providence and human responsibility. Both these elements coexist, whether in tension or balance, with one another at every stage of the development of Western culture. There are periods when one element seems to prevail over the other and almost excludes it, as the Christian tradition dominates the early Middle Ages, and the classical tradition dominates the age of the Renaissance. To borrow an expression from biology, there are dominant and recessive elements in every culture; and an element which is recessive during a whole age of civilization may later re-emerge to dominate the civilization of the future. But the second recessive element is always present and contributes something essential to the achievement of the dominant partner, as the work of St. Thomas would have been impossible without the Hellenic contributions of Aristotle, and as the Renaissance drama in England and Spain is no less indebted to the Christian past to the classical tradition.

But it may be objected that this is no longer the case when we come to the modern age; that the achievements of modern Western civilization in science and technology and in political and social reform represent a revolutionary change in human history which owes nothing to the past. It is certainly true that the secular ideology, which has done so much to form public opinion in the West during the last two centuries, inculcated this view and minimized and condemned the traditional elements in Western culture. Nevertheless this attitude was a partisan one, determined by the temporary needs of the parties and classes that were in conflict with the ancien regime. From the strictly historical angle there can be no doubt that the more recent developments of Western culture are deeply rooted in the European past.

Even the Liberal movement, with its humanitarian idealism and its belief in the law of nature and the rights of man, owes its origin to an irregular union between the humanist tradition and a religious ideal that was inspired by Christian moral values, though not by Christian faith. As I have shown in my book Progress and Religion, the whole development of liberalism and humanitarianism, which has been of such immense importance in the history of the modern world, derived its spiritual impetus from the Christian tradition that it attempted to replace, and when that tradition disappears this spiritual impetus is lost, and liberalism in its turn is replaced by the crudity and amoral ideology of the totalitarian state.

In the same way the modern scientific movement was a product of Western humanist culture and even today it still preserves the traces of its origin. No doubt modern technology can be detached from humanist culture and used in a purely instrumental way to serve the interests of any power that wishes to employ it for any purpose. Consequently it can be used for the destruction no less than the service of man, as we see in the case of the development of atomic energy to create weapons of mass destruction. But this is not true of science as a whole, and there are many scientists who are fully conscious of the tragic contradiction between the humanist ideals that have been the inspiration of Western science and the inhuman consequences of the perversion of scientific technology when it is used simply as an instrument of power.

Moreover this is only one aspect of modern science. The same spirit which inspired the scientific conquest of nature by man and led to the material unification of the world, has also led to a new understanding of human nature itself and to the discovery and investigation of the world of human culture.

One of the most fruitful results of this investigation of culture by Western science lies in the new knowledge it has afforded of the ancient civilizations of the Orient. Most histories of Western civilization do not give enough attention to this extra-European aspect of the European inheritance. If we compare our own culture with that of the Roman-Hellenistic world in its later stages, we see that what is most significant is not what happens in Europe itself but the changes that take place in the outer zone of Western expansion. For the later stages of Europe’s cultural penetration of Asia constitute a process of no less importance than that of Hellenistic penetration of the ancient East. But in most accounts of modern European history little or nothing is said of this process – as seen in the great expansion of the Christian missions in the East, or in the achievement of the great European archaeologists, philologists, and orientalists who have revealed and interpreted the oriental literatures and cultures. Yet this great work, which was initiated in the sixteenth century when Matteo Ricci first brought Western science to China and revealed Chinese culture to Europe, is surely no less remarkable than that of the conquerors and the politicians. Not only did it immeasurably widen the frontiers of Western civilization and lay the foundations of a new understanding between East and West, it also gave the non-European peoples a new understanding of their own past. Without it, the East would be unconscious of the greatness of its own heritage, and the memory of the earliest Asiatic civilizations would still be buried in the dust.

This is an enduring inheritance for the whole world, East and West, which will outlast political ideologies and economic empires. At the present time it is the fashion to view the relations of East and West in terms of colonial exploitation or of nationalist reaction, and if this were all, the European inheritance could be written off like the oil concessions and capital investments which are being expropriated. But the cultural inheritance of Europe is not confined to Europe, any more than the inheritance of the classical world was confined to the Mediterranean. Even though the political hegemony of Europe has passed away, America and Asia still inherit the tradition of European culture, just as Western Europe and the Middle East still inherited the traditions of Roman and Hellenistic culture after the Empire had fallen. The permanent inheritance of Europe, like that of Hellenism, is a spiritual and intellectual one. It has changed the world because it has changed men’s minds. Loss of power does not mean loss of knowledge, even though Europe ceases to be be a centre of world power, the spiritual and intellectual forces that had their origin in Europe will continue to influence the world, whether the new masters of the world acknowledge their debts or not. The influence of Hellenism did not end with the Roman conquest of Greece, not yet with the fall of Rome or with the fall of the Byzantine Empire; and so it must be with the inheritance of Europe.

The creative development of this inheritance depends on the vitality of the spiritual forces which inspired the achievements of European culture – the religious tradition of Christianity and the intellectual tradition of Humanism; and these are still alive today. They live inside and outside Europe; on the other hand, in the Catholic Church, and on the other, in the Western tradition of science and scholarship and literature. And it is to these two powers that me must look for the creation of a new world civilization, which will unite the nations and the continents in an all-embracing spiritual community.

– “Europe in Eclipse”, Section II Chapter 8, Dynamics of World History, Christopher Henry Dawson, pages 419-426.


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