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  • How Dawson Read The City of God
  • Jacob D. Rhein (bio)

To examine how the twentieth-century English historian Christopher Dawson read St. Augustine’s City of God brings to the foreground the problem of method, since one must ask whether any apparent influences came directly from The City of God or were derived from other sources. Augustine and Dawson had several texts in common—the letters of St. Paul, for instance—and it is likely that Dawson took ideas from many scholars who were influenced by Augustine. Nevertheless, what I intend to do in this article is to consider the ways in which Dawson developed the themes treated in City of God to illuminate modern issues while trying to indicate evidence of direct influence where possible. As Dawson’s biographer Bradley Birzer writes, “Dawson admitted that nearly all of his ideas were ‘an attempt to reinterpret and reapply the Augustinian theory of history.’”1 And in his private notes Dawson calls The City of God “the urgent work of the greatest father on the most important subject.”2 Knowing how Dawson read that work is therefore central to grasping the significance of his own writings.

The basis for this article will be two of Dawson’s essays, “The Dying World” and “The City of God,” published together as “St. Augustine and His Age” in Dawson’s coauthored Monument to St. Augustine [End Page 36] (1931). Using these two essays as an outline, this article will comprise, first, a comparison of Augustine’s view of his age with Dawson’s perspective on the twentieth century presented in Progress and Religion (1929); and second, a comparison of Augustine’s response to the sack of Rome in the City of God with Dawson’s response to World Wars I and II in Judgment of the Nations (1943). In this second section, I will refer to Dawson’s own copies of the City of God, which contain his original markings and annotations. Dawson found in the City of God a vision of history as the birthing process of a universal spiritual society that transcends time and that is created by charity, which alone unites humanity’s religious and social instincts.

I. Augustine’s Age: “The Dying World”

Augustine’s writing of The City of God was prompted by the sack of Rome by Alaric and the Visigoths in 410 a.d. But this particular catastrophe was only one episode in a collapse of Roman civilization spanning several centuries in both directions. That collapse was in part due to economics. As Dawson points out in Progress and Religion, Rome was an agrarian state from the beginning: “The foundation of her power and of her very existence was the peasant-soldier citizen.”3 While possessing no higher culture of their own, these peasant-soldiers adopted the Greek ideal of paideia, which sought to produce a “higher type of man” through a process of intellectual and moral education.4 And, although Rome had only negligible contributions to make to the content of Greek thought, holding itself slightly aloof from the speculative character of Greek philosophy, it far surpassed the Greek mind in its ability to organize the materials of the world to embody its cultural principles. The Roman attitude is summed up nicely by Quintilian: “if the Greeks bear away the palm for moral precepts, Rome can produce more striking examples of moral performance.”5 Indeed, the great agrarian republic produced some outstanding cases of classical pagan virtue. One thinks for example of Marcus Regulus, of whom Augustine writes in the City of God that he [End Page 37] “was so conscientious in his worship of the gods” that he kept his vow to return to captivity in Carthage where he was put to a torturous death.6

“But with the conquest of the Mediterranean,” writes Dawson, “all this was changed.”7 At the end of the Punic Wars and the destruction of the republic’s habitual enemy, Carthage, Rome found itself master of the whole of the Mediterranean, and the rural Latin society was transformed into an Empire. “A progressive degeneration and transformation of the characteristic Roman types took place.”8 This was due...


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