Book Review: The Judgment of the Nations, by Christopher Dawson

The English historian Christopher Dawson (1889-1970) wrote The Judgment of the Nations in 1942, when the battle between Nazi Germany and Western civilization was far from decided. While Dawson’s ideas are largely a response to the catastrophic rise of totalitarianism in his time — in the shape of fascism, communism and to a great extent capitalism — these ideas are just as relevant today, more than 80 years later. Here are some excerpts.

“The old landmarks of good and evil and truth and falsehood have been swept away and civilization is driving before the storm of destruction like a dismasted and helmless ship.”

“We have discovered that evil too is a progressive force and that the modern world provides unlimited prospects for its development.” Consider this point the next time a candidate runs on a platform of “change.”

“For when once morality has been deprived of its religious and metaphysical foundations, it inevitably becomes subordinated to lower ends …”

“There is no longer any clear line of division between Christian and non-Christian peoples, and with the disappearance of her Christian consciousness, Europe has begun to doubt her own existence.” This accounts for the self-inflicted wounds our laws and policies are creating in ever accelerating number.

“If we accept the totalitarian principle, it would seem that the only hope of world peace is to be found in the triumph of a single ideology.” Perhaps this accounts for the decline of civility and unwillingness to debate that permeates the public square, especially online.

“In fact at the present time it looks as though we were beginning to witness a sort of persecution of culture, corresponding to the anti-clerical and anti-religious movement of the last century.”

“Everything therefore depends on whether we believe in the existence of a spiritual order of which man is naturally conscious by his knowledge of good and evil, or whether the world runs blind, driven by irrational forces which man must serve if he is to survive.”

“What is at stake is not the external profession of Christianity, but the inner bond which holds society together, which links man to man and the order of the state to the order of nature. And when this has gone nothing remains but the principle of brute force which is essentially unreconcilable with a pluralistic society like the European community and which therefore operates as a revolutionary and destructive force alike in the social and international order: dividing class against class and nation against nation, until either society is destroyed or humanity is reduced to a dead level of servitude under the iron hand of power.” But hey, let’s party.

“In the new States not only a man’s property and his work, but his family, his leisure and his thought are controlled by the immense and complex machinery of party and police and propaganda which are gradually transforming society from a commonwealth of free citizens into a hive or an antheap.” Dawson goes on to describe how the process works, a description that fits our politically-dominated mass media complex as perfectly as it does Nazi Germany’s.

Dawson paints a bleak picture to be sure, but offers some hope and makes a few suggestions how to reverse the trend and reinvigorate Western culture. Unfortunately, his suggestions haven’t panned out. He predicted greater unity among Christians, as they came to perceive that the threat to their survival overshadowed any theological differences. Such unity has certainly not come about. He also argued for a pan-European governing body to strengthen resistance to totalitarian influences; unfortunately the EU that has taken shape seems more hostile to than supportive of traditional social values.

The threat of totalitarianism looms as large now as it did in days of Hitler and Stalin, although not nearly in such dramatic fashion. Which is why this book is just as much worth reading now as it ever was.

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