T.S Eliot on Christian Society

Recently I have been reading some of T.S. Eliot’s poetry. I am not particularly fond of poetry as the scant mention of it on this blog should indicate; but I do certainly appreciate it. I like hearing a good poem recited and the best prose is also usually somewhat lyrical. This recent exposure put in mind one of the many books that have long sat on my shelf unread: Christianity and Culture by T.S. Eliot. This is actually two essays, one which began as a series of lectures and the other, a series of articles. The first called The Idea of a Christian Society and the second Notes towards the Definition of Culture which are neatly combined in the title. The subject of this post will be the former essay which I believe I did previously read some years ago. The second may also be the subject of a future post. 

I should add here that Eliot frequently refers to the cultural historian Christopher Dawson who was a Catholic and contemporay of Eliot. I also have an as yet unread book by him on my shelf which I really must get to. 

Although the subject of this post is the first essay, most of what I will quote and offer commentry on is mostly from the first section which reading over eighty years later, I found remarkably prescient. Today, anyone who can be shown to have said anything bad about Hitler before September in 1939 is considered a prophet but Eliot’s commentary is more sophisticated and goes beyond the European political climate of the time. Though the lectures that formed the essay were delivered in March of 1939, it does include a note at the end from September where he observes that:

the possibility of war, which has now been realised, was always present to my mind, and the only additional observations which I feel called upon to make are these: first, that the alignment of forces which has now revealed itself should bring more clearly to our consciousness the alternatives of Christianity or paganism; and, second, that we can not afford to defer our constructive thinking to the conclusion of hostilities—a moment when, as we should know from experience, good counsel is liable to be obscured.

This good counsel was certainly more than obscured so I’ll take that last portion as classic English understatement. 

As he is writing from the time, he mentions the seemingly renewed sense of religion leading up to World War II which was used as a tool for luring sheep to make a sacrifice of the coming slaughter. This is hardly without historical precedent but it indicates that even eighty years ago, when Western nations were still identifiably Christian, that it was noticeably waining. To our eyes today, it looks much better (and in many ways was), but the destruction we see today had certainly begun much earlier.

His comments on the idea of democracy are also interesting given we now live in a society where it is the civic religion though society now little resembles a democracy:

If anybody ever attacked democracy, I might discover what the word meant. Certainly there is a sense in which Britain and America are more democratic than Germany; but on the other hand, defenders of the totalitarian system can make out a plausible case for maintaining that what we have is not democracy, but financial oligarchy.

Mr. Christopher Dawson considers that “what the nondictatorial States stand for today is not Liberalism or Democracy,” and goes on to foretell the advent in these States of a kind of totalitarian democracy. I agree with his prediction, but if one is considering, not merely the non-dictatorial States, but the societies to which they belong, his statement does less than justice to the extent to which Liberalism still permeates our minds and affects our attitude towards much of life.

That Eliot had identified the financial oligarchy which dominates most of the Western world back then is interesting given it is something that many (including myself), have only come to realise eighty years later. We may get to vote but in reality, we have little to know influence on the issues that are brought before us. When we vote for something the oligarchs want, all is well. When we vote against it, we have to vote again until we get it “right.” When somehow, something gets through that they don’t want such as Brexit, they do all they can to neuter it. Increasingly, they just do what they want and call any cricisim “misinformation” through their various media tentacles. 

Eliot also has an interesting observation on both Liberalism and Conservatism:

In the sense in which Liberalism is contrasted with Conservatism, both can be equally repellant: if the former can mean chaos, the latter can mean petrification. We are always faced both with the question “what must be destroyed?” and neither Liberalism nor Conservatism, which are not philosophies and may be merely habits, is enough to guide us.

That Conservatism is neither a philosophy or a coherent political ideology should be obvious to everyone by now. That what passes for both Conservatism and Liberalism today are really only false binaries is more important. The oligarchy Eliot mentions is making the ultimate decisions and in democracy, we’re left to choose which path they want us to walk each election cycle. 

I tend to think of Eliot as British which is understandable as he lived there for most of his adult life but he was born in the United States. Growing up a Unitarian, he converted to Christianity and joined the Anglican Church in middle-age. He called himself an Anglo-Catholic which is the background I grew up in only much later than him and in a very different church. There are some aspects of this essay referring to some past or contemporary discussions in the Anglican Church which seem so quaint now that it is little more than a non-profit in posession of an impressive real-estate portfolio. I do have to wonder if Eliot had been as prescient about the fate of his church whether he would have remained in it. The times he mentions the Catholic Church are positive but I would say this essay is generally pluralist as far as the multitude of sects and denominations go. 

What is of more importance is his observation that the society he lived in (and certainly our own), is no longer really Christian. That liberalism has affected us all in some way and that we see even our Faith through a man-made ideological lens. This blurred vision is certainly something I’ve had to work on seeing more clearly. His most savage blow at Liberalism comes in the following paragraph: 

By destroying traditional social habits of the people, by dissolving their natural collective consciousness into individual constituents, by licensing the opinions of the most foolish, by substituting instruction for education, by encouraging cleverness rather than wisdom, the upstart rather than the qualified, by fostering a notion of getting on to which the alternative is a hopeless apathy, Liberalism can prepare the way for that which is its own negation: the artificial, mechanised or brutalised control which is a desperate remedy for its chaos.

What was true then is all the more true today. And indeed, we are fast coming to the very type of control mentioned in the final sentence. The nonsense that began in 2020 was but a taste of what is to come. Probably the most important part to emphasise is the individualism that infects most Western nations and which has been the most effective way of destroying our traditional cultures. Consider that though most friends and acquaintances are religious but still live all over the place. Were we to live in a single community, it would be much harder to have caused so much destruction. 

The next few quotes are really just ones I wanted to include and I don’t really have anything to add to them:

The problem of leading a Christian life in a non-Christian society is now very present to us… It is not merely the problem of a minority in a society of individuals holding an alien belief. It is the problem constituted by our implication in a network of institutions from which we cannot dissociate ourselves: institutions the operation of which appears no longer neutral, but non-Christian.

When the Christian is treated as an enemy of the State, his course is very much harder, but it is simpler. I am concerned with the dangers to the tolerated minority; and in the modern world, it may turn out that the most intolerable thing for Christians is to be tolerated.

There was also an amusing inclusion in the notes where Eliot has some fun with one who would reject anything the Nazis do simply because the Nazis do it.

“Miss Bower of the Ministry of Transport, who moved that the association should take steps to obtain the removal of the ban (i.e. against married women Civil Servants) said it was wise to abolish an institution which embodied one of the main tenets of the Nazi creed—the relegation of women to the sphere of the kitchen, the children and the church.”

The report, by its abbreviation, may do less than justice to Miss Bower, but I do not think that I am unfair to the report, in finding the implication that what is Nazi is wrong, and need not be discussed on its own merits. Incidentally, the term “relegation of women” prejudices the issue. Might one suggest that the kitchen, the children and the church could be considered to have a claim upon the attention of married women? or that no normal married woman would prefer to be a wage earner if she could help it? What is miserable is a system that makes the dual wage necessary.

I add that the very miserable system Eliot mentions is now considered normal. 

Lastly, I think his conclusion is worth including because it is the Crux for any Christian:

We are all dissatisfied with the way in which the world is conducted: some believe that it is a misconduct in which we all have some complicity; some believe that if we trust ourselves entirely to politics, sociology or economics we shall only shuffle from one makeshift to another. And here is the perpetual message of the Church: to affirm, to teach and to apply, true theology. We cannot be satisfied to be Christians at our devotions and merely secular reformers all the rest of the week, for there is one question that we need to ask ourselves every day and about whatever business. The Church has perpetually to answer this question: to what purpose were we born? What is the end of Man?

When I prepared for this post, I was mostly just collecting together quotes I liked but reading them out of context as I have as got me thinking I should read it through again. I may come back and update this post in the future after doing so. For anyone interested, the text is available online and it isn’t a long read either!

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