T.S. Eliot on Culture

This post is based on the second essay from Christianity and Culture by T.S. Eliot which is called Notes towards the Definition of Culture. I covered the first essay The Idea of a Christian Society  last month. After finishing both, it is clear that they fit very well together in a single volume as the ground they tread is very similar. Eliot sees very clearly the relationship between religion and culture. This second essay is slightly longer than the first and also includes the transcript of a speech he gave on a similar theme at the end. 

The essay was written during the war years but was published in 1948 at the end of the war unlike the first which was completed shortly before what is generally considered the beginning of the Second World War. This essay first wrestles with the definition of culture, noting the different way the word is used (and more often misused), when discusssed with regards to sociology, religion, politics and education. It is mostly considered with regard to the British Isles but also Europe and beyond. He considers religion to be unavoidably intertwined with culture and that any culture requires friction to survive. By the latter, he means that by being too closed, the culture will decay but by being too open, it will simply evaporate. These are not all his exact words but I don’t think I’m misrepresenting him and I am frankly finding the whole thing pretty hard to summarise. That he uses “Towards” in his own title suggests he was not satisfied he had reached a firm conclusion either.

As with the previous essay, I mostly just want to include exerts that jumped out at me along with some commentary of my own.

It is important to appreciate the time when it was written as the world order that came to be at the end of the war still largely defines the world in which we live today. Though of course, it has now been over thirty years since the Soviet Union collapsed. The sole remaining superpower from the end of the war is the United States which is now in an advanced state of social and political decay. At the time this was written, it was really at the zenith of its power despite still facing an equally formidable USSR. 

His comments on the USA while considering a society without élites or class is interesting with this in mind:

The real revolution in that country [The United States] was not what is called the Revolution the history books, but is a consequence of the Civil War; after which arose a plutocratic élite; after which the expansion and material development of the country was accelerated; after which was swollen that stream of mixed immigration, bringing (or rather multiplying) the danger of development into a caste system which has not yet been quite dispelled. For the sociologist, the evidence from America is not yet ripe.

For someone that was better known as a poet and critic, this shows a remarkably better understanding of where the United States we know today really began. Whatever you may think of the nation’s origins, the Civil War betrayed it simply by turning a voluntary union into a forced one. This was when it went from nation to Empire and largely with the help from what are called immigrants but can be more realistically seen as foreign mercenaries. This forever changed the nation. You might argue for better or worse but it changed certainly and I think for the worse.

While it was then reasonable to consider the evidence “not yet ripe”, it has now ripened and is rapidly rotting. As flawed as one might consider the ideals behind America’s foundations, it is simply a joke to refer to them with any seriousness today. The general public has almost no say over what their nation does and really hadn’t since the Civil War made the union of states a forced one. That the public never wanted to be involved in the Second World War and still ended up sending men and materials to both theatres is all the proof you need.

Something that has only accelerated since the end of the war was really began at this time was mass immigration. Eliot, while not as “extreme” as I am on the subject, puts the truth about the dangers of mass migration as politely as I think is possible:

It is important that a man should feel himself to be, not merely a citizen of a particular nation, but a citizen of a particular part of his country, with local loyalties. These, like loyalty to class, arise out of loyalty to the family. Certainly, an individual may develop the warmest devotion to a place in which he was not born, and to a community with which he has no ancestral ties. But I think we should agree that there would be something artificial, something a little too concious, about a community of people with strong local feeling, all of whom had come from somewhere else. I think we should say that we must wait for a generation or two for a loyalty which the inhabitants had inherited, and which was not the result of a conscious choice. On the whole, it would appear to be for the best that the great majority of human beings should go on living in the place in which they were born. Family, class and local loyalty all support each other; and if one of these decays, the others will suffer also.

At the time, he was looking at collapsing empires and political lines being redrawn across Europe. He was also, I think, witness to the first groups of colonial subject beginning to move to the very nation that put them into subjection. Whether you consider this subjection, oppressive, benign or righteous is irrelevant as Eliot would no longer recognise much of the country he himself adopted. As I write, the Prime Minister and Mayor of London are both of Indian origin. The year this was published was also the year India became independent. 

Further, Eliot sees the artificiality of people adopting something that is not their own. Adopting an orphan is a noble thing, but both the child and adoptive parents are always conscious that this is not an ideal arrangement and only the best solution to an otherwise undesired eventuality. Immigration may sometimes be necessitated by tragic or unexpected events but this doesn’t make it normal, natural or good. Today, close enough to all immigrants immigrate simply to improve their economic circumstances and nothing more. And now increasingly to the detriment of their own nation and especially to their new hosts.

As mentioned, Eliot considered a social “friction” to be important and saw that combining cultures into one had a destructive effect on all of them. He considers this with regard to the British Isles where still today there are frequent grumblings from the Welsh, Irish and Scottish, the majority of whom still speak English.

I am not concerned, in an essay which aims at least at the merit of brevity, to defend the thesis, that it is desirable that the English should continue to be English. I am obliuged to take that for granted: and if this assumption is called into questions, I must defend it on another occasion. But if I can defend with any success the thesis, that it is to the advantage of England that the Welsh should continue to be Welsh, the Scots Scots and the Irish Irish, then the reader should be disposed to agree that there may be some advantage to other peoples in the English continuing to be English. It is an essential part of my case, that if the other cultures of the British Isles were wholly superseded by English culture, English culture would disappear too. Many people seem to take for granted that English culture is something self-sufficient and secure; that it will persist whatever happens. While some refuse to admit that any foreign influence can be bad, others assume complacently that English culture could flourish in complete isloation from the Continent.

Eliot warns of the dangers of both isolation and dilution also in the context of the world with the United Nations having also been formed at the end of the war. He compares what could be then thought the more benign goals of the UN with the more forceful methods of the USSR:

Our Russian friends, who are more realistic, if not in the long run any more practical, are much more conscious of irreconcilability between cultures; and appear to hold the view that any culture incompatible with their own should be forcibly uprooted.

The world-planners who are both serious and humane, however, might—if we believed that their methods would succeed—be as grave a menace to culture as those who practise more violent methods. For it must follow from what I have already pleaded about the value of local cultures, that a world culture which was simply a uniform culture would be no culture at all. We should have a humanity de-humanised.

I think he only considered the “world-planners” more humane when compared to the Russians and not necessarily in general. No mention of the term “muliticultural” or “multiculturalism appears in the essay but we can see from his thoughts above that he would describe that as “no culture at all”. And it is. I’ve considered in a previous post with regards to my own nation that most are now unable to define what exactly an “Australian” is anymore due in part to the deliberate confusion caused by the concept of “multiculturalism”.

Although Eliot doesn’t mention Japan, it is a great example of what intentional isolation will do to a nation. I am confident that if somehow the country had remained closed and not forced open by Commodore Perry, that it would be largely unchanged to this very day. As hard as that might be to imagine, the leaders would have seen no reason to modernise, had they not been forced to do so by outside forces.

Religion also forms a strong portion of this essay. As with the previous essay, Eliot is careful to be pluralistic in his discussion of the subject. As he says, he does not want to depart from a sociological analysis of culture into the realm of theology. This I think is fair enough. He observes that:

… in the most primitive societies no clear distinction is visible between religious and non-religious activities; and that as we proceed to examine the more developed societies, we perceive a greater distinction, and finally contrast and opposition, between these activities. The sort of identiy of religion and culture which we observe amongst peoples of very low development cannot recur except in the New Jeusalem. A higher religion is one which is much more difficult to believe. For the more conscious becomes the belief, so the more conscious becomes unbelief; indifference, doubt and scepticism appear, and the endeavour to adapt the tenets of religion to what people in each age find easiest to believe. In higher religion, it is more difficult also to make behaviour conform to the moral laws of the religion. A higher religion imposes a conflict, a division, torment and struggle within the individual; a conflict sometimes between the laity and the priesthood; a conflict eventually between Church and State.

I have nothing to add to this as I think it does describe the social stages that Europe in particular has passed through over a millenium. 

He also considers the friction that Protestantism  caused in Europe:

From this point it is with Christianity alone that I am to be concerned; in particular with the relation of Catholicism and Protestantism in Europe and the diversity of sects within Protestantism. We must try to start without any bias for, or against unity of reunion or the maintenance of the separate corporate identity of religious denominations. We must take note of whatever injury appears to have been done to European culture, and to the culture of any part of Europe, by division into sects. On the other hand, we must acknowledge that many of the most remarkable achievements of culture have been made since the sixteenth century, in conditions of disunity: and that some, indeed, as in nineteenth-century France, appear after the religious foundations for culture seem to have crumbled away. We cannot affirm that if the religious unity of Europe had continued, these or equally brilliant achievements would have been realised. Either religious unity or religious division may coincide with cultureal efflorescence or cultural decay.

Despite considering Protestantism wrong, I would not try to argue that there weren’t any positive developments out of it. Certainly nations like Holland and England in particular did rise to greater worldly heights after breaking away from the Catholic Church. He continues on this point:

When we consider the Western World, we must recognise that the main cultural tradition has been that corresponding to the Church of Rome. Only within the last four hundred years has any other manifested itself; and anyone with a sense of centre and periphery must admit that the western tradition has been Latin, and Latin means Rome. There are countless testimonies of art and thought and manners; and among these we must include the work of all men born and educated in a Catholic society, whatever their individual beliefs. From this point of view, the separation of Northern Europe, and of England in particular, from communion with Rome represents a diversion from the main stream of culture. To pronounce, upon this separation any judgement of value, to assume that it was a good or a bad thing, is what in this investigation we must try to avoid; for that would pass from the sociological to the theological point of view. 

With all this said, Protestantism can’t exist on its own:

The life of Protestantism depends upon the survival of that against which it protests; and just as the culture of Protestant dissent would perish of inanition without the persistence of Anglican culture, so the maintenance of English culture is contingent upon the health of the culture of Latin Europe, and upon continuing to draw sustenance fromthat Latin culture. 

As mentioned in the previous essay, Eliot’s consideration of the grumblings between the Church of England and the non-conformists seems almost completely irrelevant today but Protestantism too is now facing irrelevance with the decay of state churches. 

In the last part of the essay, he discusses culture from the perspective of education and the below quote as polemical as gets and he is well aware of this in the lines that immediately follow. This also has special significance as I have witnessed the ruin he describes much more than he did. It is a mighty fine conclusion so I will use it to conclude this post too:

So the instructive point is this, that the more education arrogates to itself the responsibility, the more systematically will it betray culture. The definition of the purpose of education in The Churches Survey Their Task returns to plague us like the laughter of hyaenas at a funeral. Where that culture is regarded as final, the attempt is made to impose it on younger minds. Where it is viewed as a stage in development, younger minds are trained to receive it and to improve upon it. These are cosseting phrases which reprove our cultural ancestors—including those of Greece, Rome, Italy and France—who had no notion of the extent to which their culture was going to be improved upon after the Oxford Conference on Church, Community and State in 1937. We know now that the highest achievements of the past, in art, in wisdom, in holiness, were but “stages in development” which we can teach our springalds to improve upon. We must not train them merely to receive the culture of the past, for that would be to regard the culture of the past as final. We must not impose culture upon the young, though we may impose upon them whatever political and social philosophy is in vogue. And yet the culture of Europe has deteriorated and visibly within the memory of many who are by no means the oldest among us. And we know, that whether education can foster and improve culture or not, it can surely adulterate and degrade it. For there is no doubt that in our headlong rush to educate everybody, we are lowering our standards, and more and more abandoning the study of those subjects by which the essentials of our culture—of that part of it which is transmissible by education—are transmitted; destroying our ancient edifices to make ready the ground upon which the barbarian nomads of the future will encamp in their mechanised caravans.

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