T. S. Eliot, Culture, and Higher Education, Part I

In the fall semester of 2012, beginning in September, my longstanding interest in what I call modern non-modern dissentient discourse will find its articulation in a senior-level seminar on six authors whose work centrally constitutes the critique of modernity in the twentieth century.  These are, Nicolas Berdyaev, T. S. Eliot, René Girard, René Guénon, José Ortega-y-Gasset, and Eric Voegelin – thinker-writers whom contemporary college students likely never have encountered.  The main aims of the seminar are several: To alert students to the existence of the coherent, two-century-old tradition of dissent from the liberal-materialist worldview that they take almost entirely for granted and that the higher education establishment actively discourages them from questioning; thereby to introduce into their curriculum and, as I hope, into their education, actual intellectual diversity; and to demonstrate that the prose of criticism can be philosophically rigorous and spiritually challenging without relying neologisms, the tropes of “transgression,” or hortatory phrases that, despite their intoxicating hyperbole, really amount to no more than slogans for rousing the rabble.  In addition, the seminar will examine a seeming paradox: Formal innovation in literature and music beginning in the nineteenth century and continuing into the twentieth has often stemmed from artists who either directly articulated or strongly shared a dissenting non-modern idea of existence.

The French Symbolist poets – Charles Baudelaire most prominently – and their Anglophone successor Eliot come immediately to mind.  Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg, who together changed the aspect of twentieth century music, rejected modernity as such, allying themselves explicitly with the religious traditions, Christian and Jewish, that “progressive” thinking scorns and denounces.

My own sense of this modern non-modern dissentient discourse in literature and the other arts stems from a chance encounter, during my undergraduate years in the 1970s, with a little book by Voegelin on incontestable orthodoxy as constitutive of the modern order – Science Politics & Gnosticism.  I have since been exploring the archives, as they might be called, of conservative, traditionalist, and reactionary literature, the continuum of which begins with the critics of the French Revolution who wrote in the turbulent years of its aftermath.  Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre stand at the head of the countermovement.  Burke’s literary and philosophical progeny, William Wordsworth and Samuel T. Coleridge, not only gave shape to the high romantic phase of English poetry, but also provided the philosophical basis of Tory politics.  De Maistre’s self-declared but entirely plausible successor, Baudelaire, not only created a new type of poetry; he also used his new forms and gestures to indict the self-righteous liberalism of the early, post-Christian society of his day.  Baudelaire’s journals make fascinating reading for contemporary non-establishment readers.  Identifying “Progress” with “spiritual atrophy,” Baudelaire opines that “Revolution confirms Superstition, by offering sacrifice.”

Eliot, taking many cues from Baudelaire, constantly invoked sacrificial imagery to define modernity, most notably in his plays Murder in the Cathedral and The Cocktail Party, and by the late 1940s he had plenty of evidence for the thesis beyond Baudelaire’s.  As did Baudelaire, Eliot exercised powerful dubiety with respect to progress so-called and saw in utopian schemes little else but “nihilism and diablerie,” which, in the degree that they were effective, produced the “Waste Land” of the contemporary condition, whose misery he had earlier represented in the avant-garde poem of that name just after World War I.

Eliot’s theory of education (unsurprisingly he had one) fits consistently with the Anglo-Catholic, tradition-based, non-modern view of the world that he developed in his creative and essayistic oeuvres.  Readers encounter it most explicitly and formally in the first of the six books that the students in my seminar must confront and assimilate, Notes towards a Definition of Culture (1949).  Eliot indeed wrote the Notes from a pedagogical motive – to clear away the confusion and tendency then clouding the usage and meaning of the word culture.  Despite Eliot’s project of clarification, the obfuscators of the term – and of many other useful words – carried the day.  “Culture”remains one of the most abused lexemes in the language.  This victory of lexical muddying, however, makes Eliot’s clear-sightedness all the more pertinent today.  Referring to the two world wars, Eliot writes, “We may find it natural, and significant, that during a period of unparalleled destructiveness, this word [culture] should come to have an important role in the journalistic vocabulary.”  The word, “which nobody bothers to examine,” has suffered from reification: “In general [it] is used in two ways: by a kind of synecdoche, when the speaker has in mind one of the elements or evidences of culture – such as ‘art’; or… as a kind of emotional stimulant – or anesthetic.”  Eliot quotes Harold Laski, who seems to have regarded culture as the various arts insofar as they could be marshaled to help bring about a “new civilization,” in which “social justice” would be the grand raison-d’etre.

But culture is not, Eliot admonishes, an instrument for social change.  Eliot sees culture not as any kind of instrument, but rather as a set of complex, vital relations among social groups and classes, the function of which is the stability, not the perpetual forced mutation, of the society.  “The term culture has different associations according to whether we have in mind the development of an individual, of a group, or of a whole society.”  The possible cultural achievement of the individual depends in part on the cultural condition, first of the group or class, and then of the whole society.  A society meets the criteria of health, as Eliot sees it, when, in the consensus of the governing elite, general conviction reigns concerning the character and origins of a society, and when, in appropriate symbols, that same elite inculcates that conviction in the other groups or classes – and, finally, when the convictions take root in truth and find validation in day-to-day conduct of life.  A given society finds its identity in a culture, of which it sees itself as the curator, and which it determines collectively to realize and preserve.  Religion is – again, as Eliot sees things – the basic content of a given society, so that the question of culture is bound up inextricably with the question of religion.

“The development of culture and the development of religion… cannot be clearly isolated from each other,” Eliot writes.  The tendency of Westerners to think of culture and religion as separate phenomena, Eliot argues, arises from the historical fact that the Western religion, Christianity, began as a small sect that existed for a long time in alienation from the host-society.  In “the penetration of Graeco-Roman culture by the Christian Faith,” paganism simultaneously penetrated Christianity, endowing the new society with much of the old society’s developed and specialized culture.  This would have included the philosophical discussion of God, the spirit, and first and last things, which produced an explicit Christian theology.  When Eliot wonders “whether any culture could come into being, or maintain itself, without a religious basis,” he poses the question rhetorically.  Knowing Arnold Toynbee’s Study quite well, Eliot also knows that religion supplies the first term for culture, society, and civilization.  Elsewhere in the Notes Eliot acknowledges that, “no culture has appeared or developed except together with religion.”

The origins of the modern higher education confirm Eliot’s hypothesis: The University originates as a specifically religious – and specifically Catholic – institution in the medieval period, with the University of Bologna having the earliest charter (1008 AD).  No one nowadays thinks of them in such a way, but the medieval institutions of higher learning represented a colossal, highly organized act of faith, precisely in Eliot’s sense of “religion.”  The Gothic universities functioned explicitly as curators and transmitters of the West’s double heritage of Classical lore, not least the philosophical tradition, and Roman-Catholic Christianity.  When Pope Gregory sent Bishop Augustine to Kent in 597 to re-evangelize the British Isles, he also sent along a small library to be the nucleus of renewed learning and civilization in the former Imperial province.  Canterbury, where Augustine landed, became the spiritual and cultural center of Anglo-Saxon Christianity and of a renewed high culture in England.  Most private colleges in the United States began as divinity schools and seminaries. These represented the last gasp perhaps of the original organizing spirit of Western higher education.

If the sign of a healthy culture were the nuanced give-and-take between the components of a society, whether considered in their vertical or horizontal distribution, then the discoördination of those components would be symptomatic of cultural malaise.  Eliot views such discoördination as a nearly inevitable tendency of any society, as it develops.  For one thing, societies move in the direction of complexity, with which arises specialization; for another, religion endures schisms, from which a multiplication of sects issues.  As hopefully as the American divinity schools boded, in their separate foundations from the seventeenth right through to the twentieth century, they also signified the fractal schisms of Christianity in the new nation.  With religious schism, other divisive trends invariably appear.  Thus Protestants of differing confessions remained united in their common skepticism of Rome, but irritating sectarian disagreements also made them skeptical of one another.  Sectarian bickering engendered a general skepticism about religion.

Eliot assures his readers that by “skepticism” he never means “infidelity or destructiveness,” but rather “the habit,” which he calls “highly civilised,” of “examining evidence” and of delaying a decision.  Skepticism, however, while itself healthy, harbors a tendency to parodic self-deformation.  Skepticism can become pyrrhonism, the reflexive disbelief in anything.  “Where skepticism is strength, pyrrhonism is weakness: for we need not only the strength to defer a decision, but the strength to make one.”

When the elite of a society relents to the “diablerie” of pyrrhonism, it puts the society immediately at risk.  To the elite has belonged the job of articulating the basic assumptions of the society.  To this function belongs the obligation of codifying for the other elements of the society ready assurance about the identity and validity of the civic order.  The elite must explain how it is right that this or that custom exists and contributes to the collective wellbeing.  In an intact society, the elite will have fulfilled this function and the other elements of the society will have internalized the faith of the elite.  If now the elite performed an about-face, repudiating its faith and espousing self-indulgent agnosticism as a value, however perversely, of its own, then one of two consequences or even both either in succession or together would likely unfold.  The non-elites, still believing in what the pre-rebellious elites had told them, would suddenly be at odds with the elites; and some of the non-elites, in the old spirit of imitating the “best,” would mimic elitist agnosticism, in which case that part of the non-elite class would alienate the other, trustfully conservative part.  In Eliot’s analysis, “Cultural disintegration is present when two or more strata so separate that these become in effect distinct cultures.”  Eliot adds (it is good to remember the date – 1949) that, “some disintegration of the classes in which culture is, or should be, the most highly developed, has already taken place in western society.”

Sixty years on, the empirical verification of Eliot’s prophecy all but writes its own Q.E.D.  Not just the rebellion of the intellectuals – specifically the professoriate – against the tradition that made them possible in the first place, but also the rampant inveiglement of the whole society by the bureaucratic temperament have proceeded apace.  Whether it is Great Britain or the United States, the national societies conform to the model of elite-dominated bureaucracies devoted not to continuing the inherited order but rather to transforming it along radical, well-nigh revolutionary lines.  It is necessary to add that just as elite antinomianism alters the worldview of all bureaucrats, who become certified under the college faculties, so also the bureaucratic mentality transforms the intellectuals until virtually all the professors are bureaucrats in a system hostile to the historical norms of what remains of Western-Christian society.  As Eliot puts it, “We become more and more aware of the extent to which the baffling problem of ‘culture’ underlies the problems of the relation of every part of the world to every other.”

What follows in respect of higher education from the portions of Eliot’s essay that have come under review so far?  Any culture is the relation of the parts of its host-society to the whole.  Every culture has a content that derives from a founding religiosity at the historical inception of the society that expresses and elaborates it.  The content of some cultures might be reprehensible – Aztec culture, for example, with its predatory warfare and ceremonial massacres of prisoners – in which case, from a traditional Western point of view, the demise of the society (not, of course, the extinction of the people) is largely unlamentable.  The contents of other cultures are intuitively appreciable and justifiable: The Classical culture, the Confucian, the Buddhist, and the Hindu, such that when these have seen to their own continuity, objective observers will not merely understand the effort, but on principle applaud it.

The Christian culture that absorbed the Mediterranean civilization in Late Antiquity so prized literate paganism that it strove mightily to preserve and honor it, and continued to do so for fifteen hundred years and more.   As Christian Kopff has remarked, Vergil’s Aeneid and Livy’s histories are among the most-quoted of Classical documents by the American Founders.  In stating these things, the argument arrives at a crucial moment.

The vehement contrariness of the contemporary higher-education elite is both an historically unprecedented event that has put its host-society at risk, fracturing and demoralizing it, and a cultural anomaly, not of recent vintage, but in progress and already visible at least sixty years ago when Eliot was writing his Notes.  Culture and religion, as Eliot observes, resist strict analytical separation.  In its hostile attitude towards religion – or, more specifically, Christianity – the professoriate necessarily expresses its hostility to the underlying culture of the West.  One might remark that, where the professoriate nowadays friendlily rubs elbows with religiosity, or sits down to tea with it, it cozies up to Islam, but in principle it makes a pet of anything that can be brought into play against Christianity.  The anti-Christian bigotry of academia has also permeated commercial culture, in movies and television.  For the new order to come into being, as it seems, its acolytes must first sacrifice the old order on the altar of progress: Western culture must surrender its existence to the new culture of “multiculturalism.”  In this endeavor, the academy yields in enthusiasm to no one.  How then might the academy, which functions in normative fashion and historically to transmit the inherited culture, continue to fulfill that traditional role?  Obviously it cannot.  Is it still the academy?  We shall consider this question – and others – in the next part of the essay.

15 thoughts on “T. S. Eliot, Culture, and Higher Education, Part I

  1. “Las estéticas “modernistas” han sido invento de escritores reaccionarios: Balzac, Baudelaire, Eliot.”
    –Nicolás Gómez Dávila, Escolios a un Texto Implícito I (Bogotá: Villegas Editores, 2005), p. 152

  2. I do not think Eliot is suitable as a rallying figure – although he did indeed say many valuable things. Eliot was too much of a hybrid.

    His own poetry, and his alliance with Pound, was a major factor in the destruction of the tradition of English poetry, as was perceived at the time – for example CS Lewis had a ‘bit of a thing’ about this, and organized a parody of the Eliot type, written by a fake pot supposedly from that circle.

    Eliot had the poetic talent and the critical brilliance and the societal position to use his work to subvert and break the English lyrical tradition – and he succeeded completely (although it took a few decades to work-through).

    Yet Eliot (so far as I know?) never distanced himself from, or repudiated, the corrosive effects of his early work and motivations, or his early alliance with Pound, and Eliot’s late work (except the Practical Cats!) was so obscure as to be ambiguous.

    He was certainly a major figure and a major talent, but taken as a whole he seems more like one of those dandyfied aesthetic conservatives whose religiousness is tainted by a suspicion of pose. I do not think this is the case, I believe Eliot was a sincere Christian – but this is not how things look.

    The problem is that it is unclear whether Eliot is most concerned by Christ or Culture – and where there was a forced choice between one or the other, I suspect he would have chosen Culture – his church going becoming hollowed-out ritual and music in a lovely old cathedral, rather than sound teaching in a bare, modern community hall.

    At any rate, Eliot’s was a compromised and partial position, and his actual influence much more bad than good – and I think the focus needs to be elsewhere, with someone who had a tougher, simpler, clearer and more stable vision.

  3. I tend to prefer Eliot the cultural commentator to Eliot the poet and critic. The poetry has many unforgettable lines, but as whole poems they are a bit thin on the ground. As a critic he was incredibly uneven and prone to judge poetic achievement on ideological grounds. (Shelley was a [——] human being with revolting political opinions. Still a great poet.) Christianity and Culture though is a very good book.

  4. In my experience, robust atheism is relatively rare among academics. It’s most common among natural scientist raised in humble, often fundamentalist, homes, who have worked out fierce arguments to assuage their guilt and justify their infidelity. More common is the Transcendentalist two-step, in which all religions are said to be local or historical expressions of a common human instinct for the transcendent, the essence of all religion being a sense of absorption into the infinite. These are the folk who will tell you, condescendingly, that they are “spiritual but not religious.” What I believe they mean is that the moments of ecstasy that they experience while running, or listening to music, or sleeping with their graduate students, are demythologized versions of what Christian’s experience in prayer and holy communion. We are both doing the same thing, they believe, but they are doing it in the modern, enlightened fashion, and we “religious” folk are doing it in the old, deluded fashion.

    What they miss, of course, is that Christian joy comes after Christian dread. Our ecstasy, when it occurs, is a sense of reconciliation with God, and it is necessarily preceded by a terrible awareness of estrangement. That is to say, a terrible awareness of sin.

    This is more or less the background to my understanding of Elliot’s poem “The Hollow Men.” These men, you will recall, decline to cross over to “death’s other kingdom,” and linger in “death’s dream kingdom,” because the later is a “dead land” in which “there are no eyes.” The eyes the hollow men do not wish to see are, I believe, the eyes of God. They cannot bear to live under judgment, and this is why they are hollow.

    Thinking about this poem prompted me recently to run down Elliot’s “After Strange Gods” (1934), which I read as a prose exposition on hollow men. Here Elliot writes: “When morals cease to be a matter of tradition and orthodoxy—that is, of the habits of the community formulated, corrected, and elevated by the continuous thought and direction of the Church—and when each man is to elaborate his own, then personality becomes a thing of alarming importance.” By “personality” Elliot means the “inner light” of inspiration, and he explains that reliance on one’s inner light is perilous when inspiration cannot be tested against tradition and orthodoxy. It is perilous because “no one . . . can be the sole judge of whence his inspiration comes,” and because a “spiritual” man without religion is equally open to “forces of good and forces of evil.” The spiritual man is, in other words, easily made into an energumen, “an instrument of daemonic powers.”

    I’m not sure that one can teach demonology in a modern university, but this does fit nicely with some alarming passages in Voegelin.

  5. For understanding the religious mindset of Roman antiquity, Revolt Against the Modern World by Julius Evola would be a nice addition.

  6. To Bruce Charlton: Eliot criticizes Pound in After Strange Gods. The profound Christianity of The Four Quartets is a response to the despondency of The Waste Land. Eliot castigated the Romantic poets for egomania and aesthetic indiscipline; but he was central in reviving the reputations of the Metaphysical Poets. The Waste Land, again, is, among other things, a web of allusions to other poets, including Vergil, Dante, and Shakespeare. To say that Eliot destroyed the English lyric tradition is rash. That tradition remains in place; Eliot is stopping no one from immersing himself in it, as I have and as you have. Eliot himself was deeply rooted in that tradition. Incidentally, I judge Eliot to have been wrong about Romanticism, especially where it concerns Wordsworth and Coleridge. My principle is that I can be in a nourishing relation with a writer without having to agree with his every judgment.

    To Eric Hale: You will understand, of course, that students can read only so many books in a semester. In another of my classes, I will ask students to read excerpts from Fustel de Coulanges.

    To JM Smith: I sometimes have the impression that the modern university teaches nothing but demonology; or at any rate the main subject nowadays seems to be how to demonize everyone who thinks differently from the experts.

    Best to all. TFB

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