Eliot, Thomas Stearns (1888–1964)
ELIOT, THOMAS STEARNS
Thomas Stearns Eliot is best known as a poet and literary critic (he received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1948), but his work in social and cultural theory has also been widely influential. His principal works of this kind are After Strange Gods (London, 1934), The Idea of a Christian Society (London, 1939), and Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (London, 1949).
Eliot was born in St. Louis but lived in London from 1915 on and became a British subject in 1927. He was graduated from Harvard University in 1909 and engaged in advanced studies in philosophy there, at the Sorbonne, and at Oxford until 1915. In the year 1913/1914 he served as an assistant in philosophy at Harvard, studying methodology with Josiah Royce and logic with Bertrand Russell. Eliot and Russell, despite enormous differences in political, social, and religious outlooks, became close friends. Eliot's Harvard doctoral dissertation, completed at Oxford in 1915, was published as Knowledge and Experience in the Philosophy of F. H. Bradley (London and New York, 1964). Francis Herbert Bradley's idealism influenced Eliot's critical doctrines, and in 1926 Eliot published an essay on Bradley, reprinted in Selected Essays (London, 1951). In this essay he praised especially Bradley's critique of utilitarianism: "He replaced a philosophy which was crude and raw and provincial by one which was, in comparison, catholic, civilized, and universal." But even before completing his studies, Eliot had finished some of his finest early poems, and he never produced any technical philosophical studies aside from his thesis.
In his early poetry and criticism, Eliot was a considerable innovator, but it was a main goal of his experiments to try to recover the sense of a fruitful tradition. In particular, this meant rejecting the literary theory and practice of romanticism and finding earlier sources. In a famous comment in 1921, he argued that there had been, in the seventeenth century, a major change in the English mind, which he called the "dissociation of sensibility"—the separation of feeling and thought. He came later to stress a loss of a sense of order, both internal and external, and to associate it with the decline of the Christian and classical cultural framework. To counteract this loss, the poet and critic must strive to recover a sense of the whole European tradition. At the end of this phase of his development Eliot described himself as a classicist, and he was to write henceforward as a declared and orthodox Christian.
After Strange Gods is the bridge from his mainly literary to his mainly social and cultural criticism. The book's subtitle is A Primer of Modern Heresy. Its argument is that modern writers, deprived of tradition, have constructed private or esoteric systems of belief, and, deprived of a common language and imagery, they have been forced to experiment. The struggle for common meanings, always difficult, is now even more difficult. This failure of communication is profoundly damaging to the whole society. The writer's task is to develop the full potential maturity of the language of his society. Paradoxically, therefore, the most creative work is that which begins from and is most aware of the full tradition and history of the language in which it is written. The loss of this tradition makes the modern writer's task overwhelmingly difficult.
In The Idea of a Christian Society, Eliot applied and extended this argument to social questions. He argued that the Western democracies, although nominally Christian, in fact live by quite other values. The idea of a Christian society is at best an understanding of the social ends that would deserve the name of Christian, but in the modern world there is an unusually wide gap between such ends and the main principles of social organization. Many of the driving forces of modern society—especially its false emphasis on profit, its substitution of exploitation of men and things for right use, and its general adoption of commerce as the central human concern—are in fact hostile to any Christian life in the world. It is therefore not surprising, Eliot claimed, that society is far from being Christian; what is surprising is that people retain as much Christianity as they do.
In Notes towards the Definition of Culture, Eliot's most substantial theoretical work, he distinguished three senses of "culture"—the culture of the individual, of the group, and of the whole society. He argued that it is false to set as the goal of the group what can be the aim of the individual alone, and to set as the goal of the whole society what can only be the aim of a group. This argument became Eliot's main theoretical justification for what is ordinarily called "minority culture," and for his critique of egalitarian doctrines in education: It is false to educate the whole society to perform the cultural tasks of a particular group. At the same time, culture in each sense is necessarily connected with culture in the other senses. The group depends on the whole way of life of the society, as social organization depends upon tradition. Likewise, the culture of the individual cannot be isolated from the culture of the group.
Eliot further emphasized the extent to which the culture of a whole society is a matter of custom and behavior and is often unconscious: It is all the characteristic interests and activities of a people, whether or not some of these are thought of as "culture" in the narrower sense. What is often called "culture"—religion, arts, laws, and intellectual activity—is the conscious expression of the total culture, the whole way of life.
It follows from this, Eliot argued, that the maintenance and extension of the conscious culture of a society cannot be delegated to an elite, a group of specialists selected by merit. However skilled an elite may be in the special activities themselves, its members will necessarily lack the continuity with the rest of the society that is ultimately necessary for the health of the conscious culture. An elite, newly selected in each generation, will inevitably lack a sense of tradition. Eliot therefore saw no alternative to the maintenance of classes in society, and in particular to the maintenance of a governing class with which the specialists will overlap and interact. The need for continuity in culture, and for a tradition as opposed to a group of specialists with unrelated skills, argues, finally, for a social conservatism that will keep a proper relationship between continuity and change. This last phase of Eliot's social thinking has been especially influential since World War II.
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Leavis, F. R. The Common Pursuit. London: Chatto and Windus, 1952. See "Mr. Eliot, Mr. Wyndham Lewis and Lawrence" and "Approaches to T. S. Eliot."
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Lucy, Seán. T. S. Eliot and the Idea of Tradition. London: Cohen and West, 1960.
Moody, David. A., ed. The Cambridge Companion to T. S. Eliot. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Rajan, B., ed. T. S. Eliot: A Study of His Writings by Several Hands. London; Dennis Dobson, 1947.
Roeffaers, Hugo. Eliot's Early Criticism: Philosophical Explorations into the Sacred Wood. Frankfurt am Main; New York: P. Lang, 1988.
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Spurr, David. Conflicts in Consciousness: T. S. Eliot's Poetry and Criticism. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984.
Warner, Martin. A Philosophical Study of T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets. Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 1999.
Williams, Raymond. Culture and Society. London: Chatto and Windus, 1958. Part 3, Ch. 3.
Raymond Williams (1967)
Bibliography updated by Desirae Matherly Martin (2005)