“No summer progress”: Eliot and the defense of Christian civilization

The great Christian poet’s prose writings demonstrate his fascination not only with the question of what constitutes Christian civilization, but of how best to understand, protect, and revitalize it.

It has been more than 50 years since T.S. Eliot died in 1965, and looking back over that period we can see that the decadence he predicted would overtake the West if it chose to abandon its Christian culture has duly arrived. The only thing about our decadence that might have surprised Eliot is the celerity with which it has come—and its thoroughgoingness. If we look at our social, political, cultural, and religious order, we can see how a kind of metastasizing decadence prevails in all of them. By “decadence” I mean what the Oxford English Dictionary means: “The process of falling away or declining (from a prior state of excellence, vitality, prosperity, etc.); decay; impaired or deteriorated condition.” Robert Louis Stevenson once said, “The obscurest epoch is today,” but no amount of obscurity can conceal the fact that if the Christian civilization that Eliot knew was in decline, the one that we know is radically worse. In this essay I shall look at the first four volumes of The Complete Prose of T.S. Eliot to show how Eliot anatomizes this decadence by returning again and again not only to the question of what constitutes Christian civilization but of how best to understand, protect, and revitalize it. 

At the heart of these four volumes is Eliot’s respect for what Cardinal Newman once called “the sovereignty of Truth.” Eliot, after all, was insistent that the universities of Europe “should not be institutions for the training of an efficient bureaucracy, or for equipping scientists to get the better of foreign scientists; they should stand for the preservation of learning, for the pursuit of truth, and, in so far as men are capable of it, the attainment of wisdom.” In editing his robustly cosmopolitan review, The Criterion, from 1922 to 1939, Eliot would work sedulously to give expression to these vital objects, convinced as he was that working to defend European civilization was a consequential enterprise. Since these essays were written at a time when the preoccupation with the Neo-Gothic (first inspired by the novels of Sir Walter Scott in the late 1820s) had not entirely run its course and some Christians still looked to the Middle Ages to renew the Church, it was natural that Eliot should wish to differentiate his own idea of civilization from this fanciful medievalism. As he says in one essay collected here:

We are in many ways in a position of advantage over our mediaeval ancestors: we are more humane, cleaner, and have better table manners; we may be less saintly than some, but we are less beastly than others; we have material comforts, hygiene, machinery, and invention, which we do not wish to dispense with but to manipulate wisely. The forms of social organization in Christian states in the Middle Ages provide much from which we may learn, but little that we can exactly reproduce. We are more civilised than our ancestors, though we ought to be a great deal more civilised than we are, and they have perhaps more reason to be proud of what they did with their talent than we have. Because, instead of preserving affirming and refining their spiritual organisation of society we have progressively secularised it until our values are at war with each other and with life itself.

Of course, Eliot would not live to see the scourge of mass abortion overtake the West, with all of its dire demographic implications. Nor did he see how his public approval of artificial birth control in the wake of the Lambeth Conference (1930) compromised his defense of Christian civilization. Although a deeply conscientious man and never incapable of remorse, he seems to have gone to his grave oblivious to how ill-advised his stance was on the Conference’s Resolution 15, which sanctioned artificial birth control, while—with characteristic Anglican inconsistency—condemning “the use of any methods of conception control from motives of selfishness, luxury, or mere convenience.” In “Thoughts after Lambeth” (1930), Eliot was fairly categorical on the matter: “The recognition of contraception is, I feel sure, something quite different from a concession to ‘modern’ opinion. It was a courageous facing of facts of life….” Indeed, he was convinced that the National Church was right “to express a view of procreation radically different from Rome….” He even went so far as to say that “the whole resolution [showed] the admirable English devotion to common sense.” 

Prolific writers necessarily publish pieces that they ought to leave unpublished. Robert Graves never forgot the master at Charterhouse who called after him as he was leaving school for the trenches: “Goodbye, Graves, and remember, your best friend is your waste-paper basket.” Even so, it was a terrible lapse for anyone of Eliot’s moral acuity to try to justify so ill-judged an acquiescence in artificial contraception as Resolution 15.  But, then, one of the best things about the moralist in Eliot—and, by extension, the defender of Christian civilization in him–is that he never spares himself whenever he takes up what Newman once nicely called our “aboriginal calamity.” What are those wonderful lines from “Little Gidding” (1942)? 

Let me disclose the gifts reserved for age

To set a crown upon your lifetime’s effort.

First, the cold friction of expiring sense

Without enchantment, offering no promise

But bitter tastelessness of shadow fruit

As body and soul begin to fall asunder.

Second, the conscious impotence of rage

At human folly, and the laceration

Of laughter at what ceases to amuse.

And last, the rending pain of re-enactment

Of all that you have done, and been; the shame

Of motives late revealed, and the awareness

Of things ill done and done to others’ harm

Which once you took for exercise of virtue.

Then fools’ approval stings, and honour stains.

I.

Although the first four volumes of the Complete Prose are full of superb uncollected literary pieces, there are many equally good uncollected pieces touching on philosophy. Apropos a lecture on conscience and Christianity, for example, given by a moral philosopher and fellow of New College, Oxford, Eliot writes:

For Canon Rashdall, “the following of Christ is made easier by thinking of Him…as the Being in whom that union of God and Man after which all ethical Religion aspires is most fully accomplished.” Certain saints found the following of Christ very hard, but modern methods have facilitated everything. Yet I am not sure, after reading modern theology that the pale Galilean has conquered.

The nod to the poet Algernon Swinburne here is nicely glossed by the editors: 

An allusion to…Swinburne’s “Hymn to Proserpine,” which represents a noble Roman pagan speaking to Christ after the Emperor Constantine in the Edict of Milan (313 AD) forbade the persecution of Christians. The epigraph is “Vicisti, Galilæe” (Thou hast conquered, O Galilean), and the poem contains the couplet: “Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has grown grey from thy breath; / We have drunken of things Lethean, and fed on the fullness of death” (lines 35-36).

The editors might also have mentioned that the Church historian Theodoret (393-458) claimed that these were the dying words of the Emperor Julian the Apostate (331-363), which Theodoret included in his Ecclesiastical History (429), with which both Swinburne and Eliot were probably familiar.  Regardless of whether these precise words were actually said by Julian, he would certainly have recognized at his death that his desperate, rear-guard attempt to make the old, defunct state religion of Rome the official religion of the empire had failed. Christ had indeed conquered. Eliot was also keenly aware that Matthew Arnold, together with many other 19th-century skeptics, had sought to replace Christianity with a state religion not unlike the one Julian had advocated (what Chesterton referred to as a kind of endowed agnosticism) and that they, too, had failed. It is also striking in this context that Eliot should have included the profound reaffirmation of God’s redemptive mercy from another Julian, Julian of Norwich (1342-1416), in the last of his Four Quartets (1944): “And all shall be well and/All manner of thing shall be well.” If Eliot had what Henry James called the “imagination of disaster,” he was also a man of great Christian hope, as his last major poem so splendidly attests.

In 1927, Eliot wrote the chaplain of Worcester College Oxford: “What I want to see you about is this: I want…your practical assistance in getting Confirmation with the Anglican Church. I am sure you will be glad to help me. But meanwhile I rely upon you not to mention this to anyone. I do not want any publicity or notoriety—for the moment, it concerns me alone, & not the public—not even those nearest me. I hate spectacular ‘conversions.’ By the way, I was born & bred in the very heart of Boston Unitarianism.” Whenever Eliot takes up America’s peculiar Socinianism, the detached, ironical, Jamesian view that he took of his compatriots is always in evidence, as here:

When Emerson as a young man stood in his pulpit and made clear to his congregation that he could no longer administer the Communion, he impressed upon them that he had no prejudice and passed no judgment upon those who continued in the practice, but that he could take no part himself—because (in his own words) it did not interest him. That is an instance of the point of view of several thousands of well-bred people in a provincial American town; and, arrested at the point of ecclesiastical procedure, it is not without an austere grandeur.

This and other pieces show the deliberate eclecticism of Eliot’s criticism. In his Clark Lectures on the Metaphysical Poets, delivered at Cambridge in 1926, he gave his readers a good idea of the sort of far-ranging criticism that he was keen on producing. Speaking of “the dilemma which every honest literary critic, now and in the future, will have to face,” he described how “you cannot treat literary criticism as a subject isolated from every other subject of study; you must take account of general history, of philosophy, theology, economics, psychology, into all of which literary criticism merges.” Yet, at the same time, “you cannot hope to embrace all of the various points of view implied by these various studies: for not only is such encyclopaedic knowledge impossible to any one man, but, even could you attain it, you would have lost the point of view of literary criticism in the process.” The only solution, for the literary critic, was to know as much as one could about these other contiguous studies without straying too far from literature. And so he concluded, “You cannot know your frontiers unless you have some notion of what is beyond them. The only writer who has established a literary criticism which both sticks to the matter in hand and yet implies the other sciences is, of course, Aristotle….”

II.

Although profoundly knowledgeable himself, Eliot never had any interest in knowledge for the sake of knowledge. More than any of his contemporaries, he had learned the lesson that Flaubert had imparted posthumously in Bouvard et Pecuchet (1881), in which he sent his two hapless heroes out in search of the same positivist omniscience that still beguiles our technocratic progressives only to have them find the comedy of human error. In “Choruses from the Rock” (1934), Eliot made his own critique of this error abundantly plain in verses that anticipate our digital culture of death.

All our knowledge brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to God.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
Brings us farther from God and nearer to the Dust.

Eliot was also amusingly dismissive of his reputation for learning. In a piece on English letter writers, for example, he defended his plundering of the work of others, without pretending to an erudition he was certain he did not possess. 

I am an extremely ill-educated and ignorant man. I have been trying for some years, indeed, ever since I provided one of my poems with notes, to shatter the fiction that I was a man of vast erudition…I have a great respect for educated men. I have certainly made use of the few scraps of learning that I possess, I see no reason why I should not use any quotation if it is apposite; but by quoting an author I do not delude myself into believing that I am perfectly acquainted with his works. Nor, until I woke up and found myself burdened by reviewers with the weight of learning which I disclaimed, did I suppose that any one else would believe it either. I am merely a smatterer in a few very narrow fields.

However, no one can read the notes to Eliot’s Complete Prose, meticulously chronicling as they do the staggering range of Eliot’s reading, without sensing that, here, humility got the better of self-knowledge. 

Then, again, Eliot’s essay on the 17th-century divine Lancelot Andrewes shows how brilliantly he mined what he read for his own creative work. In the essay, Eliot quotes Andrewes’ description of the wise men journeying from the East: “It was no summer progress. A cold coming they had of it at this time of the year, just the worst time of the year to take a journey, and specially a long journey in. The ways deep, the weather sharp, the days short, the son farther off, in solstitio brumali, ‘the very dead of winter.’”  From Andrewes’ account, Eliot would fashion the opening of his “Journey of the Magi,” which also includes lines suffused with the crisis of conversion.

were we led all that way for

Birth or Death?  There was a birth, certainly,

We had evidence and no doubt.  I had seen birth and death,

But had thought they were different; this Birth was

Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death. 

In “Virgil and the Christian World” (1951), Eliot wrote: “A poet may believe that he is expressing only his private experience; his lines may be for him only a means of talking about himself without giving himself away; yet for his readers what he has written may come to be the expression of their own secret feelings and of the exultation or despair of a generation.” But, here, Eliot invests a great universal theme with deep, personal significance, which, nonetheless, reaffirms that theme’s universality. 

III.

Apropos the essays in the 1930s, after Eliot’s conversion, where the Anglo-Catholic public man in Eliot first began to emerge, the editors stress what a far-flung impact this “smatterer” would have:

The successful launch of the Criterion Miscellany pamphlet series should not be overlooked, as it was the vehicle for Eliot’s most deliberated excursion into social criticism in this period. Eliot used Thoughts after Lambeth (1931), an outspoken causerie engaging with the politics of the Church of England, to redouble his strictures on the secular rationalism of H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, and Bertrand Russell—all of whom commanded far larger audiences than Eliot did at this time. In fact, the 1930s were crucial years in establishing Eliot’s stature as a public intellectual and as an eminent Anglican layman, in BBC broadcasts, Criterion editorials, and wide-ranging articles and reviews.

Essay after essay in these volumes show how Eliot’s paramount concern was the indispensability of Europe’s Christian culture. Unlike Matthew Arnold, he never imagined that the melancholy, lengthy, withdrawing roar of Christianity in retreat was something that one should somehow take in stride. Like Edmund Burke, he would always be convinced that “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” This was why he gave so much of his time to being a sign of contradiction to an age in desperate need of contradiction. “We need to see the world as the Christian Fathers saw it,” he wrote in The Idea of a Christian Society (1939); “and the purpose of reascending to origins is that we should be able to return, with greater knowledge, to our own situation. We need to recover the sense of religious fear, so that it may be overcome by religious hope.” Here, in recommending the gift of the Holy Spirit least heeded by the modern world, Eliot was foreshadowing those lines from Little Gidding, which the fire warden in him may only have been able to write after the Blitz, but which the pilgrim in him had anticipated long before:

The dove descending breaks the air

With flame of incandescent terror

Of which the tongues declare

The only discharge from sin and error.

The only hope, or else despair

Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre—

To be redeemed from fire by fire.

Even before converting to Christianity in 1927, Eliot’s wide-ranging reading had given him a respect for the culture of Christianity, which was certainly not typical of his age. “To be able to fill leisure intelligently,” the positivist Bertrand Russell wrote in 1930, “is the last product of civilization.” And it followed for Russell, as it would doubtless follow for many of his liberal successors today, that, “Next to enjoying ourselves, the next greatest pleasure consists in preventing others from enjoying themselves, or, more generally, in the acquisition of power.” Eliot would always be keenly appreciative of how such a nihilistic view of civilization as nothing more than a scramble for power might take hold in a society heedless of the Christian faith, hope, and charity that had made European civilization possible in the first place. And, as a literary critic, with an incisive historical imagination, he knew that it was not simply such professional atheists as Nietzsche who exemplified this problem. If one of the reasons he had left America for Europe when he was a young man was to seek out, as Henry James before him had sought out, the well-springs of Western civilization, he could see that Americans abroad were no better at reclaiming these springs than Americans at home. Charles Eliot Norton (1827-1902), the Harvard professor of art and social critic, had told young Henry James in 1877 that “Christianity as a creed, & the ascetic morality based on the popular conception of the Christine doctrine have nearly run their course: their influence has become a thing of tradition, rather than an actual force exercising control over the conduct & character of man. And it must take a long time to establish a new morality which is to be the organizing power & animating spirit of the new society.” In 1908, the year of Norton’s death, Edith Wharton would show how deeply this view of matters had taken hold when she wrote a travelogue of a motor tour that she had made through France, in which, beholding the Cathedral of Amiens, she remarked how:

The interiors of the great French cathedrals are as a rule somewhat gaunt and unfurnished, baring their structural nakedness sublimely but rather monotonously to eyes accustomed to the Italian churches “all glorious within.” Here at Amiens, however, the inner decking of the shrine has been piously continued from generation to generation, and a quite extraordinary wealth of adornment bestowed on the choir and its ambulatory. The great sculptured and painted frieze encircling the outer side of the choir is especially surprising in a French church, so seldom were the stone histories lavished on the exterior continued within the building; and it is a farther surprise to find the same tales in bas-relief animating and enriching the west walls of the transepts. They are full of crowded expressive incidents, these stories of local saints and Scriptural personages; with a Burgundian richness and elaborateness of costume, and a quite charming, childish insistence on irrelevant episode and detail—the reiterated “And so,” “And then” of the fairy-tale calling off one’s attention into innumerable little by-paths, down which the fancy of 15th-century worshippers must have strayed, with oh! what blessedness of relief, from the unintelligible rites before the altar.

It is this religious philistinism, with its concomitant cultural philistinism, that Eliot wrote a good deal of his criticism to address. As he remarks in one essay, “The problem of belief is very complicated and probably quite insoluble.” Yet he was also convinced that it was at the heart of all questions of civilization. In a piece entitled “Christianity and Communism” (1932), Eliot gave a good example of what he meant by this conviction. “If you have any doubt that your problems and their solution must bring you to matters of religion, you have only to turn eastward—towards Russia,” he wrote in a piece that illuminates striking parallels between the religion of communism and all other gimcrack faiths.

I know very little about Russia; I do not know whether the experiment being made there will turn out to be, in the worldly sense, a failure or a success. If the system can be made to work, and if the Russians can be adapted to it, or bred into the sort of being who can flourish under it, that is their affair. But I should not like it any the better for that: for Russian communism is a religion, and a religion which is not mine. Of course, other and better qualified critics—among them Mr. Maynard Keynes—remarked this fact before; and it is indeed patent enough; but the full implications do not seem me to me to have yet come home to all. If you like the Russian religion, I cannot expect to make any impression upon you. But if you do not like it, then you must keep in mind that you can never fight a religion except with another religion.

IV.

If Eliot were alive to see, in our own age, how the elites of Europe and America have taken to imagining liberal secularism their best defense against the horrors of jihadist Islam, he might have called their attention to truths that he pointed out in his prophetic essay on communism and Christianity, for they are as applicable to our contemporaries as they were to his own. “If we are incapable of a faith at least as strong as that which appears to animate the ruling class of Russia,” he wrote, “if we are incapable of dying for a cause, then Western Europe and the Americans might as well be reorganised on the Moscow model at once.” Nor did he hold out any hope for there being any adequate political solution to the problem, since “you cannot hope to conquer merely with election cockades: merely with British Conservatism or British Liberalism or British Socialism. Nor will you succeed in inventing another brand new religion to compete with communism. There can only be the two, Christianity and communism: and there, if you like, is your dilemma.” 

At the same time, Eliot could speak with a certain authority to his skeptical contemporaries because, before converting, he had known something of their own skepticism himself. In the piece on communism and Christianity, Eliot nicely charted his escape from the prison house of unbelief.   

Towards any profound conviction one is borne gradually, perhaps insensibly over a long period of time, by what Newman called “powerful concurrent reasons.” Some of these reasons may appear to the outside world irrelevant; some are purely personal; and each individual, perhaps, has some reasons which could concern, some influences which could have influenced, no one but himself. At some moment or other, a kind of crystallization occurs, in which appears an element of faith not strictly definable from any reason or combination of reasons. I am not speaking, mind you, of conversion to Christian faith only, but of conversion in general… In my own case, I believe that one of the reasons was that the Christian scheme seemed to me the only one which would work. I hasten to add that this is not a reason for believing; it is a tenable hypothesis to maintain that there is no scheme which will work. That was simply the removal of any reason for believing in anything else, the erasure of a prejudice, the arrival at the skepticism which is the preface to conversion. And when I say “work,” I am quite aware that I had my own notion of what the “working” of a scheme comprehends. Among other things, the Christian scheme seemed the only possible scheme which found a place for values which I must maintain or perish (and belief comes first and practice second), the belief, for instance, in holy living and holy dying, in sanctity, chastity, humility, austerity.

For Eliot to cite Newman was apt, because the cardinal did capture the often inscrutable process of conversion without ever stinting its complexity. As the editors show, Newman spoke of what he called the “illative sense” in An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (1870) as one combining intellect and imagination and “creating a certitude of its truth by arguments too various for direct enumeration, too personal and deep for words, too powerful and concurrent for refutation.” One could also quote something that Newman wrote to the secretary of the London Evangelization Society in 1885, when he was a spry 84, in which he described conversion as “ the faint initial stirrings of religion in the heart,” though “the darkness, the sense of sin, the fear of God’s judgment, the contrition, the faith, hope, and love, need not be a conscious, clearly defined, experience, but may be, and commonly is, a slow and silent growth, not broken into separate and successive stages, but as regards these spiritual acts composite, and almost simultaneous, strengthening with the soul’s strength, advancing with advancing years, till (after whatever relapses and returns, or whatever unswerving fidelity) death comes at length, and seals and crowns with perseverance and salvation what from first to last is a work of grace. Grace is the beginning and the end of it.” For Newman, as for St. Augustine and, indeed, for Eliot, conversion was an arduous, lifelong process.

Together, the pieces in this great edition point to the one book that sums up all of Eliot’s work in poetry and prose, Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1948), in which he wrote how, “The dominant force in creating a common culture between peoples each of which has its distinct culture, is religion,” though he was quick to assure his readers that he was “not setting out to convert anybody”: he was “simply stating a fact.” In one passage from that prescient volume, he refers to culture as the “incarnation” of a people’s religion, which, in itself, measures how much culture we have lost in losing our religion. In another passage, the Aristotelian critic in Eliot gives full expression to his understanding of the fragility of a culture that will only be replaced at incalculable cost.  

It is in Christianity that our arts have developed; it is in Christianity that the laws of Europe have—until recently—been rooted. It is against a background of Christianity that all our thought has significance. An individual European may not believe that the Christian Faith is true, and yet what he says, and makes, and does, will all spring out of his heritage of Christian culture and depend upon that culture for its meaning. Only a Christian culture could have produced a Voltaire or a Nietzsche. I do not believe that the culture of Europe could survive the complete disappearance of the Christian Faith. And I am convinced of that, not merely because I am a Christian myself, but as a student of social biology. If Christianity goes, the whole of our culture goes. Then you must start painfully again, and you cannot put on a new culture ready made. You must wait for the grass to grow to feed the sheep to give the wool out of which your new coat will be made. You must pass through many centuries of barbarism. We should not live to see the new culture, nor would our great-great-great-grandchildren: and if we did, not one of us would be happy in it. 

About Edward Short 11 Articles
Edward Short is the author of Newman and his Contemporaries and Newman and his Family, both published by Bloomsbury, and, most recently, Adventures in the Book Pages, published by Gracewing.