Thomas Stearns Eliot’s Harvard University education, his alienation from his birthplace (St. Louis, Missouri), his repudiation of his family’s Unitarianism, his reputation as a man of letters, his installation as a member of the Church of England, and his renunciation of American citizenship all contribute to the fabric of Notes Towards the Definition of Culture. Eliot, a consummate master and jealous guardian of the English language, preferred British English to American English; he preferred the older British elitist education to American egalitarian education; and he preferred England’s colorful and orthodox Anglo-Catholic ritual to the bland patina of American religious observances. He preferred the hierarchy and brilliant pageantry of British monarchy to the leveling processes of American republicanism and a class system based upon birth and landed wealth to one based upon wealth acquired through purely capitalistic means. All these preferences, which England satisfied for him at least adequately, find expression in his essay defining culture, published twenty-one years after he chose official expatriation, three years after the close of World War II and the ratification of the United Nations Charter, and the year of his receipt of the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Eliot began work on this essay in 1945, ostensibly in response to the establishment of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which called for the development and maintenance of international understanding and appreciation of the culture of the world’s peoples. His determination to elucidate the meaning of “culture” gave impetus to an ambitious sociological project which resulted in not a lengthy dissertation but a tentative set of notes in the form of six essay-chapters, to which he added three radio lectures on “The Unity of European Culture” that he had presented to German listeners in 1946.
“Notes Towards,” the first two words of the title, amount to an admission of the sketchy nature of the work. The six essays, however, preceded by an introduction and followed by the appended radio lectures, constitute a set of bold, if insufficiently supported, sociological assertions which, taken with the first lecture in Eliot’s After Strange Gods: A Primer of Modern Heresy (1934) and the whole of his The Idea of a Christian Society (1939), reflect a credo that is both the basis of his literary criticism and the essential theme of his poetry and drama. Briefly, this credo is as follows: Religion is the matrix of culture; the Christian religion is the formative factor of European, or Western, culture; and the modern West, in its retreat from strict adherence to the Christian faith, is undergoing a cultural deterioration that appears to be without promise or possibility of arrest.
In his cultural criticism, Eliot disarmingly identifies himself as a poet and a critic of poetry who is directing his aesthetic sensibility...
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