What is the meaning of this statement by T.S. Eliot?   "We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we began and to know the place for the first time."

The meaning of this statement, from T. S. Eliot's "Little Gidding", is about the concept of productive struggle. He indicates that humanity will want to progress, but once it does, it will return to where it started and understand what drove it to progress in the first place.

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This statement is from T.S. Eliot’s poem “Little Gidding”, which is the last set of poems in Four Quartets. “Little Gidding” was first published in 1942 and was Eliot’s argument for humanity’s need for purification. He believed that this could be achieved through a recognition of the past and a return to God, which is the focus of the entire Four Quartets series.

I interpret this statement to mean that humanity will always have a desire to explore and push itself further than where it is now. Once we know what is out there, we will reflect back on where we started and understand it using our new knowledge. An example of this concept that comes to my mind, even though it was after T.S. Eliot’s time, is America’s space race and moon landing. In his speech at Rice University, John F. Kennedy said,

man, in his quest for knowledge and progress, is determined and cannot be deterred

From there, people figured out how to put humans on the moon and return them back to Earth. We can look back on this moment in history where Kennedy pushed Americans to continue exploring. When we look back, we can see the cultural mindset at the beginning of this time and further understand American culture at that moment.

T.S. Eliot probably intended to push his readers to undergo a cleansing so that they could be closer to God. Once they go through this process, then they will understand who they were when the process began. From there, humanity as a whole can keep moving forward.

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"Little Gidding," the last of the four poems in Eliot's Four Quartets, is, like the other three poems, concerned with time and the merging of the past, present, and future in the eternal now. One concern of the Four Quartets is the four elements: air, water, earth, and fire. The focus of "Little Gidding" is fire: the fire of Pentecost, in particular, that purifies and witnesses to the eternal presence of God. When we celebrate Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit with tongues of fire, we celebrate the first Pentecost, and, on Pentecost Sunday repeat the same ritual of all past and future Pentecosts in an eternal now such that we "arrive where we began."

In the quote above, Eliot focuses on our seeking for answers, calling this seeking our "explorations." We will not stop "exploring" or trying to figure out the whys of life, be they the whys of the first Pentecost or the whys of the bombing of Britain. But as the imagery surrounding this quote suggests, the end of our exploring (questioning, seeking) brings us both back to paradise and forward to the New Jerusalem, which are one and the same: paradise is what we seek, what we can find if only we could see it, and where we will end up ("all shall be well"). But when we return there, which is already already here ("heard, half-heard, in the stillness ... here, now, always") we will finally understand it. As Eliot writes, what we seek in our explorations:

Is that which was the beginning [paradise];
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree

Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always--
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well

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In this quotation, Eliot is creating a strong contrast between "exploring" and "knowing." Indeed, he claims that only once "all our exploring" is done can we hope to "know" the place from which we started. This concept, philosophically, makes logical sense. If there is potential to discover more about something, then that thing is not absolutely "known." Yet, another level of complexity is introduced through the first few words of the quotation. Eliot claims "We shall not cease from exploration." If this is true, then there cannot be an end of exploration. Rather, all of life will be an adventure of unending exploration without ever giving the opportunity for truly knowing anything. Thus, the reader is given a description of exploration being a lifelong pursuit, while knowledge is but an illusion or a hope of something rather than a realistic goal.

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The following quote was taken from T. S. Eliot's poem "Little Gidding":

"We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we began and to know the place for the first time."

What this refers, when looking at the quote alone (out of context), to is that we are only explorers when we come into contact with things which we do not know about. Once we have come to explore, or understand something, it is no longer unknown to us and deems no further exploration.

That being said, upon exploring, if we come back to the place we began at, we are really coming to the realization of the place as it truly is known (given the first time we "visit" we do not know the place). Once we have an understanding of a place is when we actually know it.

Therefore, the first time we come to an unknown place we are only there to learn about it. After that, once we come back to where we began, we are able to "know the place for the first time" given we did not know it the first time we came.

Sounds a little confusing, almost as if Eliot is speaking in circles. By breaking it down though, one can see exactly what he is saying.

Here is an example:

Mary goes to Paris (exploring). She has never been before and does not know the city at all. After a few days, after learning (exploring) all that she could, Mary leaves. Later, Mary comes back to Paris. Give that Mary has been here before, she need not explore Paris; instead, she knows Paris. Now, Mary can know the place for the first time (given her real "first time" was spent exploring).

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