Notes Towards the Definition of Culture

by T. S. Eliot
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1482

In his preface to For Lancelot Andrewes (1928) Eliot styled himself a classicist, royalist, and Anglo-Catholic. His conservative penchant for literary tradition, monarchist politics, and ritualistic religion gives tone and direction to Notes Towards the Definition of Culture. It may seem odd that Eliot, whose impetus toward modernism in poetry was great, should identify himself as a classicist; he did not, however, oppose classicism to Romanticism or modernism but upheld the literature of the past as the tradition from which no poet can exclude his work. His royalism entailed the favoring of a class system determined by birth and wealth and limited to upper and lower, unbothered by middle. His religious preference culminated in his exaltation of Christianity as the true cultural determinant of Western civilization.

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Consistent in his beliefs and preferences, although not always strictly logical in his presentation of them, he emerges in his attitude as part of a civilizational rearguard. This attitude underscores the pessimism of his poetry, which, although aggressively vanguardist in structure, idiom, and rhythm, is defensively expository of what he takes to be a true culture that has been rendered effete and moribund by the decline of Christianity.

In “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” Eliot personifies waning Western culture as an anxiety-ridden, stultifyingly middle-class, and middle-aged man who is no longer subjectively conversant with great art and literature and who cannot face the reality toward which his introspection is leading him. The title of Eliot’s most famous poem, The Waste Land (1922), refers to the modern Western world as bereft of religion and consequently of culture: Fragments of the education that formerly reflected the culture are gathered together like the fragments of a broken vase whose reassemblage requires an adhesive that only religion can provide; the need for religion is likened to thirst, and the water to quench the thirst is to be found only in India, where a religion still satisfactorily sustains a culture.

In several poems Eliot also personifies the grossly sensual residue of an irreligious society as a coarse, apelike lecher named Sweeney. In The Waste Land, illicit sex, between a typist and a “young man carbuncular,” is shown as boring and, in the absence of Christian standards of morality, an act of animal instinct and bleak impunity. Sweeney is the embodiment of the drive to perform this act.

Eliot claims in The Idea of a Christian Society that education in a Christian society must be religious “in the sense that its aims will be directed by a Christian philosophy of life”; he envisages his ideal Christian society as limited to England. In Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, he expands his horizons to include the whole of Western civilization, which, as a product of the Christian philosophy of life, must refurbish itself as a Christian society if it is to retain its culture. The tone of the latter essay, while less mockingly ironic than that of his earlier poetry, carries the same resignation and world-weariness. The didacticism is positive and not without intimations of hope, but the essay says overall that this is the way it could be and should be but will not be because the departures from the Christian way of life are too pronounced.

Eliot’s argument can win little approval from non-Christian members of Western society or from those of democratically liberal persuasion. His conservatism is such that he actually condemns any variations from the pre-Renaissance Christian society of Europe. He scorns Humanism and all projected increments to the secular way of life. The anti-Semitic bias in his earlier poetry is not explicit in the essay on culture but can be inferred in it from the exclusivity with which he invests his discussion of the Christian society. His predilection for Fascism, with its organization and ordered economy, is hardly concealed, although he does not condone political totalitarianism. In effect, however, religious totalitarianism is what he advocates.

The religious totalitarianism called for in Notes Towards the Definition of Culture is adumbrated in After Strange Gods, Eliot’s Page-Barbour lectures delivered at the University of Virginia in 1933. In the first of the three lectures his denunciation of the Civil War as “the greatest disaster in the whole of American history” and as destructive of a “native culture” is fully implicit with the support of the slave system that was part of the native culture. His Fascist leaning and his anti-Jewish bias are explicit in this passage from the same lecture:Population should be homogeneous; where two or more cultures exist in the same place they are likely either to be fiercely self-conscious or both to become adulterate. What is still more important is unity of religious background; and reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable. . . . And a spirit of excessive tolerance is to be deprecated.

The passage is much quoted but chiefly by Eliot’s opponents, of whom there were not many in his lifetime. That Eliot was not broadly attacked for his views owes largely to the almost universal respect and prestige accorded him by the academic world in the United States, England, and Germany. There was a trickle of dissent from his views in England. Robert Graves, in The Common Asphodel (1949), found unpalatable the anti-Jewish prejudice in Eliot’s poem “Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar.” L.A. Cormican, in “Mr. Eliot and Social Biology,” remarks that Eliot’s “orderly description of culture on p. 120 [of Notes Towards the Definition of Culture] is phrased throughout in such a way as to fit either Nazism or Stalinism.” Nevertheless, these and other articulations of disapproval are significantly sparse. Eliot’s reputation as a poet and literary critic apparently precluded concerted, discriminating challenge to his social and political prejudices, even though such prejudices were manifest in his poetry and drama.

The most serious American challenge to Eliot’s views and to the questionable logic with which he presents those views was Russell Hope Robbins’ The T.S. Eliot Myth (1951), a cool and cogent appraisal of Eliot’s anti-humanism that is not deterred by the Chinese wall of Eliot’s reputation. Robbins’ book found its way into very few selected bibliographies of studies of Eliot; a noteworthy exception is Leonard Unger’s T.S. Eliot: Moments and Patterns (1966). It is ignored by Allen Austin in T.S. Eliot: The Literary and Social Criticism (1971), although Austin, like Robbins, finds the authoritarian and stratified society envisaged by Eliot to be repressive. Robbins, however, writes as an adversary of Eliot’s views, while Austin writes merely as an expositor of them. Nevertheless, Austin’s summary of Notes Towards the Definition of Culture is chilling:Culture cannot exist without religion and inequality (in wealth and education). Culture is most likely to flourish in a class society based on tradition. The elite, although admitting those of exceptional talent to its ranks, should be determined by birth.

Eliot insists in his essay on culture that “Christendom should be one.” He maintains that there should be a “corrective force in the direction of uniformity of belief and practice” if culture is not to suffer in its constituent elements. In The Idea of a Christian Society, Eliot assumes that “totalitarianism can retain the terms ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ and give them its own meanings: and its right to them is not so easily disproved as minds inflamed by passion suppose.” For Eliot, then, monolithic unity upheld by authoritarian control is the only stabilizing force of culture; in this, as in other of his dicta, he speaks dogmatically and without argumentative logic. Also in that essay, he writes that “the only possibility of control and balance is a religious control and balance; that the only hopeful course for a society which would thrive and continue its creative activity in the arts of civilization is to become Christian.” The Idea of a Christian Society was completed at the beginning of World War II; Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, its thematic companion piece, was published after the end of World War II. In both essays Eliot finds the Western democracies to be as prone to cultural defect as the Fascist and Stalinist regimes, if not more so.

In keeping with his negative prediction, Eliot does not look ahead to his ideal of the Christian totalitarian state; he looks back to it—for it did exist, in Europe, from the twelfth through the fifteenth centuries, from the time of Saint Thomas a Becket, martyred in 1170, through the time of the Grand Inquisitor Tomas de Torquemada, who died in 1498. Eliot’s predilection is clearly for this age of faith, which fostered the Gothic cathedral, the mendicant orders, Scholasticism, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Dante, and those Christian corrective forces known as the Crusades and the Inquisition. As he writes in “The Dry Salvages,” the third of his Four Quartets (1943), “the way forward is the way back.”

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Critical Context