Notes Towards the Definition of Culture

by T. S. Eliot
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1224

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.

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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 to subjects external to his firm competence so as to lend to those subjects the perspective of a man of letters and to accommodate with his observations those readers who think enough of his poetry and criticism of poetry to want the benefit of his critical views in other areas. The introduction established Eliot’s notion of the inseparability of religion and culture, the dependence of culture upon the persistence of social classes, and the impossibility of any calculated invention of culture. In chapter 1, he differentiates the cultural development of an individual, of a group or class, and of a whole society; he shows that the three types of culture must be cohesive; and he posits that culture and religion are not two separate things bound by a relationship or identifiable one as the other but different aspects of the same thing and that the culture of a people is an incarnation of its religion. Describing culture as that which makes life worth living, he concludes that “any religion, while it lasts, and on its own level, gives an apparent meaning to life, provides the framework for a culture, and protects the mass of humanity from boredom and despair.” The subsequent chapters elaborate upon the class and the elite, unity and diversity with respect first to region and then to sect and cult, culture and politics, and culture and education.

Eliot’s sense of class is that “higher types exhibit more marked differentiation of function amongst their members than lower types,” and he identifies the elites as the differentiated groups of higher types concerned respectively with art, science, philosophy, and action. The similarity to the class system in Plato’s Politeia (388-368 b.c.e.; Republic) becomes more noticeable as Eliot states the aim of his doctrine of elites: “All positions in society should be occupied by those who are best fitted to exercise the functions of the positions.” In this context he conceives of culture as “the creation of the society as a whole: being . . . that which makes it a society.” Eliot’s moderation lies in his calling for class barriers that are not rigid, so as occasionally to permit those without the advantages of birth to rise in status.

In his outline, culture should be fluid and constant; each area of a region should participate in the regional culture and should both harmonize with and enrich the cultures of neighboring areas. As with areas subsumed to regions, so should it be with sects and cults subsumed to the regional religion. Eliot emphasizes that “the formation of a religion is also the formation of a culture,” and the culture of the West, as a region, is accordingly derived from the formation of the Christian religion.

Eliot’s concluding chapters caution against culture-consciousness, which tends to subordinate culture to politics and is conducive to political totalitarianism, and against equal opportunity in education, which contributes to the elimination of the intellectual elite and to the disintegration of class.

Eliot’s theory of the dangers of equal educational opportunity may have had some validation. In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, lowered standards and curricula fashioned in accordance with students’ demands, in both England and the United States, resulted in a lesser quality of education to which there was ultimately a “back to the basics” reaction. The countercultural movement responsible for this lessening proved to be less the countering of a youth culture against that of an establishment than a veritable contraculture, or anticulture; concomitant with it was another anticultural effect of which Eliot proved to be prophetic, the breakdown of the family: “The most important channel of transmission of culture remains the family: and when the family fails to play its part, we must expect our culture to deteriorate.”

The appendix on the unity of European culture may be taken as an extension of the chapter “Unity and Diversity: The Region,” the region being Europe with its constituent nations. Eliot’s perspective remains that of the poet and critic of poetry. His focus is the interdependent literary traditions of the European nations. His definition of culture in this section is anthropological: “the way of life of a particular people living together in one place.” The place is Europe, and the “dominant force in creating a common culture between peoples each of which has its distinct culture, is religion,” the religion again being Christianity. Eliot mentions here and there the formative contributions to Western culture made by the Jewish, Greek, and Roman civilizations but subordinates these contributions to their amalgamation by the Christian tradition.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 62

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Robbins, Russell Hope. The T.S. Eliot Myth, 1951.

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