The Politics of T.S. Eliot
by J MW
By David Levy, Ph.D. (1947-2004)
T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) is not a political poet; but he was a traditionalist and a moralist, and his artistic integrity led him to postulate an organic society with a religious basis. A conservative? Maybe. A High Tory? Certainly.
T.S. Eliot is not a political poet in the accepted sense of the term. When we think of political poetry we do not think of The Wasteland, or the Four Quartets, or even of Coriolan: there are political points in all these works but they are not political poems. They lack the “public manner” which is expected of such poetry; criticism of an age is seen through the predicament of an individual or group: in short, they lack the directness of message which political poetry is normally expected to possess. In order to understand Eliot’s politics we must go to his prose; armed with a knowledge of that, we are in a much better position to see the political ideas which appear throughout his poetical work.
It may appear strange that a poet so cut off from the public style should be so interested in politics. For Eliot was desperately concerned with the integrity of his art, and if his poetry is sometimes difficult it is because any simplification would endanger this integrity. Our century can no longer see its problems in the clear cut way that was once possible; as Maurice Bowra has pointed out, Tennyson could write The Charge of the Light Brigade as he did because he saw himself as a public figure, writing on a public matter, in a way that the public wanted; “Someone had blundered” was explanation enough. Poet and public shared the same assumptions, and if the poet had any doubts it was he who made the concessions. This position grew increasingly false as the 19th century wore on; for the assumptions involved legend, and the gap between legend and life grew ever wider. When Alfred Austin wrote his poem, Why England is Conservative, he describe a state of affairs that was visibly false:
“Mother of happy homes and Empire vast,
Of hamlets meek, and many a proud demesne,
Blue spires of cottage smoke ‘mong woodland green,
And comely altars where no stone is cast.”
This is an England of myth, or, at best, a miniscule part of the England of fact.
It was the First World War that finally shattered the pretensions to truth of the old style. In the trenches one could no longer explain war in terms of “playing the game”: the falsity of nineteenth century public poetry stood revealed for all to see. The mythology of an optimistic, supposedly unified, society lay destroyed in the mud; and it is only when such a mythology exists that public poetry of the old type has any meaning. It is for this reason that the only legatees of the grand old style have been the poets of the left, who, like their imperialist predecessors, can rely on a readership that accepts without question a fertile and highly developed mythology; in this case that of Marxism.
Eliot is a poet of a different order; he is primarily concerned with his art, and he is interested in politics only because he sees the cultural and political traditions as being inextricably bound up; and both as being closely related to religion. Therefore, as the self-conscious upholder of one tradition, he is naturally enmeshed in the other. This, like so many other ideas, Eliot owes to France, the neoclassicists, and, above all, to their prophet and teacher, Charles Maurras.
Eliot and Maurras
It was in 1911 that T.S. Eliot first discovered Maurras’s work for himself; for it was in that year that he saw a copy of L’Avenir de L’Intelligence. From this time on Maurras was to exert a deep influence on Eliot’s thought; an influence that permeated all that he wrote on culture and politics. It was an influence that the poet handsomely acknowledged. When the Vatican condemned the Action Francaise, and put Maurras’s book on the index, Eliot defended the French thinker in the pages of The Criterion. Against the accusation that Maurras perverted his disciples away from Christianity, he wrote, “I have been a reader of the work of Maurras for 18 years; upon me he has had the opposite effect.” And as late as 1948, when Maurras lay imprisoned by a vengeful republic, Eliot was ready to declare his sympathy in a letter to the Maurrassien journal, Aspects de la France.
Already set on the the path by the Harvard teachings of Irving Babbitt, Eliot found in Maurras the mature doctrines of classicism, hierarchy and decentralisation that he was never to abandon. Maurras taught that, “Romanticism and Revolution resemble nothing so much as two stems, which, though they look different, grow from the same tree.” That tree was the false view of man as rational, perfectible being, who needs only to be freed from traditional bonds to realise his full potential. This is the ultimate heresy against Reason and Nature, for it denies all that they both show us. Civilised man is in fact the reverse of the free man of the romantic myth; as T.E. Hulme (another avid reader of Maurras) said, “Man is an extraordinarily fixed and limited animal whose nature is absolutely constant. It is only by tradition and organisation that anything decent can be got out of him.” Hierarchy recognises this in society and classicism in culture. The Nouvelle Revue Francaise, to which Eliot subscribed for many years, contained in 1913 an excellent exposition of Maurras’s views by Albert Thibaudet, in which he describes Maurras’s triple aesthetic of three traditions, the Classical, the Catholic and the Monarchical; fifteen years later, Eliot was to echo all these in his famous declaration that he was, “a Classicist in literature, a Royalist in politics, and an Anglo-Catholic in religion”.
Given the channel crossing, it is hard to see that the parallel could have been more exact; and it is, in addition, only one of numerous such parallels in the work of the two men. Thus, Eliot holds that, “A rational government would be one which acted for itself in matters concerning which ‘the people’ is too ignorant to be consulted (and would not pretend otherwise); which acted for the people in matters in which the people did not know its own mind; which did as little governing as possible; and which left as large a measure of individual and local liberty as possible”. Such a government bears a strong resemblance to Maurras’s Royalist regime which will, “bring freedom downstairs to the people and restore authority at the top”; and both are the reverse of “Liberal Democracy”, in which, as Maurras says, “freedom and its dangers are to be found, so to speak, ‘at the top’, that is to say in the elaboration of high level policy on matters which affect the future and the security of the nation”; and “Authority...in its most rigorous form, has been pointlessly set up ‘at the bottom’, to deal authoritatively with matters in which discussion, differences of opinion, and the initiative of every citizen would have been not only harmless but positively advantageous”.
Again, Eliot does not stray at all from the Maurrassien orthodoxy when he writes, in Notes toward a Definition of Culture, that “The culture of the individual is dependent on the culture of the whole society to which that group or class belongs. Therefore it is the culture of the society that is fundamental”. Nor, when he declares that, “You cannot expect continuity and coherence, you cannot expect reliable behaviour on fixed principles through changed situations, unless there is an underlying political philosophy not of a party, but of the nation”. The list of such passages could be almost endless, but the purpose of this article is not to catalogue the influence of Maurras on Eliot, it is to expound the poet’s political ideas, and for this one must take account of the differences as well as the similarities; differences which make Eliot a great traditionalist thinker in his own right.
Religion and Culture
These differences are largely concerned with the relationship between religion and the cultural tradition; a relationship on which the two men held deeply opposed views. Throughout the Twenties this opposition remains unclear, but as Eliot became more and more concerned with questions of religion, the differences became more open. Ash Wednesday, published in 1930, shows this new concern. Interspersed with imagery related to that of The Wasteland we find lines drawn from the traditional liturgy of the Church. Beginning “Because I do not hope to turn again”, the poem ends with an appeal to a force far removed even from the ideal of benificence of Maurras’s tradition of Nature and Reason. In religion Eliot has found the answers that escaped him in his more purely political quest.
One year after Ash Wednesday he was to write in The Criterion, that, “The only hope is in a Toryism, which though not necessarily distinct for Parliamentary purposes, should refuse to identify itself philosophically with that ‘conservatism’ which has been overrun first by deserters from Whiggism and then by businessmen. And for such a Toryism not only a doctrine of the relation of the temporal and spiritual in matters of Church and State is essential, but even a religious foundation for the whole of its political philosophy”. This view as to be developed further in The Idea of a Christian Society, where Eliot says that, “As political philosophy derives its sanction from ethics, and ethics from the truth of religion, it is only by returning to the eternal source of truth that we can hope for any social organisation which will not, to its ultimate destruction, ignore some essential aspect of reality.
This is a view far removed from that of Maurras; in whose system Catholicism is commended because, by its authoritarian tradition and structure, it conforms to what Maurras would call the Laws of Reason and Nature. For Eliot the state rests on, and serves the purpose of, of the Church; for Maurras (an agnostic until the deathbed) the Church serves the purposes of the nation. The truth, or falsity of Catholicism is unimportant in the latter case, what matters is that the Church of Rome has neutralised “the poison of the Magnificat”, and with the authoritarian Monarchy, has served to make France great. Most of the difficulties between the two men can be traced to this basic difference of view. This, Eliot is more drawn to Europeanism than is Maurras, who never proceeds beyond a vague sentiment of Latin solidarity: this is because Eliot looks beyond the individual nation to the wider concept of Christian Culture; a culture largely shared by the nations of Europe, in each of which it has taken a different form, to the ultimate enrichment of all. The nation itself is not, “fixed and invariable. It is, so to speak, only one fluctuating circle of loyalties between the centre of the family and the local community, and the periphery of humanity entire”. Maurras draws his firm circle around the nation because, for him, the unifying tradition is national, Eliot draws his around Europe because, in his view, it is Christian: but both deplore the cosmopolitan who recognises no loyalty save to the cultural abstraction of “Humanity entire”.
But within Eliot’s “circle” of Europe the man is not the free individual of liberal though. We remember his statement that, “It is the culture of the society that is fundamental”, and within this society the single human being is a member of a family and of a class, the inhabitant of a region and a nation; to each of which he owes a part of the loyalty that belongs, ultimately, to the tradition of Christian Society which has formed him. Society makes possible the development of a high level of culture, a word which, in most connotations, means the same as civilisation. We cannot deliberately aim at such a culture; it is the result of the working of tradition, “the product of a variety of more or less harmonious activities, each pursued for its own sake: the artist must concentrate upon his canvas, the poet upon his typewriter, the civil servant upon the just settlement of particular problems as they present themselves upon his desk, each according to the situation in which he finds himself”. This functional differentiation is the mark of a higher society; only in the most primitive conditions of man is it absent.
The Conditions of Culture
Eliot gives three conditions without which a higher culture is unlikely to develop. The first is that there should be, “organic (not merely planned, but growing) structure, such as will foster the hereditary transmission of culture: and this requires the persistence of social classes”. This is so because, “As a society develops towards functional complexity and differentiation we may expect the emergence of several cultural levels; in short, the culture of a class or group will present itself”. Classes must be seen as cultural, more than economic, groupings and they must remain largely hereditary if the group culture is to survive. Education alone cannot give a group the necessary coherence of outlook, and without group cultures society will tend to drift, sometimes via liberal individualism, into the stifling grip of the totalitarian state. Eliot would agree with Christopher Dawson who points out that our modern democracies are themselves moving in that direction, because no only is “the state becoming centralised, but...society and culture are becoming politicised”. The statesman today “is called upon to deal more and more with questions of a purely sociological character, and he may even be expected to transform the whole structure of society and refashion the cultural traditions of the people”. This is a perversion of civilised society, where cohesion should be achieved by a shared tradition, and the overlapping and sharing of interests between people engaged in different activities.
The second condition for the development of a higher civilisation is that it should, “be analysable geographically, into local culture”. Eliot believed that, “the local community must always be the most permanent”; it is through the small communities, the family, and thence the village and the region, that a real culture, based upon real attachments, is developed. World culture can only be conceived as, “the logical term of relations between culture”; for, “A world culture which was simply a uniform culture would be no culture at all.” Like class loyalty, regional loyalty arises out of loyalty to the family; if it is to have any real meaning it too must be largely hereditary, therefore Eliot maintains that, “it would appear to be for the best that the great majority of human beings should go on living in the place in which they were born”. Only thus will you get the “the constellation of culture” without which a national culture cannot flourish. Of course loyalties may conflict, but such friction is “favourable to creativeness and progress”, by preventing the ossification of a caste system, in which one loyalty excludes all others. In addition, “the universality of irritation is the best assurance of peace. A country within which the divisions have gone too far is a danger to itself; “but” a country which is too united is a menace to others”. Once again the solution lies in a diversity which is recognised to exist upon a common tradition.
It is with the nature of this tradition that Eliot’s final condition is concerned: “the balance of unity and diversity in religion” is obviously crucial to one whose political philosophy rests ultimately on a religious sanction; and for whom, “the dominant force in creating a common culture between peoples, each of whom has a distinct culture, is religion”. Obviously there must be a considerable degree of homogeneity in such religion; a group of totally disparate sects, calling themselves by the same name could not create the necessary community of tradition. Though here again friction is necessary, for it in “the conflict with heresy that orthodoxy is developed to meet the needs of the time”.
To sum up: T.S. Eliot belongs to the distinguished line of traditionalist thinkers, whose great gift to mankind has been the recognition that the greatness of man’s nature lies more in his societies than in his individuality. From Burke’s great contract of Past, Present and Future, to Maurras’s doctrine, that it is by his institutions that man eternalises the good he can do, they have stressed the same point. By giving a religious basis to them, Eliot endowed Maurrassien doctrines with a greater ethical force than could even the history of a great nation. The need for authority in society is clear, but only the authority of tradition is reliable. Like the great French historian, Fustel de Coulanges, Eliot saw that, “True patriotism is not the love of the soil, it is the love of the past, it is respect for the generations which have gone before us”. In that belief lies the hope of Europe and the World’.