Analysis of T.S. Eliot’s Idea of a Christian Society

In his preface, Eliot succinctly summarizes his aim and his hopes for this work, itself the published result of three lectures that he had delivered at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, in March 1939 at the invitation of the Boutwood Foundation. As if to deflect the growing public suspicion that Eliot’s religious interests were merely personal concerns if not obsessive, the result of this high priest of modernism’s having “gotten religion” in the mid- 1920s, in the preface he makes it clear from the outset that his thoughts on the subject of the social consequences of a more and more secularized and relativistic culture “can only be of use if taken as an individual contribution to a discussion which must occupy many minds for a long time to come.”

SYNOPSIS

Chapter One

Even at the time of his writing the essay in question, Eliot must have been mindful of the sorts of misunderstandings to which his intentions have subsequently been subjected. In the same spirit of attempting to objectify his position, which can easily be confused for a personal and religious one, Eliot goes out of his way now as well to establish at the outset the overriding cultural importance of clarifying the terms of the debate. His presentation is not intended as a defense of Christianity. Rather it is an argument for undergirding the social structure of the contemporary English nation with a moral and ethical value system that is itself more enduring than the expedient solutions generally offered in the short-term give and take of political discourse because such discourse, in a democracy, is forced to cater to the whims and opinions of the moment and of special interest groups.

In his nuanced approach to his announced topic, Eliot proposes for the English a “Christian” society in the same way, for example, in which an Iranian or East Indian or Japanese thinker, on the basis of equally long-standing cultural traditions and historical realities, might propose a Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist model of moral and ethical organization for his or her respective society. Nor are these nuances of Eliot’s all that subtle. After taking such pains to explain these aims in his preface, Eliot begins the first chapter of his essay proper by defining what he means by a Christian society, doing so by establishing what he does not mean.

Throughout, it should be kept in mind that the opposite of a Christian society is not a non-Christian society. That latter supposition would make Eliot’s entire treatment of the topic nothing less than a sectarian broadside, promoting a particular religious view at the expense of all and any others. Indeed, rather than promoting Christianity in particular, Eliot is promoting the idea that a society must be promulgated on commonly accepted and practiced religious principles, so he proposes that they be Christian because Christianity has been the basis of belief among the English people for at least 1,300 years. If, for example, the English were a traditionally Muslim or Buddhist people, Eliot’s idea of the kind of society to be founded there in England on religious principles would have varied accordingly. This is not a point to belabor, perhaps, but it is one to keep in mind. Nowadays as much as in Eliot’s time, the tendency is to view a proper state or society as one that does not favor a particular religion more than any other. The result too often, however, is to forgo any religious basis to social structure and social interaction whatsoever.

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Eliot does not fail to comment on how much the current practice of separating matters of state and the church, be it an established church or not, all too often revolve around the question, “What church?” He feels that such questions rather should revolve around the question, “What state?” It is by frequently proposing the problem in those kinds of terms that Eliot keeps his reader mindful that Eliot is interested in the just operation of the social system, not in promoting Christian values in and of themselves for their own sake.

Opposed, then, to Eliot’s Christian society is, in his view, England’s present, secularized society, which he calls a neutral society. The danger of a neutral society ought to be self-evident: There is no continuity or consistency to the moral and ethical judgments that it must inevitably make and then foist off on the citizenry. His primary interest, he claims, is to bring about such a change in social attitudes “as could bring about anything worthy to be called a Christian Society,” for he fears that the other option is that the so-called Western democracies, as secularized or religiously neutralized as they have become, may eventually each become, like Germany and Russia, a pagan society, wherein the state has preempted all the moral prerogatives normally left to the church but without even the pretense of any consistent principles for making moral judgments.

So, then, Eliot sees England at a moral and ethical crossroad. Without being an alarmist, Eliot paints the current alternatives in dire enough terms. “[T]he choice before us,” he states quite emphatically, “is between the formation of a new Christian culture, and the acceptance of a pagan one.” Toward the end of his first chapter, he will reiterate the current crisis in the same terms, for what is at stake, he believes, is “a way of life for a people.” At present, rather than being a Christian society that defines itself in terms of its own values and tradition, England’s is a society as materialistic as its fascist and communist rivals. However, worse than the others whose value structures are at least self-defining, the English “are in danger of finding ourselves with nothing to stand for except a dislike of everything maintained by Germany and/or Russia.” Such an attitude, with no positive basis of its own, fosters uncritical habits of mind and spirit, in Eliot’s view. “[G]ood prose cannot be written by a people without convictions,” Eliot warns, nor can such a society “thrive and continue its creative activity in the arts of civilization.”

The only corrective to these problems, as Eliot sees it, is for England to discover its spiritual roots by becoming a Christian society, yet he is afraid that recent trends instead will make Christians in England’s present society a tolerated minority, in keeping with the modern neutral state’s habit of tolerance in the name of neutrality. But there lies the danger. “[I]n the modern world,” Eliot warns, “it may turn that the most tolerable thing for Christians is to be tolerated.” Still, he insists, a “Christian society only becomes acceptable after you have considered the alternatives.”

Chapter Two

In his second chapter, having addressed the need for discussing what the nature of contemporary society ought to be, Eliot is free to discuss how a Christian society should be organized and operate. The need for one, in his view, is pressing, for he imagines that, unless the idea of crafting a positive Christian society is embraced, present trends indicate either a sharp decline in English society in general or the emergence of a completely secularized society. That necessary Christian society cannot look to earlier versions as models. Instead, it must have three components, which Eliot identifies as the Christian state, the Christian community, and the community of Christians.

He begins by giving a functional description of the Christian state that is limited mainly to the scope and nature of its leadership. Perhaps because he focuses on matters of personnel rather than policy or practice, however, Eliot manages here, intentionally or not, to give his readers a sharply focused picture of the ways in which he is expecting this Christian state to be Christian. Thus, the leadership of the Christian state need not themselves be chosen on the basis of the depths of their Christianity; instead, their leadership must be “confined,” as he puts it, within a Christian framework so that “they must never attempt to defend their actions on un-Christian principles.” They would receive what he calls “a Christian education,” by which he means one that would have trained them “to be able to think in Christian categories.” While there can be no doubt, then, that Eliot has specific precepts of moral behavior in mind, accomplishing his idea of a Christian society would require a leadership that follows, like the citizenry who will compose the other two elements necessary to maintaining such a society, a “traditional code of behaviour” founded on those Christian principles. These same practices, pursued among the Christian community and the community of Christians, should be so conducted as to make the religious and social life of the nation form “a natural whole” wherein “behaving as Christians should not impose an intolerable strain.” The ultimate problem here, Eliot contends, is that the parish unit, the bedrock on which the community of Christians may flourish, has become stultified in England’s agricultural past. Nowadays, “modern material organization,” by which he would means the machinery of trade and commerce as well as the machinery of the bureaucratic state, “has produced a world for which [those more traditional] Christian social forms are imperfectly adapted.”

To resolve this dilemma, Eliot observes, some have proposed a return to the simpler social organizations of agrarian times, while others wish to adapt Christian principles to present conditions. Eliot, however, sees neither solution as adequate or long lasting. Rather, he feels that there must be a complete reorganization of society along Christian lines, to the exclusion of the profit motive as a social ideal and to the exclusion, as well, of the exploitation of human labor for the benefit of the few.

This is, of course, a very daring proposal, and with it Eliot brings his reader as close as is possible to a full appreciation of what Eliot means by Christian in political and economic terms, which is that it should entail the social eradication of economic iniquities and inequality. At present, rather, “a great deal of the machinery of modern life,” Eliot contends, “is merely a sanction for un-Christian aims,” making the maintenance of any Christian society nearly impossible. So, then, it is only by virtue of a genuine “Christian organisation of society,” Eliot believes, that “the natural end of man,” which he identifies as “virtue and well-being in community,” be acknowledged “for all”—not only Christians, but peoples of other beliefs and persuasions in the community, too.

Since there is a religious foundation to the new society that Eliot is proposing, such a society also would foster “the supernatural end—beatitude— for those who have the eyes to see it.” In that kind of a Christian community, the community of Christians will be “the consciously and thoughtfully practising Christians, especially those of intellectual and spiritual superiority.” While not limited strictly to the religious, the community of Christians would, by virtue of their conscious commitment to practicing and formulating the faith, be distinct from the Christian community, which is all those members of the general public professing a belief in Christianity’s moral, ethical, and spiritual principles. Eliot takes pains again, however, to make it clear that, although this spiritual and intellectual cadre forming the community of Christians is guided in all its behavior by an adherence to Christian principles, it need not be, particularly in the area of education, composed entirely of Christians so much as of individuals who, without any personal belief in Christian theology, nevertheless can adhere to and inculcate its essential vision of humanity and human behavior.

It is when Eliot discusses the place of artists and the arts—of what most would call culture—in such a society that he digresses, admittedly, into a discussion of the isolation of that branch of the intelligentsia from the mainstream of community life. He also comments on the pressure of the profit motive, meanwhile, to cheapen the quality of literary production intended for public consumption, thus separating the arts from their authentic social function. Furthermore, a divorce between the interests of religion and of arts and education in general encourages the political leadership to regard ignorance of developments in those fields as a virtue. “Accordingly,” Eliot concludes, “the more serious authors have a limited, and even provincial audience, and the more popular write for an illiterate and uncritical mob.” That he regards such a state of affairs to be the result of the lack of a uniformity of culture is a topic that he had already addressed in the controversial After Strange Gods in 1934.

Now, it appears, he is better able, or at least more careful, to clarify what he sees to be the importance of a society’s having a common center, not of belief, but of accepted principles of human behavior and standards of judgment from which the intellectual and aesthetic life of the community may radiate a coherent point of view. For the English, he finds that common center in Christianity because then individuals, while not being obliged to act in concert, can nevertheless appeal to enduring principles in making judgments and decisions that affect the well-being of the entire community.

Eliot establishes as well, however, that this community of Christians is not the same as, say, the early 19th-century idea of the clerisy proposed by the English poet and thinker Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Coleridge had a fairly well-defined body of thinkers and practitioners in the arts, in religion, and in education in mind, whereas, in keeping with the more amorphous structures of the contemporary world, Eliot makes it clear that, on all fronts, his community of Christians must be, of necessity, “a body of indefinite outline.”

His Christian society itself is nevertheless now successfully outlined, and Eliot will conclude his second chapter by observing that a Christian state, as a consequence, need not have an organized church, so long as the state respect Christian principles. That goal will be accomplished, of course, as long as there is also within the Christian society that Eliot has envisioned a Christian community in which those principles are observed in their everyday lives by the common citizens. A community of Christians, meanwhile, is also necessary in order for them to bring to bear their intellectual and spiritual expertise constantly to make the adjustments between principles and practice that any dynamic society requires. The community of Christians must achieve this function without either compromising the former or constraining the latter.

Chapter Three

As he begins his third chapter, Eliot notes that he will except the United States and the Dominions from the discussion to follow, inasmuch as it will concern itself with the fact that his idea of a Christian society, as just developed, “can only be realised when the great majority of the sheep belong to the same fold.” If earlier he implied that components of his community of Christians need not even be Christian so much as they adhere to Christian principles, nonetheless a pluralistic approach to belief among the citizenry would not advance the idea of a Christian society. So, then, the church should have a relationship to those three elements previously outlined: the Christian state, the Christian community, and the community of Christians.

For that reason, he admits that the sort of inclusive society that has evolved in the United States might necessitate the maintenance of what he calls a neutral state there, and he wisely limits his discussion of this last aspect of a Christian society—unity of belief—to England, where the Church of England, or Anglican Church, fulfills that requirement. There again Eliot is careful to point out that the issue is not one of a theological purity or even stability. This particular church is tied to the historical processes of the Christianization of England by virtue of the Church’s traditions, organization, and relation to what he calls the religious-social life of the English people.

This adherence to a national church, one that is of a particular people and a particular place, requires a balancing act between the temporal and the spiritual, however. For one thing, Christians everywhere, despite sectarian conflicts, regard Christianity as a universal church. What is true in principle, of course, is all too often not the case in practice. Eliot will address the resulting paradox of a universal church that must nevertheless express the social values of a wide variety of particular peoples in a later work, Notes towards the Definition of Culture (1948).

For now, he admits that too much emphasis on the national character of the church might undermine Christianity’s professedly universal character, but so might any attempt to pretend that there is universality in a system of belief that everywhere reflects the local culture undermine the uniquely English character of the Christianity practiced by the people of England. Such dangers caused by the opposing demands of blood and of creed can, in Eliot’s view, only compound themselves, especially when religious and social cohesion is needed most critically for the life of the nation. A Christianity too identified with a people can become submerged in their prejudices and passions. Conversely, by becoming a “kind of society of Christian societies,” any one people’s—say, the English’s—can dilute the essentially Christian character of the nation’s religious life.

The idea of maintaining a national church in the context of a universal church can result in “the idea of a supernatural League of Nations,” Eliot jokes, referring to the then-contemporary equivalent of the present-day United Nations. It proved to represent nothing in its attempt to represent everything. In keeping with the spirit of pragmatic compromise between extremes for which Anglicanism has long been noted, however, Eliot proposes as a solution to these various dilemmas a middle way, whereby, in a “dual allegiance, to the State and to the Church, to one’s countrymen and to one’s fellow-Christians everywhere, . . . the latter would always have primacy.” A check of that order would create tensions, he concedes, but such tensions would be a way to distinguish a Christian from a pagan society, since the former would be obligated to adhere to the conscience of an international community, Christians everywhere.

Chapter Four

In his fourth and final chapter, Eliot addresses the form of political organization that his Christian state ought to embrace, concluding that to specify a particular one would be a serious error. Forms of government and social organizations are all temporary and subject to frequent change, whereas the Christian principles on which the state is founded find their appeal in their enduring and universal applicability. To argue, then, that England’s present form of government is ideally suited to a Christian state or that a fascist or communist state never can be a Christian state as well is to confuse purposes and to confuse methods with ends.

Eliot emphasizes again that by professing to be a Christian, the individual is not called to piety so much as to respecting a communal sensibility that is Christian in both nature and dogma. The bond would be that the citizens hold the Christian faith, not that they practice or observe it to some particularly prescribed degree or extent. Based on these same principles, Eliot envisions, too, a national life more in conformity with nature. A shift of that order would put the present-day adulation of all that is mechanized, urbanized, and commercialized back into its proper perspective, he imagines, and enable a culture like England’s, as out of touch with its own roots in nature and the natural order as it has become, to see “in some of the societies upon which we look down as primitive or backward, the operation of a social-religious-complex which we should emulate upon a higher plane.”

CRITICAL COMMENTARY

It is a virtually universal assumption on the part of critics and readers, given Eliot’s profound and publicly professed conversion to a high form of Anglicanism in the late 1920s, that, in the essay, Eliot must be defending or at least proposing a theocracy for the English people based on a devotion to the teachings of Jesus Christ. Forearmed with this prejudice, no reader is capable of appreciating the nuances of Eliot’s actual presentation, whether that reader is out to defend Eliot or to attack him.

There would have been little secret that in conceptualizing what he calls a “Christian society,” Eliot would of necessity be addressing as well the spiritually deadening processes of the secularization of public life and private mores that had been taking place among the Western democracies in Europe and North America since the mid-19th century. This issue had involved Eliot’s attention more and more since at least the time of “Gerontion” in 1919. In terms of his prose criticism, his developing thoughts on the cultural crisis ushered in by modernism had culminated in the polemics of 1934’s After Strange Gods: A Primer of Modern Heresy. That latter work’s reception as a conservative and reactionary tract in certain quarters, however, had no doubt caused Eliot some private pain, enough at least for him to take the public step of forbidding any future publication of that controversial work.

Eliot’s purpose here is to emphasize that, rather than hoping to see one’s own point of view prevail, the far more important matter is the maintenance of a healthy public debate on the issues that he raises, regarding them and their resolution, as he does, as the most critical of concerns for the culture in general. Contemporary history and current affairs have certainly borne Eliot out. Were he alive today, he would see a society in which debates regarding the place of God and of issues of belief in public life and morality, and in fields as ostensibly diverse as medical ethics, public education, and biotechnology, occupy the headlines.

Having been himself bloodied for taking a consistently traditionalist stand for a social and spiritual conservatism in matters literary since the time of his 1923 essay “The Function of Criticism,” Eliot proceeds, in this present and extended essay, to make it clear that his interest is not in preserving or defending “spiritual institutions in their separated aspect.” By now he would be fully aware that even the appearance of assuming such an orthodox posture will be perceived only as being narrowly sectarian and, hence, not only divisive but a bar to encouraging that all-important ongoing discussion. Indeed, Eliot’s aim is not, and likely never has been, to proselytize or evangelize; instead, it has always been to analyze and critique what he takes to be a foundational crisis within the spiritual life of the culture and community. It is all that much more imperative, then, that he does not give the impression that he is being sectarian or, worse, a Christian apologist. Thus, Eliot does not wish to address spiritual concerns for their own sake. Rather, and from his point of view more important, his concern will be to offer his readers a “direction of religious thought which must inevitably proceed to a criticism of political and economic systems.”

Eliot is emphatic that his real topic is the contemporary political scene, not religion. This crucial distinction reflects economic and political developments taking place at the time of his writing. Since the end of World War I, two new economic and political systems had emerged on the European continent, and in terms of both their viability and their aggressive style of self-promotion they were posing serious threats to the continuing economic and political stability of Europe’s so-called Christian democracies, such as England and France. One such development had occurred in Russia. The success, in October 1917, of the Bolshevik revolution there not only brought down the socialist government that had replaced the czarist monarchy in the preceding spring but instituted a communist state that effectively outlawed organized religious institutions and most civil liberties, including the right of private ownership.

That development on the left of the political spectrum was matched by equally ominous developments on the right, however, that may have taken longer to crystallize but that were to prove no less indicative of the radical changes taking place in the age-old traditions of Christian Europe. An emphasis in those traditions on individual initiative and worth had come to form the basis of Europe’s Christian democracies. As a result, social, economic, and legislative accommodations between the nobility and commoners had been evolving over the past several centuries. Now all that appeared to be about to change. Surely the leftist, Marxist challenge to traditional models of state and economic structures was to be expected, but a far more serious challenge was emerging as well. The Marxist model had nowhere near the appeal of the alternative to the Christian democratic state that fascism would offer the more prosperous societies of Western Europe.

Fascism placed all its faith in the efficiency of a secular state founded on a hierarchy of party affiliation as opposed to religious discipline and devotions. At the top of this hierarchical state, based on a sort of ancestor worship, was a strongman who represented the ancient, pagan traditions of the tribe or nation. In the case of Italy, Benito Mussolini’s appeal to Italians was based on his associating himself with a revival of the power and glory of Imperial Rome. Adolf Hitler eventually proved even more monstrously effective in his efforts to restore to a Germany defeated in war the blood brotherhood associated with the old Teutonic knights.

While neither tampered with the institutions of organized religion, as the Soviets had not hesitated to do, neither hesitated to admit that they were effectively making a religion of the state that would compete with the church for the unquestioning devotion of its citizenry—and compete successfully. By replacing the mystery of faith with the mysteries of race and national identity, and by delivering the goods as well, the fascist ideology was remaking the face of Western Europe as dramatically as communism was remaking Eastern Europe. Without this understanding, a reader cannot possibly appreciate the stand that Eliot is about to take as he postulates the “idea of a Christian society.”

Eliot had already addressed some of these geopolitical concerns in “Coriolan” in the early 1930s in a never-completed poem sequence that compared the bread-and-circus demagogueries of ancient Rome with the only somewhat more subtle, similar tactics of the modern bureaucratic state. Now, speaking mere months after English prime minister Neville Chamberlain’s infamous appeasement, in September 1938, of Germany’s expansionist aims in Central Europe, and within six months, too, of war breaking out in Europe as a result of Germany’s invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, Eliot had an opportunity to play on his audience’s immediate rather than merely academic concerns. He would have been aware that his British audience was mindful of both the long- and short-term implications of the threat to Western democracies posed by the successful political, economic, and military advances of both Nazi Germany and Communist Russia, their competing models for a modern, secular state notwithstanding. It is important for readers to keep all of these considerations and developments in mind as they regard Eliot’s “idea of a Christian society,” for there can be no doubt that Eliot had them in mind himself. It is in considerations of this order, as his essay draws to a close, that Eliot’s aim becomes unmistakably clear. Whatever else he may be calling his fellow English to, he is calling them to a spiritual renewal that ought to recapture the traditional values that had shaped the nation to begin with. That he defines that renewal in Christian terms reflects a cultural bias far more than it does any religious one. Note, for example, his frequent emphasis not on piety and orthodoxy so much as on a consistent foundation to the nation’s moral and ethical life. In the case of the English, that foundation happens to be Christian, in Eliot’s view. Also note that he sees that foundation threatened on several fronts. At home there are the pressures of the relative prosperity that industrialization has brought about, including an increasing materialism and a removal of the population from England’s rural roots. From abroad, meanwhile, are competing political and economic systems whose appeal to secularization and social collectivity offers attractively modernsounding alternatives to religion as the lifeblood of a people.

Finally, there is the overriding threat of another world war, and the First World War from 1914 to 1918 had already found the vitality of Europe’s Christian values wanting. In their renewal, even if only among the English, Eliot hoped to find an ameliorative to the looming crisis.

In his closing paragraph, then, Eliot cites the events of September 1938 as an occurrence that had forced one to doubt “the validity of civilisation.” He is referring to the famous Munich accord, whereby the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had appeased Nazi Germany’s expansionist goals by ceding the Sudetenland, the German-speaking part of Czechoslovakia, to the Nazis. While having the short-term benefit of preventing an armed conflict, that self-serving action on the part of the British (war with Germany would break out within a year in any case, on September 1, 1939, with Germany’s invasion of Poland) would lead Eliot to ponder whether English civilization had “any beliefs more essential than a belief in compound interest and the maintenance of dividends.”

What would become known to history as World War II broke out mere days before Eliot’s essay went to press on September 6, 1939. As if to verify his fears, that awful event signaled not only the failure of civilization, as any war does, but the failure of a Christian civilization to make its principles a viable part of the lives of the nations that ostensibly adhered to its principles.

Eliot had argued throughout his essay that, without a conscious and public adherence to Christian principles in the life and practices of the state and community in England, the state and the community both are guided by nothing more than the expedient good of the profit motive in all its various guises, so that even peace among nations becomes nothing less than a means to maintaining business as usual, as the Munich Accord attested. While Eliot’s call for instituting a Christian society in England is far more long-range and ambitious in scope than those events might suggest, despite how momentous they themselves were, the conjunction of his appeal with the impending failure of those very ideals that all of Western Europe professed to be following makes his closing remarks particularly propitious and poignant.

The failure of the Western, Christian democracies, in particular England and France, to dissipate the international tensions that would eventually result in an armed conflict in any event is, if Eliot is correct, not a failure of Christianity but a failure of their leadership on all fronts—the spiritual, educational, and cultural as well as the economic and political—to behave consistently in a manner in keeping with Christian principles, not because those principles are inherently more correct or better than other religious principles but because they are the religious principles on which European civilization is founded. In that way, too, Eliot can assert convincingly that, inasmuch as Nazi Germany and Communist Russia are guided by their own respective species of post-Christian principles that describe and define their every action and policy as states, their so-called pagan societies must appear to many to represent the way of an inevitably secularized future. At the very least, in their diplomatic and public relations successes, those two modern nation states have become contending models for social, political, and economic systems that have it all over the hollow-at-the-core semblance of a Christian society that England, at the time of Eliot’s writing, had come to be.

Not even Eliot could have imagined, however, how catastrophically England would soon be learning that not even a neutral society can remain so for very long. As he would have it, a people without belief are not spared the necessity of acting any more than any other.



Categories: American Literature, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Modernism

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