First presented on April 19, 1955, as a lecture at a literary luncheon organized by the London Conservative Union, The Literature of Politics was later collected in Eliot’s last collection of prose, To Criticize the Critic, which was published posthumously by Faber & Faber in 1965.
Eliot’s title suggests that he will devote the weight of his expertise to a topic that had fairly monopolized public interest as a matter of serious concern for virtually all of the 20th century and that continues to show no signs of abating in the 21st. While it may seem that a poet who had written so widely and for so long on the topics of poetry and belief and of poetry and philosophy, not to mention of society and culture in general, would have an abiding interest in political issues as well, as much is simply not the case. This is not to say that Eliot would not have had the same interest in politics as any reasonably well-informed and responsible citizen of one of the Western democracies. However, political writing, either his own or by others, was not his forte, nor did he ever make any attempt to claim that it was, including in this lecture on that very topic.
Indeed, it seems that Eliot was the guest lecturer largely because of the literary associations that his name could conjure, above all his considerable celebrity, as well as for his decades-old credentials as a major conservative thinker. At the very least, in his opening remarks, Eliot does nothing to dispel that distinct impression, thereby confirming it. “I am merely a man of letters,” he confesses, one who has “never taken any part in politics other than that of a voter . . . and that of a reader.” Furthermore, in an apparent deference to his audience’s interest, he very quickly, and none too subtly, changes his topic from the literature of politics in general to the “literature of Conservatism,” an entirely different but hardly unrelated topic.
As much established, he appeals to the bibliography to be found in Lord Hugh Cecil’s 1912 volume Conservatism to identify England’s most prominent conservative writers, among whom Cecil places the 17th-century philosopher Henry St. John Bolingbroke, the 18th-century political philosopher Edmund Burke, the romantic-era poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and the 19th-century politician and erstwhile novelist Benjamin Disraeli. Only Coleridge, Eliot notes, is a writer of his own ilk, that is, a poet, whereas the other three developed their political philosophies from varying degrees of practical experience. Using Lord Cecil’s list as a benchmark, then, Eliot proposes that it is unlikely that common principles can be found that might link the four as exemplars of skills that may be necessary to produce a “literature of politics.”
Rather, Eliot suggests that if the four offer a range of degrees of skill and experience between the literary and the political intellect, it would itself suggest that such a literature can emerge as much from men of action as from men of thought and reflection, and that insight enables Eliot to formulate his central thesis: If by virtue of its literary heroes, English conservatism can be said to have set a single, common standard for itself through the centuries, then that standard requires that it foster a spirit of practical flexibility that is itself imbued with a consistent body of principles. In this regard, Eliot reiterates a point that he had stressed more forcefully and at greater length in his 1948 prose treatise, Notes towards the Definition of Culture, and that is to plead for a harmonious interaction in affairs of state between the so-called intelligentsia, or the clerisy—men of the mind, as Coleridge called them—and those men of action who are more commonly thought to be at home in the political arena. Eliot envisions “dangers for society” when those opposing but complementary functions become too divided and compartmentalized to the point that “men of one profession can no longer understand the mind and temperament of men of another.”
The long history of the literature of English conservatism powerfully suggests that that need not be the case, so that men of one cast of mind, the writers, can codify the behavior of men of another, those so-called men of action. “To know what to surrender, and what to hold firm,” Eliot writes, “and indeed to recognize the situation of critical choice when it arises, is an art requiring . . . resources of experience, wisdom and insight.” That is what the political writer can bring to the table in the midst of deliberations that often leave too little time for proper reflection before action must ensue. So, then, there must be “no complete separation of function between men of thought and men of action,” but the writer may often be swallowed up in such a maelstrom of short-term decisions and solutions. That there should be no complete separation between one function and the other does not mean that the writer, the man of thought, should not be wary of erasing the distinction himself in his own life and work.
Eliot holds up the example of the archconservative French political thinker and activist Charles Maurras (1868–1952), a major voice for the reactionary monarchist principles of the Catholic Action Français. During his own youthful sojourn in France in 1910–11, Eliot had been attracted to the militantly traditionalist biases of the Action française movement, and some believe that his eventual move to classicism, royalism, and Catholicism found its roots there, although a fertile soil was also required to begin with. These many years later, Eliot holds Maurras up as an example of what a writer ought not to do in the political sphere. If, Eliot muses, Maurras had “confined himself to literature, and to the literature of political theory, and had never attempted to found a political party, a movement . . . then those of his ideas which were sound and strong might have spread more widely, and penetrated more deeply, and affected more sensibly the contemporary mind.”
Eliot ends by proposing an entirely different tack for the writer when it comes to politics. Borrowing a term from an Oxford theology professor, Eliot refers to what he calls the “pre-political area.” It is the domain where the questions and issues are not practical but ethical, even theological, Eliot asserts, and that domain, he concludes, is the proper domain for the literature of politics. There the thinking and the writing can be focused, in Eliot’s view, on the most authentic political considerations: “What is Man? What are his limitations? What is his misery and what his greatness? and What, finally, his destiny?” That sounds much more like the poet of the Four Quartets, however, than the conservative spokesperson, and that may very well be his point: that ultimately the literature of politics is poetry.