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Permanent Things: T. S. Eliot’s Conservatism

T.S. Eliot’s conservatism is “pre-political,” offering no simple formula for the modern polity. He reminds us that even if we could have our way in the political arena we would be unable to create a perfect society, given our own fallen nature. Such a wise mixture of hope and humility is what can keep conservatism from becoming just another ideology.

I want to thank Winston Elliott and the The Imaginative Conservative for giving me this opportunity to expatiate on a topic that has been much on my mind for many years, but which I have never addressed directly. Let me also say at the outset that I will be following the lead of Russell Kirk throughout this talk. Dr. Kirk first met T.S. Eliot in 1953 just when his blockbuster book, The Conservative Mind, was published. The two carried on a correspondence for the remaining decade or so of Eliot’s life and met several times. Eliot saw to it that his publishing house, Faber and Faber, came out with the British edition of The Conservative Mind. The subtitle of the book was From Burke to Santayana, but in the revised edition Kirk expanded his treatment of Eliot in the final chapter and substituted Eliot for Santayana in the subtitle. Some years after the poet’s death, Kirk wrote Eliot and His Age, which remains today the best introduction to Eliot’s life and writings. Kirk’s books and essays are the definitive guide to understanding Eliot’s political ideas, and this talk is deeply indebted to him.

I am not one to turn to the final chapter of a book to find out how it will end, but I think it might be helpful to consider first an essay Eliot wrote in 1955, a decade before his passing, entitled “The Literature of Politics.” It was delivered as an address to the London Conservative Union, and he begins with what I take to be a statement of sincere humility: “you are, very likely, at this moment experiencing the thrill of a crowd gathered to watch a man take a very high dive, when the rumour has been put about that he does not know how to swim.” He goes on to say, “I am merely a man of letters who believes that the questions he raises may sometimes be of interest, even if the answers he can give are negligible. And as a man of letters, I have never taken any part in politics other than that of a voter—a walking-on part, and that of a reader—a sitting-down part.” This is not merely a charming disclaimer to disarm a critical audience: Eliot had written much about political topics by that time, but from a philosophical distance. He had, for the most part, touched only in passing on the issues of the day while attempting to set out fundamental ideas that might serve beyond the moment. He names as classics of conservative literature the writings of Bolingbroke, Burke, Coleridge, and Disraeli and proceeds to note how diverse his group is. Coleridge, he says, “was rather a man of my own type, differing from myself chiefly in being immensely more learned, more industrious, and endowed with a more powerful and subtle mind.” Thus he identifies with the poet who wrote about political philosophy but never attempted to enter the arena of practical politics. He mentions an article he has recently read on American political philosophy without naming the author, but the author was Russell Kirk, who was to become somewhat more involved in the political fray than Eliot but who never held public office except that of justice of the peace in Mecosta County. Eliot speaks of one of his early political mentors, Charles Maurras, expressing regret that the Frenchman was not satisfied with writing: “I have sometimes thought that if Charles Maurras had confined himself to literature, and to the literature of political theory, and had never attempted to found a political party, a movement—engaging in, and increasing the acrimony of the political struggle . . . 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.” It is good to focus on this statement, for many contemporary critics have given Maurras too large a role in the formation of Eliot’s political thought. Eliot ends his brief talk by emphasizing again that “there should always be a few writers preoccupied in penetrating to the core of the matter, in trying to arrive at the truth and to set it forth, without too much hope, without ambition to alter the immediate course of affairs, and without being downcast or defeated when nothing appears to ensue.” He terms this realm of thought “pre-political,” naming as exemplars Christopher Dawson in England and Reinhold Niebuhr in America. Such pre-political thinkers begin, he says, with the fundamental question, “What is Man?” Let us keep in mind that throughout his career Eliot attempted to do this type of philosophical political thinking, rather than attempting to affect the immediate situation.

Now, to begin again at the beginning, Tom Eliot was raised in a family that belonged to a liberal church—they were Unitarians—yet his family held to conservative social and political principles. He seems never to have strayed from the family’s conservatism. For instance, in a letter to his mother in 1924 he writes, “I am no longer very popular with the Nation people, because my political and social views are so reactionary and ultra-conservative.” It sounds as if this is a point of agreement with his mother and a long-standing attitude of his own, one he has not tried to keep from his liberal literary colleagues.

When a student at Harvard, Eliot came under the influence of some of the leading conservative intellectuals of the time. The penultimate chapter of The Conservative Mind deals with three towering figures: Irving BabbittPaul Elmer More, and George Santayana. Two of these—Babbitt and Santayana—were professors of Eliot’s; Eliot first read More in Babbitt’s class, and he later carried on a regular correspondence with More, whose spiritual pilgrimage was, Eliot said, “more like my own, so far as I can see, than that of any human being I have known.” Thus Eliot was profoundly influenced by the three thinkers Kirk identifies as the leading conservative thinkers of the generation before Eliot’s.

Of the three, Babbitt had much the greatest effect on Eliot. In his books, he identified the Romantic era as the time when western thought went off the rails. In Rousseau and Romanticism, he blames Rousseau in particular as the one who initiated the revolution in thought that led to the modern malaise, and in Democracy and Leadership he shows what the negative effects of this revolution were for governance. Babbitt made a distinction between the humanitarian and the humanist. The humanitarian was, he said, a sentimentalist, one who felt for humanity at large and wanted to make life better for everyone. The humanitarian also subscribed to a naturalistic dogma, which held that all it takes to improve people’s lives is an improvement in their material conditions: make sure that they have good food, shelter, and so on, and they will be happy. Babbitt and More called themselves the New Humanists, and they argued that the humanitarian approach ignored the spiritual dimension of human life, which could not be satisfied by material commodities alone. Thus the utopian schemes of Rousseau’s humanitarians were destined to fail, and even to make human life worse. While the humanitarians treated the human race as a herd to be cared for, they also emphasized a relativistic individualism, and Babbitt asserted that, on the contrary, human beings must acknowledge some external authority higher than themselves if their society is to thrive. An essential part of Rousseau’s sentimental humanitarianism is his assumption that human beings are basically good and would do the right thing if left alone, while Babbitt believed that external authority was necessary to curb individual appetites. The humanitarians, he asserted, were encouraging a vulgar individualism, with no call to virtue. Eliot has the humanitarian utopian scheme in mind when he later writes in The Rock, “They constantly try to escape / From the darkness outside and within / By dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.” If the humanitarians have their way, virtue will be assumed or will be irrelevant: the systems that provide everyone with necessities will obviate any need for virtuous behavior. Babbitt’s battle against them was one Eliot carried on lifelong. He eventually parted ways with Babbitt, for he came to believe that Babbitt’s humanism, which acknowledged a vague spiritual authority but did not adhere to any religious creed, was itself inadequate as the basis of culture. But Babbitt remained the intellectual father of the conservative Eliot.

George Santayana had a slighter influence on Eliot—who did not particularly take to the great Spanish philosopher—yet the influence was not negligible either. Like Babbitt, Santayana finally held to no creed, yet he valued the Catholic tradition he had grown up with for its profound beauty. He thought that the modern utilitarian world failed the aesthetic test of a good society by producing an ugly cultural milieu. Late in life he wrote, “If one political tendency kindled my wrath, it was precisely the tendency of industrial liberalism to level down all civilizations to a single cheap and dreary pattern.” Santayana also saw a degradation of society under the tyranny of the majority, which Eliot also feared. “The philanthropists are now preparing,” he wrote, “an absolute subjection of the individual, in soul and body, to the instincts of the majority—the most cruel and unprogressive of masters; and I am not sure that the liberal maxim, ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number,’ has not lost whatever was just or generous in its intent and come to mean the greatest idleness of the largest possible population.” Thus utilitarian and naturalistic progressivism was likely to result in a great degradation of human society, as the majority learned to use its vote to serve itself. Such distrust of unrestrained democracy led Eliot to declare himself a royalist—though in the end he was to give one or two cheers for limited democracy.

After completing a degree at Harvard, Eliot spent the school year of 1910-1911 in Paris, living in a rooming house not far from the Sorbonne. In that year he became better acquainted with a French political thinker he had read in Babbitt’s course, Charles Maurras. Like Babbitt, Maurras was fighting a rear-guard action against Romanticism and revolution, arguing for a return to the traditional authorities of monarchy and Catholicism. Many years later, Eliot was echoing a statement made by Maurras when he declared himself a classicist in literature, a royalist in politics, and an Anglo-Catholic in religion. However, as we have already seen, Eliot later regretted that Maurras had not confined himself to political philosophy but had led a political movement, the Action Française, which became increasingly reactionary and anti-Semitic. It is essential to note that the Catholic Church was, for Maurras, strictly an institution that promoted cultural order. He himself was an atheist. The Vatican became increasingly concerned over Maurras’s use of Catholicism for political purposes, and Pope Pius XI finally condemned the Action Française in 1926, then placed the writings of Maurras on the Index in 1927.  The role played by Maurras in Eliot’s thought has sometimes been exaggerated and oversimplified, particularly by antagonistic critics, who find Eliot guilty of unsavory political views by virtue of his association with Maurras. Although Eliot defended Maurras after the Vatican condemnation, his influence on Eliot’s political ideas faded thereafter, to be replaced by wiser influences of thinkers whose political views were grounded in genuine religious belief.

As he distanced himself from Maurras, Eliot allied himself increasingly with a French philosopher who had initially admired Maurras but subsequently criticized him, Jacques Maritain. In his Clark Lectures of 1926, Eliot honors medieval Scholasticism as the philosophical unity that made The Divine Comedy possible, and he mentions as one prominent source of his thinking Maritain’s Réflexions sur l’intelligence. The next year, in a Commentary in his journal, The Criterion, Eliot called Maritain “the most conspicuous figure, and probably the most powerful force, in contemporary French philosophy.” In a 1928 piece in The Criterion, Eliot acknowledges that some have called the journal “an organ for a ‘Frenchified’ doctrine called neo-Thomism.” It is a criticism whose substance he does not deny, tacitly admitting that neo-Thomism, of which Maritain was the most prominent expositor, was indeed central to the philosophy of his journal. On his side, Maritain praised Eliot’s critical writing. In the 1930s the two found themselves offering similar analyses of cultural and political questions. An excellent analysis of Maritain’s political philosophy is to be found in John Hittinger’s book Liberty, Wisdom, and Grace. Hittinger shows that Maritain developed a subtly balance view of the proper relationship between church and state: “He sought to avoid two extremes which had plagued Europe: on the one hand, the practice of a form of civil intolerance which made non-Christians or non-Catholics second-class citizens; on the other hand, the behavior of those who sought to marginalize the church by isolating it from the activities of modern society.” As we will see, Eliot took a very similar stance. Maritain insists that religion not be pushed out of the public square and treated as a purely private matter, but he also insists that the church’s influence there must not be coercive but must operate through appeal to people’s consciences. He also proposed that while religious principles were eternally valid their application in the modern world would necessarily be somewhat different, and he spoke of an “analogous” application of those principles. The complete separation of church and state called for by many at the time (and by many more today) would, Maritain stated emphatically, “simply spell suicide.” The two realms needed to be distinct from one another yet engaged in a vital cooperation. All of these ideas about the relation between ecclesiastical and civil authority are to be found in Eliot’s cultural writings as well. There can be no doubt that in the late 20s and early 30s Maritain became more important to Eliot than Maurras. (But I am emphasizing this point because it will come as a surprise to most Eliot scholars, who know little of the Maritain connection. A collection of essays I am editing on Eliot and Christian tradition will contain a piece by James Matthew Wilson making this case.)

We now turn to the thinker who had the greatest influence of all on Eliot’s mature political and cultural philosophy. The central aim of Eliot’s cultural criticism is to envision the possibility of bringing the religious and civil spheres into dynamic complementarity with each other, and as he worked out his cultural theory, Eliot found support for his developing ideas in the writings of the British Catholic historian Christopher Dawson. Only one critic has previously pointed out the importance of Dawson to Eliot. You have probably guessed who it was: Russell Kirk, in his 1971 book on Eliot, declares that “Of social thinkers in his own time, none influenced Eliot more than Dawson.” Kirk does not develop this important assertion at any length, however, and later Eliot scholars have neglected to follow Kirk’s lead and explore Dawson’s work in relation to Eliot. Let us take some time to do so today.

Christopher Dawson was born in 1889, just a year after the birth of T. S. Eliot. He wrote some twenty books, and he came to be regarded as one of the leading historians of his time. In a recent book that gives an excellent overview of Dawson’s life and work, Bradley Birzer notes that Henry Luce devoted his editorial column in one issue of Life (March 16, 1959) to praising Dawson’s ideas. Luce went so far as to order copies of Dawson’s latest book for all the editors at Time. This incident gives some idea of how prominent—and even popular—the British historian had become by that time. Nevertheless, he never held an academic appointment at one of the leading universities (until, near the end of his life, he became the first Professor of Roman Catholic Studies at Harvard). And after his death in 1970, Dawson’s work sank into obscurity. By the end of the century, many of his books were out of print and difficult to find. Perhaps his neglect among academic historians accounts in part for the fact that literary scholars have not given due consideration to his influence on Eliot.

In the late 1920s, Dawson’s first two books were reviewed in Eliot’s journal, The Criterion, and in 1929 Dawson contributed an essay entitled “The End of an Age,” which expresses his concerns about the secularization of European culture since the Renaissance. During the 1930s, Dawson’s subsequent books were reviewed in The Criterion, and he contributed several reviews and articles. Eliot eventually wrote two books of cultural criticism—The Idea of a Christian Society (1939), and Notes towards the Definition of Culture nearly a decade later (1948)—and in both of these books he explicitly acknowledged the importance of Dawson’s work to his own ideas. Not surprisingly, given these acknowledgments, Eliot’s thinking in these major works of cultural criticism is indeed very close to Dawson’s. (As you might have noticed, we highly-paid scholars are adept at proving the obvious.)

The central idea of all Dawson’s writing was the integral relationship between culture and religion. He repeatedly expressed his doubt that a completely secular culture could survive. In a chapter of Religion and Culture on the priestly class in various cultures, he concludes,

It is, however, questionable whether a culture which has once possessed . . . a spiritual class or order that has been the guardian of a sacred tradition of culture can dispense with it without becoming impoverished and disorientated. This is what has actually occurred in the secularization of modern Western culture, and men have been more or less aware of it ever since the beginning of the last century. (R&C, 106)

Noting that the intellectual class has replaced the priesthood, he maintains that this substitution has been a failure:

For the intellectuals who have succeeded the priests as the guardians of the higher tradition of Western culture have been strong only in their negative work of criticism and disintegration. They have failed to provide an integrated system of principles and values which could unify modern society, and consequently they have proved unable to resist the non-moral, inhuman and irrational forces which are destroying the humanist no less than the Christian traditions of Western culture. (R&C, 106)

The relation between religion and culture is the central idea in both of Eliot’s books on the subject, too.  At the beginning of Notes towards the Definition of Culture, for instance, he says, “The first important assertion is that no culture has appeared or developed except together with a religion . . .” (13). He goes so far as to say that a culture is “essentially, the incarnation (so to speak) of the religion of a people” (Notes, 27). At the end of the book he declares, “I do not believe that the culture of Europe could survive the complete disappearance of the Christian Faith. And I am convinced of that, not merely because I am a Christian myself, but as a student of social biology. If Christianity goes, the whole of our culture goes. Then you must start painfully again, and you cannot put on a new culture ready made” (Notes, 126).

One problem both Eliot and Dawson saw with the increasingly secularized culture of Europe was a tendency to cut itself off from the past.  The progressivist dogma that arose in the Enlightenment and was strengthened by the scientific materialism of the 19th Century regards all early thought as mere superstition and nonsense.  The religious mentality, on the other hand, regards the traditions of the past as a prime source of wisdom. Dawson quotes Edumund Burke as saying that society is not an artificial construct but a spiritual community, “a partnership in all science, a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead and those who are yet to be born” (qtd. in BP, 25). Eliot uses very similar words when speaking of the central role of the family in society: “But when I speak of the family, I have in mind a bond which embraces a longer period of time than this: a piety towards the dead, however obscure, and a solicitude for the unborn, however remote” (Notes, 42). The historical sense itself tends to be lost in the shift from a traditional to a progressive idea of culture.

It is the work of the progressive historian that Eliot has in mind when he writes these lines in Four Quartets:

That the past has another pattern, and ceases to be a mere sequence—
Or even development: the latter a partial fallacy,
Encouraged by superficial notions of evolution,
Which becomes in the popular mind, a means of disowning the past.

In fact, I believe Eliot was thinking of a particular progressive historian, H.G. Wells, whose popular Outline of History was written upon evolutionary principles and declared all ancient traditions irrelevant. Towards the end of the book, Wells writes, “The old civilizations created tradition, and lived by tradition. To-day the power of tradition is destroyed. The body of our state is civilization still, but its spirit is the spirit of the nomadic world. It is the spirit of the great plains and the high seas.” Thus everything having to do with tradition is swept away by the noble, free-spirited modern nomads, riding across the prairies and sailing the high seas to free humanity from the bondage of tradition. Wells is indeed looking forward to the advent of what Eliot calls in Little Gidding “a people without history.” Wells’s heroes are precisely those who, in Eliot’s view, are “destroying our ancient edifices to make ready the ground upon which the barbarian nomads of the future will encamp in their mechanised caravans” (Notes 111). Eliot says this of Wells: “Mr. Wells has not an historical mind; he has a prodigious gift of historical imagination, which is comparable to Carlyle’s, but this is quite a different gift from the understanding of history. That requires a degree of culture, civilization and maturity which Mr. Wells does not possess.” Dawson states that Wells “does not seem to take account of the possibility that human nature itself may prove recalcitrant and that men will revolt against excessive organization, unless they can find in it some satisfaction for their spiritual needs.” The fatal flaw in the liberal, progressive view is its refusal to take into account the spiritual desires of humanity, which are drawn to religious and cultural traditions.

Both Eliot and Dawson argued that every culture will have either a traditional religion or some ideology acting as a religious substitute. Dawson maintained that when a society attempts to become secularized, as the Russian society was doing, the religious impulse will still be powerfully expressed, though in a perverted and destructive manner: “When the prophets are silent and society no longer possesses any channel of communication with the divine world, the way to the lower depths is still open and man’s frustrated spiritual powers will find their outlet in the unlimited will to power and destruction” (R&C, 83). He saw virtually the same thing happening in the Fascist states, asserting that the militaristic brutality of the Nazi state in Germany was secondary to its attempt to replace religion at the core of the culture:

. . . the essential characteristic of National Socialism is to be found rather in its attempt to create an ideology which will be the soul of the new State and which will co-ordinate the new resources of propaganda and mass suggestion in the interest of the national community. This is the most deliberate attempt that has been made since the French Revolution to fill the vacuum which has been created by the disappearance of the religious background of European culture and the secularization of social life by nineteenth century liberalism. It is a new form of natural religion, not the rationalized natural religion of the eighteenth century, but a mystical neo-paganism which worships the forces of nature and life and the spirit of the race . . . . (BP, 81)

Eliot makes the point dramatically soon after: “If you will not have God, and he is a jealous God, you should pay your respects to Hitler or Stalin” (Idea, 63).

Now, it begins to sound as if Eliot and Dawson favored some sort of medieval theocratic government, but both (along with Maritain) reject unequivocally such a simplification. Dawson declares, “ . . . it is to-day impossible to return to the undifferentiated unity of mediaeval culture” (BP, 20). In almost identical words, Eliot acknowledges that the Christian Society he envisions “can neither be mediaeval in form, nor be modelled on the seventeenth century or any previous age” (Idea, 25). Dawson insists that religion must be at the heart of a healthy culture, but he warns against a total identification of religion and culture:

On the other hand, the identification of religion with the particular cultural synthesis which has been achieved at a definite time and space by the action of historical forces is fatal to the universal character of religious truth. It is indeed a kind of idolatry—the substitution of an image made by man for the eternal transcendent reality. If this identification is carried to its extreme conclusion, the marriage of religion and culture is equally fatal to either partner. (R&C, 206)

Eliot states this truth similarly: “We know from our reading of history, that a certain tension between Church and State is desirable. When Church and State fall out completely, it is ill with the commonwealth; and when Church and State get on too well together, there is something wrong with the Church” (Idea, 91). Thus Dawson and Eliot opposed simplistic solutions to the Church-State tension, regardless of which side proposed them: they would accept neither the radical secularization of the political sphere advocated by secular liberalism nor the theocratic state proposed by some over-zealous religious leaders.

Still, Dawson’s emphasis on the Church’s role in “corporate” (i.e. communal) activities as well as individual ones contradicts a secularist notion that was already frequently asserted in his time—that religion is a purely private matter and should not intrude in the public sphere.  This simple-minded solution to the tension between Church and State is firmly rejected by both Dawson and Eliot. The former states (in his typically lively style), “ . . . to treat religion as a purely individual and personal matter is to deprive it of actuality and to degrade it to a lower level of value and potency. To keep religion out of public life is to shut it up in a stuffy Victorian back drawing-room with the aspidistras and the antimacassars, when the streets are full of life and youth” (BP, 104). A few pages later Dawson asserts, “It is no longer possible for religion to confine itself to the inner world of the individual conscience and private religious experience, any more than it is possible for the State to confine itself to its functions as the guardian of public order” (BP, 114). Eliot expresses himself on the subject in nearly identical terms:

The Liberal notion that religion was a matter of private belief and of conduct in private life, and that there is no reason why Christians should not be able to accommodate themselves to any world which treats them good-naturedly, is becoming less and less tenable. . . The problem of leading a Christian life in a non-Christian society is now very present to us. . . . It is the problem constituted by our implication in a network of institutions from which we cannot dissociate ourselves: institutions the operation of which appears no longer neutral, but non-Christian. And for the Christian who is not conscious of his dilemma—and he is in the majority—he is becoming more and more de-Christianised by all sorts of unconscious pressure: paganism holds all the most valuable advertising space. . . . in the modern world, it may turn out that the most intolerable thing for Christians is to be tolerated. (Idea, 21-23)

The healthy Christian society must not be a theocratic state, but it must express its Christian principles publicly and legally. Today, of course, liberal politicians are trying harder than ever to push religion out of the public space—or to force it into submission to the pagan gods of the omnipotent secular state, who demand orgiastic rituals and human sacrifice.

As Eliot (in collaboration with Dawson, Maritain, and others) was working out this traditionalist religious conservative philosophy in the 20s and 30s, all eyes were turned toward the continent, where experiments in communism, Nazism, and fascism were being carried out. There was a widespread sense that the free-market economic system and the democratic political system had failed and would have to be replaced by some form of central planning and some strong personal leadership. Among left-leaning Eliot scholars (who are of course in the majority), there has prevailed a vague suspicion that Eliot, like his friend Ezra Pound, was sympathetic to fascism. Some years ago I chaired a panel at a conference, and one of the speakers mentioned in passing that Eliot had “flirted with fascism.” This comment had nothing to do with the purpose of his paper and was not supported by any evidence—nor could he provide any when I asked him about it later. This is simply something one hears in the hallowed halls of the academy, and the charge is vague enough that it does not commit the speaker to provide evidence. Whenever we hear anyone say that Eliot “flirted with fascism,” we may be sure the speaker does not know anything about it. Two books clarified Eliot’s views on the subject some four decades ago: T. S. Eliot’s Social Criticism, by Roger Kojecky and Kirk’s Eliot and His Age. Neither found that Eliot had flirted with fascism. After reading carefully all of Eliot’s Criterion essays and commentaries, and after corresponding with Eliot on political topics—as well as discussing them with him on several occasions in person—Kirk concluded that “From the first, he was a consistent and intelligent opponent of both Fascist and Communist ideologies: and somewhat to his own surprise, perhaps, on occasions he found himself defending the constitutional democracies of Britain and the United States.” More recently, in his fine book on the Criterion, Jason Harding points out that Eliot attempted to address political ideas in the journal without taking sides in the immediate political issues of the day, and that this policy meant including essays by pro-fascist and pro-communist writers. It is this attempt at disinterested discussion, Harding suggests, that opened Eliot to irresponsible charges of being some sort of proto-fascist.  After analyzing Eliot’s 1928 article “The Literature of Fascism,” Harding concludes that “the article amounted to an indictment of totalitarian government.” We also have Michael North’s 1991 book on The Political Aesthetics of Yeats, Eliot, and Pound, in which he states that “Eliot and Yeats were in some ways too conservative to become fascists.” North is a leftist scholar, but he sees that conservatism is not sympathetic to totalitarian governments.

A book published last year by Leon Surette, Dreams of Totalitarian Utopia, addresses the issue directly and at length. Surette compares Eliot’s political ideas with those of his friends Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis. The three met each other at the outset of the Great War; though Lewis and Pound later fell out, Eliot maintained life-long friendships with both of them, in spite of Pound’s mad allegiance to Mussolini and Lewis’s crankiness. Lewis adhered to communism for a time, then Nazism, before finally coming to his senses. Unlike his two friends, Surette tells us, Eliot not only had a negative critique of free-markets and democracy but a positive set of beliefs—in conservatism, Anglicanism, and royalism—which “protected Eliot from the sorts of political blunders into which Lewis and Pound fell.” After giving an extensive and rich description of Eliot’s political views, Surette concludes that “Eliot never flirted with fascism or nazism.” With a bit of luck, this will settle the matter once and for all. (However, Surette himself at times suggests that Eliot was soft on fascism, as I point out in my review of his book—copies of which are available here.)

In the end, Eliot was less concerned with contradicting the obvious evils of totalitarian rule than with counteracting the less obvious problems of English and American culture. “The fundamental objection to fascist doctrine,” he writes, “the one which we conceal from ourselves because it might condemn ourselves as well, is that it is pagan.” He goes on to say that our criticism of Germany “helps to disguise the fact that our aims, like Germany’s, are materialistic.”

In one of his most famous pronouncements Eliot says, “Conservatism is too often conservation of the wrong things: liberalism a relaxation of discipline; revolution a denial of the permanent things.” It is important to note that he did not automatically put his faith in whatever sort of conservatism was on offer. He says, “In the sense in which Liberalism is contrasted with Conservatism, both can be equally repellent: if the former can mean chaos, the latter can mean petrifaction.” In one of his Commentaries, he notes humorously that “The Conservative Party has a great opportunity in the fact that within the memory of no living man under sixty, has it acknowledged any contact with intelligence. It has, what no other political party at present enjoys, a complete mental vacuum: a vacancy that might be filled with anything, even with something valuable.” What he wants to nurture is “not a programme for a party, but a way of life for a people.”

Still, Eliot was primarily contending against liberalism and its secularist, rationalist, and centralist assumptions. “[O]ne thing to avoid, he writes, “is a universalised planning; one thing to ascertain is the limits of the plannable.” He saw that “Liberalism can prepare the way for that which is its own negation: the artificial, mechanised or brutalised control which is a desperate remedy for its chaos.” It is liberal attacks on tradition in the educational system that are “destroying our ancient edifices to make ready the ground upon which the barbarian nomads of the future will encamp in their mechanised caravans”—an image that prefigures the Mad Max movies.

Eliot’s declaration that he was a royalist arose less from a belief that Britain should go back to a strong medieval monarchy than from a distrust of unrestricted democracy. He feared what he and Dawson called “totalitarian democracy,” by which they meant essentially mob rule created by the conglomeration of rootless and ill-educated people in big industrial cities. Eliot thought that “the tendency of unlimited industrialism is to create bodies of men and women—of all classes—detached from tradition, alienated from religion, and susceptible to mass suggestion: in other words, a mob. And a mob will be no less a mob if it is well fed, well clothed, well housed, and well disciplined.” People in England and America in the 30s prided themselves on living in a democracy, in contrast to the totalitarian states, but Eliot responded, “The term ‘democracy’, as I have said again and again, does not contain enough positive content to stand alone against the forces that you dislike—it can easily be transformed by them. If you will not have God (and He is a jealous God) you should pay your respects to Hitler or Stalin.” Only a genuine culture with religious foundations has the positive beliefs that can resist the forces of evil. Nevertheless, Eliot occasionally speaks well of democracy (or at least of limited democracy), saying in 1928 that he cannot “share enthusiastically in this vigorous repudiation of ‘democracy’” that he was hearing voiced on all sides.

There are many issues I have not addressed. Eliot thought the family was the primary and indispensable unit of a healthy society. He also favored small communities in close contact with the land (though a life-long city dweller himself). He was concerned about what we now call the environment and thought “it would be well for us to face the permanent conditions upon which God allows us to live upon this planet.” He thought hereditary classes more reliable than modern intellectual, fiscal, and political elites. He doubted that we could solve our cultural and political problems without solving our educational ones.

Eliot’s conservatism is indeed “pre-political,” offering no simple formula for the modern polity. According to him, we need tradition, but we must not seek a simple return to the past. Sometimes innovation is needed, and some things should not be preserved. He distrusts central planning, but he is also critical of an unrestrained quest for wealth. He thought regional diversity should be maintained but that, at the same time, a greater sense of the wider European Christian cultural tradition should be nurtured. Eliot believed that all theological heresies emphasized one side of the truth to the expense of the other, and he takes the same attitude toward political truths. The keynote of his political philosophy, clearly, is the need for Christian engagement in public life. “However bigoted the announcement may sound,” he proclaims forthrightly, “the Christian can be satisfied with nothing less than a Christian organisation of society.” But he adds immediately that this “is not the same thing as a society consisting exclusively of devout Christians.” He rejected vehemently the insidious and destructive idea that religion is a purely private matter.

Though Eliot was not very hopeful that what he envisioned could be accomplished, he also never despaired. He writes, “If we take the widest and wisest view of a Cause, there is no such thing as a Lost Cause because there is no such thing as a Gained Cause. We fight for lost causes because we know that our defeat and dismay may be the preface to our successors’ victory, though that victory itself will be temporary; we fight rather to keep something alive than in the expectation that anything will triumph.” Eliot also reminds us that even if we could have our way in the political arena we would be unable to create a perfect society, given our own fallen nature: “It is very easy for speculation on a possible Christian order in the future to tend to come to rest in a kind of apocalyptic vision of a golden age of virtue. But we have to remember that the Kingdom of Christ on earth will never be realised, and also that it is always being realised; we must remember that whatever reform or revolution we carry out, the result will always be a sordid travesty of what human society should be—though the world is never left wholly without glory.” Such a wise mixture of hope and humility is what can keep conservatism from becoming just another ideology.

This essay was first published here in June 2012.

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