Eliot, T.S. 1948. Christianity and Culture: The idea of a Christian society and notes towards the definition of culture. San Diego: A harvest book, Harcourt, Inc.
Based on lectures given in March 1939 at the Master and Fellows of the Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.
Eliot, a poet, notes that analyzing the meaning of words trains the mind and his primary concern is: What is the particular “idea” of culture in the society in which we live? (6) The consequences of our thoughts and not feelings. He sees this kin of society as one where no one is penalized for professing Christianity. Christian principles should be applied to ordinary situations.
The appeal of Christian sociologists has been to justice, humanity and practical reason. Eliot’s interest is concerned with a “change in our social attitude” bringing about changes in industry, commerce and financial methods so that our society would be changed and even operate with a new vocabulary. He recognizes that we are in a diminishing society that has ceased to be Christian (9).
Perhaps what we have at present “is not democracy, but financial oligarchy” (11). And if “Liberalism is contrasted with Conservatism, both can be equally repellant”, resulting in chaos and putrefaction (13). “Our choice now is not between one abstract form and another, but between a pagan, and necessarily stunted culture, and a religious, and necessarily imperfect culture” (14). “A Christian society only becomes acceptable after you have fairly examined the alternatives” (18).
The primary concern of a Christian education would be to train Christians to think in Christian categories, although “it could not compel belief and would not impose the necessity for insincere profession of belief” (22). He discusses forms of government and the arts and how Christians might interact with them. This Christian society (Community of Christians) would be “pluralistic” (34) and related to the church.
This raises the important issue of the relationship of the Church and the State. It must have a hierarchical relationship (he is thinking of the Anglican Church in England), speak for the nation, and at times be in conflict with the nation. As he notes “that a Church, once disestablished, cannot easily be re-established” and as such it will be somewhat different than the nation. (39).
“…a wrong attitude towards nature implies, somewhere, a wrong attitude towards God, and that the consequence is inevitable doom” (49).
Eliot’s thesis can be summed up as follows: “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 organization which will not, to its ultimate destruction, ignore some essential aspects of reality…. If you will not have God (and He is a jealous God) you should pay your respects to Hitler or Stalin” (50).
It should be noted that his whole book, with Preface and Notes was completed before WWII.
The last part of book one is a series of extensive notes that outline is arguments and comments with particular articles. He states that “in isolating culture from religion, politics and philosophy we seem to be left with something no more apprehensible than the scent of last year’s roses” (60).
Many of Eliot’s observations seem right up to date, for example, “…a nationalism which is overtly antagonistic to Christianity is a less dangerous menace for us than a nationalism which professes a Christianity from which all Christian content has been evacuated” (62).
“Our immediate reflection is upon the extraordinary facility with which men of the greatest eminence will lend their names to any public appeal, however obscure or ambiguous” (64).
“The Church has perpetually to answer this question” to what purpose were we born? What is the end of Man?” (77).
The second part of the book is called “Notes towards the Definition of Culture”. Some quotes:
“As things are, it is normal for anybody who advocates any social change, or any alternation of our political system, or any expansion of public education, or any development of social service, to claim confidently that it will lead to the improvement and increase of culture” (89).
“We can assert with some confidence that our own period is one of decline; that the standards of culture are lower than they were fifty years ago; and that the evidences of this decline are visible in every department of human activity.” (91).
We can even anticipate a period when it will be “possible to say that it will have no culture” (91).
Chapter VI is “Notes on Education and Culture: and Conclusion”. Eliot asserts that the purpose of education is to transmit culture (172) and to define democracy (173) but “It would be a pity if we overlooked the possibilities of education as a means of acquiring wisdom” (175). He also sees the danger of not acquiring knowledge with curiosity and lose our respect for learning.
He also examines a number of claims about education: 1) it makes people happier (it can be disastrous); 2) that everyone wants it (there may be hostility towards it); 3) should be organized for “equal opportunity” (177)—it leads to the education of too many people and the lowering of standards (178).
Education in the modern sense implies a disintegrated society, in which it has come to be assumed that there must be one measure of education according to which everyone is educated simply more or less. Hence Education has become an abstraction” (182).
Eliot observes that culture is visible through arts, a social system with habits and customs and by religion but that individuals (artists, poets, philosophers, politicians, laborers) will share and yet have a cultural perspective drawn from their class of people. One unity of the culture is that people who live together and speak the same language will have certain emotions and differences than other groups of people (198).
“The dominant force in creating a common culture between peoples each of which has its distinct culture, is religion” (199).
“I do not believe that the culture of Europe could survive the complete disappearance of the Christian faith” (200).