TS Eliot religion and culture“Eliot’s reputation as a critic of society has been worse than his record”—so wrote Roger Kojecký at the beginning of his 1971 book, T. S. Eliot’s Social Criticism.[1] Thirty-five years later, the situation has not changed, for T. S. Eliot’s cultural criticism continues to be more maligned than studied. A speaker at a recent conference, for instance, accused Eliot, without evidence, of having “flirted with fascism” and of having proposed the establishment of a theocratic state. When the subject is discussed in a somewhat more serious way (which is rare), Eliot’s views are inevitably identified with those of the anti-Semitic French reactionary Charles Maurras.[2] There was no doubt that Maurras was a major influence on Eliot at an early period, but over time (beginning in the early 1930s) the prime influence on his cultural thought came from a wiser source, the British Catholic historian Christopher Dawson. Maurras valued the hierarchical structure and traditional authority of the Catholic Church but was himself a non-believer whose motto was “politique d’abord,” politics before all else. In 1926, Pope Pius XI placed several of his works on the Index and condemned the Action Française movement. Though Eliot at that time wrote an essay in The Criterion in support of Maurras, the latter’s influence over Eliot faded. At about the same time, Eliot came to know the work of Dawson, who increasingly became his primary mentor on cultural issues. Dawson, in stark contrast to Maurras, argued that religion is integral to culture. Following Dawson, Eliot maintained that religious consciousness should ideally permeate all the elements of cultural life. However, again following Dawson, he makes it clear that his ideal state would not be a theocracy but would involve a creative tension between church and state. Under Dawson’s influence—or perhaps we could say in collaboration with Dawson—Eliot developed a balanced, coherent, and remarkably flexible cultural theory that consistently put forward their contention concerning the necessary integration (but not identification) of civil and spiritual authorities. 

christopher dawson religion and culture

Christopher Dawson

Eliot scholars have almost universally ignored the connection with Dawson. Roger Kojecký mentions Dawson a few times in passing but does not give him an important role.[3] In fact, only one critic has previously pointed out the importance of Dawson as an influence on Eliot. Russell Kirk, in his 1971 book on Eliot, declares that “Of social thinkers in his own time, none influenced Eliot more than Dawson.”[4] 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. This paper is an attempt to begin that exploration.

Christopher Dawson was born in 1889, just a year after the birth of T. S. Eliot. His father was an Anglo-Catholic, and Dawson later converted to Roman Catholicism. He wrote some twenty books and came to be regarded as one of the leading historians of his time.[5] Yet 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 many of his books are now out of print and difficult to find. In the late 1920s, his first two books were reviewed in Eliot’s journal, The Criterion.[6] In August of 1929 Eliot wrote to Dawson asking him to contribute an essay. Dawson’s response was an article entitled “The End of an Age,” which Eliot published in 1930, and in this piece Dawson sums up many of the interpretations of history, philosophy, and culture that he shared with the editor of the journal.[7] During the 1930s, Dawson’s subsequent books were reviewed in The Criterion, and he contributed several reviews and articles.[8]

Eliot eventually wrote two books of cultural criticism, and in both of these books he explicitly acknowledged the importance of Dawson’s work to his own ideas. In his Preface to The Idea of a Christian Society (1939), Eliot acknowledges, “I owe a great deal to a number of recent books,” and the first one he names is “Mr. Christopher Dawson’s Beyond Politics”–followed by books by Middleton Murry and V. A. Demant.[9] In the Preface to Notes Toward the Definition of Culture ten years later (1949), Eliot writes, “Throughout this study, I recognise a particular debt to the writings of Canon V. A. Demant, Mr. Christopher Dawson, and the late Professor Karl Mannheim.”[10] Not surprisingly, given these acknowledgments, Eliot’s thinking in these major works of cultural criticism is indeed very close to Dawson’s. The historian has worked the ideas out more carefully and consistently than the poet, so re-examining Eliot’s pronouncements along with Dawson’s tends to clarify what the former was aiming at.

In these works, Eliot argues that culture must be grounded in religion, but he also claims that culture must be grounded in nature, and that nature and religion are intimately related. “We may say,” Eliot writes, “that religion, as distinguished from modern paganism, implies a life in conformity with nature. It may be observed that the natural life and the supernatural life have a conformity with each other which neither has with the mechanistic life . . .” (Idea, 60). By “modern paganism” he seems to mean secularism. The claim that the natural and supernatural are in conformity may seem surprising but is based on the connection of religion to physical objects and their symbolic meaning. This is the point at which Eliot’s theory of meaning and his cultural theory intersect. The “mechanistic life” of the modern world is seen by Eliot as a result of the Cartesian split and the scientific revolution, which have stripped nature of its sanctity and significance, allowing us to manipulate it without limit for our purposes. Eliot goes on to say that “ . . . a wrong attitude towards nature implies, somewhere, a wrong attitude towards God,” and adds, “ . . . it would be well for us to face the permanent conditions upon which God allows us to live upon this planet” (62).

Dawson similarly points out (in his 1949 book Religion and Culture) that “During the last century or two the world of culture has grown until it has subjugated the world of nature and pushed back the frontiers of the superhuman spiritual world beyond the boundaries of consciousness.”[11] He goes on to speak of “the attitude of the primitive farmer to the earth and the fruits of the earth. However low is the level of his culture, man cannot but recognize the existence of laws and rhythms and cycles of change in the life of nature in which his own life is involved.” These are not merely mechanical phenomena but “divine mysteries to be adored with trembling” (R&C 41). Dawson is speaking partly from his own childhood experience in Yorkshire, where “. . . religion was not simply concerned with the pious moralities which held such a prominent place in Victorian books for children, but stood close to that wonderful non-human world of the river and the mountain which I found around me.”[12] He is also influenced, as was Eliot, by his profound interest in the new field of anthropology, and he maintains that “primitive man in his weakness and ignorance is nearer to the basic realities of human existence than the self-satisfied rationalist who is confident that he has mastered the secrets of the universe” (R&C 28). The world created by this rationalist sounds remarkably like that of The Waste Land: “In so far as he is content to live within this world of his own creation—the artificially lit and hygienically conditioned City of Man—he is living precariously on a relatively superficial level of existence and consciousness, and the higher he builds his tower of civilization the more top-heavy it becomes” (R&C 28). This is Eliot’s “Unreal City,” with its “Falling towers” (CPP 43, 48).

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). Eliot thus views culture as an incarnation of religion, much as he sees symbolism as an “incarnation of meaning in fact.” He states explicitly that he means to combat the erroneous idea “that culture can be preserved, extended and developed in the absence of religion” (Notes, 28). 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). Religious tradition is experienced as a given, an objective symbolic reality integrally related to the natural world and fundamentally constitutive of (not derivative of) culture.

Both writers 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 in The Idea of a Christian Society 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 reject unequivocally such a simplification. In Beyond Politics, 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). In another passage, Eliot remarks, “. . . it must be kept in mind that even in a Christian society as well organised as we can conceive possible in this world, the limit would be that our temporal and spiritual life should be harmonised: the temporal and spiritual would never be identified” (Idea, 54-55). 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.[13]

The central claim Dawson and Eliot made, based on their wide-ranging knowledge of anthropology and history, was that every culture has a cult, some religious system that serves as an ultimate source of value and meaning. As Eliot puts it in the Choruses for the pageant play The Rock, “There is no life that is not in community, / And no community not lived in praise of God” (CPP 101). They further maintained that even in a fully secularized state there will inevitably be some sort of godless religion, such as the all-encompassing totalitarian ideologies that commanded obeisance and bloody sacrifice in Italy, Germany, and Russia in the 1930s when they were working out these ideas. If the secular ideology took a more benign form in England and America, they predicted that it would nonetheless result in the worship of Mammon and in the increasing domination of the omnicompetent state in a totalitarian democracy, attempting to create what Eliot called “systems so perfect that no one will need to be good” (Choruses from The RockCPP 106). Their belief was that a culture could not thrive without a genuine religious commitment at its center, that the eclectic intellectualized spirituality of Babbitt’s humanism would be incapable of satisfying that profound need, and that the European experiment in secularism would finally fail to produce a rich and meaningful life for its peoples. Though Dawson and Eliot insisted on the centrality of religion in culture, however, they strongly rejected theocratic solutions, envisioning instead a dynamic tension between church and state in which neither would claim complete authority. Furthermore, they had no illusions about the church, knowing it to be a human and corruptible organization, even if under divine guidance.

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1. Roger Kojecký, T. S. Eliot’s Social Criticism (London: Faber, 1971), 11.
2. Kenneth Asher, “T. S. Eliot and Charles Maurras,” ANQ 11, no. 3 (Summer, 1998): 20.
3. Kojecký, 89, 153, 164, 217.
4. Russell Kirk, Eliot and His Age: T. S. Eliot’s Moral Imagination in the Twentieth Century (1971; reprint Peru, IL: Sherwood Sugden, 1984), 300. In his book T. S. Eliot and Ideology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), Kenneth Asher makes one passing reference to Dawson, while speaking constantly of Maurras. He cites Kojecký once and Kirk not at all.
5. See Christina Scott, A Historian and His World: A Life of Christopher Dawson (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1992).
6. H. J. Massingham, Review of The Age of the Gods by Christopher Dawson, Criterion 8, no. 30 (Sept., 1928): 149-53. H. J. Massingham, Review of Progress and Religion by Christopher Dawson, Criterion 9, no. 34 (Oct., 1929): 146-50.
7. Christopher Dawson, “The End of an Age,” Criterion 9, no. 36 (April, 1930), 386-401.
8. C. Dawson, Rev. of Mediaeval Culture by Carl Vossler and New Light on the youth of Dante by Gertrude Leigh, Criterion 9, no. 37 (July, 1930): 718-22. Christopher Dawson, Rev. of Woman and Society by Meyrick Booth, Criterion 10, no. 38 (Oct., 1930):176-77. F. McEachran, Rev. of Christianity and the New Age by Christopher Dawson, Criterion 10, no. 41 (July, 1931): 750-55. Christopher Dawson, “The Origins of the Romantic Tradition,” Criterion 11, no. 43 (Jan., 1932): 222-48. C. Dawson, Rev. of The Great Amphibian by Joseph Needham, Criterion 11, no. 44 (April, 1932): 545-48. Christopher Dawson, “H. G. Wells and History,” Criterion 12, no. 46 (Oct, 1932): 9-16. F. McEachran, Rev. of The Making of Europe by Christopher Dawson, Criterion 12, no. 47 (Jan., 1933): 290-92. F. McEachren, Rev. of The Modern Dilemma by Christopher Dawson, Criterion 12, no. 48 (April, 1933):494-96. Montgomery Belgion, Rev. of Enquiries into Religion and Culture by Christopher Dawson, Criterion, 13, no. 50 (Oct. 1933): 143-46. Christopher Dawson, “Religion and the Totalitarian State,” Criterion 14, no. 54 (Oct, 1934): 1-16. C. Dawson, Rev. of Reflections on the End of an Era by Reinhold Niebuhr, Criterion 14, no. 54 (Oct., 1934). E. W. F. Tomlin, Rev. of Religion and the Modern State by Christopher Dawson, Criterion 15, no. 58 (Oct., 1935): 130-37.
9. Eliot, The Idea of a Christian Society (London: Faber, 1939), 6.
10. Eliot, Notes towards the Definition of Culture (New York: Harcourt, 1949), 9.
11. Christopher Dawson, Religion and Culture (London: Sheed and Ward, 1949), 27. Cited hereafter in the text as R&C.
12. Dawson, “Memories of a Victorian Childhood,” Appendix to Scott, A Historian and His World, 230-31.
13. Another thinker whose influence on Eliot’s social theory has not been considered adequately is Jacques Maritain, and he also warns against a theocratic solution. E. W. F. Tomlin reviews Maritain’s Freedom and the Modern World along with Dawson’s Religion and the Modern State in The Criterion (vol. 15, no. 58). Tomlin quotes Maritain as saying that it would be fatal “to substitute for the error of Liberalism an opposite error and to erect . . . a Theocratic Church in opposition to or alongside the theocracies of the Collectivist Man” (132).

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility.

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