Jesus saved a hurting T.S. Eliot. And Eliot, the greatest poet of the twentieth century, thought Jesus could save us as well. A person can hate the conclusion, but if English is your mother tongue, then you cannot ignore Eliot or his ideas. He shaped the twentieth-century imagination through his poetry and use of language.
To ignore Eliot’s religion is to misunderstand his poetry and to misunderstand his poetry is to misunderstand our own minds. He wanted to turn our minds and our imaginations Godward. As part of a Christian artistic renaissance in Britain, Eliot can be misunderstood. His faith is not so much like that of his equally famous contemporaries, the Inklings. T.S. Eliot and C.S. Lewis, for example, were very different in terms of literary taste and how they expressed their Faith.
During a discussion session on the text of Four Quartets, I realized what may be an overlooked influence on Eliot’s religious work: the philosophy and arguments of classical scholar A.E. Taylor.
While Eliot may not directly quote Taylor, the poet assumes a picture of the development of classical philosophy championed by the philosopher. Taylor had also described the work of the poet in a famous series of lectures and that “job description” resonates with the meaning and methods in Eliot’s Four Quartets. Taylor was an apologist, scholar, and Christian: Though he is not now on best seller lists like Lewis and Tolkien, his methods and style may live on in T.S. Eliot.
We know from the start of The Four Quartets that Eliot has the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus in mind. The first quartet begins:
τοῦ λόγου δὲ ἐόντος ξυνοῦ ζώουσιν οἱ πολλοί ὡς ἰδίαν ἔχοντες φρόνησιν [ I. p. 77. Fr. 2. ]
ὁδὸς ἄνω κάτω μία καὶ ὡυτή [ I. p. 89. Fr. 60. ]
Diels: Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker (Herakleitos).
(Roughly: “Though reason is common, the masses think they have knowledge of their own,” and “The Way Up is the Way Down”)
While Eliot wrote this set of poems after he became a Christian, the use of the pre-Socratic pagan philosopher Heraclitus to open the poem appears to many scholars to weaken the importance of Christianity to the poems.
“Yes,” one might say, “there is much Christian imagery, but look at this classical paganism.” Does this point to more of a syncretistic view of reality than a deeply Christian one?
Nothing could be further from the truth.
From a Christian perspective: As the prophets were to Jewish people, pointing the way to Jesus, so certain philosophers were pointing the Greeks toward Christ. Saint Paul uses this approach in discussion with Greek philosophers in Acts 17. He invokes pagan poets and philosophical ideas to make the idea of Jesus palatable.
It worked for the Apostle and goes on working. A.E. Taylor showed that there was life in Paul’s strategy in pre-World War II Britain. His Gifford lectures were a brilliant defense of religion against skepticism to the educated public, and were given while Taylor maintained a world-class academic career. In 1928, A.E. Taylor published his seminal Commentary on Plato’s Timaeus. This book is a rarity: invaluable in giving insights to this particular work while also advancing a novel interpretation of the text.
While his scholarship has never been surpassed on sources for the Platonic dialog, Taylor’s central thesis has not persuaded many other scholars. He wished Plato’s Socrates to be the historical Socrates (valuable), but this led Taylor to describe many ideas in Timaeus as pre-Socratic and not Platonic. The key is not whether Taylor is right about this particular idea regarding Plato’s Timaeus, but the major influence that Taylor (and those like him) had on any Christian (or even non-Christian) reading about Plato in the period between World War I and II.
Recall that American and English education of the period, certainly the sort T.S. Eliot received, had a heavy dose of classics. Plato was taught generally and not just to philosophy majors or classics students. A book on Plato was of general interest to the educated public. This was particularly true of ideas regarding certain Platonic pivotal dialogues such as Republic and Timaeus.
Plato’s dialog Timaeus has a special status in the West. Timaeus was the one Platonic dialog that survived the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. For much of Western history, this dialog, a theory of everything, was Plato. An educated person needs Timaeus to make sense of the development of science in Western Europe or Dante’s poetry.
As a result of the educational system of his time, when A.E. Taylor wrote a general book on Plato such as Plato: the Man and His Work in 1927, he could expect a large readership. In fact, the book is still in print as an introduction to Plato. The text includes a very large section summarizing Taylor’s view’s on Timaeus as an important document, not so much for Plato’s views as those of Socrates and his contemporaries.
A.E. Taylor argued Timaeus was a pre-Socratic philosophy of science, a pre-Socratic cosmology, and not the mature views of Plato himself.
For Taylor, the Timaeus conflates ideas from Heraclitus and Empedocles to answer Parmenides, but does so using an earlier science than what Plato would have asserted. We could know pre-Socratic science through Timaeus. The result of this idea was to elevate the accessibility of pre-Socratic philosophy, otherwise only available in fragments.
This elevation of pre-Socratic thought is evident in the work T.S. Eliot, particularly The Four Quartets.
Taylor’s approach to world religions also explains what T.S. Eliot may doing in Four Quartets. Like many scholars of his generation in the British Empire, A.E. Taylor had come into contact with numerous world religions and the brilliant civilizations they produced. This produced an apologetic problem for those who thought Christianity was the truth.
Taylor was asked to give the Gifford lectures at the University of Saint Andrews and the result: His two volumes called Faith of a Moralist was widely circulated by the early 1930s. Amongst other things, Taylor proposes a solution to the “problem” of other great religions that is neither fundamentalist nor leftist. He does not abandon the creeds or history, but he does contextualize them.
Religion has a role in human life comparable to science or the arts.
For A.E. Taylor, “religion arises directly from, and is the creature’s response to, the dim and vague, but intensely vivid, perception of the presence of the uncreated and adorable. The characteristic attitude of the religious soul is that of worship, and worship sprints form assurance that the uncreated and complete good is no mere Sollen, but is given as intimately present here and now, as the overpowering reality.”
Of religions other than Christianity: “Either we must deny that religion has any relation but one of accidental conjunction with moral practice, or, if the facts of life and history are too strong for us, we must, as it seems to me, frankly admit, for all the great religions which have really elevated humanity, the presence of a genuine element of direct self-disclosure of the divine, and so of ‘revelation’, immediately given knowledge of God.”
Any Christian influenced by Taylor’s approach would have no difficulty seeing religious truth in Hindu or Islamic religion and using it.
Another key to Taylor’s thought is that he did not draw a hard distinction between the thought of Plato and Aristotle. Instead, Aristotle was a faithful pupil of his master. Like many Medieval philosophers, Taylor saw more in common between the two greatest Greek philosophers and so could use their ideas (almost) interchangeably. Where there were differences, Aristotle was commenting within the Platonic camp, giving friendly commentary or improvement.
For Taylor, all religions and the best Greek philosophy (pre-Socratic, but mostly Plato and his disciple Aristotle) culminated in looking Godward. The incarnation of God (Jesus) is the best account, but even later religions that turned humankind Godward had great value. As a Christian reading Plato, Taylor did not see a “pagan” thinker such as Plato as separate from Christianity, but as doing the same essential task as Christianity (even if less clearly).
Taylor never hesitated to draw the Jewish and Christian parallels he saw in Timaeus. His history of philosophy led from paganism to Christianity. What did Christians contribute? The Creator God became fully man in the Incarnation.
No Greek imagined this possibility.
The missionary religion will “truly naturalize” itself elsewhere without “denationalizing” the converts. If Christianity is true, then it must show the power “to produce Indian or Chinese Christianity who should be not, as too many ‘converts’ have been, inferior imitations of Europeans, but at once Christians, and Indian or Chinese, as the case may be, ‘in their bones.’”
This Taylor vision of the history of philosophy and ideas about religion permeates The Four Quartets.
The pre-Socratic and even Hindu sources are not a sign of Eliot having ideas apart from his Christian faith, but of incarnating his experiences of being a modern man. Eliot is laying out the sources of his Christian philosophy: India, pre-Socratic philosophy, Plato, and Aristotle. This culminates in the Annunciation (the start of Christian history).
Eliot does so in a way that will allow the modern Christian convert—Eliot himself—to be at once Christian and modern without being an inferior imitation of earlier Christians.
What is achieved? Eliot is helping shift our gaze from the changing to the unchanging (Heraclitus, Parmenides) and away from the Spenserian Darwinism (Empedocles) of our time. I think Taylor in the Gifford lecture gives a good description of this early twentieth century Christian religious project, “A religion is true religion just in so far as it achieves the purpose, on which we dearly so long in our former series, of thoroughly remolding the self, so as make God, the supernatural good, and eternity the very centre of a man’s thought and will.”
The great poet gives us, in his mix of sources in Four Quartets, the incarnation of this idea. Taylor had described the work of the poet this way:
What is real in the real of color is what is given, but it is not given to all in the same measure and with the same immediacy. We may say the same thing of the vision of human life which inspires the great poet. He does not embroider the reality of life with trappings of pure illusion, or if he does so, he is falling below the level of his own genius. What he sees is there to be seen, though the rest of us must go to school to him, if we are to learn to see it; this is why poetry could be called a ‘criticism of life.’
This the work of the Four Quartets. Even one section of the poem shows this is true. Eliot takes the great pre-Socratic philosophers, Platonism, Indian thought, and Christianity, his religious experience (in Taylor’s term) and fixes them in a poem that can show non-poets what he has seen. He is our teacher.
“The Dry Salvages” (a mere piece of the whole) does all this work. It contains ideas from Heraclitus, Parmenides, Plato, and Indian religion. Christian themes are not foreign or unexpected as a result of this mix, but arise naturally given the history of philosophy as understood by mainstream scholars like Taylor.
If a classically trained, Christian convert like Eliot wanted to send a message to his time, then Taylor had the ideas Eliot needed. T.S. Eliot acts as a school master presenting to us a criticism of human life. The tools he uses are just the sort of elevated religion and classical philosophy that Taylor uses in philosophy and advocates in his Gifford lectures.
Note the use of the pre-Socratic philosophers by Eliot: Empedocles, Heraclitus, Parmenides.
Empedocles starts his book On Nature saying: “Men beyond in their span, but a little part of life, then swift to die are carried off and fly away like smoke, persuaded on one thing only, that which each has chanced on as they are driven every way; who, then boasts that he has found the whole?”
Compare to Eliot:
That the past experience revived in the meaning
Is not the experience of one life only
But of many generations—not forgetting
Something that is probably quite infeffable…
Empedocles thought the world was formed through and endless cycle of “love” and “strife.” As a pre-Socratic, Empedocles is also a father of evolutionary accounts in nature. This is what A.E. Taylor called Spencerianism (to separate it from scientific ideas of evolution). The poetic beauty of Empedocles is lost to mechanistic views. Eliot summarizes this effect beautifully:
It seems, as one becomes older,
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.
Heraclitus was a philosopher of change within the bounds of the Divine Logos. Eliot begins the first Quartet with Heraclitus, but he permeates The Dry Salvages too. Eliot directly quotes him in line 129: “And the way up is the way down, the way forward is the way back.”
Heraclitus said that one can never step in the same river twice because the river’s water is always flowing. This is interesting since he can also say “the river!” Heraclitus can point to change in one thing. His philosophy postulates constant change within a framework, the Divine Logos, that is unchanging. Heraclitus of Ephesus in his use of “Logos” as the beginning or frame of the cosmos uses language that the evangelist John will echo in his Gospel adding the incarnation.
Where is the end of them, the fishermen sailing
Into the wind’s tail, where the fog cowers?
We cannot think of a time that is oceanless
Or of an ocean nothing littered with wastage
Or of a future that is not liable like the past, to have no destination.
We have to think of them as forever bailing,
Setting and hauling, while the North East lowers
Over shallow banks unchanging and erosionless
Or drawing their money, drying sails at dockage
Not as making a trip that will be unpayable
For a haul that will not bear examination.
There is no end of it, the voiceless wailing,
No end to the withering of withered flowers,
To the movement of pain that is painless and motionless,
To the drift of the sea and the drifting wreckage,
The bone’s prayer to death its God.
Only the hardly, barely prayable prayer of the one annunciation.
The philosophy of Parmenides used paradox to postulate that contrary to Heraclitus all reality was unmoving: Change was impossible. Reality appears to change, but this is an illusion. The cosmos is a great sphere, undifferentiated and without parts. Perhaps this explains these lines in Eliot:
You can receive this: ‘On whatever sphere of being
The mind of a man may be intent
At the time of death’—that is the one action
(And the time of death is every moment)
Which shall fructify in the lives of others:
And do not think of the fruit of action.
How can one respond to Parmenides’ puzzles?
Plato would push the eternal to the world of ideas and allow change in the world between Being and not-being: a shadow realm. Time exists in the shadows, but there is no time in the Eternal where all is now.
Plato and Aristotle both faced the difficulty of bringing these two worlds together. Plato never solved the cave dilemma he creates at the start of Republic VII: How can we educate our souls to escape this shadow world and see reality?
Plato cheats, simply assuming someone could escape.
Aristotle kept God distant, thinking about thought itself.
Christianity bound the Eternal Now to the moving finger of time in the Incarnation.
This story of incarnation is expressed in the Four Quartets. The dilemma of pre-Socratic philosophy, change and permanence, found an answer in Plato and Aristotle, but man was left outside of pure Being. God was, He was there, but silent.
The Annunciation was the great moment when all was revealed. Here Eliot’s Lady saves us as we all sail on this perilous sea:
Men’s curiosity searches past and future
And clings to that dimension. But to apprehend
The point of intersection of the timeless
With time, is an occupation for the saint—
No occupation either, but something given
And taken, in a lifetime’s death in love,
Ardour and selflessness and self-surrender.
For most of us, there is only the unattended moment, the moment in and out of time,
The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,
The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply
That is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts.
These are only hints and guesses,
Hints followed by guesses; and the rest
Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.
Eliot is pointing us godward as Taylor suggests true religion must. He uses non-Christian, Greek, and modern ideas to become a modern Christian.
For someone of Eliot’s generation, the history of philosophy told by men like Taylor was an alternative to the H.G. Wells or Bertrand Russell accounts that are now the only ones we recollect from the era. These men secularized the story of philosophy, showing it as one away from God. A.E. Taylor was not only a mainstream scholar, but a giant figure in Plato scholarship who disagreed. Eliot must have been delighted to find someone contra-Russell.
But did Eliot know Taylor? Not only did he know Taylor, he admired and followed his work. In 1926 Eliot asked Taylor to publish in the New Criteria. Eliot says he, “has for many years been interested in [his] work.” Eliot is only interested in publishing serious work from the best minds and Taylor is in that camp!
The Dry Salvages shows Eliot moving to Jesus on the old road from India, to pre-Socratic philosophy, to Plato, and then to Jesus by way of Paul. If the reader follows Eliot’s text, he will end his journey with Jesus as well.
Republished with gracious permission from The Saint Constantine School (2017).
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 I am thankful to Dr. Tim Bartel for leading the college seminar at the College at The Saint Constantine School that inspired this thought.
 Taylor has influenced my entire career. Letters from Taylor to a father regarding the need for a classical education for his son hang on the wall of my office at The Saint Constantine School.
 His Does God Exist? is one of the best books of Christian apologetics nobody reads.
 My own translation with fond memories of the late Alfred Geier, father of my Logos.
 Here is an example.
 In my book When Athens Met Jerusalem, I explain in more depth why certain of the pre-Socratics were used by the early Christians as pagan forerunners to Jesus. One can look here for explanation and substantiation of my views regarding the pre-Socratic philosophers.
 I argue against this idea in my book on Plato’s psychology and Timaeus.
 The Faith of a Moralist (series II) was Taylor’s Gifford Lectures delivered in the University of Saint Andrews, 1926-1928, p. 67.
 Plato’s great student Aristotle is not opposed to Platonism as many think according to Taylor who saw a straight line form Plato and Aristotle to Christian theology.
 This is not my own view of the relationship between Plato and the Faith. For this see When Athens Met Jerusalem.
 Moralist, p. 97.
 Moralist, p. 81.
 Kirk, Raven, Schofield The Presocratic Philosophers (Cambridge, 1983), p. 285.
 Taylor claims (Commentary, p. 619) that Timaeus is “an attempt to graft Empedocles on Pythagoras.”
 Russell was a predator and his victims included Mrs. Eliot.
The featured image is a photograph of T.S. Eliot (1923) taken by Lady Ottoline Morrell (1873–1938) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.