T.S. Eliot reaches into the unsaid, perhaps even into the ultimately unsayable, in a way that makes new possibilities present for those of his own time. Eliot comes out of the great tradition, the long conversation of the West, which is now your own earned inheritance as well. What will you do with it?
Early this academic year I urged upon this class a worthy ambition to go out and bring the fruits of this education to bear upon the larger world. This is an ambition, of course, moderated and schooled especially by T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, in which so many of you participated. As Becket says after the fourth temptation in the play, the “greatest treason” is “To do the right deed for the wrong reason.” He warns precisely against ambition, which “fortifies the will of man to become ruler over other men: it operates with deception, cajolery, and violence, it is the action of impurity upon impurity.”
Ambition in this sense, of course, I would never urge upon anyone. This is the ambition of a Macbeth or Richard the Third, Machiavellian and cold, centered in the self and not in God and the common good. But consider what must have moved T.S. Eliot himself, this child of St. Louis, educated at Harvard, then so much absorbed into England that it is difficult even to remember his American origins.
What moved him but the Holy Spirit to bear witness so powerfully and effectively against the thought of his day, including the implicit belief that technological progress would solve all human difficulties? What he did took great courage, but also worthy ambition. He would not have been effective had he not already established himself through his poetry and his criticism as the major literary voice of his time. And achieving that status required both confidence in his gifts and the ambition to employ them for the restoration of a shattered culture.
When he writes, Eliot is surely aware of his standing in twentieth century culture, but he is also absolutely honest when he says, “The only wisdom we can hope to acquire / Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.” When he thinks about his own work in “East Coker,” which you read this week, he considers each of his works “a different kind of failure / Because one has only learnt to get the better of words / For the thing one no longer has to say.” Think what he means here. The poet reaches into the unsaid, perhaps even into the ultimately unsayable, in a way that makes new possibilities present for those of his own time. Dante is an unfailing resource for us, but Dante was once new, and we have to imagine the advent—the onset—of that poem among his contemporaries: this almost miraculous language, this vision of the afterlife, the recognition of a contemporary still-embodied pilgrim in the ascent to God. Think what possibilities the poem still opens, but think as well what it would be like to have that kind of momentous poetic achievement in our own time, in our own language.
The recent loss of Notre Dame has made us aware of how unlikely such a great cathedral—the work of centuries of faith and soaring imagination—would be in the Europe of today, inhabited by the “last men” of Nietzsche. Eliot surely felt a similar unlikelihood in looking at the wreckage of Western civilization after World War I, and he felt moved to do something worthy of Shakespeare or Dante, knowing very well his limitations. He acknowledges that each effort of his is “a raid on the inarticulate / With shabby equipment always deteriorating / In the general mess of imprecision of feeling.”
But I am deeply moved precisely by his humility in attempting to say what must be said. Eliot comes out of the great tradition, the long conversation of the West, which is now your own earned inheritance as well. What will you do with it? The times are not encouraging, on the whole, but there are many strong and vital movements of faith and imagination working both here and in Europe that you can help shape. I urge you to form your aspirations on the largest accomplishments, like Dante or like Notre Dame, so that those to come can step into more spacious spiritual environs than our own. It will take your own humility. As Eliot puts it,
what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate — but there is no competition —
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious.
Again, think what he means: “there is no competition.” This is a matter of friendship and communion and mutual help, not a matter of envy and pride and the dark ambition that Becket warns against.
I’ll close with one more quotation from Eliot, because—though it was written in the 1940s—it gives an acute analysis of the righteously “correct” people who seem to dominate public discourse. “For most people,” he writes, “to be able to simplify issues so as to see only the definite external enemy, is extremely exhilarating, and brings about the bright eye and the springy step that go so well with the political uniform.” The bombers in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday no doubt felt such exhilaration. But Eliot’s real advice in The Idea of a Christian Society is for the Christian believer: “This is an exhilaration that the Christian must deny himself. It comes from an artificial stimulant bound to have bad aftereffects. It causes pride, either individual or collective, and pride brings its own doom. For only in humility, charity and purity—and most of all perhaps humility—can we be prepared to receive the grace of God without which human operations are vain.”
I hope for your ambitious humility, then, and, as Faulkner puts it, “love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.” I hope, too, that this will be a blessed time of recollection and anticipation for you all. Our prayers are with you.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Portrait of a Man Writing a Letter” by Jacob Levecq (1634-1675), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.