Scruton on Modernity, Tradition and the Paradox of T.S. Eliot
For any early 20th century Western conservative, after the fall of the ancien regime in 1918, and the breakthrough of the modernist paradigm in politics, society and culture, to reconcile modernity and tradition was a probing task. Apparently, they were “duelling poles”[i]: to preserve tradition you seemed to need to fight modernity; while to keep on with the modernist project, you seemed to need to give up tradition. At least that was the obvious understanding of their relationship.
Yet there were some, who did not want to concede that the two things cannot be reconciled. Scruton’s poet-hero, T.S. Eliot was one of them. He made his name during the Great War, with his modernist poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, in 1915. Yet his real breakthrough came with his unparalleled masterpiece, the all-important summary of a generation’s disillusion: The Waste Land, from 1922. Between these two works, a gradual change took place in the poet’s mental landscape, most probably connected also with his impressions of the war, leading him from America to London, as a result of his growing conservative (as he called it, classical) inclination, deepening his views on modernity and tradition as well. He presented a short summary of his position on these two key concepts in his by now famous essay, Tradition and the Individual Talent, which appeared first in The Egoist, and later in his own collection of essays, The Sacred Wood in 1920. In this and other writings, Eliot proved to be quite ingenious to make sense of the literary tradition he wanted to be a heir to. In his later career as a critic, he always remained quite careful in his critical choices, keeping in mind the general theoretical direction he wanted to follow, and making an effort to change worn out common place phrases with poetically strong expressions. His unquestionable personal charisma, and literary authority was due to the fact that he was just as keen on his modernist position in matters of art, and in particular, in matters of form in art, as on his traditionalist positions in politics, society and religion.
One can argue that for Scruton Eliot served as a stable reference point, when interpreting his own public persona. Eliot’s influence on him can only be compared to that of F.R. Leavis, a literary critic who was just as charismatic a critic as Eliot himself. The two figures, Eliot and Leavis, were both important for Scruton, but for different reasons: he did not want to imitate them, yet their example had a formative influence on him. Scruton was not a poet, though he wrote and published poems as well as novels and dramatized dialogues. And he was not a literary critic, either, even if he published critical essays on people like Ruskin, Arnold and others. What connected the two of them in his mind was that they represented the sort of public intellectual, who served as role-model for him. Although conservative intellectuals usually criticize the public intellectual, as irresponsible dilettantes and undemocratic politicians, Scruton did not hesitate to take on this role. He, too, wanted to become an opinion-leader, a commentator of social and political life. This was not without its prehistory. As we shall see, Eliot himself must have been influenced by the role-model of what was labelled as the clerisy in 19th century British culture. In this, Eliot must have been both Leavis’s and Scruton’s most influential predecessor. Yet while Eliot’s authority came from the success of his poetry, and Leavis had a deep knowledge of literary history and theory, Scruton established himself as an aesthete, who specialised on the philosophy of art and beauty, and approached poetry from that perspective.
In what follows we shall have a look at Scruton’s views on Eliot. In order to remain focused, we shall make use of two texts in which the author analyses Eliot. One is his essay on modernism in Modern Culture, a collection of essays he first published in 1998. The other one is the closing essay in his A Political Philosophy, Arguments for Conservatism, first published in 2006.
Already the titles of the two collections show the conceptual tension Scruton builds up: in the first, he talks about modern culture, including the Enlightenment, Romanticism, Modernism and the avant-garde. In the other one, he offers a political philosophy in the negative form, with the help of critical essays on the Enlightenment, on the totalitarian temptation, on Eurospeak and on the nature of evil, among others. It is obvious, that he understands modernity and tradition as counter-concepts.[ii] There is nothing surprising in this way of positioning the two categories. It is much more remarkable that Scruton reads Eliot in a way, which shows that the paradox is in fact not a contradiction, but simply an astonishing logic, that Eliot is able to reveal. In what follows I try to uncover Scruton’s explanation of this covered logic, making two claims:
1. The first claim I try to substantiate is that surprisingly, Scruton defends modern art, as practiced by Eliot, showing its close connection with the roots of our culture, tradition, and in particular, with religion.
2. The second claim I would like to make is that conservatism is understood correctly, if one realizes its connection with modernism (both of them being an -ism).
As an introduction to the theme, let me shortly have a look at Eliot’s essay Tradition and the Individual Talent. This is not an easy train of thought, yet it introduces the framework within which Eliot’s remains for the remaining part of his career. In what follows we shall only look at that aspect of the text which has a relevance for our present topic.
1. Eliot’s formulation of the paradox in Tradition and the Individual Talent
As he himself admitted later, Eliot’s essay, “arguably, the most influential English-language literary essay of the twentieth century”, was a juvenile one. It was the manifesto of a poet in the making, who had just published his first, slim volume with the title Prufrock and Other Observations (1917). With it, he tried to establish himself and his reputation both as a poet and as a critic – along the lines of English poet-critics from Sidney to Coleridge and Shelley. He wrote in the aftermath of WW1, when the surviving generations were struggling hard to re-establish basic human values, healing the traumas of the war years. Eliot published his essay in two parts in The Egoist, an avant-garde forum of which he himself was an assistant editor. In the same issue, following Eliot’s essay, the reader found a part of Joyce’s pathbraking Ulysses, still before its publication in a book-format. One should note, that by this time, Eliot aimed at “critiquing the avant-garde in the leading avant-garde forum of the day”.[iii]
No doubt, Eliot’s interest in tradition was part of his effort to recreate culture after the wartime shock. The major points of the essay, however, connect tradition to the future, as well as to individual creativity. Eliot claims that it is not the author whom we should concentrate on, but the text. “Honest criticism and sensitive appreciation are directed not upon the poet but upon the poetry.”[iv] This is his famous “impersonal theory” of poetry. Eliot is sharply against the Romantics, who established the cult of the individual. As he sees it, in literature, the text has a relevance, which is far beyond its author. To appreciate its value, we need to compare it to other, earlier texts. In other words, what makes texts meaningful is their relationship to other texts, in fact to the canon, which can serve as a benchmark, for the critic or the interpreter. The word canon also shows, that this methodology of reading literature comes from reading religious texts. By canonical texts, we mean the following: “the definitive list of inspired, authoritative books which constitute the recognized and accepted body of sacred scripture of a major religious group, that definitive list being the result of inclusive and exclusive decisions after a serious deliberation”.[v] Interestingly and importantly, although Eliot only uses the word canon once in the text, he looks at the literary texts of the past as if they build up a whole body of selected literature, which had indeed a religious significance. Yet that significance has a dynamic character. Although the past has gone, tradition is in fact its present view, in other words the view which is available on it from here, but which can also change its configuration at any time, as a result of the performance of a contemporary poet or critic or their collective influence. And most importantly that view has a further aspect: it wants to make use of the past in order to create new works of art, which conform to the past, but which also give a valid picture of the present, and lead towards new vistas. This way tradition becomes the first prerequisite of modern art – this is the paradox built up by T.S. Eliot in this juvenile essay.
2. Scruton on Eliot and modernism
Roger Scruton admitted, that it was T.S. Eliot who fundamentally inspired his book on Modern Culture, first published in 1998.[vi] In it, he wanted to come to terms with modernism, as a social and intellectual movement, and especially with modernist culture. This was because he thought that culture was one of the most important battlegrounds, where modernism was fought. Culture determines our moral life, while the significance of culture affirms the “significance of our social emotions.”[vii] The book entitled Modern Culture, together with its twin volume, Culture Counts (2007) might be seen as Scruton’s reaction to the rise of the discipline called cultural studies. In his reading it is popular culture which defines the subject-matter of cultural studies, “an academic discipline founded by Raymond Williams with a view to replacing academic English.”[viii] While cultural studies had a leftist agenda, Scruton himself embarked on a project to work out the fundamentals of a conservative version of cultural theory.
Certainly, there were other efforts in this direction, already before him. Think about Michael Oakeshott’s The Voice of Liberal Learning: Michael Oakeshott on Education (1989), or Allan Bloom’s scandalous The Closing of the American Mind (1987). One can dig even deeper, claiming that there were constantly returning culture wars in the modern West, from the newly born Prussian State’s propaganda warfare against Catholics at the turn of the century, through the policies of the totalitarian regimes in mid-century Europe, leading up to the culture war of the student revolution in the 60s, in Paris. All of these cases had political agendas, proving that culture, indeed, matters in 20th century politics. In particular, this series of culture wars showed that modernity, which was introduced in the arts, was not simply a program of renewal in the intellectual world, but aimed at a reconfiguration of the social realm. Certainly, the culture war of the 60s led to the waves of political correctness in the US, too, transforming the campus life of the American Universities and recasting the guiding principles of public broadcasting. Scruton was one of the victims of the aggressive policies of woke ideology, often attacked on university campuses by radical student groups, almost silenced at CEU, when he was invited there. He did not regard himself as a warrior in the culture war, yet he never hesitated to pronounce his political views on debated issues, occasionally causing tremendous public scandals. Yet his aim in his book on modern culture – unlike in the scandalous Thinkers of the New Left (1985) – was to make sense of modernism, as a general phenomenon, which transforms our way of thinking and our daily behaviour. And modernism manifests itself in culture. So he has to find at least a working definition of culture. He mentions Herder’s concept of culture, as the “life-blood” of “a people, the flow of moral energy that holds society intact.”[ix] In his reading, the German Romantics, as exemplified by Schelling, Schiller, Fichte, Hegel and Hölderlin, developed Herder’s notion, connecting it to the notion of a nation, “a shared spiritual force which is manifest in all the customs, beliefs and practices of a people.”[x] He balances this view of culture with another one, attributed to Wilhelm von Humboldt. This is a more elitist notion, identifying culture with cultivation, instead of “untended growth”. Not everyone is in a position to have it, as one needs ability and leisure to become cultured. But even for Humboldt, culture is not an individual’s lonely achievement. We need public institutions to guarantee its survival: “The purpose of a university is to preserve and enhance the cultural inheritance, and to impart it to the next generation.”[xi] According to Scruton, anthropologists rely on Herder’s concept, while literary critics, from Matthew Arnold, to Eliot and Leavis, rely on the notion of high culture. He refuses to choose between the two. In fact, his aim with his book was to show, that the two of them “are fed from a common source”.[xii]
It is in this context, that he paints his first portrait of Eliot. Look at the intellectual family tree that he provides: Baudelaire, Manet and Wagner are the 19th century holy trinity of modern art, and Eliot is an heir of the three of them in the 20th century. A poet, a painter and a musician – they prepared the ground for the breakthrough of modernism, in the oeuvre of Eliot, an oeuvre, connecting poetry, drama, criticism and social philosophy. Interestingly, Scruton sharply distinguishes the perspective of his troika from the subversive philosophy of Nietzsche. His analysis of Nietzsche is based on his interpretation of Wagner. It is through Wagner that he reaches Baudelaire, and through Baudelaire, that he reaches Manet. Wagner accepted the disillusioning reality of his day, leading to a loss of its eternal dimensions, yet with a heroic gesture tried to recreate that vista, by embarking on a new venture of translating Germanic myths into the language of music. Although Wagner was not Christian, he is determined to bring back important pillars of the Christian teaching, including redemption through sacrifice and suffering, and the role of love in all that. Although the project is close to mission impossible, Scruton finds real merit in the heroism of it. Yet he knows that though Baudelaire, too, was an admirer of Wagner, he did not share his heroic attitude. Instead, Baudelaire’s poetry worked as a mirror, in which the dark sides of the city could be made visible. Scruton calls him “the nocturnal poet of the city” therefore.[xiii] Baudelaire’s effort aims to lead us, readers, through a confrontation with the reality of sin, damnation, paradoxically, to salvation. Yet this will not succeed, without a renewal of tradition. And this is proven by the art of Manet, whose novelty of painting modern life was combined with a conscious re-appropriation of tradition, for example with its references to Titian or Giorgione. Baudelaire, too, returned to past masters, but only “to revive the spirit by offending it”.[xiv]
Eliot’s own case is somewhat different. His path-breaking poem, The Waste Land. In the verse preface to it, Eliot directly quotes Lés Fleurs du mal, and his diagnosis presents the land in a catastrophe-stricken condition. Yet he, too, like Wagner, turns to the genre of myth to try to offer a hint of hope. Scruton stresses that by returning to the language of myth one returns to the original community as well. Although the narrator (who is definitely not to be identified with the author) is himself an objective observer, as if he was an anthropologist, describing an alien culture, we are still happy to discover, that he makes use of “the echoing vault of a vanished religious culture”.[xv] This religious culture is revoked by references to the signs and symbols of its founding texts, but also invoking poets, who belonged to the Christian tradition of poetry, like Dante, Shakespeare, Verlaine, Nerval and Wagner.
Yet in conformity with the main lines of his critical theory, as opposed to pious contemporary forms of Christianity, Eliot avoids sentimentality, and he remains on the ground of everyday reality. Yet poetry is not simply reconstructing reality in a different medium. Instead, it wants – to borrow an expression of Mallarmé – “to purify the dialect of the tribe”. In other words, Eliot’s effort as a poet is to try to lead back the shared language of the community to the realities, liberating it from the linguistic traps of illusions and ossified doctrines.
Yet reality is not simply the objective material condition of our experience – it includes the intellectual-spiritual dimensions as well. The opposite of realism is not idealism, but illusionism. Ideas have direct consequences, and spiritual ingredients can grossly influence real life situations. In Scruton’s narrative, Eliot’s breakthrough was The Waste Land. And as he reads it, this paradigmatically modern poem has two faces. One of that is “Baudelaire’s experience of the city as a spiritual ordeal”, while the other is “an appeal to myth, which outlines the original community”.[xvi] For Scruton, myth is important for two further reasons. He borrows one from René Girard, and his theory of how communities overcome internal conflicts by sacrificing a scapegoat. Girard’s philosophy keeps returning to the purifying function of myths in human communities – a common place in anthropology, but a crucially opposed to Enlightened rationality, liberal individualism and Communist central planning. The other one is taken, of course, from Richard Wagner, and his re-appropriation of Germanic myths. This is how Baudelaire and Wagner, the poet and the musician, meet in Scruton’s interpretation of Eliot’s poem. Yet Wagner is not only paired with Baudelaire in Scruton’s mind: he presents him as the end of a rather diverse list of genuine poets, all of whom were fascinated by myths. Yet Scruton also recalls Nietzsche, who was also fascinated by myths, but who was rather hostile towards institutionalised religion, especially Christian religion. For Nietzsche, Christianity was a kind of myth, which had already died by his own time. To put it more precisely: he famously reported the death of God. Scruton, however, as opposed to Nietzsche, is ready to announce: faith is a must for long term human survival. This is because faith is crucial for human flourishing.
Yet Scruton’s story also refers to Nietzsche’s effort to replace truth with aesthetic values. This was a programme which appeared already in Kierkegaard. While truth is crucial in both the religious and the scientific discourse, it does not play a major role in most aesthetic theories. Scruton does not accept Nietzsche’s proposal: aesthetics should not be seen as an alternative for a discourse on truth. He finds it crucial that both historically and metaphysically, aesthetic values are rooted in religion. If modernity is the period of a withdrawal of institutionalised religion, traditional aesthetic values will also be immediately questioned. Indeed, modernity turns against the tradition of searching for beauty. Funnily enough, the argument only holds, if you trust the objectivity of truth – the modern struggle against beauty can only be consistently based on the hypothesis that while beauty is false, truth still stands in the modern context. In this respect Scruton’s real target is post-modernism, which is ready to question the truth of even the proven scientific claims, on the grounds that there is no truth in the radically relativistic human realm.
Scruton seems to be right, that Eliot was ready to take on board this logical complexity, and to try to solve it, not with the conceptual tools of the philosopher, but armed with the armoury of the poet. Scruton seems to propose that Eliot embraced Christian faith to make that armoury even stronger. In order to counterbalance the radicalism of modernity, which is characterised by the death of God and therefore by the escape from beauty, Eliot re-joins the Christian community. In other words, to tackle modernity he accepts tradition, in opposition to which modernity defined itself. As Scruton puts it: “by an extraordinary route, the modernist poet becomes the traditionalist priest: the stylistic task of the one coalesces with the spiritual task of the other. The renewal of the artistic tradition is also a reaffirmation of orthodoxy.”[xvii]
Scruton admires the complexity of Eliot’s paradox, but does not accept it fully. Eliot’s solution cannot be our solution – this is the point he wants to make. Yet by the time of the publication of Scruton’s book, Eliot himself became an important pillar of tradition. We have to sacrifice extra energies to make sense of it, otherwise that pillar will also fall down. In other words, Scruton admits that he has to cultivate (preserve in a flourishing state) that specific tradition, of which the modernist poet, Eliot, was an influential member. If we fail to transfer the most important elements of that tradition to the next generation, our society will surely fail to stand up to the challenges of the future.
3. Scruton on Eliot and Tradition
After engaging with Scurton’s account of Eliot in the context of modernism, we are going to have a look at his approach to the poet in the context of traditionalism. This is made easier by the fact that although modernity and tradition are seemingly conceptual opposites, Eliot managed to combine the two, both in his essay Tradition and the Individual Talent and in his whole oeuvre, as a poet and as a social critic, as well, reclaiming the rights of the past, while preserving the relevance of the (eternal) present.
In Scruton’s book A Political Philosophy the essay on Eliot serves as the corollary of the argument. Its title, Eliot and Conservatism makes it obvious, that here the author focuses on Eliot, the traditionalist. Yet the paradox of Eliot’s mission is not yet forgotten. Scruton calls his poet “the most revolutionary Anglophone literary critic since Johnson.”[xviii] Yet his aim here is clearly to talk about Eliot’s Tory philosophy (and Anglican traditionalism).
The first major theme of Eliot’s narrative is the collection of Eliot’s essays, entitled The Sacred Wood. Scruton’s criticism shifts the focus of the critical discourse about the poetry of the past, replacing the Romantics with the metaphysical poets and Elizabethan dramatists in its centre. It is also a rather strong view of the role of a critical sensibility in public affairs, both as a prerequisite for making sense of the past, but also as critically judging works of art, including poems. That a historical sense and an aesthetic sense can overlap, and even reaffirm each other, is illustrated by Scruton’s Eliot, picking out Dante as an example, the Florentine poet and political thinker. He relies on Dante’s example in his own poetry as well. This persistence reflects Eliot’s affirmation of the poetic tradition of the West, to which the present day poet still belongs.
With that, we arrived to Eliot’s understanding of tradition, of which Scruton says, that it “best summarizes his contribution to the political consciousness of our century”.[xix] Eliot’s main idea of tradition in literature is a constant interaction, indeed a dialectical movement or communication, between the canonical past and the surplus value of the present. According to Scruton, tradition is indeed the core idea of Eliot’s social and political philosophy. The dialectical exchange between past and present leads to the paradox, which lies in the centre of Eliot’s oeuvre: “that our greatest modernist should also be our greatest modern conservative.”[xx]
Scruton’s interpretative genius pushes this claim, the claim of a paradox in the heart of Eliot’s oeuvre, one step further, claiming that in fact tradition itself, and not only Eliot’s tradition, but the tradition which is in the heart of the conservative program, is closely bound to modernism in a very pronounced way. Tradition, in this context is, not “a backward-looking nostalgia”, but a prerequisite to the program to “live fully in the present”.[xxi]
To judge the past as well as the present with an observing vigilance is the programme of The Criterion, a journal established by Eliot in 1922, and used as a critical forum in the widest sense of the term. While it was first of all a forum to review literary works of art, Scruton called his readers’ attention to the fact that the “journal also contained social philosophy of a conservative persuasion – although Eliot preferred the word ‘classicism’ as a description of its outlook”.[xxii] But The Criterion remains the forum in which some of the most important works of literary modernism (by Pound, Empson, Auden and Spender, among others) came out – which once again confirmed Scruton’s point about Eliot’s paradox.
Once again, Scruton’s analysis starts out from Eliot’s great poem, The Waste Land. His assumption is that the poem gives a full picture of “the disillusionment and emptiness that followed the hollow victory of the First World War – a conflict in which European civilization had committed suicide, as Greek civilization had in the Peloponnesian War.”[xxiii] One should be aware of the significance of this comparison: Scruton describes here the 20th century as indeed the decline of a whole culture. But what exactly does explain the depth of his pessimism? Or to put it more precisely: what does he discover in Eliot’s poem, which seems to support such a radical statement? Well, one of the major causes for regarding The Waste Land an exceptional and great work, is its tendency to confront the reader with what is regarded as the “reality of modern experience”.[xxiv] Eliot’s radical break with the accepted canon of the day amounts to a wholesale criticism of Post-Romantic poetry. This is the poetry of secular humanism, according to Scruton, directly linked to the dogmas of the socialist and democratic ideas of society – ideas, which the poet did not trust at all.
Post-Romantic poetry is a form of self-deception: it does not allow the reader to get a clear picture of the state of affairs. Instead, she will encounter false sentiments and her emotional repertoire will consist only of clichés. Scruton took over an argumentative technique from the language of theology, when he identified modern ways of thinking as heresies, as opposed to the orthodoxies of the past. Modern heresies consist of efforts to paint with true colours visions of the imagination, instead of remaining true to reality. When individualism decides to treat human beings as god, they commit such a heresy.
Eliot had to accept the fact that democracy rules the Western world. With it came, however, the decline of everyday language. Ordinary people had a tendency to disregard grammar, and made use of a language of unthinking cliché. Eliot found this language unable to confront reality. Scruton’s Eliot also reported the lack of an intellectual aristocracy in the context of modernity, which led to the growing responsibility of the poet and that of the critic. Eliot attributed a special role to them – they had to revitalise language, to give back the original meaning to the words used, in order “to show the world as it is”.[xxv] The corruption of language leads to a loss of touch with reality, which can lead to barbaric political regimes – this is exactly what happened in a few years after Eliot’s description of the cultural crisis and his prognosis of its consequences. Importantly, Eliot embarks on a comparison of science and religion, as far as their beneficial consequences are concerned in coming to terms with our world. Scruton identifies here again a paradox: “the falsehoods of religious faith enable us to perceive the truths that matter. The truths of science, endowed with an absolute authority, hide the truths that matter, and make the human reality imperceivable.”[xxvi] The paradox is not the end of his train of thought: it leads finally to the identification of religion and culture. Scruton takes over a claim that he finds in Eliot’s essay on the definition of culture, that “culture and religion are in the last analysis indissoluble.”[xxvii]
Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, first published in a periodical in 1943, during WW2, when the ugliest deeds were committed against human beings by other human beings, is not Scruton’s favourite among Eliot’s great works. Scruton’s critical judgement of it, together with his critical note of The Idea of Christian Society, published in 1940, blames the “tentativeness and anxiety” of these essays, caused by the openness of politics in the post-war situation. Interestingly the same theme – an “account of our spiritual crisis”[xxviii] – comes up in Eliot’s greatest poem, Four Quartets, but with a much stronger potential, in other words to awaken hope in its readers than the essays.
Scruton finds this poem more convincing as “a profound exploration of spiritual possibilities”, because he reads it as a “religious work”, which however has an “extraordinary lyric power”.[xxix] In other words he reads it as a poem, which however has a potential to uncover hidden religious truths. In the final part of his effort to reconstruct Eliot’s teaching of tradition, Scruton gives a detailed analysis of this poem. As he saw it, Eliot endows the poet and the critic with a rather difficult mission: to strive for redemption with the help of art and poetry. But this mission cannot be fulfilled without getting into contact with the past. In fact, poetry is born in a constant conversation with tradition. Here, the original message of the Tradition and the Individual Talent essay returns – the original work of art finds its way back, and opens dialogue with the earlier generations of poets. This is, indeed, a general expectation from poetry: to regain what is “perdu”, “the fight to recover what has been lost /And found and lost again and again…”[xxx] Yet the dialogue with the past is not for its own sake – its main purpose is a work of purification – and redemption. This religious motivation is due to the fact that here, too, religion is fundamental for culture, providing “the store of symbols, stories and doctrines that enable us to communicate about our destiny”.[xxxi] But apparently, poetry is also crucial for the aims of Christianity. Among the modern conditions, the poet (and the critic) has a special mission – they can and therefore should approach truth with the help of art, as religion has been pushed in the background in society.
Scruton compares the martyrdom of the saint in Murder in the Cathedral with the meditation of the poet in Four Quartets. Eliot’s drama of the political assassination of Thomas Becket, mirroring the struggle between Church and state in 12th century England, touches upon the same theme of redemption in the fallen world of the earthly city as does the long poem. The same theme comes back in the long poem, this time, however, the poet’s impossible mission is “to redeem the time”. The poet’s search for an adequate language is, in the same time, an attempt “to find a tradition of belief, of behaviour, and of historical allegiance, that will give sense and meaning to the community”, too.[xxxii] In other words, in his search for tradition, the poet is active in the field of poetry, religion and politics as well. Scruton, the Englishman, advocates Eliot’s conversion, on the ground that with it, Eliot found his way back to his own tradition. Four Quartets, this expressive and meditative gesture of belonging, joins the Anglican Church, both as an ordinary believer does, but also as a language-user would do whose langue is to recall an earlier state of the whole community. “… the communication / Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living./ Here, the intersection of the timeless moment / is England and nowhere. Never and always.”[xxxiii] Eliot’s poetic act is to turn the literary reconstruction of the past into a vison of the timeless: “history is a pattern / Of timeless moments. So, while the light fails / On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel / History is now and England.”[xxxiv]
Scruton has two comments to make about this quoted detail. One is a comparison of Eliot with the medieval poet, thinker and political activist, Dante Alighieri, whose words are derived from Christian belief and from the style of poetry in his own time. The second one, connected to this, is about the linguistic register of the poem, which is itself a direct passageway to religion, “the language of the King James’ Bible, and the Anglican liturgy that grew alongside it.”[xxxv]
Through this short overview of the Four Quartets Scruton arrives to an account of Eliot’s general theory of tradition. No one’s work is more suitable to facilitate the reconstruction of tradition in the context of modernity, except for Burke, with his famous remark about the dialogue of different generations of a community. Scruton calls the Burkean version of the social contract – which is in fact the denial of the voluntarism of the Lockean version of it – “the core belief of modern conservatism”.[xxxvi] In it, the connection of the generations is close enough: only through a close attention paid to the past can the present community prepare the grounds for the arrival of the unborn. This close attention to the past amounts to the sustenance of culture.
Scruton here provides a rather strong and thick, Eliot-like concept of culture, with which he identified tradition: “Culture is the repository of an experience which is at once local and placeless, present and timeless, the experience of a community as sanctified by time.”[xxxvii] This sanctification is meant here literally: scanning the past you look for those rare moments which mean something more than what is simply locally and momentarily significant. This is only possible, according to Scruton, in a religious community, where the intensification of ordinary moments is part of everyday routine.
Scruton also admits that such a task – either of religion or of high culture – to search back in time for those moments which have a wider and lasting relevance, to redeem the present, requires extra effort, indeed a kind of sacrifice from us, socialised as we are in a modern intellectual, political and cultural milieu. In particular, the educated elite, Coleridge’s clerisy had a rather heavy burden in Eliot’s vision.[xxxviii] Yet, unlike in the later, left wing variant of the intellectual, as embodied by people like Sartre or Foucault, Eliot’s intellectuals had more to do than simply undermining the meanings of basic concepts and social structure. Instead, Scruton defined their mission to show how to live an orderly way of life, and how to defend the intellectual inheritance of their respective communities. To achieve that, however, the individual had to work on her own self, which required a rediscovery of the world, in which we are born, and to understand that the individual is part of a greater whole. This greater whole is the culture which formed the individual, and which can only live on, if the individual is ready for a sacrifice: to work as a channel to pass the culture of the past on to the next generation.
The survival of the tradition depends on us; it is our responsibility to take care of its return. This is Scruton’s hopeful conservative message. Yet to do so requires self-exploration and self-discipline – the formation of our own character along the lines dictated by that very tradition. But if achieved it will be also the achievement of defending that very tradition with the same power. “We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.”[xxxix] If the rescue of the tradition requires such a moral and intellectual form of self-fashioning, it also leads to a return to the religious teachings of one’s community, and, concludes Scruton, thereby, “the conservative message for our times… is a message beyond politics, a message of liturgical weight and authority”.[xl]
One is free of course to refuse to hear that message, in an age, when the realm of politics is demanded to be non-metaphysical. The separation of the church and state in the secular modern state is finished in the West. Yet Scruton’s point is not a conservative demand of the return of the established church. Rather, it addresses a problem which keeps returning, since the time it was most succinctly summarised in the Böckenförde Dilemma: “The liberal secularised state is nourished by presuppositions that it cannot itself guarantee.”[xli] Böckenförde’s dilemma is in a way comparable to Eliot’s paradox. Scruton, therefore, seems to be correct that both the inbuilt dilemma of the neutral state and the conflict of modernism and tradition can be addressed only by what he calls the conservative message, i.e. with a close attention to what is beyond politics, which needs to be heard anyway, “if humane and moderate politics is to remain a possibility”.[xlii]
* This article was originally published in the book entitled Tradition and Change. Scruton’s Philosophy and its Meaning for Contemporary Europe, European Conservatives and Reformists, Warszawa 2022.
Böckenförde, Ernst-Wolfgang. “Die Entstehung des Staates als Vorgang der Säkularisation.” Säkularisation und Utopie. Ebracher Studien, Kohlhammer, 1967, pp. 75-94.
Coleridge, S.T. On the Constitution of the Church and State. 1830.
Dettmar, Kevin. “A Hundred Years of T.S. Eliot’s ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent.” The New Yorker, October 27, 2019. https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/a-hundred-years-of-t-s-eliots-tradition-and-the-individual-talent
Eliot, T.S. “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Selected Essays, 1917-1932. Faber and Faber, 1932, pp. 13-22.
Eliot, T.S. “East Coker.” Four Quartets. Faber & Faber, 1943, p. 182.
Eliot, T.S. “Little Gidding.” Four Quartets. Faber & Faber, 1943, p.
Eugene, Ulrich. “The Notion and Definition of Canon.” The Canon Debate, edited by L. M. McDonald and J. A. Sanders, Hendrickson Publishers, 2002.
Menand, Louis. Discovering Modernism. T.S. Eliot and His Context. 2nd ed., Oxford University Press, 1987.
Scruton, Roger. “Modernism.” Modern Culture, Bloomsbury, 1998.
Scruton, Roger. A Political Philosophy. Arguments for Conservatism. Bloomsbury, 2019.
[i] This is a term used by Kevin Dettmar about the two key concepts in Eliot’s essay, Tradition and the Individual Talent. See his: “A Hundred Years of T.S. Eliot’s ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent,” The New Yorker, October 27, 2019. https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/a-hundred-years-of-t-s-eliots-tradition-and-the-individual-talent
[ii] See Kosselleck’s theory of counter-concepts.
[iii] Louis Menand, Discovering Modernism. T.S. Eliot and His Context, 2nd ed., Oxford University Press, 1987, 68.
[iv] T.S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Selected Essays, 1917-1932. Faber and Faber, 1932, pp. 13-22., Part II., 17.
[v] Eugene Ulrich, “The Notion and Definition of Canon,” The Canon Debate, edited by L. M. McDonald and J. A. Sanders, Hendrickson Publishers, 2002, p. 29.
[vi] Roger Scruton, “Modernism,” Modern Culture, Bloomsbury, 1998.
[vii] Scruton, Modern Culture, Preface to the Second Edition, ix.
[viii] Ibid, 3.
[ix] Ibid, 1.
[xii] Ibid, 4.
[xiii] Ibid, 76.
[xiv] Ibid, 78.
[xv] Ibid, 79.
[xvi] Ibid, 79.
[xvii] Ibid, 82.
[xviii] Roger Scruton. A Political Philosophy. Arguments for Conservatism. Bloomsbury, 2019, p. 191.
[xix] Ibid, 193.
[xx] Ibid, 194.
[xxiii] Ibid, 195.
[xxiv] Ibid, 199.
[xxv] Ibid, 201.
[xxvi] Ibid, 203.
[xxvii] Ibid, 203.
[xxviii] Ibid, 196.
[xxix] Ibid, 197.
[xxx] T.S. Eliot, “East Coker,” Four Quartets, Faber & Faber, 1963/1985, 196-204., 203.
[xxxi] Scruton, A Political Philosophy, 204.
[xxxii] Ibid, 205.
[xxxiii] T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding.” Four Quartets, in: T.S. Eliot: Collected Poems, 1909-1962, Faber and Faber, 1963/1985, 187-223, 214-223., 215.
[xxxiv] Eliot, Little Gidding, 222.
[xxxv] Scruton, A Political Philosophy, 207.
[xxxvii] Ibid, 207.
[xxxviii] See S.T. Coleridge, On the Constitution of the Church and State, 1830.
[xxxix] Eliot, Little Gidding.
[xl] Scruton, A Political Philosophy, 208.
[xli] Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde, “Die Entstehung des Staates als Vorgang der Säkularisation.” Säkularisation und Utopie. Ebracher Studien, Kohlhammer, 1967, pp. 75-94., p. 93.
[xlii] Scruton, A Political Philosophy, 208.