The following are excerpts from a speech T.S. Eliot gave on April 19, 1955, at the London Conservative Union. I have typed verbatim what Time and Tide reprinted in its April 23, 1955 issue. One can find the full speech in T.S. Eliot, To Criticize the Critic and Other Writings (1965; Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1991), 136-144. I decided to take from Time and Tide rather than the book, as I assume the book is still copyrighted, whereas the Time and Tide article is less likely to be so. Part II will appear as soon as I can get it input.
While Eliot never refers to Russell Kirk, it is clear that Kirk is a huge presence in the article. Eliot was in the process of publishing Kirk’s The Conservative Mind with Faber and Faber (it appeared simultaneously in the U.S. as the Second Revised Edition), and the two had already corresponded frequently with one another and spent much personal time together.
Additionally, many of the ideas that appear here are almost taken directly from The Conservative Mind.
Some of the speech, though, is distinctly Eliot. In particular, one can hear echoes of “Murder in the Cathedral,” especially in its profound skepticism of politics as an academic field and as a reality.
Destiny waits in the hand of God, shaping the still unshapen: I have seen these things in a shaft of sunlight. Destiny waits in the hand of God, not in the hands of statesmenWho do, some well, some ill, planning and guessing.Having their aims which turn in their hands in the pattern of time.
T.S. Eliot, “The Literature of Politics,” Time and Tide (April 23, 1955): 523.
What is the literature of Conservatism? That is to say, what are the ‘classic’ writings in the English language, with which any thoughtful Conservative is presumed to have some familiarity, writings by authors whose work is supposed to yield some understanding of what Conservatism is? There are four names which we could all, without any prompting, repeat and chorus are they constantly turn up together. They lead off in the bibliographical note of that admirable little book Conservatism written by Lord Hugh Cecil, as he was then, in 1912 for the Home University Library. They are, of course, the names of Bolingbroke, Burke, Coleridge and Disraeli.
Now, could one assemble four men, in one field of thought, more dissimilar to each other than these? The one thing they obviously have in common is that each in his way was a master of prose, whose work can no more be ignored by the student of English literature than by the student of politics. Each of these men had a sense of style—and that is something more than merely a trick of knowing how to write.
This is all to the good, that the Conservative tradition should be also a tradition of good writing; but it may seem irrelevant. When we consider Bolingbroke, he is hardly an example of that devotion to Christian beliefe and Christian morals that Lord High Cecil quite rightly called for. Burke was certainly a Christian thinker; Coleridge was a distinguished theologian as well as philosopher; Disraeli also deserves a pass degree, though churchmanship is the one point on which I feel more sympathy with Mr Gladstone.
As for their politics, the situations in which the three who practiced politics found themselves were very different. Bolingbroke, in fact, was pre-Conservative, if we agree with those who derive Conservatism itself only from a fusion of Tory and Whig elements, due largely to the effect of the French Revolution upon the mind of Burke. Burke, as has often been observed, uttered his most important statements of Conservative doctrine in the course of current controversy: Disraeli delivered himself through his novels as well as in Parliament. As for Coleridge, he was rather a man of my own type, different from myself chiefly in being immensely more learned, more industrious and endowed with a moe powerful and subtler mind. So we remark that with three of these writers, their philosophy was nourished on their political experience.
The fourth was a philosopher with no political experience. What are we to make of this diversity, and what common principles can be elicited from the work of such different men, writing under such different conditions? I am inclined to believe it a good thing that we should find the question difficult to answer . . . . [in original]
I venture to put forward the suggestion that political thinking, that is, thinking that concerns itself with the permanent principles, if any, underlying a Party name, can follow two contrasted lines of development. At the beginning maybe a body of doctrine, perhaps a canonical work: and a band of devoted people can set out to disseminate and popularize this doctrine through their emotional appeal to the interested and the disinterested; and then, as a political party, endeavor to realize a programme based on the doctrine.
Before arriving at the position of governing, they have envisaged some final state of society of which their doctrines give the outline. The theory has altogether preceded the practice. But political ideas may come into being by an opposite process. A political party may find that it has had a history, before it is fully aware of or agreed upon its own permanent tenets; it may have arrived at its actual formation through a succession of metamorphoses and adaptations, during which some issues have been superannuated and new issues have arisen. What its fundamental tenets are will probably be found only by careful examination of what its more thoughtful and philosophical minds have said on its behalf; and only accurate historical knowledge and judicious analysis will be able to discriminate between the permanent and transitory. . . . [in original]
To know what to surrender, and what to hold firm, and indeed to recognize the situation of critical choice when it arises is an art requiring such resources of experience, wisdom and insight, that I cannot envy those public men, of whatever Party, who may at any moment be called upon to make grave decisions and who may in due course be censured by posterity, either as fanatics or as opportunists . . . [in original]
For the permanent and the transitory have to be distinguished afresh by each generation.
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