by Ben Lockerd
I want to thank Winston Elliott and the Center for the American Republic for giving me this opportunity to expatiate on a topic that has been much on my mind for many years, but which I have never addressed directly. Let me also say at the outset that I will be following the lead of Russell Kirk throughout this talk. Dr. Kirk first met T.S. Eliot in 1953 just when his blockbuster book, The Conservative Mind, was published. The two carried on a correspondence for the remaining decade or so of Eliot’s life and met several times. Eliot saw to it that his publishing house, Faber and Faber, came out with the British edition of The Conservative Mind. The subtitle of the book was From Burke to Santayana, but in the revised edition Kirk expanded his treatment of Eliot in the final chapter and substituted Eliot for Santayana in the subtitle. Some years after the poet’s death, Kirk wrote Eliot and His Age, which remains today the best introduction to Eliot’s life and writings. Kirk’s books and essays are the definitive guide to understanding Eliot’s political ideas, and this talk is deeply indebted to him.
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)
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)
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.
. . . 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)
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)
The Liberal notion that religion was a matter of private belief and of conduct in private life, and that there is no reason why Christians should not be able to accommodate themselves to any world which treats them good-naturedly, is becoming less and less tenable. . . The problem of leading a Christian life in a non-Christian society is now very present to us. . . . It is the problem constituted by our implication in a network of institutions from which we cannot dissociate ourselves: institutions the operation of which appears no longer neutral, but non-Christian. And for the Christian who is not conscious of his dilemma—and he is in the majority—he is becoming more and more de-Christianised by all sorts of unconscious pressure: paganism holds all the most valuable advertising space. . . . in the modern world, it may turn out that the most intolerable thing for Christians is to be tolerated. (Idea, 21-23)
Dr. Benjamin Lockerd is a Senior Contributor to The Imaginative Conservative and professor of English at Grand Valley State University, Michigan. He is Vice President of the T S. Eliot Society and author of Aethereal Rumours: T. S. Eliot’s Physics and Poetics.