“We are always in danger, in clinging to an old tradition, or attempting to re-establish one, of confusing the vital and the unessential, the real and the sentimental…. Tradition may be conceived as a byproduct of right living, not to be aimed at directly.”—T.S. Eliot, After Strange Gods
In this commentary I want to discuss the flip-side of Eliot’s views on culture and tradition—considering what might be called the limitations of cultural conservatism. It means reassessing the “culture war” paradigm. After all, we have to remember that it was the Gramsci Marxists who inaugurated the wars, and had an unfair advantage in setting the original terms of the debate. For them culture is the paradigm, whereas the Christian must refer to something more transcendent than the natural, and impermanent, paraphernalia of society.
Eliot’s University of Virginia lectures (published as After Strange Gods in 1934) show that he was struggling with some of the controversial ideas that are problematic for modern paleo-conservatives. He was, however, too decent to sell his soul to any ideology, and he revised his views in later life.
Already by the 1930s Eliot was aware of the vagueness, and vagaries, of a conservative cause that defines itself strictly in terms of “anti-materialism” or “anti-modernism.” Specifically, he discussed the flawed outlook of neo-pagan critics of modernity like Irving Babbitt, Ezra Pound, William Butler Yeats, and D.H. Lawrence. These men were often insightful, but they were fundamentally “heretics.” In the case of Lawrence, for example, he falsely reasoned that “any spiritual force was good.” Lawrence’s vision may have been spiritual, but Eliot notes it was “spiritually sick” and mired in “sexual morbidity.”
The problem lies in phrasing the intellectual struggle in terms of what one is against. A false spirituality defines good primarily as the absence of evil (the utopian temptation, in fact). This is the opposite of the Christian view which says evil is the absence of good. The one frames the issue pessimistically and/or narcissistically. The other does so not in terms of “optimism” but a hopeful realism. Christianity identifies objective goods towards which we strive—imperfectly in this life, but with with the aim of perfection in the next.
Conflating human tradition with orthodoxy makes for a social criticism as subjective as any form of predominant liberalism. Says Eliot,
I hold… that a tradition is rather a way of feeling… whereas the maintenance of orthodoxy is a matter which calls for the exercise of our conscience intelligence. The two will therefore considerably complement each other. Not only is it possible to conceive of a tradition being definitely bad; a good tradition, might, in changing circumstances, become out of date. Tradition has not the means to criticize itself….
In this regard, one recollects the cultural parochialism of Romans like Pliny the Younger and Emperor Marcus Aurelius. They were the “conservatives” of their day who persecuted the early Church in the name of their limited, humanistic tradition. Thus if what Eliot says is true, it is not our conservatism which defines our beliefs, but our beliefs that define, and demarcate, our conservatism.