Notes towards the Definition of Culture by T. S. Eliot, London, Faber and Faber Limited, 1948, 1962, 124 pages.
Culture is a word that we use all the time but we seldom put much thought into what it means. We take for granted that we know what “culture” is, although we use it in very different ways depending upon the circumstances. Sometimes, when we speak of culture, we mean something that includes the fine visual arts, literature, theatre, architecture, and serious music, and we will speak of someone who appreciates these things as being “cultured” or “having culture”. Other times we use the word culture to mean something that includes our language, religion, and way of living. This is how we use the word when we speak of our culture as opposed to that of another people.
These meanings of culture are clearly different from each other, yet they are obviously related to each other as well. We would not go too far astray in understanding the first meaning to be a narrower, more specialized version of the second. To describe, however, is not necessarily to define. What is it that a people’s way of life and the higher products of their civilization have in common that we use the same word for both?
This is question that T. S. Eliot put a lot of serious thought into around the end of the Second World War. Eliot was a leading literary figure of the early 20th Century. He had been born an American, in St. Louis, Missouri twelve years before the end of the 19th Century, was raised in the United States and then educated in the prestigious American Harvard University, but in 1915 he moved to London where he would live for the rest of his life. This was during the first World War, the war which shattered the progressive, utopian illusions of the 19th Century. “Things fall apart/the centre cannot hold/mere anarchy Is loosed upon the world”, as a contemporary and colleague of Mr. Eliot’s, W. B. Yeats put it. A few years after the end of the War Eliot himself became famous for his poem “The Wasteland”, edited by his friend and fellow American ex-patriot Ezra Pound, and widely understood to be an expression of the hopelessness and disillusionment of that era.
The T. S. Eliot of the late 40’s however, was a more rooted and mature man than the modernist poet of the early 1920’s. In 1927 he had become a British citizen and had been baptized and confirmed into the Church of England. The following year he described himself, in a collection of essays entitled For Lancelot Andrewes, as “royalist in politics, Anglo-Catholic in religion, classicist in literature”. He had become, in other words, a thoroughly conservative man. He had become an editor for the publishing house Faber and Faber which would be the job that paid his bills for the rest of his life. He continued to write though, poetry, as well as several plays and a great deal of literary and social criticism. His Notes towards the Definition of Culture was written towards the climax of his writing career.
So how did T. S. Eliot define “culture”?
We must keep in mind that this book is titled “Notes towards the Definition of Culture” which is not exactly the same thing as “A Formulation of the Definition of Culture”. In the early decades of the 20th Century much ink had been applied to contrasting culture with civilization. While this debate continues to be revived from time to time, Eliot, wisely, chose to ignore it saying only, in his introduction, that “I have made no attempt in this essay to determine the frontier between the meanings of these two words: for I came to the conclusion that any such attempt could only produce an artificial distinction, peculiar to the book , which the reader would have difficulty in retaining, and which, after closing the book, he would abandon with a sense of relief”.
In his first chapter, “The Three Senses of Culture”, he began by saying that culture exists on three levels, that of the individual, that of the group or class, and that of the entire society. The culture of the individual depends upon the culture of the group, and the culture of the group depends upon the culture of the society. Therefore it is culture at the societal level that needs to be defined because it is the most basic, the most important meaning of the word.
This assertion will go against the grain of the individualist who sees culture as the product of the creativity of the individual rather than the group but Eliot explained and defended his position well. Culture pertains to the “improvement of the human mind and spirit” and the achievements that are considered culture by and in different groups of people vary. Refined manners, learning, philosophy, the arts – all of these, Eliot pointed out, are “culture” in different kinds of people. No one of them, however, can be said to contain all of “culture” within itself, neither can any one individual be fully accomplished in all of these areas at once. We must find culture, therefore, “in the pattern of the society as a whole”, for only in an entire society can all the different achievements of individuals and groups be found and harmonized into the whole which is culture. Culture is more, however, than just the presence of all these different things among a group of isolated individuals. Culture requires cohesion which requires “an overlapping and sharing of interests” and “participation and mutual appreciation”.
Eliot noted that in societies which have achieved higher levels of civilization the various areas which make up culture are specialized fields awarded different honours and that this leads to the formation of classes. A gradation of classes he regards as an essential part of civilized society. He made the curious assertion that “I do not think that the most ardent champions of social equality dispute this: the difference of opinion turns on whether the transmission of group culture must be by inheritance—whether each cultural level must propagate itself—or whether it can be hoped that some mechanism of selection will be found, so that every individual shall in due course take his place at the highest cultural level for which his natural aptitudes qualify him.” This seems to be a strange assessment. Egalitarian thought in the present day has far more in common with the Procrustean leveling of the world described in Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s Harrison Bergeron than the meritocratic sentiment Eliot described here and the trend in that direction must surely have been noticeable in Eliot’s own day.
In his second chapter “The Class and the Elite”, Eliot explained more fully what he meant. He acknowledged the widespread progressive notion that society will “overcome these divisions” and that it is “therefore a duty incumbent upon us, to bring about a classless society.” What, however, would be done about differences in aptitude between individuals in such a society? Who would be the leaders of such a society?
In the early 20th Century the theory of elites was discussed by a number of different sociological writers. One version of the theory held that society was transitioning from a hierarchical class society to an elite-led mass society. This notion will seem odd to those who understand “the elite” to mean “the upper class”. The technical meaning of “elite” however, is a group of individuals who are identified by a high level of competency in a particular specialized field. Members of an elite are not necessarily tied to one another by social connections the way the members of a class are. Eliot addresses the idea that elite leadership was replacing social classes and points out that for this to happen elites would have to take over completely the function of classes within society. In reality, however, elites have always existed and tend to attach themselves to classes, generally the dominant class of society. The fact that “the primary channel of transmission of culture is the family” contributes to the likelihood of the continued existence of classes in one form or another.
Moreover, the disappearance of classes and their complete replacement with elites should not be assumed to be something desirable in itself. Eliot did not draw a complete picture of what such a society would look like but we can fill in the blanks. Institutional education would have to take over the family’s role in the transmission of culture, individuals with the capacity to become members of elites would have to be identified and sorted out of the masses at a very early age. This is Brave New World territory.
In asserting the necessity of a hierarchy of social levels for a high degree of culture and civilization, Eliot did not advocate a caste system in which people are locked into their class from birth. Eliot was a good Aristotelian and throughout this book he was always searching for the mean between opposite extremes. In this case a class society combined with a high degree of social mobility and interaction is the mean between a classless society and a rigid caste system. This is also part of the mean between the opposite extremes of an excess of unity and an excess of diversity. The other part of that mean is explored in his third chapter entitled “Unity and Diversity: The Region”.
In this chapter Eliot addressed the difference between local and national cultures and argued against the kind of centralizing nationalism that seeks to eliminate regional and local cultures by imposing a standardized culture on everybody. Eliot acknowledged the importance of a society having a common culture that transcends class and regional boundaries. He wrote about the classes that “they should all have a community of culture with each other which will give them something in common, more fundamental than the community which each class has with its counterpart in another society”. This is the opposite of what was proposed by Italian Communist leader Antonio Gramsci who urged Marxists to take over the institutions of culture so as to break the “cultural hegemony” that was impeding the general workers revolution.
Unity can be overemphasized, however, and Eliot argued against those who look at the kinds of measures societies take to promote unity in times of crisis such as war, and propose them in times of peace. In words that bring to mind Edmund Burke’s remarks about the little platoons, Eliot wrote:
It is important that a man should feel himself to be, not merely a citizen of a particular nation, but a citizen of a particular part of his country, with local loyalties. These, like loyalty to class, arise out of loyalty to the family.
Patriotic affection starts at home and radiates outwards.
Eliot discussed the relationships between the various regional cultures in the British Isles and argued that the continued existence of Welsh, Scottish, and Irish cultures is a benefit to the English culture and that each of these “satellite cultures” is dependent upon the health of the English culture. If each of these cultures were to be made indistinguishable from the others all would lose – the result would be a lower level of culture than any one of them. Examples of countries that have suffered heavily from the artificial imposition of a standardized national culture were ready at hand for him to point to:
In Italy and in Germany, we have seen that a unity with politico-economic aims, imposed violently and too rapidly, had unfortunate effects upon both nations. Their cultures had developed in the course of a history of extreme and extremely sub-divided regionalism: the attempt to teach Germans to think of themselves as Germans first, and the attempt to teach Italians to think of themselves as Italians first, rather than as natives of a particular small principality or city, was to disturb the traditional culture from which alone any future culture could grow.
How local should culture get?
Eliot wrote: “Ideally, each village, and of course more visibly the larger towns, should each have its particular character”, a sentiment which the G. K. Chesterton who wrote The Napoleon of Notting Hill would undoubtedly have applauded had he lived another twelve years to have read it.
This emphasis upon local and regional diversity should not be confused with what is called “multi-culturalism” today, although the word would serve the purpose if it had not been usurped to describe something sinister. Although this may seem counter-intuitive to some what we call multi-culturalism is actually far more similar to the nationalization programs of Hitler and Mussolini than to the localism and regionalism Eliot is advocating. It is an attempt by a central, bureaucratized, government to break down local culture and cohesion in order to promote a form of unity that consists of loyalty to the central state. This is all that is left to build unity around because multi-culturalism, which involves mass immigration from as many different cultures and nations as possible, breaks down the common national culture as well as all local cultures within the nation. This couldn’t be further from the concept of local and regional culture held by Eliot who wrote “On the whole, it would appear to be for the best that the great majority of human beings should go on living in the place in which they were born.”
The need for a balance between unity and diversity at different levels of culture has its counterpart in religion. One of the major themes of this book is the relationship between religion and culture. Eliot did not like the word “relation” (1) as a description of what religion and culture are to each other as he explains when he raises the subject in the first chapter. He believed the word “relation” suggests that religion and culture are separate entities which relate to each other. This, he treated as an extreme to be avoided, like the opposite extreme of identifying religion and culture completely and absolutely. At this point Eliot’s search for Aristotelian balance might seem a little obsessive but it begins to make sense when he returns to the subject in his fourth chapter “Unity and Diversity: Sect and Cult”.
The same sort of things, Eliot had argued, appear to be religious from one angle, and cultural from another, suggesting that religion and culture are different aspects of each other. He suggested that culture might be conceived of as the incarnation of religion. Latin culture, he pointed out in his fourth chapter, is the primary culture of Western Europe, just as the Church of Rome is the primary religious tradition. English culture, while distinct from the Latin culture of Western continental Europe, is derived from the latter and dependent upon the health of the mainstream for its own wellbeing. In the same way, the Protestant Churches are derived from and dependent upon the Church of Rome. In the United Kingdom, the Church of England is the primary religious tradition, but the relationship of the Free Churches to the Anglican tradition is in British society, the same as the relationship of the Protestant Churches to the Roman Catholic Church.
This is not what the relationship between the different branches of the Christian tradition appears looks like from the inside, of course. From the inside differences in theology and practice tend to be what we see first. Eliot, although a devout Anglican himself, had deliberately tried to approach this matter “from the point of view of the sociologist, and not from that of the Christian apologist”.
It is in the chapters on “Unity and Diversity” that the concerns of the immediate post-WWII era in which Eliot wrote this book are most visibly evident. The devastation caused by the two Wars had dampened the optimistic spirit of progressivism but it had also added an element of desperation to progressive schemes to unify the world and end conflict. The United Nations had been established at the end of the War and many people were treating it as the first step towards world federalism. Proposals within the ecumenical movement for the reuniting of the Christian Churches went back to the previous century but were now being looked to with new zeal. Against this desperation-driven zeal, Eliot’s words read like a plea for sanity. Neither unity nor diversity is everything, it is the balance between the two that is important.
In his final two chapters Eliot brought politics and education into the picture. The theme of decentralization is continued into chapter five “A Note on Culture and Politics” as is the theme of a class structure. Within a “healthily regional society”, he wrote “public affairs would be the business of everybody, or of the great majority, only within very small social units; and would be the business of a progressively smaller number of men in the larger units within which the smaller were comprehended”. Within a “healthily stratified society”, he then wrote “public affairs would be a responsibility not equally borne: a greater responsibility would be inherited by those who inherited special advantages, and in whom self-interest, and interest for the sake of their families (‘a stake in the country’) should cohere with public spirit.” (2)
What he has presented here is not two different and opposing models of society. Regional diversity and stratification of class have both been presented earlier in his book as desirable qualities of the same society, as different aspects of how culture within a society can be unified and diverse at the same time. The idea that societies should be the most democratic at the local level with societal affairs being handled by smaller specialized groups at higher levels and the idea that privilege and public, social and civic responsibility should go together in the upper classes of a society are both different arguments for aristocratic leadership.
Towards the end of his second chapter he had made the point that aristocracy and democracy should not be understood as antithetical terms. An egalitarian democracy would be “oppressive for the conscientious and licentious for the rest” so the only democracy that can survive long term is one with a class structure in which aristocracy has “a peculiar and essential function, as peculiar and essential as the function of any other part of society”.
The opposite of a democratic class society led by an aristocracy in which regional diversity flourishes within a common culture is a centralized mass democracy. In such a society, the central government seeks to control and standardize everything (which is why such governments require large bureaucracies), eliminating regional diversity as much as it can, and breaking down social classes and all other local units within society into atomized, isolated, individuals. This is very destructive to a society’s culture. Eliot made the point that politics should be contained within culture as one part out of many. Instead, the kind of societies that he saw developing, were ones in which politics sought to dominate culture. “Culture”, he tells us “can never be wholly conscious—there is always more to it than we are conscious of; and it cannot be planned because it is also the unconscious background of our planning”.
This leads naturally to Eliot’s discussion of education in his sixth and concluding chapter. Eliot critically responded to a number of common progressive assumptions about education all supporting the idea of standardized education provided by the government schools to everybody equally. Does education make people happier? Is education what everybody wants? Eliot challenged the “yes” answer to these questions that so many take for granted. He also demonstrates that the concept of “equality of opportunity” is not as practical or benign as it is often assumed to be. “It is right that the exceptional individual should have the opportunity to elevate himself in the social scale” he writes “and attain a position in which he can exercise his talents to the greatest benefit of himself and of society.” The kind of equality the progressive seeks, however, is “unattainable in practice” and if seriously attempted, would “disorganize society and debase education”. Recent history has more than validated Eliot’s assessment.
Throughout this chapter Eliot reminds us that there is more than one way of understanding “education”. Education can mean “that limited system of instruction which the Ministry of Education controls, or aims to control”. It can also mean “everything that goes to form the good individual in a good society”. If we are speaking of education in the latter sense, Eliot has no quarrel with the idea that education is the vehicle by which culture is transmitted or the idea that it is the means of repairing the breakdown of culture. If, however, we are using education in the first sense of the term to speak of it in these lofty terms is to cheapen and degrade our understanding of culture. If education means the schools and education is the vehicle for transmission of culture, culture then becomes that which is taught in school. That culture is so much more than that, the complete way of life of a society, of which that which can be taught in schools is only a fraction, is the whole point which Eliot was trying to make in this book.
An appendix to the book consists of the text of three lectures Eliot gave in Germany in 1945 after the War. In these lectures, Eliot talked about how the extensive vocabulary of the English language lends itself well to poetry and how that vocabulary developed through the influence of a number of European languages on the development of English and about his experience as the editor of a literary review (The Criterion) in the interwar years. His point was that European cultures, although different, had common roots in the Greco-Roman classics and in the Bible, and how they are enriched by communication with each other. He concluded by talking about how the Christian religion was the foundational core of European cultures, about how it was through the Christian faith that European cultures have received their patrimony from classical antiquity and how, if the Christian religion were to die out, a new culture and civilization would not spring up overnight to take its place but would require many generations in order to grow naturally.
While some of the specifics Eliot discussed in this book are dated, reflecting the conditions of the immediate post-WWII, early Cold War era, the main themes of his book continue to speak to us today. Culture is something produced by a society as a whole naturally and organically. Artificial and mechanical substitutes created by central planners simply will not suffice. The healthy culture of a healthy society is a common culture which multiple regional variations, influenced by and influencing other cultures. Such a culture is most likely to be found in society with many social strata the membership in which is not rigidly fixed but allows for movement so that individuals can find the position most suited to their capabilities. Religion is at the core of the culture of a healthy society, and a religion that conceives of itself as universal, transcending the boundaries of a particular culture and society, the way Christianity does, has greater potential for a higher level of civilization than a religion which is co-terminus with a single culture. These ideas remain vitally important to us today.
(1) Eliot uses the word “relation” in places where we would ordinarily use the word “relationship”.
(2) The italics in these quotations are Eliot’s own.
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