T.S. Eliot on tradition and community

T.S. Eliot had some relevant things to say about tradition, culture, and community, recorded in the book After Strange Gods: A Primer of Modern Heresy, which is material from lectures he gave in the 1930s.

He warns against being sentimental towards the past necessarily, because any ‘living tradition’ is bound to be a mix of good and bad. In other words, we have to be selective and discriminating about what we preserve and what we leave behind. I think these are important ideas to our age, as we seem to be at a crossroads.

But let’s look at what Eliot says here I’ve bolded parts I think most interesting or relevant.

“Nor can we safely, without very critical examination, dig ourselves in stubbornly to a few dogmatic notions, for what is a healthy belief at one time may, unless it is one of the few fundamental things, be a pernicious prejudice at another.
[…]
What we can do is to use our minds, remembering that a tradition without intelligence is not worth having, to discover what is the best life for us not as a political abstraction, but as a particular people in a particular place; what in the past is worth preserving and what should be rejected; and what conditions, within our power to bring about, would foster the society that we desire. Stability is obviously necessary. You are hardly likely to develop tradition except where the bulk of the population is relatively so well off that it has no incentive or pressure to move about. The population should be homogeneous; where two or more cultures exist in the same place they are likely to either be fiercely self-conscious or both to become adulterate. What is still more important is unity of religious background; and reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable. There must be a proper balance between urban and rural, industrial and agricultural development. We must also remember that — in spite of every means of transport that can be devised — the local community must always be the most permanent, and that the concept of the nation is by no means fixed and invariable. It is, so to speak, only one fluctuating circle of loyalties between the centre of the family and the local community, and the periphery of humanity entire. Its strength and its geographical size depend upon the comprehensiveness of a way of life which can harmonise parts with distinct local characters of their own. When it becomes no more than a centralised machinery it may affect some of its parts to their detriment, or to what they believe to be their detriment; and we get the regional movements which have appeared within recent years. It is only a law of nature, that local patriotism, when it represents a distinct tradition and culture, takes precedence over a more abstract national patriotism. This remark should carry more weight for being uttered by a Yankee.

The last sentence hints at Eliot’s sympathetic views toward the South. Eliot was something of a maverick in his political sentiments, especially amongst so many liberal/leftist writers and ‘artists.’ His casual statement about Jews in the above excerpts makes it no surprise that he was accused of anti-Semitism.

Regardless of his political and social views, I think he shows very sound thinking on the issues he talked about in this particular segment, and it’s all very relevant to our world now, as tradition is being jettisoned by both the ‘Frankfurt School’/Critical Theory crowd on the left, and by segments of the right, who have decided that nothing in our past is worth saving, and that we can’t learn anything from our ignorant forefathers.

There is a place for stability, continuity, and tradition. It is not possible to built a culture from the ground up, to start from scratch, as some seem to think we ought to do if it is ever in our power to have a say in our future.  Eliot recognized this. We don’t have many men of his calibre today, and so much the worse for us.