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T.S. Eliot's
Notes Towards a Definition of Culture

Thomas Stearns Eliot is primarily known for his poetry but he devoted some significant amount of his attention to the matters of civilization and culture. He was born in St. Louis, Missouri but emigrated to Britain and became, to all intents and purposes, an Englishman, which he perceived he was from his very beginnings. He published a book, Notes Towards a Definition of Culture which contains some valuable insights on culture.

On the title topic he says,

If we take culture seriously, we see that a people does not need merely enough to eat but a proper and particular cuisine [. . ] Culture may even be described simply as that which makes life worth living. (p. 27)

Eliot asserts that the development of culture must be organic and cannot be consciously guided. He says,

For if any definite conclusions emerge from this study, one of them is surely this, that culture is the one thing we cannot deliberately aim at.

Eliot particularly opposes the limitation of culture to erudition and formal education. He says,

The unity with which I am concerned must be largely unconscious, and therefore can perhaps be best approached through a consideration of the useful diversities. (p. 51-52)

A culture, according to Eliot, requires a unity and diversity with respect to regions, religious sects, and social classes: By this he means there should be a constellation of cultures sharing a common core as in Britain or Western Europe but with enough diversity to provide stimulation for each other. Eliot quotes Whitehead on this point,

Men require of their neighbors something sufficiently akin to be understood, something sufficiently different to provoke attention, and something great enough to command admiration. (p. 50)


A national culture, if it is to flourish, should be a constellation of cultures, the constituents of which, benefiting each other, benefit the whole. (p. 58)

Eliot therefore speaks of

the vital importance for a society of friction between its parts. (p. 58)

He states this point another way as

Fortunate the man who, at the right moment, meets the right friend; fortunate also the man who at the right moment meets the right enemy. (p. 59)

This means that

A people should be neither too united nor too divided, if its culture is to flourish. (p. 50)

Eliot, along with Toynbee identifies (or: equates) a culture (or civilization) with its religion. Says Eliot,

No culture can appear or develop except in relation to a religion. (p. 27)

But he notes that

The way of looking at culture and religion which I have been trying to adumbrate is so difficult that I am not sure I grasp it myself except in flashes, or that I comprehend all its implications. (p. 30)

The inherent unity or linkage of religion and culture means, according to Eliot, that one cannot be preserved without the other. Secularism, cosmopolitanism and ascetic retreatism are doomed. Eliot notes,

The schisms of the 16th century and the multiplication of sects, can be studied either as the history of division of religious thought, or as a struggle between opposing social groups--as a variation of doctrine, or as the disintegration of European culture. (p. 29)

On the matter of religion, Eliot makes these observations:

A religion requires not only a body of priests who know what they are doing, but a body of worshippers who know what is being done. (p. 24)
In the most primitive societies no clear distinction is visible between religious and non-religious activities; and as we proceed to examine the more developed societies, we perceive a greater distinction, and finally contrast and opposition, between these activities. (p. 67)
A higher religion is one which is much more difficult to believe. For the more conscious becomes the belief, so the more conscious becomes the unbelief; indifference, doubt and skepticism appear. (p. 67)
A higher religion imposes a conflict, a division, torment and struggle within the individual. (p. 67)

Eliot makes the culture more important than the individuals. Individuals are mere leaves on the cultural tree. The transmission of culture requires the persistence of social classes. Social classes and elites are for Eliot more important than egalitarian goals. In his view, they should not be as rigid as castes but social continuity may be more important than trying to achieve equality of opportunity. The culture of the individual is dependent upon the culture of a group or class and that dependent upon the culture of the society.

Eliot feels that,

Neither a classless society, nor a society of strict and impenetrable social barriers is good; each class should have constant additions and defections; the classes, while remaining distinct, should be able to mix freely; and they should 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. (p. 50)
Finally, a people is judged by history according to its contribution to the culture of other peoples flourishing at the same time and according to its contribution to the cultures which arise afterwards. (p. 56)

Eliot's perception of culture is related to Alfred Kroeber's notion of culture as a superorganic entity.

T.S. Eliot, Notes towards a Definition of Culture, 1948.

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