Eliot1Last year marked the fiftieth anniversary of T. S. Eliot’s death. The premier poet of his generation, Eliot sent shock waves through the literati of Britain and America by becoming an outspoken Christian. The author of The Waste Land, a work of dark despair, began to accept writing assignments from the Anglican Church. A poet who would win the Nobel Prize for Literature set aside verse to write instead about schemes to improve society. His good friend Virginia Woolf grumbled that “Eliot seemed to be turning into a priest.”

In short, the world’s most famous poet decided that humanity had reached such a state of crisis that he must do his part to help preserve civilization. Caught between the polar evils of Nazism and Communism, the world faced a defining moment,and although The Waste Land had poignantly described the void, it had not proposed any solutions.  Eliot knew of only one alternative, a rediscovery of what it means to live “Christianly.”  He became increasingly skeptical of any real solution to social problems from politics alone, concluding that, “political remedies are about as useful as poulticing a cancer.”

Eliot2As I recently read over some of Eliot’s writings, my mind flashed forward to today.  The contemporary world also seems in a perilous state, with countries like North Korea and Pakistan (and soon Iran?) possessing nuclear weapons.  Communism has receded, but a resurgent Islam has spawned a new breed of suicidal extremists who spread fear across the globe.  Eliot reminded me that things have been worse.  In his day, Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, and a militaristic Japan divided up much of the world.  German bombers pounded London nightly, killing more civilians every week than the number who died from the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center.

eliot3Eliot took his case to the British public in a series of BBC broadcast talks.  He held up Christianity as the most important bond between European nations: “I do not believe that the culture of Europe could survive the complete disappearance of the Christian Faith,” he said.  Such sweeping statements have a quaint ring to Europeans today, for their continent is organized politically through the European Union, which excludes mention of God or Christianity in its founding documents.  And yet the threats from radical Islam and the influx of refugees are causing a new identity crisis in Europe.

In tribute to T. S. Eliot, I have compiled the following quotations spelling out his insights, which are far less familiar than his poetry.  Some of his opinions seem quirky, while others are downright prophetic.


On modern capitalism:

(I’m waiting to hear Bernie Sanders quote these.)Money Grab

  • It creates “people detached from tradition, alienated from religion, and susceptible to mass suggestion: in other words a mob. And a mob will be no less a mob if it is well fed, well clothed, well housed, and well disciplined.”
  • “Was our society…assembled round anything more permanent than a congeries of banks, insurance companies and industries, and had it any beliefs more essential than a belief in compound interest and the maintenance of dividends?”
  • “…the organisation of society on the principle of private profit, as well as public destruction, is leading both to the deformation of humanity by unregulated industrialism, and to the exhaustion of natural resources, and that a good deal of our material progress is a progress for which succeeding generations may have to pay dearly.”
  • Much like countries we view as hostile, “we also live in a mass-civilisation following many wrong ambitions and wrong desires, and…if our society renounces completely its obedience to God, it will become no better, and possibly worse, than some of those abroad which are popularly execrated.”

On Christian essentials:
(Tea Party Republicans would do well to ponder these.)cross

  • “To believe in the supernatural is not simply to believe that after living a successful, material, and fairly virtuous life here one will continue to exist in the best-possible substitute for this world, or that after living a starved and stunted life here one will be compensated with all the good things one has gone without: it is to believe that the supernatural is the greatest reality here and now.”
  • “I have none of the feelings of nostalgia, the reverence for tradition, the desire to recapture the sentiment of Fra Angelico, which seems to animate most modern defenders of religion. All that seems to me to be bosh.  What is important, is what nobody seems to realize—the dogmas like that of Original Sin, which are the closest expression of the categories of the religious attitude.  That man is in no sense perfect, but a wretched creature, who can yet apprehend perfection.  It is not then that I put up with the dogma for the sake of the sentiment, but I may possibly swallow the sentiment for the sake of the dogma.”
  • “To me, religion has brought at least the perception of something above morals, and therefore extremely terrifying; it has brought me not happiness, but the sense of something above happiness and therefore more terrifying than ordinary pain and misery, the very dark night and the desert. To me, the phrase ‘to be damned for the glory of God’ is sense and not paradox; I had far rather walk, as I do, in daily terror of eternity, than feel that this was only a children’s game in which all the contestants would get equally worthless prizes in the end.”
  • “What is worst of all is to advocate Christianity, not because it is true, but because it might be beneficial.”

On global dangers:
(In Eliot’s day, Communism loomed.  Think now of ISIS.)

  • “Russian communism is a religion…and you can never fight a religion except with another religion. If we are incapable of a faith at least as strong as that which appears to animate the ruling class of Russia, if we are incapable of dying for a cause, then Western Europe and the Americans might as well be reorganized on the Moscow model at once.”
  • “It is the soul of the West that the East wishes to attack, that soul, divided, uncertain of its principles, confusedly eager for spiritual liberation, and all the more ready to destroy itself, to allow itself to be broken up by Oriental anarchy, because it has of itself departed from its historical civilising order and its tradition.”
  • “The danger, for those who start from the temporal end, is Utopianism; settle the problem of distribution—of wheat, coffee, aspirin or wireless sets—and all the problems of evil will disappear. The danger, for those who start from the spiritual end, is Indifferentism; neglect the affairs of the world and save as many souls out of the wreckage as possible.”
  • “The World is trying the experiment of attempting to form a civilized but non-Christian mentality. The experiment will fail; but we must be very patient in awaiting its collapse; meanwhile redeeming the time: so that the Faith may be preserved alive through the dark ages before us; to renew and rebuild civilization, and save the World from suicide.”

On the church and society:
(Are Christians truly a counter-culture, or just another slice of modern culture?)

  • “But the Church cannot be, in any political sense, either conservative, or liberal, or revolutionary. Conservatism is too often conservation of the wrong things; liberalism a relaxation of discipline; revolution a denial of the permanent things.”
  • “The faith to which we must cling is that the life of every wholly devoted and selfless man must make a difference to the future… I mean the turning away of the soul from the desire of material possessions, of drugged pleasures, of power, or of happiness.”
  • “Nothing pleases people more than to go on thinking what they have always thought, and at the same time imagine that they are thinking something new and daring: it combines the advantage of security and the delight of adventure.”

On writing:
(Ah, how well I know this sense of melancholy struggle.)

  • “Of what use is this experimenting with rhythms and words, this effort to find the precise metric and the exact image to set down feelings which, if communicable at all, can be communicated to so few that the result seems insignificant compared to the labor.”Old Typewriter Keys
  • Dramatic plays vs. real life: “To make allowances for the villain is to weaken the drama: but the Christian is taught to love the villain while hating his villainy.”
  • Prose vs. poetry: “In one’s prose reflections one may be legitimately occupied with ideals, whereas in the writing of verse one can only deal with actuality.”
  • On accepting assignments for religious works: “The invitation came at a moment when I seemed to myself to have exhausted my meagre poetic gifts, and to have nothing more to say. To be, at such a moment, commissioned to write something which, good or bad, must be delivered by a certain date, may have the effect that vigorous cranking sometimes has upon a motor car when the battery is run down.”

And, finally, one of the greatest of modern poets leaves this legacy of belief: “I take for granted that Christian revelation is the only full revelation and that the fullness of Christian revelation resides in the essential fact of the Incarnation… The division between those who accept, and those who deny, Christian revelation I take to be the most profound division between human beings.”

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12 responses to “The Quirky Wisdom of T. S. Eliot”

  1. Gary Hotham says:

    20 March 2016
    Philip–
    Thought provoking readings from Eliot.
    Do you have footnotes or references as to where the quotes came from? If so, would like them.
    Thanks.

    • Philip Yancey says:

      Sure–somewhere, though not easily retrievable. Many are from Eliot’s The Idea of a Christian Society. Philip

  2. Levi Carter says:

    I agree with his dissolussion with politics holding the answer, not much has changed in our time – It’s interesting how the people of God keep seem to repeat the mistakes of history. As we approach Palm Sunday, I am reminded of another people who once, shouting hosanna, looked for a political savior, but were disappointed with an eternal one. -read more at http://www.theconfessionalblog.com

  3. Steve Kasiguran says:

    “The premier poet of his generation, Eliot sent shock waves through the literati of Britain and America by becoming an outspoken Christian.”

    The world continues to be baffled by the notion that a person can be so intellectually gifted and at the same time espouse the Christian faith. The perceived chasm between faith and reason seems to be widening.

    PS: I, too, still use a flip phone.

  4. Charles Gaston says:

    Great article. Is there some particular reason the typewriter image chosen sports a QWERTZ keyboard?

    Did Eliot learn to type in Germany perhaps?

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/QWERTZ

  5. Joy McGinniss says:

    Mr. Yancey,
    Thank you for your books and insights into many timely topics. I always appreciate your journalist’s eye and willingness to examine and question our world’s events through that eye. I own and have read many of your books and prefer them to most so-called Christian authors and follow your blog. You don’t always come up with answers but are not afraid to ask the tough questions and I am grateful for that perspective.
    I do have one question regarding this blog post on T. S. Eliot: do you believe he was anti-semetic? I admit I have not read a biography on Eliot (yet–I do own one) and it’s been many years since I read “The Wasteland.” But I have read others’ critiques of his writings, that he disliked the Jewish people and that comes through in his writings. I am curious to know what your opinion on this topic is. No one is perfect, but I have shied away from his writing because of this belief. I would appreciate your perspective. Thank you. Joy McG.

    • Philip Yancey says:

      I would say “anti-semitic” is too strong a word. He did use some racial stereotypes now and then, as did many upper-class Brits (G. K. Chesterton did too). He wrote in a period when Britain was still a colonial power perceiving itself as bringing enlightenment to others. He also made some disparaging references to US culture (though he was born here) but that doesn’t make him anti-American. A blind spot, surely, though I wouldn’t keep you from reading him. Martin Luther was much more anti-semitic, and still has much to teach us.

    • Joy McGinniss says:

      Thank you, Mr. Yancey, for your thoughtful reply. I have been aware of Luther’s anti-semitism for decades. I do have a difficult time with him, knowing much of what he taught was used as justification for what happened to the Jewish people during the Holocaust. But we are all made of clay and no one but our Lord is perfect. Thank you for the reminder and your insight into Eliot. Please keep writing…

      Gratefully,
      Joy McG.

      • Dave Miner says:

        Not to diminish the antisemitism of Luther, and also admitting that I haven’t read all he wrote, I noticed that his most antisemitic writings came very late in his life when he was likely suffering from some form of dementia. I’ve wondered if he would have approved his own writings when he was more “in his right mind”?
        David Miner,D.C.

  6. Gail Seidel says:

    Excellent and timely article… thank you!!!

  7. Rev. Jo-Anne Thomas says:

    I always learn when I read your writings. I am grateful for the work you have done to equip, grow and build Believers and Seekers, in discovering and rediscovering our ancient faith. May “your tribe flourish”.

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