Cry “Elitism!,” And Let Slip the Dogs of War

T.S. Eliot wrote a book called Notes Toward the Definition of Culture. He wrote this book because he believed (correctly, I think) that the meaning of the word culture was being lost through careless use. Eliot’s primary thesis was that culture is the incarnation of a religion.

“We may go further and ask whether what we call the culture, and what we call the religion, of a people are not essentially aspects of the same thing: the culture being, essentially, the incarnation (so to speak) of the religion of a people. ” (p27)

“The conception of culture and religion as being, when each term is taken in the right context, different aspects of the same thing, is one which requires a good deal of explanation. But I should like to suggest first, that it provides us with the means of combating two complementary errors. The one more widely held is that culture can be preserved, extended and developed in the absence of religion. This error may be held by the Christian in common with the infidel, and its proper refutation would require an historical analysis of considerable refinement, because the truth is not immediately apparent, and may be contradicted by appearances: a culture may linger on, and indeed produce some of its most brilliant artistic and other successes after the religious faith has fallen into decay. The other error is the belief that the preservation and maintenance of religion need not reckon with the preservation and maintenance of culture: a belief which may even lead to the rejection of the products of culture as frivolous obstructions to the spiritual life. To be in a position to reject this error, as with the other, requires us to take a distant view; to refuse to accept the conclusion, when the culture that we see is a culture in decline, that culture is something to which we can afford to remain indifferent.  And I must add that to see the unity of culture and religion in this way neither implies that all the products of art can be accepted uncritically, nor provides a criterion by which everybody can immediately distinguish between them. Esthetic sensibility must be extended into spiritual perception, and spiritual perception must be extended in esthetic sensibility and disciplined taste before we are qualified to pass judgment upon decadence or diabolism or nihilism in art. To judge a work of art by artistic or by religious standards, to judge a religion by religious or artistic standards should come in the end to the same thing: though it is an end at which no individual can arrive (pp 27-28, emphasis mine).

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One Response to “Cry “Elitism!,” And Let Slip the Dogs of War”

  1. Towards the definition of culture | Religious Affections Ministries Says:

    […] Some quotes from T. S. Eliot. […]

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