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T.S. Eliot: A Thought on Liberalism

Joy and Matthew Steem

Lady Ottoline Morrell [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Lady Ottoline Morrell [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

The trouble with T.S Eliot’s reputation, many writers have said, is that his early work has been explored (think “The Wasteland”) while the later has been ignored. This has changed somewhat lately, but it’s still fairly pervasive. For example, in many poetry anthologies—the place where students get their first taste of poetry—it will be the younger, non-believing rather nihilistic Eliot they are introduced to. It’s not too often that something like the Four Quartets will be provided. Nope, the concluding sentiment received will be, likely, from “The Hollow Men”:

         “This is the way the world ends (x3)
         Not with a bang but a whimper.”

Yet this is not the later Eliot. This is curious to me because I want to know what the ideas of a person are at the end of his or her life—after s/he has had time to mature and evaluate.  

When Eliot speaks to our engagement with culture he instructs us to start at the right place. In attempting to provide a useful road map he says,

My concern with contemporary society … will not be primarily with specific defects, abuses or injustices but with the question, what-if any-is the "idea" of the society in which we live? to what end is it arranged?

This is where Eliot wants us to start: to question our prime ideas of where we think society should be aimed. And, in order to know that, we must know the philosophy which underlies our thinking. Eliot begins by asking us to look at liberalism, because this is one of the core ideas that empowers our actions and motivations.

Now, as a Canadian, it’s slightly different for me: though my culture too has been thoroughly saturated with an emphasis on liberty, which goes along with freedom and individualism. This leads to a large number of “my’s”: my rights (generally tied to stuff—i.e. materialism), my autonomy (generally tied to my worldview—i.e. religious, political and ideological affiliations), and my ideas being just as good as anybody else’s (which handily leads to my absolute free speech).

This is liberalism. And Eliot doesn’t like it much. Not that he is against individuality, and rights etcetera, he just thinks that if those are taken as foundations of a society, bad things are going to happen. As to what it tends towards, Eliot asserts that

Liberalism … is something which tends to release energy rather than accumulate it, to relax, rather than to fortify. It is a movement not so much defined by its end, as by its starting point; away from, rather than towards, something definite.

For Eliot, the traditional community is a great part of that “something definite.” But liberalism taken to its extreme is pro-individual, at the cost of community, in the end.

Eliot’s opinion is that

By destroying traditional social habits of the people, by dissolving their natural collective consciousness into individual constituents, by licensing the opinions of the most foolish, by substituting instruction for education, by encouraging cleverness rather than wisdom, the upstart rather than the qualified, by fostering a notion of getting on, ... Liberalism can prepare the way for that which is its own negation: the artificial, mechanized or brutalized control which is a desperate remedy for its chaos.

The part about the remedy being mechanized or a brutalized control does sound rather ominous, not? I know that in all ages the cry of alarm is continually saying, “the end is near,” yet …