restricted access Tradition and Orthodoxy, 1934-1939: Introduction
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[ xi Tradition and Orthodoxy, 1934-1939 Introduction I This volume presciently opens with a Criterion “Commentary” of January 1934. T. S. Eliot has taken up two unrelated phenomena that will later converge : the power of a historian’s rhetoric and the impotence of liberal Christianity. In the first section of the commentary, Eliot brings a light touch to the problem of historical writing. Although he admires the skill of Winston Churchill’s biography of the Duke of Marlborough, Eliot frowns on the oratorical style – “constantly pitching the tone a little too high” – in which the writer, too accustomed to public speaking, seems to pause at the end of his periods “for the invariable burst of hand-clapping” (5.3-4). Finishing off Churchill by comparing his style to the patriotic bluster of G. M. Trevelyan, Eliot turns in the second part of his commentary to more serious matters, inspecting various Christian arguments against communism . He takes a dim view of H. G. Wood’s liberal Christianity, which is not coherent enough to oppose the strong orthodoxies of communism: Wood’s principles “are all very well,” Eliot complains, “but they suffer from the fact that everyone can accept them: there is nothing specifically Christian about them” (5.7). Both themes will reappear in this volume. Eliot’s suspicion of nationalist rhetoric – whether from communist, fascist, or democratic quarters – would harden into a point of principle in the ensuing years. Likewise, his calls for a pure, dogmatic Christianity with which to oppose communism and fascism would increase in urgency. Aside from their thematic repetition , what brings these unrelated strands together retrospectively is that, when war finally broke out, it would be neither the bromides of liberal Christianity nor the orthodoxy of Eliot’s Anglo-Catholicism that would save Britain from hostile powers. It would be Winston Churchill, no longer speaking as historian but as wartime Prime Minister, whose resonant oratory would uphold a beleaguered nation. The present volume begins in the aftermath of an economic disaster – the Great Depression – and ends in the political disaster of World War II. In spite of the darkened skies, the 1930s were years of optimistic planning, Tradition and Orthodoxy, 1934-1939 xii ] animated by the widespread belief that economic and political orders were broken, and that an increasingly bureaucratized government, more formalized methods of data gathering, and the new tools of sociology could be turned in the service of solving the problems of education, land reform, the housingcrisis,andeconomicuncertainty.1 AlthoughEliotoffersinthisperiod some astute literary criticism, his prose is mainly engaged in these social questions that raged through the decade. Writing in 1934, Eliot confesses: At the present time I am not very much interested in the only subject which I am supposed to be qualified to write about: that is, one kind of literary criticism. I am not very much interested in literature, except dramatic literature; and I am largely interested in subjects which I do not yet know very much about: theology, politics, economics, and education . (5.126) To these latter subjects, Eliot brought to bear his philosophical skepticism and the zeal of a recent Christian convert. The bookends of this volume, After Strange Gods (1934) and The Idea of a Christian Society (1939), are Eliot’s major responses to the economic and political calamities of the 1930s, and as such, they partake in the culture’s enthusiasm for planning and strategizing.2 The later book concerns itself with “the organisation of values, and a direction of religious thought which must inevitably proceed to a criticism of political and economic systems” (5.684): the disciplines, and interrelated systems, in which Eliot schooled himself during the 1930s. Abstract and theological plans rather than practical schemes, After Strange Gods and The Idea of a Christian Society both rehearse the terms in which the rest of the volume might be understood: tradition and orthodoxy . In After Strange Gods, Eliot defines tradition as “a way of feeling and acting which characterises a group throughout generations,” habits which must be largely unconscious (5.25). Orthodoxy, by contrast, involves the realm of conscious discrimination. Together, tradition and orthodoxy are constitutive of a well-organized society directed toward proper ends: “the habits of the community formulated, corrected, and elevated by the continuous thought and direction of the Church” (5.40). While tradition providestheglue that holds a culture together, orthodoxy offers the standards for guiding its organic evolution. By encouraging the good and discouraging the bad, orthodoxy maintains a culture’s wholeness and...


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