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T. S. Eliot on Simone Weil and the social organism

Friday, 26 Sep 2014

T. S. Eliot on Staff and Scrip, Dr John Dunn. First posted on Monday, 28 October 2013 at 17:23

T.S. Eliot wrote the preface to the English edition of The Need for Roots; and it is not hard to see why he was an admirer of Weil’s work. He had written previously of a return to Christianity as the basis of the social organism. A society founded on the Christian ethos would ‘compel changes in our organisation of industry and commerce and financial credit’ and it would facilitate rather than as at present impede, a life of devotion for those capable of it.1

The alternative to the dissolutive impact of liberalism was the basic social unit that Eliot identified in England as the parish, a ‘unitary community’ of a ‘religious-social’ character, which has been undermined by industrialism and urbanisation. The parish was:

a small and mostly self-contained group attached to the soil and having its interests centred in a particular place, with a kind of unity which may be designed, but which also has to grow through generations. It is the idea, or ideal, of a community small enough to consist of a nexus of direct personal relationships, in which all iniquities and turpitudes will take the simple and easily appreciable form of wrong relations between one persona and another. 2
A Christian society would be based on the freedom of familiarity and custom rather than law.3 The social organism would be re-established. Each class would have different responsibilities suited to it, rather than the egalitarianism of democracy that becomes ‘oppressive for the conscientious and licentious for the rest’.4

In seeking an alternative to liberalism, Eliot shared Weil’s view that the economic and political must be considered as subordinate to the ‘realm situated ... above this world’.5 ‘For myself’, he wrote, ‘a right political philosophy came more and more to imply a right theology–and right economics to depend upon right ethics...’.6

The last vestiges of the traditional order, where money-dealing was condemned and faith was interwoven in the social fabric, had been destroyed by liberalism to be replaced by commoditisation and the cash relationship. The resultant emptiness, a Kierkegaardian despair, is clearly discernible in poems such as the Wasteland and The Hollow Men,and is always in tension with a hunger for meaning and a dormant metaphysical purpose. From the early work mentored by Ezra Pound, to the Four Quartets, in particular Little Gidding, Eliot illuminated the idea that life is spiritually barren and meaningless without an over-arching quest, sensibility or teleology.

1. T. S. Eliot, The Idea of a Christian Society, London: Faber and Faber, 1939, p. 11.
2. The Idea of a Christian Society, p.31
3. The Idea of a Christian Society, p.34 (See also Our wills become one single will in Thought Pieces)
4. T. S. Eliot, Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, London: Faber and Faber, p. 48
5. S. Weil, The Need for Roots, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 2009, p.4
6. T. S. Eliot, ‘Last Words’, The Criterion, January 1939.

John Dunn.

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