First posted on Friday, 1 March 2013 at 21:31
T. S. Eliot: modern seeking for pattern in the world’s ugliness
In traditional society (e.g. Hindu, pre-Reformation Christianity) the social organism was founded on the principle of unity in multiplicity. Each thing was considered to be in a relationship with something else inconformity with their respective natures, and thus in conformity with the right to fulfil those natures.
Hierarchy in the social organism was accepted as an extension of the cosmic harmony, without which there would be a reversion to a fallen state. Without hierarchy there would be disorder; the realisation of a particular nature would clash with all other natures seeking fulfilment.
This contrasts with modern thought, in which an individual right is always absolute and therefore excludes all others. Any attempt to give all rights equal validity fails, because equality destroys rights, i.e. the right of a nature to be what it is. Equality is eventually reached on a commodity basis, on the purely quantitative plane of numerical unities (1 = 1), which is only possible through the destruction of all the qualitative differences that make up these diverse natures. Equality destroys diversity and a right ends up being the right to nothing.
In the medieval social organism, it was accepted that hierarchy was needed to preserve this right, which must renounce its absoluteness and consent to its own relativity. One right would have more of a right to something than another; but this renunciation was not felt as resignation and compromise, it was based on something other than constraint.
In modernity, we have moved historically from a vision of the general good to a politics of protecting the individual’s rights.
It does not matter whether you are on the right or the left in politics, they both do the same sort of thing in the modern world. You might say the coercive state is going to protect those individual rights, or you might say a limited state is going to allow those individual rights to flourish, but it is essentially no longer the general good that counts, but rather the individual’s pursuit of a version of the good life. This takes us back to the disorder, destruction of diversity and right to nothing that I mentioned above.
Does this mean that traditionalism must distance itself from both the political right and left?
Would it be possible, or even desirable, to enough people, to return to tradition? What form might it take in the future? Is hierarchical order possible without acknowledgement of (or even belief in) a cosmic order?
Are the principles of tradition possible without the old forms?
Julius Evola might give us food for thought. “For the authentic revolutionary conservative, what really counts is to be faithful not to past forms and institutions, but rather to principles of which such forms and institutions have been particular expressions, adequate for a specific period of time and in a specific geographical area.”
The philosophical hallmark of modernity today is grave suspicion with tradition. Modernity seeks to destroy tradition with ‘education’. Why? Because if what it means to be a human and to be free is the unfolding of my will, my self-determination, then tradition puts an end to that. Tradition says - not radical freedom, but fulfilment within hierarchy. So tradition tends to be viewed with hostility in modernity.
The great virtue in modernity is criticism. It is not an understanding of the universe, not awe, nor fear of the Lord, it is not contemplation, it is the ability to look at things and break them down and work out how to use (exploit) them more effectively.
On the other hand we have fragmentation, which some people are anxious about in modernity... the feeling that, yes, I’m very good at this one thing, but feel cut off somehow from other things. Modernity is haunted - it does not have the ability, it would seem, to entirely escape the old world.
Little Gidding - T.S. Eliot
Eliot’s Little Gidding is about the haunted modern, seeking for pattern in the world’s ugliness (“Garlic and sapphires in the mud / Clot the bedded axle-tree”), humanity’s weakness (“human kind / Cannot bear very much reality”), and the violent need for self-purgation (“If to be warmed, then I must freeze / And quake in frigid purgatorial fires / Of which the flame is roses, and the smoke is briars”). But, looking to Julian of Norwich, Eliot asserts that all of this—disease, deception, suffering, evil—is part of a larger pattern, a pattern that we can’t know from our temporal perspective but that will be revealed in eternity.
The final section of Little Gidding once again looks to Julian in its concluding image of eternal reconciliation:
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.