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The Journey Of The Magi

December 20, 2013 Our Catholic Faith No Comments


The narrator toward the end of T.S. Eliot’s Journey of the Magi reflects, “Were we led all that way for Birth or Death. There was Birth certainly. We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death, but thought they were different.” The birth, of course, was that of Christ, and the introduction of a new order. The death was that of the pagan way of life. This is conveyed in the closing lines of the poem when the narrator continues, “We returned to our places, these kingdoms. But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation with an alien people clutching their gods.” (1)
This reference to the Birth of Christ is not an anomaly. Eliot’s poetry is suffused with reference to the Incarnation. “The Annunciation gave mankind hope,” he writes. Eliot is aware that the pagans did not reject Christ; they simply did not know Christ.
Although an Anglo-Catholic, Eliot nevertheless often speaks for the Church Universal. Appalled by the cultural drift of his day and by the liberalism that he finds affecting our attitudes toward life, he reminds us of the traditional things that have been discarded in the name of progress. Liberalism, he believes, is a movement, not so much defined by its end as by its rejection of the inherited. The liberal, by progressively eliminating the public elements of Christianity, reduces religion to a private affair.
T.S. Eliot is known primarily for his poetry. His The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, The Wasteland, and The Four Quartets have a firm place in the Western literary canon. Less well known are two short books written about ten years apart, one shortly before the Second World War, the other shortly after. In the two books Eliot addresses successively the twin subjects, Christian society and Christian culture: The Idea of a Christian Society (1939) (2) and Notes Toward a Christian Culture (1948). (3) Although written nearly three-quarters of a century ago, these brief works are worth revisiting for the insight and wisdom they contain.
A Christian community, Eliot tells us, is not an organization. Its identity is that of an identity of belief and aspiration. Whereas a Christian culture has a positive set of values and a unity of outlook, a negative liberal or progressive society remains neutral with respect to the good. In the realm of letters, the liberal society possesses no agreement with respect to what ought to be read or even that there anything worth reading.
“A nation’s system of education,” writes Eliot, “is much more important than its system of government.” (4) A proper system of education opens the student to the inherited, fostering thereby a degree of continuity and social unity without imposing a uniformity of culture. Attention to inheritance enables one to acquire a sense of hierarchy, an awareness that some things are more important than others. The advantage of a Christian education is that it provides one with a set of categories that facilitates thought and discourse, even when it does not compel belief.
A skeptical and/or indifferent statesman, working within a Christian frame, might be more effective than a devout Christian statesman obliged to conform to a secular frame. In the political order where Christianity prevails, the Christian faith requires, as a minimum, only a large unconscious behavior. “A Christian Society would be a society in which the natural end of man — virtue and wellbeing in community — is acknowledged for all, and the supernatural end for all who have eyes to see.” (5)
In Notes Toward a Christian Culture Eliot spells out what he means by culture. “I mean first of all what the anthropologists mean: the way of life of a particular people living in a particular place.” (6) That culture is made visible in their arts, in their social system, in their habits and customs, and, above all, in their religion. He then speaks of the culture of the individual, of the group, and of the society. The culture of the society is fundamental, he maintains, for the culture of the individual cannot be isolated from the group nor that of the group from the whole of society. Recognizing that not all will attain the same level of achievement, he makes the point: “The culture of a higher class is not something superfluous to a society as a whole, or to the majority, and ought to be shared equally by other classes.” (7) He adds, “It is an error to assume that culture can be preserved, extended, and developed in the absence of religion.”
Written at the end of the war, Notes Toward a Christian Culture contains a series of talks to a German-speaking audience that focus on the unity of European culture from the point of view of, he modestly says, “a man of letters.” He speaks of English as the richest for the writing of poetry. That it may be considered such is a consequence of the variety of elements of which English is composed. “First of course is the German foundation. . . . After this we find a considerable Scandinavian element, due in the first place to the Danish Conquest. Then there is the Norman French element after the Norman Conquest. After this there followed a succession of French influence, traceable through words adopted at different periods. The sixteenth century saw the increase of new words coined from Latin.” (8)
The point of this linguistic digression: Of poetry, no one nation could have achieved what we Europeans collectively possess. But every literature must have some sources which are peculiarly its own, deep in its own history, but also equally important, are the sources which we share in common, that is, the literature of Rome, Greece, and Israel. What is true of poetry is true of other arts as well, and, of course, true of philosophy.
By contrast, a universal concern with politics does not unite but rather tends to destroy the cultural unity of a people by challenging their unconscious assumptions. Among men of letters, something which had never been doubted, and therefore had no need to rise to the level of conscious affirmation, can become contentious in the political arena. A nation’s political structure affects its nature and in turn is affected by the culture. “For the health of the culture of Europe, two conditions are required: that the culture of each country should be unique and that the different cultures should recognize their relationship to each other.” (9) There is a common element to European culture, an interrelated history of thought and feeling and behavior, an interchange of arts and ideas.
Eliot distinguishes between the material organism of Europe and its spiritual organism. “If the latter dies, then what is organized is not Europe, but is rather a mass of human beings speaking different languages. It is the common tradition of Christianity which has made Europe what it is and the common cultural elements which Christianity has brought with it….It is in Christianity that our arts have developed; it is in Christianity that the laws of Europe have until recently been rooted. If Christianity goes, the whole of culture goes.” (10)
Religion as distinguished from modern paganism implies a life in conformity with nature. The natural life and the supernatural life have conformity with each other, for a political philosophy derives its policies and sanctions from ethics, and ethics from the truth of religion. At this time, we can proceed in one of two directions, in the direction of a pagan society or in the direction of a Christian society. A Christian society may assume different forms according to the traditions of that society, Roman, Orthodox, and Lutheran.
Eliot acknowledges a debt to Christopher Dawson and Jacques Maritain, who like Eliot were troubled by the progressive secularization of the social order. Eliot may have anticipated Maritain’s dictum, “Sooner or later, nations will have to declare for or against Christ,” when the latter wrote, simply, “There is no other choice.” But in the end, Eliot concludes, we have to realize that the Kingdom of Christ on earth will never be realized.

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1. This poem is contained within the Collected Poems 1909-1962 (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1963).
2. T.S. Eliot, The Idea of a Christian Society (London: Farber and Farber, 1939).
3. T.S. Eliot, Notes Toward a Christian Culture (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1949)
4. Eliot, The Idea, p. 91.
5. Eliot, The Idea, p. 34.
6. Eliot, Notes, pp. 197-98.
7. Eliot, Notes, p 107.
8. Eliot, Notes, p. 188.
9. Eliot, Notes, p. 197.
10. Eliot, Notes, p. 200.

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(Dr. Dougherty is dean emeritus of the School of Philosophy at The Catholic University of America.)

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