Wednesday, October 26, 2011

T.S. Eliot on Capitalism and Christianity

I have just finished reading a slim book comprised of two lectures by T.S. Eliot, given just before the outbreak of the Second World War, entitled The Idea of a Christian Society.

C.S. Lewis was critical of Eliot's brand of Christianity, once writing in a letter to a friend: "What I am attacking is a set of people who seem to me to be trying to make of Christianity itself one more highbrow, Chelsea, bourgeois-baiting fad. T.S. Eliot is the single man who sums up the thing I am fighting against." (Later on, his view of Eliot grew warmer and they became rather friendly.)

It's easy to be suspicious of highbrow converts, to assume that they are simply seeking another intellectual hobby-horse or striking a pose. But what I've read of Eliot's writings on religion convince me his faith was very sincere and serious.

These two lectures contemplate what a modern society built upon Christian principles would look like. Eliot admits this seems a remote possibility; he even says, "In an industrialised society like that of England, I am surrpised that the people retains as much of Christianity as it does." In the years since the Second World War, the Christian colouring of European society has faded even more, so that the topic of these lectures may no longer seem of much relevance.

However, it is interesting to see how much of Eliot's criticism was reserved for plutocracy and the profit motive. Whoever styles himself as a Christian or a conservative, today, finds himself bracketed with the apostles of free enterprise and big business, under the banner of the "right wing". I have even argued with Catholics who considered the Church's teaching on the universal destination of goods, and the impossibility of relying on "market forces" to bring about social justice, as somehow being compatible with rampant commercialism.

It is worth quoting Eliot's closing words, in which he admits to a sense of "personal contrition, of humility, repentance and amendment" when he realised that English society had no positive philosophy of its own to match against fascism and communism:

We could not match conviction with conviction, we had no ideas with which we could either meet or oppose the ideas opposed to us. Was our society, which had always been so sure of its superiority and rectitude, so confident of its unexamined premisses, assembled around anything more permanent than a congeries of banks, insurance companies and industries, and had it any beliefs more essential than a belief in compound interest and the maintenance of dividends?

I think the same criticism could apply to "Ireland PLC".

1 comment:

  1. D.L. Sayers once wrote to C.S. Lewis "The trouble with you religious people is that you have so little trust in God".