T. S. Eliot on Religion and Humanism

In his short essay “Religion Without Humanism,” published in Norman Foerster’s 1930 book Humanism in America, T. S. Eliot argues that humanism is an essential supplement to religion. There is, he says, a “danger, a very real one, of religion without humanism.” This danger, he claims, is twofold. On the one side is the extreme of a “petrified eccleciasticism” and, on the other, the extreme of “modernism.” The former Eliot identifies with the “narrow and bigoted” reactionaries of, for example, the Roman Catholic Church and the latter with the “hypocritical and humanitarian” faction of the same Church. Without humanism, religion “produces the vulgarities and the political compromises of Roman Catholicism” as well as “the vulgarities and the fanaticism of Tennessee” in the Protestant churches.

Eliot’s argument, unfortunately, suffers from his failure to define his terms. His failure to define the term “humanism” is, in this essay, apparently intentional. “As I believe I am writing chiefly for those who know or think they know, what ‘humanism’ means,” he writes, “I have not in this paper attempted any definition of it.” The definition which Eliot implicitly provides, however, seems to contradict the definitions which the humanists whose essays are published in the same volume provide.

Eliot, for example, implies that humanism and religion are in some ways mutually exclusive, humanism behaving as a sort of loyal opposition to religion. He identifies humanism, for example, with “criticism from without” religion as well as “infidelity and agnosticism.” His greatest fear for humanism, he goes on, is that it “should make a tradition of dissent and agnosticism, and so cut itself off from the sphere of influence in which it is most needed.” Within Eliot’s notion of humanism as a force external to religion which, through its criticism of religion, prevents religion from decaying into enthusiasm on the one hand and humanitarianism on the other is the clear, if implicit, understanding that the two, religion and humanism, cannot coexist within the same person. One cannot, after all, be both internal to religion and external to it, and the humanist, at least vis-à-vis his humanism, in Eliot’s account, must be in the latter position.

Irving Babbitt, however, in his essay “Humanism: An Essay at Definition,” seems to assume the opposite position. He argues, for instance, that “the man who sets out to live religiously in the secular order without having recourse to the wisdom of the humanist is likely to fall into vicious confusions.” He goes on to write, “It follows that the Catholic and the non-Catholic should be able to co-operate on the humanistic level.” From this point of view humanism can be seen as possibly, though not necessarily, internal to religion in that the Catholic is capable of adopting and applying humanistic principles while remaining a faithful Catholic. This is patently incompatible with Eliot’s view of the relationship between humanism and religion.

In addition to his failure to define humanism, there is the further trouble of Eliot’s failure to define religion. While the former absence of definition is, according to Eliot, intentional, the latter seems, rather, wholly unintentional. While it is clear that Eliot has in mind a specifically, if ecumenically, Christian cultural milieu, he does include among his references to the potential failures of religion without humanism “the communion of saints in Tibet.” This reference to the decadent theocracy of Tibet under the Buddhist lamas, of course, widens the scope of the word “religion” as it is being used by Eliot in this essay. It also, however, complicates the term due to Eliot’s failure to provide a definition for it. There is, after all, an important distinction between the tenets of Buddhism and the beliefs which must be adopted by the committed orthodox Christian. This distinction is, in turn, such that, if the humanist is, as Eliot claims, to play the role of critic, the career of the humanist where Buddhism is the predominant religion will inevitably be quite different from the career of the humanist whose primary religious relationship is with Christianity.

Eliot’s failure to define both humanism and religion in an essay about the relationship between the two creates significant difficulties for his argument. Even so, however, Eliot’s view of humanism as the loyal opposition to religion provides a valuable perspective on the usefulness of disbelief and the unbelievers who espouse it even within an otherwise religious society. Without the voice of doubt, as Eliot says, the power of religious authorities nearly inevitably degrades into pomposity and the importance of faith into an unquestioning and stifling dogmatism.

The Wife of Bath and Katherine Minola (part 1)

Both Geoffrey Chaucer and William Shakespeare dedicated a large portion of their respective bodies of work to stories about marriage and examinations of marriage through those stories. In addition, these two great authors of the English language both evince a tendency to focus upon similar questions surrounding marriage, such as the origins and nature of romantic love, the consequences of spousal unfaithfulness, and the roles of husbands and wives in relation to each other.[1] There are many possibilities for the origins of this similarity of interests between Chaucer and Shakespeare. Marriage and all of its facets, including male-female relations, ἔρως, childbearing, and childrearing, are, after all, ubiquitous aspects of the human condition and always of immediate interest in any historical moment.

In spite of Chaucer’s frequent identification as a “medieval” poet and Shakespeare’s popular designation as a “Renaissance,” or, more recently, “early modern,” poet, it is also not to be overlooked that, as John Spiers writes, “The community that discovers itself in Chaucer is already recognizably the English community of Shakespeare.”[2] The implications and assumptions engendered by the identification of each with his particular historical era aside, the two are separated by only 200 years, a substantial but not exceptionally large amount of time. “If [Shakespeare and his contemporaries] are moderns, Chaucer also is a modern,” continues Spiers,” if Chaucer is mediaeval, they also are mediaeval.”[3] Ultimately, Spiers concludes, “Shakespeare’s English is the complex fulfilment of, or development from, Chaucer’s.”[4] This is true not only of the language itself, but also of the ideas conveyed through that language as well as the style in which they are conveyed.

The influence, direct and indirect, of Chaucer upon Shakespeare is evident in the latter’s treatment of marriage in comparison with that of the former. It is well-established that Shakespeare drew upon Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and other works by Chaucer for the subject matter of his plays. “The Knight’s Tale,” for example, says Helen Cooper, “influenced two earlier plays of Shakespeare’s, Two Gentlemen of Verona and A Midsummer Night’s Dream,”[5] two plays written around the same time as the writing of the Taming of the Shrew.[6] Shakespeare, in addition, continued to draw on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales throughout his career. “A further possible area of influence from the Tales on Shakespeare emerges in the last plays,” continues Cooper.[7] “The theme of women’s endurance of undeserved suffering in Henry VIII, The Winter’s Tale, and Pericles may owe something to the Clerk’s and Man of Law’s Tales.”[8] Given that Shakespeare drew upon at least one of the members of Chaucer’s Marriage Group of Tales for his depictions of suffering women and that he was writing plays influenced by Chaucer at nearly the same time that he was writing the Taming of the Shrew, the similarities between Chaucer’s Wife of Bath and Shakespeare’s Katherine Minola seem unlikely to be merely coincidental. Instead, the character of Katherine Minola and the story of her “taming” present another case of Shakespeare’s borrowings from Chaucer.

[1] For example, Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde examines the origins of romantic love as well as the consequences of unfaithfulness. Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing is an examination of the origins of romantic love with a substantial amount of content that is fascinatingly similar to the story of Troilus and Criseyde, of which Shakespeare wrote his own version in the play Troilus and Cressida.

[2] John Spiers, Chaucer the Maker (London: Faber and Faber, 1972), 15.

[3] Ibid., 16.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Helen Cooper, Oxford Guides to Chaucer: The Canterbury Tales, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 422.

[6] Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor, eds., William Shakespeare: A Textual Companion (New York: W. W. Norton, 1997), 109, 118. Wells and Taylor date Two Gentlemen of Verona to 1590–1591, A Midsummer Night’s Dream to 1595, and The Taming of the Shrew to 1590–1591, placing all of the plays within four to five years of each other and making Two Gentlemen of Verona and The Taming of the Shrew coeval.

[7] Cooper, 422.

[8] Ibid.

Defining Humanism

When attempting to define humanism, the most obvious and immediate reference point is undoubtedly the humanists of the Renaissance. It was at this time that the very word “humanist” entered the English language, apparently under the influence of the Italian coinage umanista, meaning “student of human affairs or human nature,” attributed to the Italian poet Lodovicio Ariosto. In this use, says the Online Etymological Dictionary, “the original notion appears to be ‘human’ as opposed to ‘divine,’ that is, a student of the human achievements of the pre-Christian authors and philosophers, as opposed to the theological studies of the divines.” A humanist, then, is one whose interests and studies are focused in the world of the productions of the human mind.

It may further be extrapolated from this concentration on the achievements of mankind that the humanist is concerned with providing human answers to human problems. In his book on the World of Humanism, Myron P. Gilmore describes the Renaissance humanists as “an aristocracy of the intellect, the first apostles of the salvation of society by the use of human reason.” The otherworldly orientation of the Middle Ages has certainly been exaggerated. It would, therefore, be an exaggeration to emphasize too greatly the Renaissance humanists’ departure from the earlier, ostensibly more theologically inclined thinkers of the medieval period. There was, however, a definite trend toward a greater faith in the abilities of human reason that is evident in humanist thought. According to Paul Tillich, for example, it was precisely the “detached scholarly attitude toward the contents of the Christian faith” engendered by the Christian humanism of Erasmus which led to his conflict with Martin Luther.

Yet the existence of such a perspective as the “Christian humanism” of Erasmus is evidence that the humanists’ faith in human reason need not necessarily exclude the Christian’s faith in the revelation and workings of God. Writing of his early twentieth century revival of humanism, Irving Babbitt argued that “humanism . . . may . . . work in harmony with traditional religion.” Babbitt reasons that humanism is a supplement to religion, perhaps even a necessary one given the predominance of secularity in the modern age. While “it is an error to hold that humanism can take the place of religion” and “religion indeed may more readily dispense with humanism than humanism with religion,” says Babbitt, humanism serves religion in a number of ways.

Perhaps the most important way in which humanism can act as a supplement to religion is in forming a conduit by which individuals of various faiths can meaningfully interact and cooperate on matters of shared concern. Babbitt notes that “the Catholic Church has . . . been well inspired in rounding out its religious doctrine with the teaching of Aristotle and other masters of the law of measure.” The phrasing Babbitt uses here is perhaps questionable, as the medieval Catholic philosophers were not so much “rounding out” Catholic doctrine with Aristotelian philosophy so much as they were allowing that philosophy to form the non-Christian foundation upon which the Christian faith could build and thereby bring human knowledge to completion. Babbitt is right to assert, however, that because of this addition of Aristotle’s philosophy to the particulars of Catholic doctrine “it follows that the Catholic and the non-Catholic should be able to co-operate on the humanistic level.” For cooperation between two groups to take place, there must be a certain shared foundation of ideas and interests. The “humanistic level,” to use Babbitt’s terminology, acts as that shared foundation for the Catholic and the non-Catholic as well as for the Christian and the non-Christian more generally in its emphasis on the good of mankind and the ability to human action to achieve this end.

T. S. Eliot’s Theory of Poetry (Part 6)

This fitting together of the pieces of experience is, of course, only one of innumerable possible means by which to explain experience as a whole. This is why “there is no competition,” as Eliot wrote in East Coker, among poets. There is no poet who can ultimately outdo the others in such a way as to remove their ability to write new poetry. Although they work with the same set of experiences, the variety of means by which these experiences can be explored, discussed, and unified with other experiences is the inexhaustible source of all poetry. In the same essay, Eliot continues, “The essential is to get upon the stage this precise statement of life which is at the same time a point of view, a world; a world which the author’s mind has subjected to a process of sophistication.” More recently, Arthur Danto has articulated a similar notion, writing in his 1981 book The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, that “it may just be one of the main offices of art less to represent the world than to represent it in such a way as to cause us to view it with a certain attitude and with a special vision.” Each poet, then, lends to his readers a certain lens through which to view the world of experience and through which to understand its phenomena collectively. In so doing, he grants the reader a vision of the world which may be ultimately incorrect and which the reader may ultimately reject or abandon, but which yet provides some special insight.

Eliot concludes his 1950 Harvard lectures on Poetry and Drama with a statement that grants a great deal of insight into his thought on poetry:

It is ultimately the function of art, in imposing a credible order upon ordinary reality, and thereby eliciting some perception of an order in reality, to bring us to a condition of serenity, stillness and reconciliation; and then leave us, as Virgil left Dante, to proceed toward a region where that guide can avail us no farther.

Poetry, like all art, then, provides for the reader a “credible order” by which the many and various phenomena of life can be made sense of, the disparate united into a cohesive whole. In so doing, poetry is able to grant the reader the ability to perceive that reality, in spite of its often chaotic and random appearance, has some underlying unity by which it is bound together. This insight, in turn, provides the terms by which one may make peace with the world. In this case, “world’ includes both the world internal to and external to the reader, including even in the internal worlds of others. The reader is able to establish a peace within and with himself through a greater understanding of the internal worlds of another, namely, the poet, who stands, by extension, for the internal worlds of innumerable others. The isolation of subjective existence does not weigh so heavily upon one who is able to peer, however haltingly, into the internal world of another and there to partake of a shared experience.