So this week, in political thought today, we’re reading Roger Scuton’s A POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY: ARGUMENTS FOR CONSERVATISM. Here are some excerpts from the last chapter on T.S. Eliot. They’re all relevant to Ralph’s spin on the Straussian theme of PROGRESS or RETURN. The real conservative answers: Both or neither; we want to live courageously and truthfully in the present, which requires due attention to those who came before us and those who come after. We fall victim to neither selective nostalgia nor progressive idealism. We conservative poets (in the broadest sense) aren’t full of “anti-bourgeois aggression,” because we know that we, too, are more bourgeois than bohemian. We want to accept critically—that is, realistically—the modern world we’ve been given:
What distinguishes Burke from the French revolutionaries is not his attachment to things past, but his desire to live fully in the present, to understand it in all its imperfections, and to accept it as the only reality that is offered to us. Like Burke, Eliot recognized the distinction between a backward-looking nostalgia, which is but another form of modern sentimentality, and a genuine tradition, which grants us the courage and the vision with which to live in the modern world. (194)
And his refusal, through all this, to adopt the mantle of the bohemian, to claim the tinsel crown of artist or to mock the bourgeois lifestyle sets him apart from the continental tradition which he did so much to promote. He realized that the true task of the artist in the modern world is one not of repudiation but of reconciliation. The enfant-terrible-ism of a Cocteau or the anti-bourgeois aggression of a Sartre were entirely foreign to him. For Eliot the artist inherits, in heightened and self-conscious form, the very same anxieties that are the stuff of ordinary experience. The poet who takes words seriously is the voice of mankind, interceding for those who live around him, and gaining on their behalf the gift of consciousness with which to overcome the wretchedness of secular life. He too is an ordinary bourgeois, and his highest prize is t live unnoticed amid those who know nothing of his art as the saint may live unnoticed among those for whom he dies. (197-8)
For Eliot, words had begun to lose their precision not in spite of science but because of it, not in spite of the loss of true religious belief, but because of it, not in spite of the proliferation of technical terms, but because of it. (200)
Eliot was brought up in a democracy and inherited that great fund of public spirit which is the gift of American democracy to the modern world. But he was not a democrat in his feelings. For he believed that culture could not be entrusted to the democratic process, precisely because of this carelessness with words, this habit of unthinking cliché, which would always arise when every person is regarded as having an equal right to express himself. (201)
“The truths of science, endowed with an absolute authority, hide the truths that matter, and make the human reality imperceivable” (203).
The conservative response to modernity is to embrace it, but to embrace it critically, in full consciousness that human achievements are rare and precarious, that we have no God-given right to destroy our inheritance, but must always patiently submit to the voice of order, and set an example of orderly living. (208)
The task is to re-discover the world which made us, to see ourselves as part of something greater, which depends upon us for its survival, and which still can live in us (208)