Reading Notes and Questions for T. S. Eliot (1888-1965)
"The Idea of a Christian Society" (1939)

Robert Harris
January 11, 1999


This work discusses the impact of cultural and educational values on the everyday thinking and behavior of the members of modern society. (Page numbers refer to T. S. Eliot, Christianity and Culture, 1948; rpt. San Diego: Harcourt, 1988.)

Notes and Questions


Page 4. Eliot says that he does not accept "a possible separation of religious feeling from religious thinking." Do you think that such a separation exists today? Does "religious intellectual" appear to be an oxymoron in late 20th century American Christendom?

Chapter 1

Page 6. Eliot says that "we must treat Christianity with a great deal more intellectual respect. . . ." Eliot implies here that Christianity is not treated with much intellectual respect even by Christians themselves. He also says that Christianity should be treated as "a matter primarily of thought and not of feeling." Why do you think he says this, and is the correct?

Page 7. There is an "incompatibility of Christian principle and a great deal of our social practice." What is the driving force that creates social practices in the United States (or Britain), and why do these practices conflict with Christian principle? What does Eliot imply about some of the remedies to this conflict?

Page 10. Would you say that "prosperity in this world has become the sole conscious aim" in modern society? When proposals are made for helping the poor or underprivileged, for example, what frame of discourse is established? What boundaries are circumscribed for the kinds of help they might receive?

Page 10. Eliot says that "the choice before us is between the formation of a new Christian culture, and the acceptance of a pagan one." What do you think Eliot would say about New Age religion and the acceptance of a pagan culture as an alternative to Christian culture? What might be his response to the large interest in witchcraft?

Page 12. Note what Eliot says here about liberalism, not as a political viewpoint, but as a philosophical tendency. A key phrase is "destroying traditional social habits," which identifies liberalism as a kind of chronic attack on authority, tradition and established values. Think about how Hollywood desires to push the envelope and break every taboo, and about how a main thrust of postmodern thought is the destruction of authority. Eliotís point is that liberalism tends to be negative or against values and that it has nothing positive to offer in their place.

Page 12 et passim. In a couple of places in Chapter 1 Eliot mentions a distinction between education and instruction. What does he mean? What is the difference? Can you give some examples? Do you believe you are being educated or merely instructed in your college career? Why?

Page 15. Eliot claims that "good prose cannot be written by a people without convictions." Why do you think he says this? Can you think of some examples of both good and bad prose that will help you support or rebut this claim?

Page 17. Do you agree with Eliot that the tendency of industrialism is not only materialism but an alienation from religion and a susceptibility to mass suggestion? If you do, why does such a tendency exist? Think about the effects of material goods, consumerism, advertising, entertainment media, the pressure for novelty, and so on.

Page 17. We now have "a network of institutions from which we cannot dissociate ourselves: institutions the operation of which appears no longer neutral, but non-Christian." Can you name some contemporary institutions that are structurally non-Christian? Can they be improved at least to the point of neutrality? How did they get to be this way?

Chapter 2

Page 21. Eliot comments that "it is the general ethos of the people they have to govern . . . that determines the behavior of politicians." What does this suggest about the kinds of reforms we need in society?

Page 22. Eliot quotes a maxim that "the life of virtue is the purpose of human society. . . ." Do you agree with this purpose? What do you think the purpose of human society is? Has the purpose of society changed over the years? Do the members of a given society agree on its purpose?

Page 25. What does Eliot say about the religious organization of Christendom? Do you agree? Is Christianity also stuck in a rural agrarian mode in its intellectual structure? What are the typical appeals and attitudes conveyed from most pulpits? If you were to redesign the structure and philosophical strategy of Christendom, what would it be like?

Page 27. Should the goal of the Christian be to live in harmony in a pluralistic society or to build a society where "the natural end of man--virtue and well-being in community--is acknowledged for all"? What Biblical texts seem relevant to the answer to this question?

Pages 29 and 30. Eliot says that there is a connection between education and politics. "There is likely to be, everywhere, more and more pressure of circumstance towards adapting educational ideals to political ideals. . . ." Do you think that higher education is becoming more politicized? Explain or give examples.

Page 32. What does Eliot say about the "depression of standards of art and culture"? Is he right? If so, what can be done to overcome this decline?

Page 33. Explain why Eliot would probably approve the idea of a common core curriculum for a college. What would his response be to our current explosion of information?

Page 34. If you were to design a "common system of education and a common culture" for Christians, what would it be like?

Chapter 3

Page 36. If "a positive culture must have a positive set of values," what implications does that have for (1) current culture and (2) the negativism or reactionary attitude we sometimes exhibit toward current culture?

Page 40. What does Eliot say about the separation of the life of the spirit from the life of the world? (Also see page 44.) Do you agree?

Page 44. At the end of this chapter Eliot remarks that our allegiance to our Christian brothers and sisters transcends nationalism, culture, and race. In light of this, how do you think Kelly it would respond to the emphasis on multiculturalism today?

Chapter 4

Page 45. What does Eliot say is the best form of government?

Page 46. Why does Eliot say that "worst of all is to advocate Christianity, not because it is true, but because it might be beneficial"?

Page 49. Would you say that Eliot is an early environmentalist?

Page 49. Note here Eliotís careful phrasing. He uses the expression "reascending to origins" rather than another phrase such as "returning to" or "going back to." What is the effect of this difference?

Page 50. Take Eliot's comments on this page together with his comments elsewhere and describe his idea of education as it is and as it should be. Be sure you read the note to page 29 on pages 58 and 59 also.


Pages 71-73. Eliot says "the Church's business [is] to interfere with the World." What reasons does he give for this?

Pages 73-77. How, according to Eliot, should the Church interfere with the world?

Page 77. Eliot comments that "more important than the invention of a new machine, is the creation of a temper of mind in people such that they can learn to use a new machine rightly." What are the implications of this attitude for computers and other technology?

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Robert Harris is a writer and educator with more than 25 years of teaching experience at the college and university level. RHarris at virtualsalt.com