A Compound of Knave and Blockhead




Happy 128th, T. S. Eliot. Here’s a letter he wrote to the poet Stephen Spender in June 1932. Eliot had argued, in his religious essay “Thoughts After Lambeth,” that young people needed to be taught “chastity, humility, austerity, and discipline.” Spender wrote him to dispute that notion; the below is Eliot’s rebuttal. This excerpt comes from The Letters of T. S. Eliot: Volume 6, edited by John Haffenden.

I can’t agree that religion provides such an effective escape as you seem to think. The great majority of people find their escape in easier ways; there are a great many unimaginative, selfish and lazy people who profess to be religious, but a vastly greater number who are not … All of the middle classes want to be gentlemen, and being a gentleman is incompatible with holding any strong religious convictions; with the latter, one must at least be prepared sooner or later to commit some ungentlemanly act. And for one person who escapes through religion into a “sentimental dreamland,” there are thousands who escape by reading novels, by looking at films, or best of all, by driving very fast on land or in air, which makes even dreams unnecessary. 

My position is always a difficult one to maintain, or rather to defend effectively, because, if one doesn’t like the new, one is naturally supposed to be a supporter of the old. The “old,” as it appears to me, is just one stage in the same progression of which your new is the next, and it is indifferent to me which stage is actual. What really matters is not what I think about the Church today, or about Capitalism, or military processions, or about Communism; what matters is whether I believe in Original Sin. I know that there are plenty of material injustices to be set right, and I want them to be set right; nevertheless I believe that the world will always be an unpleasant place, a place of trial for individual souls, and that the vast majority of its population will always be a compound of knave and blockhead, chiefly moved by vanity and fear, and kept quiet by laziness.

Do you really suppose that “chastity, humility, austerity, and discipline,” as I mean them, have anything whatever to do with what is taught in school-room chapels? If people really knew what the words mean, they would lock up or deport anyone who pronounced them. So my flesh does not creep at the thought of “new” morality—because it is just the same old decayed puritanism taking another form: I am not concerned with how people behave, but with what they think of themselves in their behaviour; and I believe that the man who thinks himself virtuous is in danger of damnation, whatever line of conduct he adopts.

This letter threatens to become more and more incoherent, so, as it is lunch time anyway, I will stop.

Yours ever,
T. S. Eliot