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A People Without History: T.S. Eliot’s Critique of Evolutionary History

While T.S. Eliot never made any comments critical of Charles Darwin or his theory of the evolution of species, he was quite critical of various popularized versions of Darwin’s theory that exaggerated its explanatory power and extrapolated from it into metaphysical, moral, historical, and socio-political spheres where, in his view, it had no authority. Two such popularizers and extrapolators concerned him especially: Herbert Spencer and H.G. Wells. Eliot grew up in an intellectual atmosphere dominated by the evolutionary sociology of Spencer but became an opponent of that way of thinking. In his later criticism of Wells’s evolutionary approach to history in Wells’s popular Outline of History, Eliot aligned himself with the Catholic historians Christopher Dawson and Hilaire Belloc. All three deprecated the pseudo-scientific historiography and the progressivism of Wells’s book.

I wish to suggest here that Eliot has the historiographic doctrines promoted by Spencer and Wells in mind when he writes these lines in Part II of The Dry Salvages: “It seems, as one becomes older / That the past has a different pattern, and ceases to be a mere sequence— / Or even development: the latter a partial fallacy, / Encouraged by superficial notions of evolution, / Which becomes, in the popular mind, a means of disowning the past.” Both of these thinkers, in making evolution the key to the human sciences as well as the biological sciences, reached radically progressive conclusions, ones which indeed became a way of “disowning the past” in the popular mind. I would like to suggest further that when Eliot speaks of “a people without history” in Little Gidding he is again contemplating the effects of the progressive view, which makes the past irrelevant.

Spencer made it his life’s work to develop a sociological theory based on the principles of biological evolution. He claimed that societies were social organisms that adapted to their environment much the way biological organisms did. He further asserted that this social evolution inevitably brought about positive progress in cultural organization. Wells adapted evolutionary ideas to the study of history in his Outline of History, which began from the assumption that historical change grew out of biological evolution and resulted in more complex and efficient social organization as time went on. Both Spencer and Wells began with materialist metaphysical assumptions and used evolutionary ideas to support and extend those beliefs. Their conclusions were triumphantly progressive. They were far from alone in these endeavors, but I am highlighting them because of Eliot’s awareness of their work and their popularity. Spencer and Wells were both extremely well-known writers, and they erected a conception of human culture and history that was materialist, evolutionary, and progressive. Their viewpoint was at odds with the one Eliot gradually embraced, a Christian conception of culture and history. The Christian historian tends to believe that human cultures are built up by spiritual forces as well as material ones; that human agency—not only external forces—accounts for much in the cultural order; that history is not necessarily progressive and may at times even be retrogressive; that religion is integral to human culture; that there are certain universal characteristics of human cultures because human nature is fundamentally fixed, not changeable; and that there are crucial events in history—the most important being the Incarnation—that give meaning to all human experience. In the 1920s and 1930s, Eliot worked out such an understanding of culture and history, partly under the influence of the Catholic historian Christopher Dawson.

Eliot once remarked that “Herbert Spencer’s generalized theory of evolution was in my childhood environment regarded as the key to the mystery of the universe,” and a critique of Spencer’s belief that biological evolution was the answer to everything was central to his renunciation of the rationalistic Unitarian faith of his kin.[1] Eliot did not pretend to have the scientific knowledge required to debate Spencer, but as an editor he invited others with greater competence to do so. In an essay in The Criterion, William Harrison points out that “Even the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’, as we are prone to forget, was not [Darwin’s], but Spencer’s; and Herbert Spencer, as the ardent disciple, moralized beyond the master’s intentions.”[2] Harrison alludes to Spencer’s efforts to come up with a grand synthetic philosophy, which extended the idea of “fitness” into the realm of human society. Spencer argued that social groups developed in the same way as biological organisms, so that human culture moved inevitably toward higher levels of complexity. His evolutionary view of sociology led Spencer to endorse a laissez-faire doctrine in politics and economics. Though he did not favor letting the less fit die, and believed in private charity for the poor, Spencer’s political views did become associated with what came to be called “social Darwinism,” which was used to support a variety of inhumane programs such as eugenics.

Spencer’s high repute among thinkers in the latter half of the nineteenth century is demonstrated by the fact that Will Durant gives him an entire chapter in his Story of Philosophy (1926), an honor shared only with Nietzsche. Durant’s excellent synopsis introduces Spencer as a disciple of the French positivist, Auguste Comte, who bequeathed to Spencer “the idea that social, like physical phenomena, might be reduced to laws and science” and who concocted a “Religion of Humanity” in whose calendar “the names of pagan deities and medieval saints would be replaced by the heroes of human progress.”[3] It is precisely this combination of scientific reductionism and progressive faith that Eliot resists. He himself connected Comte and Spencer in 1916, in a short notice of the book Social Adaptation: A Study in the Development of the Doctrine of Adaptation as a Theory of Social Progress, by L.M. Bristol. Eliot calls Comte and Spencer “pioneers of sociology,” and he summarizes without comment Bristol’s conclusion, which is a restatement of Spencer’s main idea: “It is an attempt to harmonise ‘self-development’ with ‘social efficiency,’ the ‘supreme worth of the individual’ with the ‘social goal of functioning in a more inclusive unit,’ a unity which shall end by embracing the whole of humanity.”[4] Though Eliot makes no overt judgment here, he emphasizes the grandiose utopian thinking of the progressive thinkers. Spencer first enunciated his version of the idea in 1857, in an essay entitled “Progress, Its Law and Cause,” where he put forward (as Durant says) a “general principle of history and progress,” seeing himself as “the philosopher of universal evolution.”[5] In his ground-breaking book The Study of Sociology (1873), Spencer demonstrates what Durant calls his “habit of rushing into generalizations” when he claims that society is an organism, one which adapts to its environment exactly as biological organisms do, gradually developing greater complexity and integration–thus inevitably becoming more effective.[6] Spencer saw a trend in history away from medieval militarism and toward modern industrialism, which, he believed, would put an end to war and want.[7] He put his faith ultimately, as Wells was to do also, in the captains of industry. But such was not to be Eliot’s faith.

Perhaps it was in George Santayana’s 1909 graduate class that Eliot first heard his family’s confidence in Herbert Spencer questioned, for as Herbert Howarth points out, Santayana “detested Herbert Spencer.”[8] It could also have been another of his professors who brought him to question Spencer’s wisdom, for Josiah Royce wrote a book entitled Herbert Spencer: An Estimate and Review (1904), which offered a withering critique: “In sum, Spencer appears as a philosopher of a beautiful logical naïveté. Generalization was an absolutely simple affair for him. If you found a bag big enough to hold all the facts, that was an unification of science.”[9]

Having read or heard his professors’ critiques of Spencer, Eliot spent the 1910-1911 year in Paris, where he attended the lectures of Henri Bergson, who had recently published Creative Evolution (L’Evolution Créatrice), a work which also argues against the mechanistic interpretation of evolutionary theory. In this book, Bergson especially takes Spencer to task. In his Introduction, he outlines the approach he will take, claiming that he will avoid “the false evolutionism of Spencer—which consists in cutting up present reality, already evolved, into little bits no less evolved, and then recomposing it with these fragments, thus positing in advance everything that is to be explained.”[10] Thus he asserts that Spencer’s is a circular argument that starts from the evolved whole and assumes that it was made of a large number of parts, without actually showing how the parts came together to form that whole.

Later, in discussing the evolution of intellect, Bergson speaks of the need to avoid being “dupes of an illusion like that of Spencer, who believed that the intellect is sufficiently explained as the impression left on us by the general characters of matter.”[11] This illusion is simply the materialist assumption that all mental activity is merely an epiphenomenon of material substances and forces. At one point Bergson again gives Spencer as an instance of the materialist position, comparing him with Fichte, who exemplifies what he called the finalist approach: “Fichte takes thought in a concentrated state, and expands it into reality; Spencer starts from external reality, and condenses it into intellect.”[12] Both approaches are, according to Bergson, mistaken. In the course of this book, Bergson takes up arguments with nearly every major philosopher, but he ends with several pages devoted to a final attack on Spencer. Again Bergson accuses Spencer of having talked much of evolution without having truly considered evolutionary process: “His doctrine bore indeed the name of evolutionism; it claimed to remount and redescend the course of the universal becoming; but, in fact, it dealt neither with becoming nor with evolution.”[13] Bergson, writing just after Einstein published his theory of relativity in 1905, alludes to the fact that the physical sciences themselves have called into question the solidity of matter: “The more physics progresses, the more it shows the impossibility of representing the properties of ether or of electricity—the probable base of all bodies—on the model of the properties of the matter which we perceive.”[14] The new physics was indeed undercutting the fundamental assumptions of the strictly mechanistic approach, which relied on the existence of simple unsplittable bodies, or atoms, behaving according to the laws of Newtonian physics in empty space. Although the young T.S. Eliot began to distance himself from Bergson as soon as he returned from his year in France, Bergson had shown him the hollowness of Spencer’s evolutionary theory, which would never again be regarded by Eliot as “the key to the mystery of the universe” and would instead be examined critically in Eliot’s writings.

There are few later references to Spencer in Eliot’s essays. One passing reference, in his piece on “Arnold and Pater” (1930), is telling however. In one passage of Arnold’s religious writings, Eliot observes, “He girds at (apparently) Herbert Spencer for substituting Unknowable for God; quite unaware that his own Eternal not ourselves comes to exactly the same thing as the Unknowable.”[16] Thus all that Eliot says about Arnold’s rejection of the supernatural in religion becomes applicable to Spencer as well. And I would suggest that he still has Spencer in mind a few pages later when he talks about the tendency of Arnold, Pater and many thinkers of their era to mix different ways of thinking in confused ways. He calls Pater’s Marius the Epicurean “a document of one moment in the history of thought and sensibility in the nineteenth century,” and goes on to say that “The dissolution of thought in that age, the isolation of art, philosophy, religion, ethics and literature, is interrupted by various chimerical attempts to effect imperfect syntheses.” Surely when he speaks of “imperfect syntheses” he has in mind Spencer’s “Synthetic Philosophy,” an attempt to combine all disciplines within one scientific paradigm, evolutionary biology. The result of this blurring of boundaries, Eliot says, was that “Religion became morals, religion became art, religion became science or philosophy; various blundering attempts were made at alliances between various branches of thought.”[17] All these syntheses had the aim of absorbing religion into some other category: for Arnold, morals; for Pater, art; and for Spencer, science. Much of Eliot’s work sought to oppose this secularization.

In his early poems, Eliot depicts human beings as they are conceived by the mechanistic evolutionary theory of Herbert Spencer, Thomas Huxley, and others. Human beings become creatures such as “Apeneck Sweeney,” or the woman who makes a “Gesture of orang-outang.” In some of the early poems there are images of body parts with no mention of the rest of the body, and no sense that there is a whole person which is greater than the sum of those parts. This technique perhaps reflects Bergson’s description of Herbert Spencer’s method as “cutting up present reality, already evolved, into little bits no less evolved, and then recomposing it with these fragments.” There are the “muddy feet that press / To early coffee-stands” and the “hands / That are raising dingy shades” in “Preludes.” In “Sweeney Erect,” “Morning stirs the feet and hands.” And in “Rhapsody on a Windy Night” “the hand of the child, automatic, / Slipped out and pocketed a toy ”—the mechanist’s view of the human hand, which is closely connected in traditional thought with human agency. Man the maker has been replaced by man the machine. Eliot’s aim seems to be to be to show us how little we would like human beings so made, how little we would like to be such creatures, and how squalid the human world becomes as we begin to see ourselves in that way. He never denied that there was some sort of evolutionary development in life on earth, but he did reject the completely materialist interpretation of the process.

Much later in life, Eliot explicitly states his opposition to making evolution the central principle of the human sciences, in the lines from The Dry Salvages which I am glossing:

It seems, as one becomes older,

That the past has another pattern, and ceases to be a mere sequence—

Or even development: the latter a partial fallacy

Encouraged by superficial notions of evolution,

Which becomes, in the popular mind, a means of disowning the past.

By this time, Eliot was influenced in his critique of Spencer and of progressivism in general by the British Catholic historian Christopher Dawson, who was, as Russell Kirk has said, the most important influence on Eliot’s social thought.[18] In the opening chapter of Progress and Religion (1931), Dawson gives an overview of the history of progressivism, one in which Spencer features prominently:

“Above all the progress of biological studies and the rise of the doctrine of evolution had a powerful influence on social thought. This is especially characteristic of the work of Herbert Spencer, perhaps the most representative sociologist of the nineteenth century. The doctrine of Evolution is the key-note of his whole philosophy. He regards social progress as one instance of a universal cosmic law. It is not merely analogous to, but identical with, the law of physical and biological evolution.”[19]

Pointing to Spencer’s essay “Progress: Its Law and Cause” (mentioned earlier) Dawson notes that “The eighteenth century philosophers, even when they were materialists, placed man in a category above and apart from the rest of nature, and hypostatized human reason into a principle of world development. But the new evolutionary theory put man back into nature, and ascribed his development to the mechanical operation of the same blind forces which ruled the material world.”[20] The problem with Spencerian progressivism, in Dawson’s analysis, is not just that it cuts us off from the past but that it gives us a purely materialistic concept of human society in which cultural change is completely determined by natural laws—leaving out human agency. Eliot addresses what he regards as another harmful effect of this way of thinking in his essay on “Religion and Literature” (1935). Having held out for certain principles of traditional wisdom, he anticipates a response from modern thinkers who “are convinced that only by what is called unrestrained individualism will truth ever emerge. Ideas, views of life, they think, issue distinct from independent heads, and in consequence of their knocking violently against each other, the fittest survive, and truth rises triumphant.”[21] He implies that if we consider human thought a purely mechanical competitive process whose results are determined by Spencerian survival of the fittest, we cut ourselves off from the sources of truth. His own vision of the winnowing of ideas is not one of evolutionary competition but rather one of wisdom arising from ancient cultural traditions.

The lines in The Dry Salvages that I am attempting to contextualize raise a fundamental question about our view of history. Eliot is challenging the idea that the past is “a mere sequence / Or even development,” and he is suggesting that such an interpretation of history arises from a misapplication of evolutionary concepts to human culture. I wish to argue that Eliot is thinking here not only about Spencer but about a writer who, like Spencer, extrapolated ideas of mechanistic evolution into cultural interpretation: H.G. Wells. The primary motive of Wells’s Outline of History (1919) was to offer a scientific account of human history, beginning with the evolution of primitive organisms. Here are the titles of the early chapters of the book:

1. The Earth in Space and Time

2. The Record of the Rocks

3. Natural Selection and the Changes of Species

4. The Invasion of the Dry Land By Life

5. The Age of Reptiles

6. The Age of Mammals

7. The Ancestry of Man

Wells suggests that history has previously been inadequate because it began with recorded history—or at best with a glance at prehistoric human cultures. His history, in contrast, begins with the origins of the cosmos and of life, and his claim is that this evolutionary viewpoint offers a superior explanation of history. The epigraph to the book is from Friedrich Ratzel, a nineteenth century professor of geography and author of a book on Darwin, Sein und Werden der organischen Welt (Being and Becoming of the Organic World):

“A philosophy of the history of the human race worthy of its name, must begin with the heavens and descend to the earth, must be charged with the conviction that all existence is one—a single conception sustained from beginning to end upon one identical law.”[22]

It is clear that both Ratzel and Wells regard evolution as the “single conception” and the “one identical law” that will produce the first valid history. Once mankind is seen as just another species ruled by the same one law that governs all other creatures, it becomes possible to write a Plain History of Life and Mankind (the subtitle of the book). Another aim Wells had when writing The Outline of History was to write a lively and readable history for a large audience, and in this he succeeded, for the book was indeed a popular success. Wells effectively influenced the “popular mind” about which Eliot is concerned in Four Quartets, and he influenced it in the direction of progressivism, for his contention throughout is that progress is inevitable, especially now that science has won out over religion.

Wells did not agree in all respects with Spencer, but his fundamental assumption that social evolution is governed by the same law as biological evolution, and that consequently social evolution moves inevitably to larger and more complex social organisms, is the same as Spencer’s. In his concluding chapter, “The Next Stage of History,” Wells confidently predicts that there will eventually be a “world order” bringing “one universal law of justice,” “the elimination of drudgery,” and “the disappearance of war.”[23] In Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, Eliot will speak skeptically about plans to bring about a “world state” and a “world culture.”[24] He consistently regarded utopian visions such as this one as foolish fantasies.

Wells looks back over his work and points out to the reader that he has examined two basic types of society: one originally arising in “the warmer alluvial” areas and creating “fecund systems of subjugation and obedience”; the other arising in the deserts, “the nomadic peoples.” He says, “Our history has told of a repeated overrunning and refreshment of the originally brunet civilizations by these hardier, bolder, free-spirited peoples of the steppes and desert.” It is quite clear where Wells’s sympathies lie:

“We have pointed out how these constantly recurring nomadic injections have steadily altered the primordial civilizations both in blood and in spirit; and how the world religions of to-day, and what we now call democracy, the boldness of modern scientific inquiry and a universal restlessness, are due to this ‘nomadization’ of civilization. The old civilizations created tradition, and lived by tradition. To-day the power of tradition is destroyed. The body of our state is civilization still, but its spirit is the spirit of the nomadic world. It is the spirit of the great plains and the high seas.”[25]

Thus everything having to do with tradition is swept away by the noble, free-spirited modern nomads (apparently Aryans), riding across the prairies and sailing the high seas to free humanity from the bondage of tradition. Wells is indeed looking forward to the advent of what Eliot calls in Little Gidding “a people without history.” Wells’s heroes are precisely those who, in Eliot’s view, are “destroying our ancient edifices to make ready the ground upon which the barbarian nomads of the future will encamp in their mechanised caravans.”[26]

Not surprisingly, many other writers found the evolutionary progressivist dogma of The Outline of History extremely problematic. The most vociferous critic was the Catholic historian Hilaire Belloc. In a series of articles published in 1925 and early 1926 in various Catholic journals, Belloc attacked The Outline of History relentlessly and in very personal terms, accusing Wells (among other things) of ignorance, childishness, anti-Catholic bias, and provincialism. Wells responded to Belloc in a small book entitled Mr. Belloc Objects to “The Outline of History,” and Belloc replied quickly with Mr. Belloc Still Objects, following that up by collecting his earlier essays in A Companion to Mr. Wells’s “Outline of History.”

Belloc attacks many of Wells’s specific points—catching him out on a fairly large number of errors such as stating that the Neanderthal had no language (presumably because Wells wanted to be able to show a gradual progression in everything) or that the Immaculate Conception refers to the conception of Jesus. Belloc accuses Wells of “entertaining unreasoning reactions,” and says that “These reactions have a common root. They are all provoked by anything traditional.”[27] Belloc notes that the aim of establishing the mechanistic theory of natural selection as the sole cause of speciation is to remove any notion of design from the equation, and thus “to get rid of the necessity for a Creator.”[28] He attacks with particular vehemence Wells’s treatment of priests, his “contention that the Priest came first when man was inferior and was at last ousted, as man advanced, by the King—the innuendo being that the power of the Priest essentially belongs to an earlier time, and therefore to a more degraded period in human History; for to the man who believes in a childishly simple theory of ‘Progress’ (as Mr. Wells believes in it, and as do the great majority of his readers), whatever is earlier must be worse than what comes later.”[29] Near the end, Belloc returns with insulting language to what he terms Wells’s “provincialism”: “We are reading in this Outline of History the work of a mind closely confined to a particular place and moment—the late Victorian London suburbs. Such a mind has an apparatus quite inferior to the task of historical writing.”[30] This is mud-slinging indeed, but, as we will see, Eliot echoes the most damning assertion, namely that Wells has a mind ill-equipped for writing history.

In his relatively short rebuttal, Wells explicitly acknowledges the dogma that guided his writing of history: He accepts a “modern conception of life, as a process of progressive change” and asserts that “We can realise now, as no one in the past was ever able to realise it, that man is a creature changing very rapidly from the life of a rare and solitary great ape to the life of a social and economic animal.”[31] Where Belloc insists on a fixed human nature, Wells denies any such fixity. In the process of biological and social evolution, religion has, he acknowledges, played an important role in helping human beings to exercise self-control, but at this point “It may be better to admit frankly that if man is not fixed Christianity is, and that mankind is now growing out of Christianity; that indeed mankind is growing out of the idea of Deity.”[32] Again, this perspective on history is just what Eliot has in mind when he speaks of “A people without history,” for the progressive historian writes history only to show that all that has happened is quickly becoming irrelevant to the more fully evolved human species and its more fully evolved social organization. The immense popularity of the Outline guaranteed that its progressive ideas would in fact have a great impact on “the popular mind.”

Eliot wades into this dispute in the May 1927 number of The Criterion, where his brief review manifests distrust of both writers: “Mr. Wells and Mr. Belloc undertake to show each other up in their knowledge of sciences in which both are amateurs. Both seem to the uninstructed reader to have succeeded.” However, he follows this amused response with words highly critical of Wells: “Mr. Wells has not an historical mind; he has a prodigious gift of historical imagination, which is comparable to Carlyle’s, but this is quite a different gift from the understanding of history. That requires a degree of culture, civilization and maturity which Mr. Wells does not possess.”[33] Though he remains wary of Belloc, Eliot clearly sides with him, virtually echoing Belloc’s judgment that Wells has a mind “quite inferior to the task of historical writing.” What Wells has written, in his view, is not really a work of history in the proper sense of the word.

In the years to come, Eliot would make several disparaging comments in passing about Wells as a thinker (though admiring his romances). For instance, while reviewing Arthur Symons’s translation of Baudelaire, he compares Shaw, Wells, Strachey and Hemingway unfavorably with Baudelaire and the decadents, and in a note he adds, “Of course Mr. Shaw and Mr. Wells are also much occupied with religion and Ersatz-Religion.“[34] The substitute religions of socialism and progressivism offered by these two inspire only ridicule. In “Thoughts After Lambeth,” he notes archly the tendency of Wells (inherited from Spencer) to subject all thought to the findings of one discipline: “I suspect that there is some taint of Original H.G. Wells about most of us in English-speaking countries; and that we enjoy drawing general conclusions from particular disciplines, using our accomplishment in one field as the justification for theorizing about the world in general.”[35] Many years later, Eliot again remarks on the limitations of Shaw and Wells, saying that “between the influence of a Bernard Shaw or an H.G. Wells, and the influence of a Coleridge or a Newman, I can conceive of no common scale of measurement.”[36]

In his review of the controversy between Belloc and Wells, Eliot does not discuss G.K. Chesterton’s response to The Outline of History, but he must have been aware of it, and a glance at it offers further insight into the debate over evolutionary historiography. Rather than reacting directly to Wells’s history as Belloc did, Chesterton integrated his responses into a work of greater breadth, The Everlasting Man (1925). In the first chapter (“The Man in the Cave”), Chesterton denies the claim that humans are just another species of animal, focusing on the art in Stone Age caves:

“Man is not merely an evolution but rather a revolution . . . It is the simple truth that man does differ from the brutes in kind and not in degree; and the proof of it is here; that it sounds like a truism to say that the most primitive man drew a picture of a monkey and that it sounds like a joke to say that the most intelligent monkey drew a picture of a man. Something of division and disproportion has appeared; and it is unique. Art is the signature of man.”[37]

Here is the crux of the debate, for if Wells is right, human history is robbed of its humanity. Where Wells labors to show that mankind developed very slowly (even suggesting absurdly, as Belloc pointed out, that the Neanderthals did not have human language), Chesterton asserts that the cave man was clearly fully human. He goes on to say that “every sane sort of history must begin with man as man, a thing standing absolute and alone. How he came there, or indeed how anything else came there, is a thing for theologians and philosophers and scientists and not for historians.”[38] This statement identifies clearly the problem of all attempts to extrapolate scientific ideas into sociological and historical analysis and thus confronts his fundamental disagreement with Spencer and Wells. History begins with the earliest human beings, not with the origin of the species.

Chesterton takes Wells up on his theory about the evolution of religion, which, according to the latter, grew out of fear of the chief, the Old Man. Chesterton mocks this notion good-humoredly:

“I have already alluded to Mr. H.G. Wells and the Old Man, with whom he appears to be on such intimate terms. If we considered the cold facts of prehistoric evidence for this portrait of the prehistoric chief of the tribe, we could only excuse it by saying that its brilliant and versatile author simply forgot for a moment that he was supposed to be writing a history, and dreamed he was writing one of his own very wonderful and imaginative romances. At least I cannot imagine how he can possibly know that the prehistoric ruler was called the Old Man or that court etiquette requires it to be spelt with capital letters.”[39]

Though the tone is much lighter and more amiable than Belloc’s, he makes his point, which is that as far back as we find definite signs of human beings, we find art and religion—calling into question the notion that people gradually developed religious beliefs. “Touching on this matter of the origin of religion,” he writes, “the truth is that those who are thus trying to explain it are trying to explain it away.”[40]

Chesterton also addresses Wells’s habit of blaming priests for obstructing all progress. Without singling Wells out, he says, “Among the more ignorant of the enlightened there was indeed a convention of saying that priests had obstructed progress in all ages; and a politician once told me in a debate that I was resisting modern reforms exactly as some ancient priest probably resisted the discovery of wheels. I pointed out, in reply, that it was far more likely that the ancient priest made the discovery of the wheels. It is overwhelmingly probable that the ancient priest had a great deal to do with the discovery of the art of writing.”[41] Chesterton eventually confronts the progressive model of history, based on evolutionary biology: “I am not at issue in this book with sincere and genuine scholars, but with a vast and vague public opinion which has been prematurely spread from certain imperfect investigations, and which has made fashionable a false notion of the whole history of humanity. It is the whole vague notion that a monkey evolved into a man and in the same way a barbarian evolved into a civilized man and therefore at every stage we have to look back to barbarism and forward to civilization.”[42] It seems to me that this passage could, by itself, stand as a gloss on the lines from The Dry Salvages which I have been attempting to elucidate. Eliot and Chesterton both critique a sequential, developmental view of history, heavily influenced by evolutionary biology, that has permeated the “popular mind,” making history a means, not of exploring the past, but of rejecting and ignoring it.

As Wells developed his progressivist program, he turned (as had Spencer) to the leaders of business as the heroes of the new world order he envisioned. Such is the burden of The Work, Wealth, and Happiness of Mankind (1931), which receives two critical reviews in The Criterion. The first is by a Marxist, D.S. Mirsky, who judges that the book is “surprisingly badly written,” primarily because “Mr. Wells is unable to think.”[43] The book also displays, he tells his readers, “a profound philistinism, a self-satisfied ignorance, and a hatred of democracy.”[44] He concludes that “Wells is nothing more but the ideologist of the ‘nouveau riche’—he has the greatest admiration for Mr. Henry Ford.”[45] This review reveals an interesting agreement between Marxists and traditionalist conservatives such as Belloc and Eliot. Both groups, though for different reasons, question the values of the large-scale industrialized economy. On the other side, both Spencer and Wells saw the great financiers and industrialists as the pinnacle of the evolutionary process.

The other review is by Christopher Dawson, who points out that in his earlier writings, especially his utopian novels, Wells had been a dualist who set up a “contrast between the inhuman monstrosity of scientific invention and the common humanity of his cockney heroes.” But Wells became a “monist,” preaching a doctrine of scientific and economic progress that regards the common man as nothing but a problem. Interestingly, Eliot had remarked Wells’s turning against the common man years earlier, speaking of how, in his novels, “Wells knows the commoner (whom he has lately abandoned).”[46] Dawson quotes Wells as saying that the peasant is “the most obdurate obstacle to the effective modernization of the world.”[47] Dawson sums up Wells’s creed thus:

“Against the peasant, bound to his meaningless round of toil and dominated by crass and bloodthirsty superstitions, Mr. Wells set the ideal of the world organizer, the modern economic superman; and some of the most interesting pages of his book are devoted to the life-history of the giants of industry and finance, such as Rockefeller, Edison, Ford, Pierpont Morgan and Alfred Lowenstein. These are Mr. Wells’s heroes, and he is ready to overlook a considerable amount of unscrupulous acquisitiveness, if it is accompanied by the capacity to plan and organize economic life on a grand scale.”[48]

This is the particular model of progress to which Wells’s evolutionary ideas led him, and it evinces a definite similarity to Spencer’s political views. Having rejected religion as “crass and bloodthirsty superstitions,” Wells instead devotes his faith to worship of these crass and materialistic heroes of manufacturing and finance. Dawson concludes that Wells “does not seem to take account of the possibility that human nature itself may prove recalcitrant and that men will revolt against excessive organization, unless they can find in it some satisfaction for their spiritual needs” (14).

Dawson’s review could serve as a gloss to Eliot’s description of the peasants in East Coker, “dancing around the bonfire” in their eternal round, “Keeping time, / Keeping the rhythm in their dancing / As in their living in the living seasons….” It is this sense of time and history, with its eternal round of toil and celebration, its adherence to the ways of the past, that Wells rejects and Eliot reaffirms. It is not only the passage about “superficial notions of evolution” but the entire poem that asserts a sense of history that is not “a mere sequence— / Or even development.” All of Four Quartets immerses the reader in an awareness of time as recurrence and return: “In my beginning is my end.” It is the time of the seasons and of the tides, of peasants and sailors in communion with nature, not dominating it with modern scientific and economic power. It is a sense of time that includes the ghosts of the past, the peasant ancestors still dancing in the field, and the “familiar compound ghost” of previous writers.

It is near the end of Four Quartets when Eliot speaks of “a people without history,” the people educated by progressive historians such as Wells, who write history in order to write it off:

A people without history

Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern

Of timeless moments. So, while the light fails

On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel

History is now and England.

A particular moment and place matter because they are connected to other moments and places in a meaningful pattern. History is not an evolutionary movement away from the past but a return: “the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.” Here is Eliot’s final and most positive answer to the evolutionary conceptions of human society and history developed by Herbert Spencer and H.G. Wells.



[1] Eliot, T.S.. A Sermon Preached in Magdalene College Chapel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1948. p. 5.

[2] Harrison, William. Review of Charles Darwin: The Fragmentary Man, by Geoffrey West. The Criterion, 17, no. 69 (July, 1938): 784-86.

[3] Durant, Will. The Story of Philosophy. 1926. Rev. ed. New York: Garden City, 1933. p. 382-3.

[4] Eliot, T.S.. Review of Social Adaptation: A Study in the Development of the Doctrine of Adaptation as a Theory of Social Progress, by L. M. Bristol. The New Statesman 7, no. 173 (29 July 1916): 405.

[5] Durant, Will. The Story of Philosophy. 1926. Rev. ed. New York: Garden City, 1933. p. 392.

[6] Ibid., p.410.

[7] Ibid., p.412-3.

[8] Howarth, Herbert. Notes on Some Figures Behind T. S. Eliot. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1964. p. 84.

[9] Royce, Josiah. Herbert Spencer: An Estimate and Review. New York: Fox, Duffield, 1904. p. 115.

[10] Bergson, Henri. Creative Evolution. Trans. Arthur Mitchell. New York: Holt, 1911. p. xiii-xiv.

[11] Ibid., p.153.

[12] Ibid., p.189-90.

[13] Ibid., p.364.

[14] Ibid., p.365.

[15] Eliot, T. S. “Arnold and Pater.” 1930. In Selected Essays. New York: Harcourt, 1950. 382-93.

[16] Ibid., p.386.

[17] Ibid., p.392-3.

[18] Kirk, Russell. Eliot and His Age: T. S. Eliot’s Moral Imagination in the Twentieth Century. 2nd ed. Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 2008. p. 235

[19] Dawson, Christopher. Progress and Religion: An Historical Enquiry. London: Sheed and Ward, 1931. p. 17.

[20] Ibid., p.19.

[21] Eliot, T.S.. “Religion and Literature.” In Selected Essays. New York: Harcourt, 1950. 351.

[22] Wells, H.G.. The Outline of History: Being a Plain History of Life and Mankind. New York: Macmillan, 1920. p. v. Ironically, Ratzel also coined the term Lebensraum, which was eventually adopted by the Nazi leaders to justify their aggression.

[23] Ibid., p.1096.

[24] Eliot, T.S.. Notes towards the Definition of Culture. New York: Harcourt, 1949. p. 122.

[25] Wells, H.G.. The Outline of History: Being a Plain History of Life and Mankind. New York: Macmillan, 1920. p. 1097.

[26] Eliot, T.S.. Notes towards the Definition of Culture. New York: Harcourt, 1949. p. 111.

[27] Belloc, Hilaire. A Companion to Mr. Wells’s “Outline of History.” London: Sheed and Ward, 1926. p. 17.

[28] Ibid., p. 31.

[29] Ibid., p. 114.

[30] Ibid., p. 227.

[31] Wells, H.G. Mr. Belloc Objects to “The Outline of History.” London: Watts, 1926. p. 53.

[32] Ibid., p. 54.

[33] Eliot, T.S.. Review of A Companion to Mr. Wells’ “Outline of History,” by Hilaire Belloc and Mr. Belloc Objects, by H. G. Wells. The Criterion 5, no. 2 (May 1927): 253.

[34] “Poet and Saint….” The Dial 82, no. 5 (May 1927): 426.

[35] “Thoughts After Lambeth.” In Selected Essays. New York: Harcourt, 1950. 328.

[36] “The Literature of Politics.” 1955. In To Criticize the Critic and Other Writings. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1965. 143.

[37] Chesterton, G.K. The Everlasting Man. New York: Image, 1955. p. 27, 34.

[38] Ibid., p. 35-36.

[39] Ibid., p. 59.

[40] Ibid., p. 53.

[41] Ibid., p. 69.

[42] Ibid., p. 72-3.

[43] Mirsky, D. S. “H. G. Wells and History.” The Criterion 12, no. 46 (Oct. 1932): 4.

[44] Ibid., p. 5.

[45] Ibid., p. 8.

[46] Eliot, T.S.. “London Letter: The Novel.” The Dial 73, no. 3 (Sept. 1922): 329.

[47] Dawson, Christopher. “H. G. Wells and History.” The Criterion 12, no. 46 (Oct. 1932): 10.

[48] Ibid., p. 11.


Also available is “T.S. Eliot and Christopher Dawson on Religion and Culture.”

This was originally published with the same title in The Imaginative Conservative on August 4, 2016.

Benjamin G. Lockerd

Ben Lockerd is a Professor of English at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. He is past president of the T.S. Eliot Society and author of T. S. Eliot and Christian Tradition (Fairleigh Dickinson, 2014).

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