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Notes Towards the Definition of Culture

(1948), New English Weekly, Prospect for Christendom, Notes Towards the Definition of Culture

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T. S. Eliot's best-known work of social criticism, which began with a series of articles entitled ‘Notes Toward a Definition of Culture’ in the New English Weekly in 1943; these were revised as ‘Cultural Forces in the Human Order’, his essay in Prospect for Christendom (edited by M. B. Reckitt, 1945), and, with further revisions, formed ‘The Three Senses of Culture’, the first chapter of Notes Towards the Definition of Culture. The ‘three senses’ relate to individuals, social groups, and whole societies, though their interdependence is such that cultural health requires ‘an overlapping and sharing of interests, by participation and mutual appreciation’. Eliot considers decline in religious belief, which he identifies as the ultimate embodiment of a civilization's values, as the chief cause of cultural decay. The family is viewed as the ‘primary channel of transmission of culture’ within a coherent society, which will also be characterized by a stable class structure, sound systems of government and education, and some aspects of regionalism. An appendix, ‘The Unity of European Culture’, locates his arguments in an international context. The ‘definition of culture’ remains rather imprecise; at one point he states that it ‘may even be described simply as that which makes life worth living’. George Orwell's remark that the book's emphasis on ‘class privilege … conflicts with certain moral assumptions Mr Eliot appears to share’ indicates an element of contradiction between its evidently hierarchical view of culture and its democratic concern for the common good. (See popular culture.)

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