By Caleb Keith

This evening I was exposed to an interesting piece by T. S. Eliot called Tradition and the Individual Talent. The opening line is something I can’t help but to agree with, “In English writing we seldom speak of tradition…” This statement was assuredly true for Eliot and most certainly true for us in the technologically fueled 21st century. Society is often caught looking forward without looking to the wisdom of the past; or even worse, looking to the past with disdain, discounting all those who came before. Eliot goes on inferring that individual artistic talent comes not from isolation but integration and even remodeling of the past through the experience of new eyes.

Contemporary society has honed in on the idea of individualism: asserting that purpose and meaning are found in the particular beliefs of the individual. This mode of reasoning tosses out the need for tradition and has visible consequences regarding matters like theology and ethics. Additionally, extreme individualism affects writing and art. Eliot writes, “No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone.” The individual and his or her ideas do not find true affirmation in the mind of that person but through work of the past and the criticism of the future.


Like a good research paper, the best artistic works are those that are stolen from the great minds of the past. In the same way, good theology relies on these same principles looking to the past, in fact looking to the origin of all wisdom in the word of God, neither adding nor taking away from it (Deuteronomy 4:2). Tradition, the wisdom of the past, is invaluable to understanding the present. In losing sight of that value, we are in danger of losing sight of ourselves and any real impact our words and ideas have. At times, a few short words can have a big impact, and so I leave this short blog with some concluding sentences from Eliot’s piece:

The emotion of art is impersonal. And the poet cannot reach impersonality without surrendering himself wholly to the work to be done. And he is not likely to know what is to be done unless he lives in what is not merely the present, but the present moment of the past, unless he is conscious, not of what is dead, but of what is already living.