‘The Return of Foxy Grandpa’

We publish here for the first time T.S. Eliot’s review of two books by the English mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947). The following headnote, textual note, and footnotes are by Frances Dickey, Jennifer Formichelli, and Ronald Schuchard, coeditors of Literature, Politics, Belief, 1927–1929, volume 3 of the forthcoming eight-volume edition of The Complete Prose of T.S. Eliot: The Critical Edition, in which all essays will appear with scholarly annotation and apparatus. The first two volumes (1905–1926) were published online in September 2014; volumes 3 and 4, English Lion, 1930–1933, edited by Jason Harding and Ronald Schuchard, will be published this fall on Project MUSE by Johns Hopkins University Press and Faber and Faber.—The Editors

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
W.B. Yeats and T.S. Eliot meeting in the US, circa 1925

“The Return of Foxy Grandpa,” T.S. Eliot’s unpublished review of Alfred North Whitehead’s successive Lowell Lectures at Harvard, Science and the Modern World (Macmillan, 1925) and Religion in the Making (Macmillan, 1926), was set in type for The Enemy, edited by Wyndham Lewis, for publication in the third issue, March 1927 (see textual note at end). Foxy Grandpa was the title character of a popular American newspaper comic strip (1900–1918), in which Grandpa consistently outwitted his two trickster grandsons.

Professor Whitehead’s two recent books, Science and the Modern World and Religion in the Making, have been received with acclamation.1 Indeed they deserve it; Dr. Whitehead has a power of lucid exposition of the most difficult subjects, great historical knowledge and ability to generalise his knowledge. He has a rare and remarkable combination of ability. It is remarkable that so eminent a mathematician and physicist should also have an historical mind. It would be still more remarkable to find that he had, in addition, a theological mind. His books have been received with jubilation by liberal Christians, and with great annoyance by atheists. But before we allow ourselves to be gratified or vexed, as the case may be, by Dr. Whitehead’s rehabilitation of religion, it might be well to enquire what sort of religion his writings are likely to further, and whether that sort is intrinsically valuable. It is a matter which all earnest atheists and Christians should take to heart.

Dr. Whitehead belongs to a generation which may be said to include within its limits elder statesmen such as the late William James, and younger statesmen such as Mr. Wells and Mr. Russell. Many of the eminent men of that generation conceal the tender heart of sentiment behind the brilliant emblems of authority. Mr. Shaw, after all his pamphlets, his economics, his Fabianism and mild ferocity, had no better vision to offer us than the earthly paradise of Back to Methuselah, to be staged by perspiring pupils of Miss Margaret Morris.2 Mr. Russell’s lonely Prometheus of thought, the undaunted hero of Liberalism, flourishes smirkingly the instruments of contraception in the faces of the clergy.3 Mr. Wells, with a tremendous machinery of comparative anatomy, evolves a Deity who is merely a celestial captain of industry.4 The disproportion between the elaborateness of the equipment and the mediocrity of the product is still more impressive in the work of Professor Whitehead. In every case the Father Christmas turns out to be merely our Sunday school superintendent in disguise.

We might take warning at the outset from Whitehead’s use of the term “religion.” He says “The conflict between religion and science is what naturally occurs to our minds when we think of this subject.”5 This hoary old notion must have done duty, clothed in practically the same words, in score upon score of sermons in the last seventy-five years. Whether there is such a thing as “science” above the various sciences, is a question which I should not venture to contest with Professor Whitehead; but that there is such a thing as “religion” above the various particular religions, seems to me very doubtful.

For the anthropologist, the student occupied with the “history of religions,” the term “religion” is perfectly valid. It is not sufficiently understood—though it is simple enough—that the point of view of the anthropologist and of the theologian are quite different. They are not opposed: they are merely different; as different, and no more opposed, than the appearance of a house to someone who is inside and to someone who is outside it. The anthropologist is concerned with what has been believed; the theologian is concerned with what is true. So far as you are an anthropologist, you are not, in your professional capacity, the “believer” of any religion; you are occupied only with the phenomena of all.

On the other hand, so far as you are the “believer” of any religion, then “religion” no longer exists for you, or the contrast between “religion and science”; you are concerned only with “conflicts” in the sense of conflicts between particular tenets of your religion and particular theories of science. The sincere Christian, or the sincere Moslem, or the sincere Buddhist, is quite unconcerned with conflicts between religion and science; he can be concerned only with conflicts between particular beliefs which he holds qua Christian or Moslem or Buddhist, and particular scientific theories which also he believes. To the Christian, a conflict between Islam and science, or between Buddhism and science (and reciprocally in respect of the other religious beliefs) can give only a mild satisfaction. The conflict between religion and science is a conflict between two quite unreal phantoms—for I am so sure that “religion” in the abstract is a phantom, that I am inclined to believe that “science” in the abstract is a phantom too.6

This is a mere outline of an argument: but I have said enough to suggest to any intelligent person that if one is to talk about a “conflict,” one must hold a definite religious faith, and must find it in conflict in particulars with certain conclusions of particular sciences. You may be a “fundamentalist” Christian; in that case you may find it difficult to reconcile your Christianity with the beliefs of geology and comparative anatomy. In that event you must choose; you must make up your mind whether the particular beliefs contradicted by geology or comparative anatomy are essential to your faith or no. There you have a real conflict. But Professor Whitehead is wholly occupied with phantom conflicts. He assumes that “science” (a fiction) is in conflict with God (another fiction), and he proceeds to show that science is far from being hostile to God, that on the contrary it requires Him, as the principle of Order.

And Professor Whitehead is so efficient, so hustling and forward-looking, that he has not stopped to consider how much is required for a religion besides God. He has not spent as many years in America as I have, but he has been very quickly adopted into the fraternity of the American Godhead. America is said to be “on the make”; Professor Whitehead’s religion must be “in the making.” Even in America, a motor-car “in the making” is not so much prized as a motor-car which is made and will run; but apparently luxury articles like religion are more valuable “in the making” than when they are made. It is the hopeless belief of a person who knows that when his religion is made, it won’t run; but he enjoys making it.

If Professor Whitehead were a Christian, instead of what he obviously is, merely the descendant of Christians, he would know that there is no such thing as “religion,” and that to prove the existence of God, even to prove that God is the wholehearted supporter of “science,” is to do nothing at all for religion. There was once a time when the terms “Christian,” “atheist” and “agnostic” meant something definite. If they are to continue to mean anything definite, then a fourth term must be invented for that large class of persons which includes Professor Whitehead. They are “religious,” without holding to any religion; they are also “scientific,” in that they believe devoutly in the latest theory of any and every particular science; and they must be cast out by any congregation of Christians, Buddhists, Brahmins, Jews, Mohammedans or Atheists.

For Professor Whitehead seems to think that you can make a perfectly good substitute religion if only you provide a GOD of some kind. He is all in the tradition of the late William James, and of Professor Bergson, with the patronage of one who was, in his time, an admirable political philosopher, but a very feeble-minded theologian—the respected Matthew Arnold. Arnold’s God was a power, not ourselves, which makes for righteousness; that was bad enough7; James’s God was a power, one of ourselves (a regular guy and the Captain of the Team) working with us for our own ends, though neither He nor we know quite what these ends are—anyway, we pull all together. Whitehead’s God is slightly more respectable, as He ought to be; He is the Principle of Order.8 But like James’s God, he is wholly incapable of starting a Religion.

God is certainly essential to some religions, as the King is essential in the game of chess. But the most important things in any religion, and certainly the most important ideas in the Christian religion, are not derivative from the notion of God. I commend to the notice of Whitehead and his admirers the following passage from the notes of the late T.E. Hulme, the most remarkable theologian of my generation. And I would remind the admirers of Professor Whitehead that mathematics or mathematical physics is a difficult study, requiring a gradual furnishing of a man’s mind through many years with a special furniture; and that theology is another difficult study, also requiring the furnishing of a mind through many years with special furniture; and that it cannot be expected that one mind should be able to contain both kinds.

What is important, is what nobody seems to realise—the dogmas like that of Original Sin, which are the closest expression of the categories of the religious attitude. That man is in no sense perfect, but a wretched creature, who can yet apprehend perfection. It is not, then, that I put up with the dogma for the sake of the sentiment, but that I may possibly swallow the sentiment for the sake of the dogma. Very few since the Renaissance have really understood the dogma, certainly very few inside the Churches of recent years. If they appear occasionally even fanatical about the very word of the dogma, that is only a secondary result of belief really grounded on sentiment. Certainly no humanist could understand the dogma. They all chatter about matters which are in comparison with this, quite secondary notions—God, Freedom, and Immortality.9

I find that I can subscribe wholly to this view. I also find that it is antithetical to the Whitehead view, which is merely the James view of God, the Bergson view of Freedom, warmed over for a rather more exacting generation. It would be proper at this point to enter upon an explanation of the meaning of dogma, and of epistemology and gegendstandstheorie in relation to dogma.10 That would take a good deal of space. But I may remark that for anyone who is seriously concerned, not with “religion,” that gelded abstraction, but with Christianity, there is far more to be learned from Irving Babbitt’s Democracy and Leadership than from Professor Whitehead’s soporific elixirs.11

Textual Note

In late summer 1927, Eliot wrote to Lewis about a contribution to The Enemy: “Would you object to something about Whitehead, from point of view not identical with yours, but I believe pointing the same way?” Lewis had attacked Whitehead’s time-philosophy in chapters 18 and 19 of “The Revolutionary Simpleton” in the first number (February 1927). In the second number (September 1927), it was announced that “The Enemy, No. 3, will containan article by Mr. T. S. Eliot, in which he discusses the nature of Professor Whitehead’s god, and further elucidation of post-relativity philosophy by Mr. Wyndham Lewis” (vii–viii). When the number had not appeared on November 7, Eliot replied to an inquiry from Edmund Wilson of The New Republic: “Thank you for your cable about my note on Whitehead. I have no idea when that is likely to appear as Wyndham Lewis’s Enemy is not a very punctual publication, but I have thought over your suggestion. On the whole I think I should much prefer not to publish this note elsewhere. I am not satisfied with it and if I had time I should already have revised it.” When the third and final number of The Enemy appeared (“First Quarter, 1929”), Eliot’s essay was not included. The proofs remained among Lewis’s papers and are now in the Lewis Collection (Box 102), Carl A. Kroch Library, Cornell University.

Excerpted with permission from The Complete Prose of T.S. Eliot: The Critical Edition, Vol. 3: Literature, Politics, Belief, 1927–1929; Eliot prose © Estate of T.S. Eliot; Editorial Apparatus © 2015 Faber and Faber Ltd. and Johns Hopkins University Press. Made possible with generous support from the Hodson Trust.

  1. 1

    Herbert Read reviewed Science and the Modern World in The Criterion of June 1926, declaring it “the most important book published in the conjoint realms of science and philosophy since Descartes’ Discourse on Method”; his review of Religion in the Making, which “begins with the concepts of modern science and seeks to deduce from them the nature of a godhead,” appeared in The Criterion of May 1927.  

  2. 2

    Eliot criticized the “creative evolution” of Shaw’s Back to Methuselah in his “London Letter” of September 1921, together with the dancing school of Margaret Morris, eleven of whose pupils staged the “dance of youths and maidens” in the opening scene of part five of the play at the Court Theatre revival in September 1924.  

  3. 3

    In What I Believe (London: Kegan, Paul, 1925), Russell attacked the “theological superstitions” of the clergy’s opposition to contraception, asserting that the disease, poverty, and suffering experienced by so many newborns is “deliberately inflicted by Bishops and politicians in the name of morality” (p. 43). Eliot had recently quoted from the work in “John Bramhall,” in critical illustration of Russell’s moral philosophy.  

  4. 4

    In The World of William Clissold (1926), Wells’s industrialist protagonist aims to redesign the world as a utopia to be managed and saved by men like himself, who place their faith in science, industry, and finance.  

  5. 5

    Science and the Modern World, p. 259.  

  6. 6

    See Eliot’s “Religion and Science: A Phantom Dilemma” (1932).  

  7. 7

    See Literature and Dogma: An Essay Towards a Better Apprehension of the Bible (James R. Osgood, 1873): “an enduring Power, not ourselves, that makes for righteousness” (p. 172).  

  8. 8

    In Science and the Modern World, Whitehead states in his chapter on “God”: “In the place of Aristotle’s God as Prime Mover, we require God as the Principle of Concretion” (p. 250). “The general principle of empiricism depends upon the doctrine that there is a principle of concretion which is not discoverable by abstract reason. What further can be known about God must be sought in the region of particular experiences, and therefore rests on an empirical basis” (p. 257).  

  9. 9

    T.E. Hulme’s “The Religious Attitude” (Speculations, edited by Herbert Read, p. 71).  

  10. 10

    Gegendstandstheorie: theory of objects; from Alexius Meinong, Über Gegendstandstheorie (1904), frequently cited in Eliot’s dissertation, Knowledge and Experience in the Philosophy of F.H. Bradley.  

  11. 11

    In “The Idea of a Literary Review” (January 1926), Eliot identified Babbitt’s Democracy and Leadership (1924) as one of the works exhibiting a “modern tendency” toward “classicism.” On April 29, 1927, he wrote to Roger Chitty, “I have had in suspense in my mind an essay pointing out Babbitt’s (unconscious) relation to orthodox Christianity: his doctrine of Grace, in Democracy and Leadership, is singularly near to Christianity, and in my opinion cannot be made acceptable without Christianity.”