“Four Quartets: II. Fear and Humility” by T. S. Eliot

East Coker

A periphrastic study in a worn-out poetical fashion,
Leaving one still with the intolerable wrestle
With words and meanings. The poetry does not matter.
It was not (to start again) what one had expected.
What was to be the value of the long looked forward to,
Long hoped for calm, the autumnal serenity
And the wisdom of age? Had they deceived us
Or deceived themselves, the quiet-voiced elders,
Bequeathing us merely a receipt for deceit?
The serenity only a deliberate hebetude,
The wisdom only the knowledge of dead secrets
Useless in the darkness into which they peered
Or from which they turned their eyes. There is, it seems to us,
At best, only a limited value
In the knowledge derived from experience.
The knowledge imposes a pattern, and falsifies,
For the pattern is new in every moment
And every moment is a new and shocking
Valuation of all we have been. We are only undeceived
Of that which, deceiving, could no longer harm.
In the middle, not only in the middle of the way
But all the way, in a dark wood, in a bramble,
On the edge of a grimpen, where is no secure foothold,
And menaced by monsters, fancy lights,
Risking enchantment. Do not let me hear
Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,
Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession,
Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.
The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.

In East Coker, Eliot writes of “the early owl”, making an inverted reference to Hegel’s “owl of Minerva”[1], which is always late. Hegel’s owl is a symbol of Philosophy, the wisdom of man, in hindsight. It is the wisdom of old men, for it is already old and out of date when it is realized, being knowledge derived from experience of the past. Peering in to the darkness but never attaining to the knowledge of the mystery; Eliot’s “early owl” perhaps refers to the eternal Wisdom, which is (before) the beginning and (after) the end. The Jewish day begins at nightfall, when the owl takes its flight. In my beginning is my end, for my beginning and my end are in God and known to Him, as it is written in Psalm 139:

I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
Marvelous are Your works,
And that my soul knows very well.
My frame was not hidden from You,
When I was made in secret,
And skillfully wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.
Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed.
And in Your book they all were written,
The days fashioned for me,
When as yet there were none of them.

From our point of view in time, “the pattern is new in every moment, and every moment is a new and shocking valuation of all we have been”. Because it is new, there is no experience or knowledge to guide us, there is no middle way in which one can walk gingerly to avoid the extremes. We don’t know where we’re going, and there is no path to follow, no secure foothold, but only fear and trembling.

Do not let me hear
Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,
Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession,
Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.
The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.

The “old men” in this poem is a figure of speech. Everyone who clings to his past, his knowledge and experience, and refuses to live in the present, refuses to embrace the moment that is ever new, is an old man.

The fear of “old men” is the fear of losing control, of submitting oneself. Fear of possession is the fear of being controlled by something or someone other than oneself. Being possessed by Dionysus, the god of wine, for instance, induces a state of frenzy; being possessed by a loved one, being in love, also makes one do crazy things. Aging and death are, in a sense, being possessed by Nature, the inexorable laws of Nature. The fear and humiliation of old age is ever palpable: loss of friends, loss of mental faculty, loss of physical freedom, and perhaps the most fearful of all, the sense of losing control of everything, including oneself.

If one believes in God as a faithful Creator, however, giving over oneself voluntarily to God is an act of humility and trust, just as Christ committed himself to God the Father in humility, and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.

Humility is derived from the Greek root meaning “on the ground”. The humility of Christ led him to come down from heaven, die on the cross, and be buried in the ground for man, that He may lift man out of the dust, out of the ash heap. Christ emptied Himself, laid aside the infinite glory of His Godhead, and took the form of a slave. His humility is as endless as His Love, without reservation, without limitation.

There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear.

Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter.
Old men ought to be explorers
Here or there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion

1^. From Hegel’s Preface to Philosophy of Right:
“Only one word more concerning the desire to teach the world what it ought to be. For such a purpose philosophy at least always comes too late. Philosophy, as the thought of the world, does not appear until reality has completed its formative process, and made itself ready. History thus corroborates the teaching of the conception that only in the maturity of reality does the ideal appear as counterpart to the real, apprehends the real world in its substance, and shapes it into an intellectual kingdom. When philosophy paints its grey in grey, one form of life has become old, and by means of grey it cannot be rejuvenated, but only known. The owl of Minerva takes its flight only when the shades of night are gathering.”


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