“Four Quartets: III. Freedom” by T. S. Eliot

The Dry Salvages

Eliot weaves together almost seamlessly the teachings of Eastern and Western religions and philosophies in “The Dry Salvages”.

First, there is a lesson from the Hindu scripture The Bhagavad Gita, “Do not think of the fruit of action. Fare forward”, which seems very similar to the deontological ethics of Kant and the ancient Stoics. We’re not to think of the fruit of action, for it is not in our power. Strictly speaking, it is not fully in our power to act either, for we are sometimes prevented from acting by illness or external constraints. According to Epictetus, the only thing we own, and have control of, is our free will. We will or act freely according to duty, not the consequence. As Plato also hints at in his Pilot Metaphor: the duty of a pilot is to convey the passengers to the destination, that is, “fare forward”, but not necessarily “fare well”, for the pilot does not know whether the trip is good or evil for the passengers and others whose lives may be impacted by it.

To communicate with Mars, converse with spirits,
To report the behaviour of the sea monster,
Describe the horoscope, haruspicate or scry,
Observe disease in signatures, evoke
Biography from the wrinkles of the palm
And tragedy from fingers; release omens
By sortilege, or tea leaves, riddle the inevitable
With playing cards, fiddle with pentagrams
Or barbituric acids, or dissect
The recurrent image into pre-conscious terrors—
To explore the womb, or tomb, or dreams;all these are usual
Pastimes and drugs

In a few lines, Eliot dispenses with our inveterate curiosity for the past and future, with all forms of divination, fortune-telling, astrology, and perhaps Jungian psychology. To put it bluntly, all these are missing the point –literally, as will be shown later, and “ridiculous the waste sad time”.

Because we have no control over the causal relations between temporal events, to search past and future and attempt to manipulate the outcome is not only futility, but also gross negligence of our duty at present, and abject slavery of time and the elements. It is not without good reason that divination is forbidden in the Bible, after all.

Men’s curiosity searches past and future
And clings to that dimension. But to apprehend
The point of intersection of the timeless
With time, is an occupation for the saint—
No occupation either, but something given
And taken, in a lifetime’s death in love,
Ardour and selflessness and self-surrender.
For most of us, there is only the unattended
Moment, the moment in and out of time,
The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,
The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning
Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts. These are only hints and guesses,
Hints followed by guesses; and the rest
Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.
The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.
Here the impossible union
Of spheres of existence is actual,
Here the past and future
Are conquered, and reconciled,
Where action were otherwise movement
Of that which is only moved
And has in it no source of movement—
Driven by daemonic, chthonic
Powers. And right action is freedom
From past and future also.

“Movement of that which is moved” harkens back to the first poem, Burnt Norton, “Desire itself is movement Not in itself desirable;” As Aristotle writes in his treatise On the Soul, desire exists only in beings with sense perception, and it is the cause of movement towards its object. Desire signifies a lack or deficiency in the desiring being, therefore not in itself desirable. The movement of desire is not freedom but an enslavement to its object. To be truly free, one must have the source of life and movement in himself.

Man ascends from slavery to freedom, through the Incarnation. God, in Whom alone is the Source of movement, has come to set Man free, free from daemonic and chthonic powers, and free from the slavery of time and corruption, for Man is joined to Him in an “impossible union” in Christ; In Christ, the spheres of Eternity and Temporality are joined, time is conquered and redeemed, the past and future are reconciled; in man, the incarnation is realized in each moment, “the moment in and out of time”, when the movement is free, for it is not the movement of desire, but the movement of Love, not from deficiency, but from abundance, the Movement of Freedom.

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