T.S. Eliot's essay, Tradition and the Individual Talent (1920) is one of the earliest offerings of his literary theory. The essay outlines his philosophy of "tradition" and the implications this has for the poet, critic, and scholar. Tradition for Eliot includes a much broader definition than is recognized by the popular conception of the term. His idea of tradition includes psychological and philosophical aspects, and sets forth of the aims of poetry, the role of the poet, and how to assign poetic value.
Eliot is one of the founders of the New Criticism, or formalism, which is based on the idea that the only thing the critic should look at is what is inherently contained within the text. This idea springs from modernist theory, which holds within it a great dichotomy. Louis Menand asks was modernism très moderne, or was it très ancien? Modernism sometimes looks like a heroic effort to rescue literature from anachronistic conventions and to fit it to the needs of the modern world; but it can also look like an attempt to resurrect for literature an even more severely anachronistic privileged status, and nearly every aspect of our understanding of modernist writing is infected by this indeterminacy.
This description of modernism can be seen as a description of T.S. Eliot's own works. He is looking at literature from a very classical standpoint wherein each work is part of a greater whole. Eliot feels that each new work is a product of everything that preceded it as well as an extension of poetic genius. This awareness of a historical presence is what he is referring to by the word tradition.
Eliot does not use the conventional definition of history, however. His conception of tradition is rather an amalgam of literature, a living body that is always present yet always changing. He states in Tradition and the Individual Talent that:
The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the...