Matthew Arnold: Culture and Anarchy (2374 words)

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Matthew Arnold's role in developing the modern usage of the term “culture”, which has since become ubiquitous in literary and socio-political discourse, is one of his most important contributions as a man of letters, and it is intimately tied to his own growth and development as a writer (DeLaura 1988). Use of the term was already fairly common among English writers and intellectuals in the 1850s, the underlying idea of “cultivation” having become moralized and detached from its original agricultural sense in the writings of Southey and Coleridge early in the century (Williams 1958; Connell 2001), but it was closely associated with the German word Bildung and its English equivalents, self-development and self-cultivation. That is, “culture” usually meant “self-culture”, and for many it had negative connotations of amorality, egoism, and an unhealthy aestheticism.

“Culture and Its Enemies”, which originated as Arnold's final lecture as Professor of Poetry at Oxford in June 1867, was his first unambiguous essay in social and political criticism and this essay constituted the beginning of Culture and Anarchy. In it Arnold is reluctant to define exactly what he means by “culture”, but it is clear that he does not mean a precise body of knowledge or art but rather a psychological attitude of mental freedom, driven by the motive of intellectual curiosity. Arnold's fundamental egalitarianism is evident here. Culture “seeks to do away with classes” and “make the best that has been thought and known in the world current everywhere” (Arnold CPW 5:113). Furthermore, culture is both a process of learning, an ideal, and a general social mission, for, as he says in the preface, “Culture, which is the study of perfection, leads us … to conceive of true human perfection as a harmonious perfection, developing all the sides of our humanity; and as a general perfection, developing all parts of our society.” The “enemies” of culture are a “mechanical and material civilization” that stifles the inner life of the individual, an unsympathetic spirit of competition, and an “intense energetic absorption” in specialized pursuits. Later renamed “Sweetness and Light” as the first chapter of Culture and Anarchy, “Culture and Its Enemies” adapts Jonathan Swift's metaphor of the bee from The Battle of the Books, making sweetness stand for beauty of character and light for intelligence, with the additional connotation of spiritual illumination.

In writing this kind of criticism Arnold was following the precedent of Thomas Carlyle, whose first social and political essay, “Signs of the Times”, had appeared in the Edinburgh Review of June 1829, during the period of social disturbance prior to the First Reform Bill in 1832. Carlyle's critique of the “Age of Machinery” provided Arnold with one of the basic critical metaphors of Culture and Anarchy, the Englishman's unwarranted faith in “machinery”, by which he means to indicate not only the increasing forces of industrialization but also the false idols of wealth for its own sake, and of progress as an end in itself and without regard to its real ethical aims.

Arnold went on to write a series of six essays on culture that were published individually, and in 1869 collected in a book manuscript with the subtitle “an essay in political and social criticism”. Arnold wrote at a time of social disturbances and general unrest. The Second Reform Bill, increasing the electorate from one-fifth to two-fifths of the adult male population, was passed in August 1867, but only after a number of riots had been provoked by Parliament's reluctance to agree on reform (notably the Hyde Park Riot in July), and occasional civil unrest continued throughout the following months. In February 1868, Disraeli succeeded Lord Derby as Tory Prime Minister, but in April he was defeated on the Irish Church question. In November a general election under the provisions of the reformed franchise returned a liberal Parliament, and Culture and Anarchy was published just before the new Parliament convened in February 1869.

Arnold's second chapter, “Doing as One Likes”, sets the limited ideal of personal liberty—which, if undirected, leads to anarchy—against the interests and authority of the state in its Burkean sense. But how does the individual reach beyond his personal and class loyalties to the idea of the “whole community”? By our “everyday selves” we are “separate, personal, at war”. When “anarchy presents itself … we know not where to turn.” According to Arnold, the ideal of culture suggests that beyond his everyday self the individual, at least potentially, has a best self: “by our best self we are united, impersonal, at harmony” (CPW 5:134). This extension of Arnold's earlier idea of critical disinterestedness, expressed in his essay “The Function of Criticism”, is still the most intriguing and controversial aspect of Arnold's cultural ideal—that through “culture” an individual is capable of rising above his individual and class interests. In other words, culture is resistant to ideology.

The third chapter develops Arnold's playful tripartite classification of the “Barbarians, Philistines, Populace” (aristocracy, middle class, and working class) in British society, each with its distinctive qualities. Barbarians have a “high chivalrous style” but also a “fierce turn for resistance” and inaccessibility to ideas; Philistines have honesty and energy but also provincialism and narrowness; the Populace is the “vast residuum”, emerging as a force to augment that of the Philistines, but still undeveloped, “marching where it likes, meeting where it likes, bawling what it likes, breaking what it likes” (CPW 5:143). As the title of the book indicates, it is evidently the problem of social control posed by this emerging class that drives Arnold to address the question of just what kind of “culture” should dignify his society. His ascription of anarchic individualism to the Populace was the sign of his own “Philistine” fear, since even in the riots around the Second Reform Act the working class generally showed considerable moderation and political discipline. Underlying class differences, however, is a common human nature as well as the common English defect of imagining “happiness to consist in doing what one's ordinary self likes” (CPW 5:145). Although Arnold as social critic usually concentrates his energies on the Philistines, the class with the most power and influence, here he looks at society as a whole: “[I]n each class there are born a certain number of natures with a curiosity about their best self, with a bent for seeing things as they are, for disentangling themselves from machinery, for simply concerning themselves with reason and the will of God, and doing their best to make these prevail;—for the pursuit, in a word, of perfection” (CPW 5:145). He uses the ironical term “aliens” for those special individuals who come to terms with their best selves in order to be led by a general humane spirit and thus liberate themselves from the blinders of class ideology, and he believes that the number of aliens “is capable of being diminished or augmented” (CPW 5:146). It is clear that Arnold identifies himself as one of these aliens and that his goal as a social and political critic is to increase the number of independent-minded aliens who, like him, will dedicate themselves to the “pursuit of perfection”. He wants to perform in his text the very critical acts he is describing and that he wants his audience to emulate.

In his fourth chapter, “Hebraism and Hellenism”, Arnold asks his reader to join him in probing beneath the habits and practice that prohibit one from understanding the fundamental problem in English society that he has already identified: action with insufficient light, the constant emphasis on doing rather than knowing. From the beginning of his critical career, Arnold had emphasized the need for the British to look toward the French for an appreciation of ideas and a needed correction to English provincialism. Later, he suggested that the British should recognize the Celtic elements in British culture that balance those of the Anglo-Germanic. In making easy generalizations about the “dominant traits” of racial, national, and ethic groups, Arnold was typical of his time, but his comparative, dialogic approach was distinctive. Now in Culture and Anarchy he develops his most ambitious and suggestive scheme of bipolar forces that must be balanced in order to achieve a healthy cultural wholeness. Both Hellenism and Hebraism aim at the goal of human perfection or salvation, claims Arnold, but “by very different courses. The uppermost idea with Hellenism is to see things as they really are; the uppermost idea with Hebraism is conduct and obedience” (CPW 5:165). Appealing to a cyclical view of history, Arnold argues that both principles play a part in the development of civilization, and “by alternations of Hebraism and Hellenism, of a man's intellectual and moral impulses … the human spirit proceeds” (CPW 5:171-72). Early Christianity was the great triumph of Hebraism; the Renaissance was that of Hellenism. However, in England the Hellenic impulse of the Renaissance was “prematurely” checked by the reactionary cross-current of Puritanism in the seventeenth century. This “unnatural” state of affairs has impeded progress towards Hellenic “spontaneity of consciousness” and imposed an overemphasis on “conscience and conduct”, an “imbalance” toward the moral Hebraic side.

The “one thing needful” in the fifth chapter, “Porro Unum est Necessarium” [“But one thing is needful… “, Luke 10: 42], is of course the Hellenist corrective to the Puritan moralism dominant in British society. In pointing out what he believes to be the misinterpretation of St. Paul's writings by British Puritanism—taking the key terms used by Paul in a “connected and fluid” way and using them in an “isolated, fixed, mechanical way, as if they were talismans”—Arnold sets the stage for his next book, and his first book of religious criticism, St. Paul and Protestantism (1870).

In the final chapter, “Our Liberal Practitioners”, Arnold applies his ideas to some “practical operations” of the day, including the Disestablishment of the Irish Church, the Real Estate Intestacy Bill, and the Deceased Wife's Sister Bill, all of which point to the mechanical nature of conventional political thinking. His sharpest criticism is reserved for the “talisman of free-trade”. After saluting “free-trade and its doctors with all respect”, Arnold asks “whether here, too, our Liberal friends do not pursue their operations in a mechanical way, without reference to any firm intelligible law of things, to human life as a whole, and human happiness” (CPW 5:208). Then, in his Conclusion, he returns to a higher style and makes his most sweeping claims for culture in stating his conviction that

the endeavor to reach, through culture, the firm intelligible law of things …. that … detaching ourselves from our stock notions and habits, that a more free play of consciousness, an increased desire for sweetness and light, and all the bent which we call Hellenizing, is the master-impulse even now of the life of our nation and of humanity. (CPW 5:229)

At the heart of Culture and Anarchy is a tension between apolitical individualism and desire for community. In his poetry Arnold had explored the question of the individual's authentic or true self, and had implied that even though we assume it exists, it may be buried or cut off from ordinary consciousness. Now he equates the “best self” with “right reason” and proposes that an extension of humanistic education is needed to enable individuals to become aware of their highest possibilities. Although the current British State is not the best instrument to oversee such an education (because dominated by the Barbarians who have no interest in change), nonetheless such a work must be encouraged by reformed State institutions. The path towards expanded state-funded education, and an enhanced role for the study of secular literature, is clearly indicated.

Arnold's critics complained, on the one hand, about the ineffectuality of his privileging “knowing” above “doing” in the struggle for human perfection, and, on the other, about his apparent anti-libertarian bias in identifying culture with the State and “law and order”. By the late 1860s his public image as the “Apostle of Culture” had solidified, and, increasingly, both friends and opponents had strong opinions about him. Arnold used irony not only as a weapon to undercut his adversaries but in a self-deprecating manner to establish his own modesty, openness and lack of dogmatism. In a series of letters to the Pall Mall Gazette, later collected into Friendship's Garland (1871), Arnold wrote his most outrageous satire, revealing the most playful and irreverent side of his wit. With self-deflating humor he pokes fun at his own image as a pretentious intellectual while satirizing a broad range of British life and institutions, with emphasis on the Philistines. He rarely presents his adversaries as completely wrong on any issue. Instead he implies by tonal modulations that they are too sectarian or partisan, too crude, too provincial, too little discriminating, too muddled or unclear, too impulsive, too easily satisfied by simplistic solutions to problems.

One early and important instance of the influence of Arnold's cultural criticism was in the essays of Walter Pater on the Renaissance, the first of which was published in November 1869. But at this point in his career Pater was interested only in the aesthetic dimension of Arnold's thought. According to David DeLaura, “If there is a ‘moment' when the Keatsian artist announces an ultimate severance from the hope of affecting nineteenth-century life, it may be in Pater's first essays of the late sixties, as Matthew Arnold's great ‘critical effort' is systematically reshaped into the catchwords of the new aestheticism” (DeLaura 1969: 230). Like Arnold, Pater was seeking to modify and transform traditional religious categories, but without Arnold's increasing social and ethical motivation. An even more unexpected sign of Arnold's influence came in 1871 with the publication of Sir Edward Burnett Tylor's Primitive Culture, a pioneering work in anthropology. Tylor adapted the term that Arnold had popularized and applied it in evolutionary and hierarchical senses in this newly developing field of science.

Works Cited

Arnold, Matthew. The Complete Prose Works of Matthew Arnold, ed. R. H. Super. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1960-77. 11 volumes.
Connell, Philip. Romanticism, Economics and the Question of ‘Culture'. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
DeLaura, David J. Hebrew and Hellene in Victorian England: Newman, Arnold, and Pater. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1969.
——————. “Matthew Arnold and Culture: The History and the Prehistory.” In Matthew Arnold in His Time and Ours: Centenary Essays, ed. Clinton Machann and Forrest D. Burt. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1988, pp. 1-16.
Williams, Raymond. Culture and Society, 1780-1950. London: Chatto & Windus, 1958.

Machann, Clinton John. "Culture and Anarchy". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 07 April 2009
[, accessed 19 November 2017.]

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