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January 10, 2006

Matthew and his Imaginary Friend - Matthew Arnold's Culture and Anarchy

Posted by Lincoln Allison

Culture and Anarchy and other writings
by Matthew Arnold
Culture and Anarchy first published 1869
Pp. 248. Cambridge University Press, 1993

Lincoln Allison - recently retired as a Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick - finds Matthew Arnold's Culture and Anarchy a morally repugnant work espousing mad, bad and dangerous ideas.

In the first chapter of Culture and Anarchy I found Matthew Arnold sympathetic and intelligent. In the second I found him entirely repugnant, more fully embracing intellectual and ethical positions which I regard as mad, bad and dangerous to espouse than any writer I know.

Let me try to explain. The first chapter is called "Sweetness and Light", a phrase taken from Swift. It has two principal targets of which the first can be called "materialism" in the vulgar, rather than the philosophical, sense. This includes all those who would measure their own well-being or England's worth in terms of possessions or economic wealth. England's real achievements are its religion, its poetry and its universities rather than its mines, railways and factories. The second consists of modernisation in education, of any attempt to offer people anything less that the full literary and philosophical glories of Western culture (p. 79):

. . . it must be real thought and real beauty; real sweetness and real light. Plenty of people will try to give the masses, as they call them, an intellectual food prepared and adapted in the way they think proper for the actual condition of the masses.
So far, I'm with him all the way; his enemies are, like himself, Liberals, and Robert Lowe and John Bright come in for particularly frequent criticism, which might serve to remind us that the Victorian Liberal Party was a broad church which turned into the Labour Party.

Admittedly, there is some menacing phraseology even in this argument. There is a reference to (p. 70):

the crowd at Epsom on Derby day and all the vice and hideousness which was to be seen in that crowd.
This is followed by an insistence that neither the Puritans nor the scientists can offer any real "cure" for such vice and hideousness. This is as stereotypical a rejection by Victorian high-mindedness of the "yobs 'n snobs" world of racing as one could hope to find. There is also the question of the definition of "culture": "curiosity" is not enough, we are told, but real culture can only consist in the (p. 71):
single-minded love of perfection.
Already we have hints that "curiosity" is good only if it leads to conclusions that the Great Headmaster would wish us to be led to and that there might be something rather authoritarian in the Government Inspector's closet. (To clarify: Arnold was Chief Inspector of Schools for England and Wales; it was his father who was a headmaster.)

In the second chapter the intellectual authoritarianism comes right out of the cupboard. It is called "Doing as one Likes" because it is the typically English error to equate freedom with being able to do what you want; it is an error which leads to anarchy. True freedom is liberation from what is "rough" and "coarse" to pursue culture which is now:
the study and pursuit of perfection.
The instrument of social perfection is, of course, the state, defined as (p .83):
the nation in its collective and corporate character , entrusted with stringent powers for the general advantage, and controlling individual wills in the name of an interest wider than individuals.
Arnold is well aware of both the dangers of states and the historic English antipathy to the idea of the state, but he wants us to embrace the state as our only protection against new dangers which are greater than any we have previously faced.

Arnold's theory of the benefits of a strong state can be understood in relation to his account of social class. The aristocracy (the "barbarians") is the class which he most dislikes and they (or their power) are to be replaced by the state. The working class (the "populace") is the one which most concerns him and they are to be civilised by the state. He is less, here, concerned with the middle classes whom he famously named the "Philistines"; his full account of class in England is found in the third of the six chapters.

Two characters come to mind when reading all this and neither of them is mentioned. The first is Hegel, the anglicised version of whose political theory this seems to be. Other statist "New" Liberals, amongst whom T. H. Green is considered the most significant, nowadays at least, acknowledge their debt to Hegel, but Arnold does not. The reason for this would seem to be that he has a prescient mistrust of the Prussian state and German political culture and prefers French models. But holding out the French state as an exemplar in a book published in 1869 is not impressive given that it collapsed a year later and that recent researches (such as the account of France in 1870 in Eugen Weber's Peasants into Frenchmen) suggest that it collapsed because it had failed in its projects.

The second character whom Arnold brings to mind is Lenin who is not mentioned for the very good reason that he was only eighteen when Arnold died. Both have an important connection with the inspection of schools. The paternalism is the same as is the project for perfection on earth; there is the same desire to abolish existing power structures and replace them with a state run by intellectuals. Lenin and Arnold both want to abolish inherited wealth.

Some would argue that the absolutely crucial difference between the two is that Arnold believes in God and the absolute constraint of His law. I am prepared to accept that this might have prevented the Arnoldian state committing the worst excesses of the Leninist state. But it is also the case that Arnold's religious belief is a particular form of Anglicanism which finds words of condemnation for most Christian traditions and seeks perfection here on earth.

The question of what makes Arnold's thought both attractive and repugnant takes us to the heart of an important philosophical problem. This now goes under the title which Isaiah Berlin gave it: the problem of negative and positive liberty.

Of course, it is not the case that being free can be equated simply and immediately with getting to do what you want. To put this the other way round, liberating people can consist precisely in thwarting, changing, removing or elevating their wants. Picking from the obvious pedagogical examples there are ignorance and a hundred forms of addiction, from drugs to gambling to alcohol to shopping. And let's admit, too, that teaching people Latin and philosophy, if at all feasible, would be a good deal more liberating than landing them with the narrow perspectives of a "relevant" or "technical" education whether they originally wanted it or not. Also, having entered into the generous spirit, let us also say that putting the "populace" into schools run by Matthew Arnold might free them in all sorts of ways that are not achieved by that curious combination of anarchy and incarceration, the contemporary state school.

But this is notoriously a wedge which cannot be allowed to penetrate too far. At some point, if you believe in liberty at all, you must allow the realm of personal responsibility to take over and let the ignoramus and the addict go to their earthly hell in their own way and the rest of us live as we want. It is not as if there is anyone we can trust to run the paternalist state. Nor as if the idea of perfection is clear and agreed. It contains (p. 81):

culture, beauty and intelligence, or, in other words, sweetness and light.
But this sort of moral monism does not stand a moment's philosophical reflection. Intelligence is not virtue, truth is not beauty it is often ugly and sweetness is not light. In the real world, the world of moral pluralism, an increase in one often has costs in terms of another. The suspicion is that we are being offered guidance from a thinker who has a very limited understanding of the possibilities of freedom. Or beauty: amidst the vileness of Derby day there may be some beautiful horses. And some beautiful women who are not virtuous!

In his fourth essay/chapter Arnold offers us a comparison between Hebraism and Hellenism. But in his highly Victorian hands the scholarly comparison is rather more limited than it might have been. Both traditions have at their core the quest for perfection; it is just that the Hebraic tradition stresses the "ardour" of the quest while the Hellenic emphasises the importance of intellectual clarity. In fact, to anyone of a genuinely conservative or libertarian outlook the two traditions as presented by Arnold cease to be different in interesting ways and begin to look remarkably alike.

As a teacher of political philosophy for more than twenty five years I entertained a genre of fantasy which involved resuscitating a long dead intellectual figure and offering him a contemporary experience. Taking Marx to Tesco, for instance. Or walking with Hobbes round Eastbourne, where the life of man is tedious, genteel and long.

Thus a day out with Matt: we could start by perusing the Sun and the Star over bacon butties. Then we could pop down to the local comprehensive school to see how the state was succeeding in civilising the populace. After that we'd be off to the races, obviously, and in the early evening we could catch up with the DVD of the BBC/HBO series Rome. The sex and the violence might be a little overdone, but it would be a good antidote to the version of the Roman Republic which he appears to have inherited from his father. In the evening a few bevies, a curry, some clubbing . . . I guess it would be little consolation to him to know that I agreed with him that people should be taught Latin and self-discipline.

I feel a bit of a heel in attacking Matthew Arnold in this way. It is not just that I admire what would now be called his elitism and intellectual snobbery. It is also that the poor chap shows such a relentless determination to be friendless if you read all of his best known essays. Having dismissed the aristocracy as barbarians and aggressively patronised the lower orders he christens the middle class "Philistines". Not content with this he divides them into two types, the "rowdies" and the "serious". The former can be dismissed quickly and en masse, but the latter are dissected and subject to more specific attack. Their Liberal politicians are wrong and obsessed with trivia. Their intellectual heroes, Byron and Shelley, are irredeemably shallow. Arnold called himself a "Wordsworthian", knew Wordsworth in his youth and wrote a good poem on the poet's death, but here he portrays Wordsworth as unscholarly and a disappointment.

In religion the Catholics are dismissed for the usual reasons and the Puritan- Nonconformist tradition for its failure to appreciate art. Disestablishmentarians come in for particularly lengthy criticism and current Anglican thought is assessed (in the "Preface" written after the rest of Culture and Anarchy) as "rubbish". He is in favour of equality and democracy, but not in any known form and certainly not in any American form.

Only Goethe and Michelet earn a net balance of favourable mentions. Plus one other: Thomas Wilson (1663-1755), Bishop of Sodor and Man, author of Maxims of Piety and of Christianity, is quoted with a level of approval bordering on awe. Who? you might well ask and Bishop Wilson was so obscure that Arnold was accused of inventing him! Perhaps we should all have our own Bishop Wilson.

It is with great regret that I find myself disliking and disapproving of a writer who disliked and disapproved of almost everybody. But there are too many echoes of Arnold in our own age to regard him with detachment. Let's start with self-righteousness, lack of feeling for liberty, authoritarianism . . . .

Lincoln Allison has recently retired as Reader in Politics, University of Warwick. His previous Retrospective Reviews can be read here.


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I am afraid that this is true, and what is even more sad, is that writer Edith Wharton was an "Arnoldian". I like her novels and short stories for many reasons, but I must confess I come to not liking her criticism. Which is ambigious... well, fair enough!

Posted by: Lisa Schubert at August 21, 2006 09:59 PM
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If cousin Matthew is morally repugnant what on earth is one supposed to make of Roger Scruton? The most intellectually arrogant apologist for high culture who would have been the first against Lenin's backyard wall (do they have backyards in Russia?)

Give me Derrida anyday, a breath of Fresh air (gaulloises excepted)

As for Bishops, Berkeley was so obscure no-one noticed when he fell over.

Posted by: Larry Arnold at March 1, 2007 07:51 PM
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Lovely article! Thank you for posting it on wikipedia!

Posted by: David Berezin at March 12, 2007 12:35 AM
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