Matthew Arnold’s Criticism of Society, Politics, and Religion

Like the work of all clear thinkers, Arnold’s writing proceeds from a few governing and controlling principles. It is natural, therefore, that we should find in his criticism of society a repetition of the ideas already encountered in his literary criticism. Of these, the chief is that of “culture,” the theme of his most typical book, Culture and Anarchy, published in 1869. Indeed, it is interesting to see how closely related his doctrine of culture is to his theory of criticism, already expounded. True criticism, we have seen, consists in an “endeavor to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world.” The shortest definition that Arnold gives of culture is “a study of perfection.” But how may one pursue perfection? Evidently by putting oneself in the way of learning the best that is known and thought, and by making it a part of oneself. The relation of the critic to culture thereupon becomes evident. He is the appointed apostle of culture. He undertakes as his duty in life to seek out and to minister to others the means of self-improvement, discriminating the evil and the specious from the good and the genuine, rendering the former contemptible and the latter attractive. But in a degree all seekers after culture must be critics also. Both pursue the same objects, the best that is thought and known. Both, too, must propagate it; for culture consists in general expansion, and the last degree of personal perfection is attained only when shared with one’s fellows. The critic and the true man of culture are, therefore, at bottom, the same, though Arnold does not specifically point this out. But the two ideals united in himself direct all his endeavor. As a man of culture he is intent chiefly upon the acquisition of the means of perfection; as a critic, upon their elucidation and propagation.

This sufficiently answers the charge of selfishness that in frequently brought against the gospel of culture. It would never have been brought if its critics had not perversely shut their eyes to Arnold’s express statements that perfection consists in “a general expansion”; that it “is not possible while the individual remains isolated”; that one of its characteristics is “increased sympathy,” as well as “increased sweetness, increased light, increased life.” The other common charge of dilettanteism, brought by such opponents as Professor Huxley and Mr. Frederic Harrison, deserves hardly more consideration. Arnold has made it sufficiently clear that he does not mean by culture “a smattering of Greek and Latin,” but a deepening and strengthening of our whole spiritual nature by all the means at our command. No other ideal of the century is so satisfactory as this of Arnold’s. The ideal of social democracy, as commonly followed, tends, as Arnold has pointed out, to exalt the average man, while culture exalts man at his best. The scientific ideal, divorced from a general cultural aim, appeals “to a limited faculty and not to the whole man.” The religious ideal, too exclusively cultivated, dwarfs the sense of beauty and is marked by narrowness. Culture includes religion as its most valuable component, but goes beyond it.

The fact that Arnold, in his social as in his literary criticism, laid the chief stress upon the intellectual rather than the moral elements of culture, was due to his constant desire to adapt his thought to the condition of his age and nation. The prevailing characteristics of the English people he believed to be energy and honesty. These he contrasts with the chief characteristics of the Athenians, openness of mind and flexibility of intelligence. As the best type of culture, that is, of perfected humanity, for the Englishman to emulate, he turns, therefore, to Greece in the time of Sophocles, Greece, to be sure, failed because of the lack of that very Hebraism which England possesses and to which she owes her strength. But if to this strength of moral fiber could be added the openness of mind, flexibility of intelligence, and love of beauty which distinguished the Greeks in their best period, a truly great civilization would result. That this ideal will in the end prevail, he has little doubt. The strain of sadness, melancholy, and depression which appears in Arnold’s poetry is rigidly excluded from his prose. Both despondency and violence are forbidden to the believer in culture. “We go the way the human race is going,” he says at the close of Culture and Anarchy.

Arnold’s incursion into the field of religion has been looked upon by many as a mistake. Religion is with most people a matter of closer interest and is less discussable than literary criticism. Literature and Dogma, aroused much antagonism on this account. Moreover, it cannot be denied that Arnold was not well enough equipped in this field to prevent him from making a good many mistakes. But that the upshot of his religious teaching is wholesome and edifying can hardly be denied. Arnold’s spirit is a deeply religious one, and his purpose in his religious books was to save what was valuable in religion by separating it from what was non-essential. He thought of himself always as a friend, not as an enemy, of religion. The purpose of all his religious writings, of which St. Paul and Protestantism, 1870, and Literature and Dogma, 1873, are the most important, is the same, to show the natural truth of religion and to strengthen its position by freeing it from dependence on dogma and historical evidence, and especially to make clear the essential value of Christianity. Conformity with reason, true spirituality, and freedom from materialistic interpretation were for him the bases of sound faith. That Arnold’s religious writing is thoroughly spiritual in its aim and tendency has, I think, never been questioned, and we need only examine some of his leading definitions to become convinced of this. Thus, religion is described as “that which binds and holds us to the practice of righteousness”; faith is the “power, preëminently, of holding fast to an unseen power of goodness”; God is “the power, not ourselves, that makes for righteousness”; immortality is a union of one’s life with an eternal order that never dies. Arnold did not without reluctance enter into religious controversy, but when once entered he did his best to make order and reason prevail there. His attitude is well stated in an early essay not since reprinted:—

“And you are masters in Israel, and know not these things; and you require a voice from the world of literature to tell them to you! Those who ask nothing better than to remain silent on such topics, who have to quit their own sphere to speak of them, who cannot touch them without being reminded that they survive those who touched them with far different power, you compel, in the mere interest of letters, of intelligence, of general culture, to proclaim truths which it was your function to have made familiar. And when you have thus forced the very stones to cry out, and the dumb to speak, you call them singular because they know these truths, and arrogant because they declare them!”[1]

In political discussion as in all other forms of criticism Arnold aimed at disinterestedness. “I am a Liberal,” he says in the Introduction to Culture and Anarchy, “yet I am a Liberal tempered by experience, reflection, and self-renouncement.” In the last condition he believed that his particular strength lay. “I do not wish to see men of culture entrusted with power.” In his coolness and freedom from bitterness is to be found his chief superiority to his more violent contemporaries. This saved him from magnifying the faults inseparable from the social movements of his day. In contrast with Carlyle he retains to the end a sympathy with the advance of democracy and a belief in the principles of liberty and equality, while not blinded to the weaknesses of Liberalism. Political discussion in the hands of its express partisans is always likely to become violent and one-sided. This violence and one-sidedness Arnold believes it the work of criticism to temper, or as he expresses it, in Culture and Anarchy, “Culture is the eternal opponent of the two things which are the signal marks of Jacobinism,—its fierceness and its addiction to an abstract system.”