Culture and Anarchy

Since this blog is named after it, I thought I should devote a page to the book by Matthew Arnold. Arnold, with the splendid whiskers, was one of the Victorian greats: a poet, critic, essayist and Professor of Poetry at Oxford. Culture and Anarchy is by far his most well-known prose work today. Arnold’s crusading zeal for culture, and its concomitant civilising influence, led him to write a book about the significance of culture in society, and how it might hold back the forces of anarchy. He describes culture as the pursuit of perfection which enables us to examine stock habits and rethink things – as a way out of “present difficulties”.  The Preface discusses the efficacy of the Established church to promote culture, as opposed to non-conformism, for example, which apparently takes up too much of people’s time! Culture, he says, like religion, is about seeking inward perfection. The contemporary problem is that people “worship machinery” – that is, the means rather than the end. He expresses concerns about the state as a controlling cultural power to be expected and overcome.  Our “best self” – ie perfected by culture – can appreciate and accept such authority of the state as protection against anarchy. There is no doubt that Arnold was deeply snobbish about people’s approach to their “cultural life”, but he also makes some interesting and relevant points, both for understanding the Victorians and for thinking about the meaning of culture in society. Such ideas are important for the humanities subjects even now. The following quotations should give a flavour of his work.

“The whole scope of the essay is to recommend culture as the great help out of our present difficulties; culture being a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world; and through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits, which we now follow staunchly but mechanically, vainly imagining that there is a virtue in following them staunchly which makes up for the mischief of following them mechanically. This, and this alone, is the scope of the following essay. And the culture we recommend is, above all, an inward operation.”

“But for us,–who believe in right reason, in the duty and possibility of extricating and elevating our best self, in the progress of humanity towards perfection,–for us the framework of society, that theatre on which this august drama has to unroll itself, is sacred; and whoever administers it, and however we may seek to remove them from their tenure of administration, yet, while they administer, we steadily and with undivided heart support them in repressing anarchy and disorder; because without order there can be no society, and without society there can be no human perfection.”

“You cannot be certain of it, undoubtedly, if you never try to bring the thing about; but the question is, the action of the State being the action of the collective nation, and the action of the collective nation carrying naturally great publicity, weight, and force of example with it, whether we should not try to put into the action of the State as much as possible of right reason or our best self, which may, in this manner, come back to us with new force and authority; may have visibility, form, and influence; and help to confirm us, in the many moments when we are tempted to be our ordinary selves merely, in resisting our natural taste of the bathos rather than in giving way to it?  But no! says our teacher: ‘It is better there should be an infinite variety of experiments in human action; the common reason of society will in the main check the aberrations of individual eccentricity well enough, if left to its natural operation.’”

“We see, then, how indispensable to that human perfection which we seek is, in the opinion of good judges, some public recognition and establishment of our best self, or right reason. We see how our habits and practice oppose themselves to such a recognition, and the many inconveniences which we therefore suffer. But now let us try to go a little deeper, and to find, beneath our actual habits and practice, the very ground and cause out of which they spring.”

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