Commentary Magazine

Matthew Arnold and Us

A hundred twenty-five years after it was first published, a new edition of Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy—the classic defense of high culture against the depredations of modernity—is still an event1 This is a work that speaks to us directly, even intimately; a work that still sets a challenge. And yet a reader coming to Culture and Anarchy for the first time, knowing nothing of it but its reputation, could soon find himself wondering whether this is the same book as the one he has heard so much about.

Samuel Lipman’s admirable edition is reinforced by a commentary consisting of four newly commissioned essays—by Lipman himself, by the American literary critics Gerald Graff and Steven Marcus, and by the British historian Maurice Cowling. The first three discuss the ways in which Culture and Anarchy is relevant to the needs and problems of our own time; the fourth, although it questions that relevance, recognizes that most of Matthew Arnold’s modern admirers (and many of his opponents) think otherwise. But Lipman—who in his “other” life is COMMENTARY’s music critic and the publisher of the New Criterion—has also provided twenty pages of badly-needed notes, explaining names and other allusions; and merely to glance at them is to be reminded how deeply rooted Culture and Anarchy is in a particular time and place, and a particular set of social developments.



When Culture and Anarchy first appeared in book form in 1869, Matthew Arnold was forty-six. He was best known as a poet—the most gifted of the generation immediately following Tennyson and Browning, the author of such renowned anthology pieces as “The Scholar Gipsy” and “Dover Beach.” But by this time his poetic career was largely behind him, and he was to write very little further verse of much consequence. He had, however, acquired a formidable second reputation as a critic, based chiefly on the lectures he had delivered as professor of poetry at Oxford from 1857 to 1867, and more particularly on the selection of them published as Essays in Criticism (First Series) in 1865.

In their breadth, lucidity, and high standards, these essays marked Arnold as the most important English critic since William Hazlitt or even Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In the best of them—above all in the one entitled “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time”—he also ventured well beyond literary criticism proper into the region which a later generation would have called cultural criticism. He discussed the prevailing values of his society—its tone and its unthinking assumptions no less than its formal beliefs; and he was especially scathing about its philistinism (a term imported from Germany, which he was the first to put into widespread circulation) and its self-complacency.

His criticisms did not go unanswered. Almost at once there were counterblasts in the press, some of them (as he conceded) from intellectually reputable quarters. Arnold replied to his critics in turn, and extended his attack in a series of satirical newspaper articles, later published in book form under the title Friendship’s Garland. Although he was a peaceable man by temperament, he increasingly found himself assuming the role of popular controversialist.

It was from this background that Culture and Anarchy emerged. In 1867 he published the first chapter—it was also his concluding lecture as professor of poetry—in a widely-read periodical, the Cornhill Magazine. In a series of five subsequent interlinked articles, he broadened the argument of “The Function of Criticism” into a wholesale assessment of what the Victorians themselves called the “Condition of England.” His analysis encompassed the still-powerful aristocracy (“the Barbarians”) and the working class (“the Populace”), which was just beginning to show its political muscle; but most of his attentions—and his fire—were reserved for the middle class, whom he identified squarely as “the Philistines.” At a time when most middle-class Englishmen still gloried in the unprecedented triumphs of industrialism (this was the period that had been ushered in by the Great Exhibition of 1851), he chose instead to dwell on the discontents and imperfections of his society—moral, social, spiritual, aesthetic. The indictment was a lengthy one; the chief remedy, as he saw it, was education.

There was nothing vague or merely pious about Arnold’s placing his hopes in this direction. Few Englishmen of his time knew more about the practical workings (and shortcomings) of the educational system. He had inherited his interest from his father, Thomas Arnold, the headmaster of Rugby School and architect of the modern British public (i.e., private) school system—a legendary figure celebrated at the popular level in the novel Tom Brown’s Schooldays and later to be caricatured by Lytton Strachey in Eminent Victorians. From 1851, Matthew Arnold himself had worked as a government inspector of schools, and his involvement in day-to-day educational politics runs through the articles that make up Culture and Anarchy. So do many other immediate political issues, especially the controversies then raging about parliamentary reform and the extension of the suffrage.



It is not only American readers in the 1990’s who need to have Arnold’s references to public events and personalities explained. Many of his allusions would have been unintelligible to most British readers within a few years of the time he was writing; in the later editions that he prepared, they were largely excised. But it is the text of the first edition that Lipman uses here—and rightly so, since without the topicalities the book loses a good deal of force and flavor. It had begun life as a series of articles, and its semi-journalistic qualities—its immediacy and informality—constitute a large part of its appeal.

This gives rise to a persistent paradox. In the course of the book Arnold lays heavy stress on permanent and universal values; his opponents stand condemned, as much as anything else, by reason of their provincialism. But in practice he remains closely enmeshed with the local and the comparatively ephemeral; and this is true not only of the illustrations which he uses to drive home his arguments but also, to a considerable degree, of the arguments themselves. He wrote as a member of the Church of England, or at any rate from a broadly Anglican standpoint, and the quarrel between Anglicanism and English Nonconformity is part of the book’s innermost substance—a quarrel presented, moreover, not so much in terms of first principles but as it affected current questions of social policy and legislation.

Maurice Cowling, in his contribution to this new edition, offers a persuasive account of Culture and Anarchy as one stage in Arnold’s attempt to preserve the values of his youth in a changing world (an important aspect of the change being that those values had originally rested on religious beliefs to which he himself could no longer give wholehearted assent). Cowling’s conclusion is that Arnold’s message is too bound up with his circumstances to be translated into 20th-century terms, any more than his political and cultural opinions can really be detached from his religious ones. And if that makes Arnold seem a remote figure, then we had better accept that in many ways he is a remote figure, and not one who can be looked to for much practical guidance.

And yet we can hardly leave matters at that. From the first, readers have reserved the right to distill their own message from Culture and Anarchy, to detach what they value most about it from its religious concerns in exactly the manner that Cowling warns against. Even to his contemporaries, Arnold was above all what he remains today: the apostle of culture.

Culture does not always mean the same thing in his writing, but it always figures as a positive good. He defined it, in his most famous formulation, as an acquaintance with “the best which has been thought and said in the world.” He variously identified it with the humanizing and the inward absorption of that knowledge (as opposed to the mere acquisition of facts); with the development of a balanced personality; and with individual progress toward what he did not hesitate to characterize as “perfection.” (This was an unmistakable echo of the Gospels—“be ye perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect”; secular-minded readers might prefer to substitute a less demanding term.) He also maintained, notoriously, that one of the prime benefits of culture was “sweetness and light”—a condition which included among its attributes flexibility, urbanity, an even temper, a willingness to reconsider fixed positions.

There is a great deal here to take issue with, but ultimately that may not matter very much. Henry James praised Culture and Anarchy for its “luminosity,” and he chose his word well—luminosity rather than clarity. Arnold was wise enough to keep his arguments fairly loose and his terms fairly vague: “sweetness and light,” for example, is simply repeated like a mantra. Whatever the drawbacks to such a procedure, the advantage is that Arnold’s ideas, as children’s-clothes salesmen used to say, “allow for growth.” We can see in a general way what he means by culture, and why he sets such a high value on it. We are not obliged to accept his prescriptions in detail, and we are free to adapt them to altered circumstances.

It is important in this connection to remember that Arnold was a liberal. He believed in progress, however warily. He would have found many of our domestic attitudes and social arrangements more humane than those of his own time, and on the whole, I think, he would have applauded. He would also have recognized that, under its contemporary gloss, a good deal of today’s tawdriness is merely an updated version of the tawdriness of the past. Confronted with this or that media personality or best-selling author, an Arnold returned to earth might well murmur, “Ah, yes, I knew his grandfather.”

But some things today would undoubtedly shock him, as they must shock even the most adaptable Arnoldian. The modern world simply seems more given over to anarchy—more irredeemably anarchic—than anything Arnold could have imagined, and nowhere more so than in the realm of culture itself, and particularly in the scene of devastation presented by so much intellectual and academic life. Yet it seems to have been in the hope that a fresh encounter with Arnold might help even today that Samuel Lipman undertook this new edition.



In one of the most heartfelt passages in Culture and Anarchy, Arnold praises “men of culture” as “the true apostles of equality”:

The great men of culture are those who have had a passion for diffusing, for making prevail, for carrying from one end of society to the other, the best knowledge, the best ideas of their time; who have labored to divest knowledge of all that was harsh, uncouth, difficult, abstract, professional, exclusive; to humanize it, to make it efficient outside the clique of the cultivated and learned, yet still remaining the best knowledge and thought of the time. . . .

The great men of culture, in other words, believe in the common reader. The great men and women of the present-day Modern Language Association, on the other hand, appear not to. Arnold chose his words with care and, when it came to including “professional” in his list of undesirable qualities, with some courage. Not that he failed to esteem professional scholarship when it was practiced in the right place and for the right purpose. It was misapplied or second-rate professionalism that was the threat, and a threat he took seriously—though he could hardly have foreseen quite how harsh and uncouth the supposed disseminators of culture would become in the era of structuralism and critical theory, or quite how much they would glory in being abstract and exclusive.

Whatever virtues they may or may not possess, today’s literary theoreticians are choking the channels through which a knowledge of culture and a love of culture are transmitted from one generation to the next. And they represent only one of the forces against which culture in the traditional sense now has to contend. In his essay here, Lipman surveys a score of others, from the brutalities of current popular entertainment (or a large slice of it) to the divisiveness of multiculturalism. The picture he paints confirms one of the saddest truths of a world increasingly dominated by low culture and pop culture and who-knows-what culture—that the greater the need for educational and artistic institutions to serve as bastions of high culture, the more they have tended to subvert high culture themselves. The worst enemies are now within the gate.

Lipman still subscribes to the Arnoldian ideal. So, with somewhat different emphases, does Steven Marcus, who has long taught at Columbia. He, too, has a gloomy tale to tell. We live in a social and cultural world, he reports, which is unmoored, fragmented, “driven in the main by the politics of identity, group thought, and the hegemony of representativeness.” What is even worse, one of the major presuppositions of today’s culture is “that there are no plausible, convincing, or intersubjective standards to which anyone can appeal in the effort to establish judgments of quality.” So much for the best which has been thought and said.

By comparison, Gerald Graff, who teaches English at Northwestern, takes a sanguine view of the situation. “Having written a culture-and-anarchy book myself,” he tells us (as who should say, “I once wrote a war-and-peace novel”), “I think I know from the inside what it feels like to be convinced that the destruction of reason and culture is at hand.” But on closer inspection, Graff continues, he decided that the particular object of his attack—current literary theory—had a lot to be said for it, and he now feels that the conditions which increasingly prevail in today’s classrooms are the appropriate ones “if we are sincere about creating a common culture under democratic conditions.”

Matthew Arnold occupies a bad eminence in Graff’s scheme of things because he set such a powerful precedent. Following his example, generations of teachers, acting in the name of supposedly absolute values, inculcated the tastes and preferences of dominant social groups. But now other groups are at long last claiming the right to have a say in how culture is defined. What Graff chiefly has in mind is the advent of “new social movements based on gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation”; but there seem no good grounds for withholding the same democratic rights from any interest group that is sufficiently energetic and well-organized. And how is a consensus going to emerge from this ferment of opinion? It is not, since in a democratic society, says Graff, a common culture means “a common debate over culture.” Not a discussion, a term we might all be willing to accept, but a debate—an unending debate, with a perpetual clash of views.



It is amusing, in a grim way, to try to picture what would happen if such an idea were taken literally. Every college year would have to begin with the reinventing of the wheel (though it would not necessarily be the same wheel each time). Every decision about what to teach and how to teach it would have to be put to the vote, every vote would be subject to constant amendment. Can Graff really mean what he is saying? Even in principle, there is surely something about the whole atmosphere of a debate that is inimical to most of the qualities that make literature what it is, that distinguish it from journalism. As William Blake wrote:

Great things are done when men and
    mountains meet.
This is not done by jostling in the street.

In practice, it seems almost inevitable that the works being studied would be drowned out by the opinions being expressed about them, and by the opinions being expressed about those opinions. Some of us might end up dying of boredom.

All this is largely beside the point, however, since as an account of current campus circumstances, Graff’s “debate” is a euphemism. The situation much more closely resembles a power struggle, in which ground is gained through belligerence and intimidation, and yielded through guilt, embarrassment, and the desire for a quiet life. Graff himself momentarily gives the game away with an unlovely phrase. The desired debate over culture, he writes, is one “in which the community’s identity and purposes are taken to be always up for grabs.”

Up for grabs! That may or may not be an accurate way to describe the struggle for influence and resources in the broader political world. But one thing is certain: literature that is grabbed ceases to be literature. It becomes a trophy or a piece of ammunition; it is reduced to publicity for your own cause, or further evidence of how reprehensible your opponents are.



Graff’s criticisms of Culture and Anarchy itself are rather more telling than his general reasoning, and most admirers of Arnold would agree with at least some of them. He has little trouble, for instance, in showing that Arnold’s ideas are often more socially conditioned than they initially appear, or that he has a trick of invoking “right reason” where he really means custom and tradition.

But I can only repeat: thanks to the spirit in which he wrote, most readers have never felt hemmed in by Arnold’s particular prescriptions. For one thing, his doctrine of culture carries its own antidote against any assumption of infallibility. That doctrine “will not let us rivet our faith on any one man and his doings,” he wrote. “It makes us see, not only his good side, but how much of him was of necessity limited and transient; nay, it even feels a pleasure, a sense of an increased freedom and of an ampler future, in so doing.” And the predominant tendency of Arnold’s writing was to encourage his readers to look outward, beyond themselves. There was nothing irrevocably classbound or ethnocentric, certainly not by mid-Victorian standards, about a critic who could write so warmly about Heine or Spinoza, or who could publish—a year or two after Culture and Anarchy—an appreciation of a Muslim passion play (written from a Christian point of view, inevitably, but with a good deal of sympathy and respect).2

No one could doubt that Arnold was deeply discontented with many aspects of his own society. My own view is that he was often unfair: Victorian culture was richer and stronger, Victorian achievements were more impressive, than one would conclude if all one had to go on was Culture and Anarchy. Still, he could not fight on every front at once. He recognized evils about which most of his contemporaries were complacent, and it should never be forgotten how many of them he had observed at close quarters through his work as a school inspector in poor industrial regions. He also recognized ugliness and meanness of spirit, and he felt impelled to speak up against them. He recognized ponderous self-satisfaction, and he was determined to show it up for the absurdity it was.

Gerald Graff, like many previous commentators, places Arnold in the line of critics of modernity stretching back to Wordsworth and Carlyle and forward to writers like W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot, and D.H. Lawrence. Clearly he has something in common with such figures—the sense of increased social rootlessness and of the debased quality of life. But to set him alongside them is also to become aware of differences, above all of how moderate he seems in comparison.



Arnold once wrote that Carlyle, in his role of angry political prophet, had ended up as “a moral desperado.” He understood the temptation himself, and he resisted it—resisted it more successfully than Eliot or Yeats or Lawrence would do. Indeed, one of his attractions today is that he shows that it is possible to feel a romantic revulsion from modern society without turning into a reactionary.

Nor was he in much danger of succumbing to the other great temptation that was to beset 20th-century intellectuals. “Culture,” he wrote, “is the eternal opponent of the two things which are the signal marks of Jacobinism—its fierceness, and its addiction to an abstract system.” We know what he thought of Auguste Comte, the founder of the doctrinaire philosophy of Positivism; we can deduce what he would have thought of Marx.

In the end, for all his jibes at “our liberal practitioners,” Culture and Anarchy is one of the great monuments of Victorian liberalism. Readers hoping for a sulfurous diatribe should be warned that it is a very witty book, and a rather worldly one. It is also, as Steven Marcus justly says, an optimistic book—“hopeful, cheerful, good-humored, patient with its adversaries and its adverse times.” The optimism was fundamental: without it, the wit would have jarred and the good humor would have seemed out of place. But Arnold was also witty and good-humored as a matter of principle. “Dissolvents of the old European system of dominant ideas and facts we must all be,” he wrote in his essay on Heine, “all of us who have any power of working; what we have to study is that we may not be acrid dissolvents.”

But where does that leave us today, when every fool knows how to be a dissolvent, and being acrid often seems the only way of obtaining a hearing? Marcus asks us to go on pinning our faith on education; but by his own showing, colleges are now doing as much to destroy culture as to uphold it. Samuel Lipman believes that Arnold’s chief value to us today is as “a lonely spokesman for an inward culture”; but to accept that would be to abandon the key Arnoldian conviction that culture has “one passion” even greater than sweetness and light—“the passion for making them prevail.” None of us has the answer; we can only do our best to resist anarchy, each in our own line, and hope that better days will come.


1 Edited by Samuel Lipman. Yale University Press, 289 pp., $30.00; paperback, $11.00.

2 Graff cites Frederic E. Faverty's Matthew Arnold the Ethnologist—he calls it “a devastating book”—as demonstrating that Arnold “subscribed to some of the more unsavory versions of national racial dispositions that many Victorians entertained.” The reality seems to me less sinister than this makes it sound. It is true that, like most of his contemporaries, Arnold indulged in large racial generalizations—in his case, chiefly about the supposed differences between Teutons and Celts; but personally I would characterize the evidence collected in Faverty's book as mildly disturbing rather than devastating. Anyone who takes the trouble to look it up will see that in comparison with the true precursors of modern racism, Arnold's views were fairly innocuous.

One of the key distinctions that Culture and Anarchy draws is between “Hellenism” (which Arnold defined as “spontaneity of consciousness”) and “Hebraism” (or “strictness of conscience”), with the clear implication that Victorian England had too little of the former and too much of the latter. Some critics have seen in this evidence of anti-Semitism, but I cannot agree with them. The distinction between the symbolic “Hebrew” and “Hellene” (which Arnold borrowed from the Jewish-born German poet Heinrich Heine) was meant to be one of attitude or belief rather than race; and Arnold valued Hebraism, which in some moods he virtually identified with morality, at least as highly as Hellenism, if not more highly. His point was that neither force was enough in itself: each needed to be supplemented by the other.

About the Author

John Gross is the editor most recently of The New Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes. His “Mr. Virginia Woolf” appeared in the December 2006 COMMENTARY.

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