Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
In Culture and Anarchy, Matthew Arnold sought a center of authority by which the anarchy caused by the troubled passage of the Reform Bill of 1867 might be regulated. At its best, his style is clear, flexible, and convincing. He wrote in such a complicated mood of indignation, impatience, and fear, however, that his style and his argumentative method are frequently repetitious and unsystematic. The book is nevertheless a masterpiece of polished prose, in which urbane irony and shifts of ridicule are used to persuade the Victorian middle class that it must reform itself before it can begin to reform the entire nation.
Writing as a so-called Christian humanist, Arnold primarily directed his criticism against the utilitarianism of the followers of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill and against the various movements of liberal reform. Disturbed by the social and political confusion, by Fenianism and the Hyde Park Riots of 1866, and by the inability of either the church or the government to cope with the growing unrest both in England and on the Continent, Arnold attempted to describe an objective center of authority that all, regardless of religious or social bias, could follow.
This center of authority is culture, which he defined on the level of the individual as “a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world.” Because this...
(The entire section is 1927 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of Culture and Anarchy Summary. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Culture and Anarchy, Arnold’s masterpiece of social criticism, was the direct result of the turbulence leading up to the second reform bill of 1867. The book comprises six essays, which were published serially in the Cornhill Magazine between 1867 and 1868 under the title “Anarchy and Authority.” At the time that Arnold was preparing these essays, anarchy in English society was very much in ascendancy. From 1866 through 1868, there were a variety of social disturbances: riots in Trafalgar Square, Fenian and trade union demonstrations, anti-Catholic rallies, and suffrage protests in the industrial cities of Birmingham and Wolverhampton.
There was a rising tide of anarchy in England, and for Arnold it seemed that the entire country was in a general state of decline. Chief among the faults leading to this condition was an appalling smugness and insularity in the English character. As Arnold saw it, the typical English citizen was narrow and circumspect in the appreciation of the higher qualities and virtues of life. The cities in which he or she lived and worked expressed no beauty in their architecture; they were sprawling, industrial conglomerations. People were smug and cantankerous, loud in their assertions of individualism and personal liberty and adamant in their dislike of centralized authority, church or state. They were, however, obsequious in their respect for size and numbers in the burgeoning British empire and in their...
(The entire section is 1065 words.)