Study Guide

Culture and Anarchy

by Matthew Arnold

Culture and Anarchy Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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 authority is internal, it is a study of perfection within the individual, a study that should elevate the “best self” through a fresh and free search for beauty and intelligence. By following “right reason,” the disinterested intellectual pursuits of the best self, Arnold foresaw a way to overcome the social and political confusion of the 1860’s and to prepare for a future in which all could be happy and free. With this basically romantic view of human beings as a means and human perfectibility as the end, Arnold turned to social criticism, carefully showing that no other center of authority was tenable. The ideal of nonconformity, the disestablishment of the church, led to confusion or anarchy because it represented the sacrifice of all other sides of human personality to the religious. The ideal of the liberal reformers, on the other hand, led to anarchy because it regarded the reforms as ends rather than means toward a harmonious totality of human existence.

Arnold clarifies his definition of culture by tracing its origin to curiosity or “scientific passion” (the desire to see things as they really are) and to morality or “social passion” (the desire to do good). Christianity, as he saw it, is like culture in that it also seeks to learn the will of God (human perfection) and make it prevail. Culture goes beyond religion, however, as interpreted by the Nonconformists in that it is a harmonious expansion of all human powers. In even sharper terms, culture is opposed to utilitarianism, which Arnold considered “mechanical” because it worshiped means rather than ends. In fact, anything—materialism, economic greatness, individual wealth, bodily health, Puritanism—that was treated as an end except that of human perfectibility was to Arnold mere “machinery” that led to anarchy. Only culture, the harmonious union of poetry (the ideal of beauty) and religion (the ideal of morality), sees itself as a means that preserves the totality of the individual. Culture looks beyond machinery; it has only one passion—the passion for “sweetness” (beauty) and “light” (intelligence) and the passion to make them prevail. With such a passion it seeks to do away with social classes and religious bias to make the best that has been thought and known in the world (right reason) the core of human endeavor and institutions.

After establishing his definition of culture in terms of the individual, Arnold turned toward the problem of society. He saw the characteristic view of English people toward happiness as the individual freedom, but he also saw that each class had its own opinion as to what it considered freedom to be. In other words, there was a strong belief in freedom but a weak belief in right reason, which should view freedom disinterestedly. This misplacing of belief was to Arnold one of the chief causes of anarchy; it was the mistake of acting before thinking. Ideally, right reason should precede action, and the state should be the disinterested union of all classes, a collective best self. In reality, the state was being led toward anarchy by class interests because the aristocracy, or “Barbarians,” was inaccessible to new, fresh ideas; the middle class, or “Philistines,” had zeal but not knowledge; and the...

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Culture and Anarchy Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical 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 acquiescence to the “machinery” of its ever-expanding bureaucracies. Arnold’s “typical” English citizen worshiped the materialism that generally determined societal values, but in religious matters he or she emphasized the “protest” in Protestantism and generally abhorred centralized spiritual authority. The English citizen was puritanical and inflexible.

The character of the Victorian middle class, in Arnold’s view, was woefully inadequate to meet the problems it was currently facing, problems such as a rapidly increasing population, the unchecked rise of industrialism, and the continued spread of democracy. In addition to the middle class, which Arnold identified as “Philistines,” there were two other classes to be considered: the aristocracy, identifed as the “Barbarians,” and the lower classes, termed the “Populace.” All in varying degrees were in need of culture, which Arnold defines as the pursuit “of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all matters that most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world.” Culture is the means by which to achieve the general...

(The entire section is 1065 words.)

Culture and Anarchy Bibliography (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Further Reading

Anderson, Warren D. Matthew Arnold and the Classical Tradition. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1965. Examines Arnold’s lifelong interest in classical literature and civilization. In writing Culture and Anarchy, Arnold drew heavily on Greek thought, and he was especially influenced by Plato.

Cockshut, A. O. J. “Matthew Arnold: Conservative Revolutionary.” In Matthew Arnold: A Collection of Critical Views, edited by David J. DeLaura. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1973. Looks at Culture and Anarchy and four of Arnold’s overtly religious works to trace the basic assumptions of his religious position. Arnold’s combination of conservatism and skepticism made him seek established religion, but he also sought to change it.

Hamilton, Ian. A Gift Imprisoned: The Poetic Life of Matthew Arnold. London: Bloomsbury, 1998. A critical biography that explores the frustrations in Arnold’s life, the tension between passion and repression in his poetry, and his decision to abandon poetry for prose writing.

Jump, J. D. Matthew Arnold. London: Longmans, 1965. Reassesses the achievement of Arnold the man, the poet, and the critic. Provides an excellent and accessible introduction to Culture and Anarchy, tracing the history of composition, political and social contexts, major arguments, and the author’s intentions.

McCarthy, Patrick J. Matthew Arnold and the Three Classes. New York: Columbia University Press, 1964. A full-length study of Culture and Anarchy. Examines Arnold’s own relationships with the three classes delineated in his work. Extensive notes, index, and bibliography.

Neiman, Fraser. “Anarchy and Authority.” In Matthew Arnold. New York: Twayne, 1968. A brief but clear presentation of the major points in Culture and Anarchy, with an emphasis on explaining Arnold’s terminology. Also includes a chronology, bibliography, and thorough index.

Pratt, Linda Ray. Matthew Arnold Revisited. New York: Twayne, 2000. An updated version of Neiman’s book (above). Pratt analyzes Arnold’s works and concludes with a postmodern interpretation of his writings.

Sterner, Douglas W. Priests of Culture: A Study of Matthew Arnold and Henry James. New York: Peter Lang, 1999. Sterner focuses on Arnold’s cultural and religious criticism and also examines James’s travel literature, demonstrating how the two writers sought an ideal of “culture” as a response to the pressures of change and the crisis of faith in the nineteenth century.