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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1927

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.

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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 working class, or “Populace,” was raw and untrained. Because culture alone could join the two sides of the individual, culture alone could overcome the narrow views of the three classes. Members of the different classes possessed the same human nature and saw happiness as freedom; also, the best self was common to all classes. Therefore, since authority could be found neither in religion nor in politics, it could be found only in individuals who, by following right reason rather than class bias, could assert their best selves in a harmonious union that sought the best for everyone. The major impediments to such a state were what Arnold called Atheism, the outright denial of such a thing as right reason, and Quietism, the utilitarian belief that reason was the result of habit. These impediments Arnold rejected on the basis of intuition and faith. Ethics can be known intuitively, and by building faith on the individual’s intuition the spirit of culture could overcome the present anarchy.

The enlargement of his terms from the individual to the state naturally led Arnold to consider the historical development of the social and political confusion that he confronted. In the famous chapter titled “Hebraism and Hellenism,” Arnold accounted for the very ground and cause out of which actual behavior arises, by distinguishing between the energy in human affairs that drives practice, the obligation of duty, self-control, and work (Hebraism) and the energy that drives those ideas that are the basis of right practice (Hellenism). Like the scientific passion, Hellenism’s chief function is to see things as they really are, and like the social passion, Hebraism seeks proper conduct and obedience. In other words, what Arnold earlier analyzed as the opposing drives in the individual, he now enlarged to a historical context, all human endeavor in the Western world being associated with either the one or the other drive. Both drives aim at human perfection or salvation, but their means and ideals are sharply different. Hebraism, or “strictness of conscience,” inculcates a sense of sin, but Hellenism, the “spontaneity of consciousness,” teaches what Arnold called culture.

The rise of Christianity marked the great triumph of Hebraism over Hellenism, but the Renaissance marked the resurgence of Hellenism. Arnold saw the anarchy of the 1860’s as the result of Puritanism’s reaffirmation of Hebraism in the seventeenth century, a reaffirmation that was against the currents of history. The problem was intensified by the Puritan belief that duty was an end in itself, whereas in reality both great drives are no more than contributions to human development. Thus, in England there was too much Hebraism, so much, in fact, that religion and politics had become mechanical. As a solution, Arnold suggested that Hellenism be imported. In Hellenism, which ultimately is a synonym for culture, the ideals of internal harmony, or the unity of the total human being, and of harmony with things overcome the one-sidedness of Hebraism. The other drive, however, should not be excluded, for Hellenism alone leads to moral relaxation. There should be a harmony of both sides, a union from which would come the awakening of a healthier and less mechanical activity.

After analyzing culture in terms of the individual, the state, and history, Arnold turned to the particular issues before Parliament at the time he wrote. He directed his wit and some of his most vivacious ridicule against the four political reforms that were at the heart of liberalism—the disestablishment of the Irish church, the Real Estate Intestacy Bill, the Deceased Sister’s Wife Bill, and free trade—and showed that the liberal reformers lacked disinterestedness, displayed a remarkable absence of reason, and were unconsciously leading to anarchy. By leaving the issues that were uppermost in his mind to the last, he dramatically illustrated that only culture could lead to perfection. For him the four bills were examples of the lack of belief in right reason and the philistine endeavor to act without thought. He warned that without right reason there could be no society and without society there could be no perfection. Only right reason, the disinterested search for the best that has been thought or done regardless of class interests, could defeat anarchy by establishing the way to happiness through harmony.

Culture and Anarchy is one of those works that transcend their generic limitations. Ostensibly an analysis of the contemporary political situation in England and specifically a critique of the growing attitude of liberalism promoted in works such as John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty (1859), the essays Arnold published originally in the Cornhill Magazine under the series title “Anarchy and Authority” have become regarded as the locus classicus of a certain conservative viewpoint that has generated strong reactions for more than one hundred years. The basic premise for Arnold’s judgment of contemporary society is that there is an inherent urge toward perfection that resides in every individual. Arnold believed every person capable of being governed by culture. For him, this meant living by the dictates of reason, in such a way that people realize they are not always the touchstone for judgments about either art or conduct; in the estimation of Lionel Trilling, one of his most distinguished critics, the attainment of culture was by Arnold’s definition “the conscious effort of each man to come to the realization of his complete humanity.” In Arnold’s view, self-interest is the major enemy of both individual and social perfection; only when individuals are able to act disinterestedly, putting aside individual and class distinctions to work in harmony for the common good, would they become capable of realizing their best selves.

Although Arnold is eloquent and penetrating in his social criticism, he lacks epistemological sophistication. The question he never addresses is how to determine what is best for individuals and society. He was attacked by contemporaries and criticized by succeeding generations for what many have seen as imperious dogmatism. Arnold claims that right reason can serve as a guide for determining what a person or a society ought to do. He hopes that all will one day be educated to see what is best but argues that until then it is the business of government to restrain individual freedoms when these freedoms allow behavior inconsistent with what is good for society. It is understandable that this view leads to charges that Arnold is actually advocating state control and opting for a kind of approach giving those in authority permission to restrict conduct, perhaps even thought.

In the twentieth century, a time when writing was considered a political act and all conservative writing was subjected to close scrutiny, Arnold became a principal target for literary theorists; their emphasis on the significance of political subtexts negatively affected the reputation of a writer who had considered himself a strong promoter of liberalism and a believer in people’s ability to improve their individual and common lots in life.

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Critical Essays