Culture and Anarchy Essay - Critical Essays

Matthew Arnold

Culture and Anarchy: An Essay in Political and Social Criticism, Matthew Arnold


Culture and Anarchy: An Essay in Political and Social Criticism Matthew Arnold

The following entry presents criticism of Arnold's essay, Culture and Anarchy: An Essay in Political and Social Criticism (1869). See also Matthew Arnold Criticism.

Culture and Anarchy is a controversial philosophical work written by the celebrated Victorian poet and critic Matthew Arnold. Composed during a time of unprecedented social and political change, the essay argues for a restructuring of England's social ideology. It reflects Arnold's passionate conviction that the uneducated English masses could be molded into conscientious individuals who strive for human perfection through the harmonious cultivation of all of their skills and talents. A crucial condition of Arnold's thesis is that a state-administered system of education must replace the ecclesiastical program which emphasized rigid individual moral conduct at the expense of free thinking and devotion to community. Much more than a mere treatise on the state of education in England, Culture and Anarchy is, in the words of J. Dover Wilson, “at once a masterpiece of vivacious prose, a great poet's great defence of poetry, a profoundly religious book, and the finest apology for education in the English language.”

Biographical Information

Apart from his occupation as a poet and critic, Arnold earned a reputation during his lifetime as one of his age's most knowledgeable and influential advocates for educational reform in England. Born the eldest son of Dr. Thomas Arnold, a headmaster of Rugby and generally acknowledged as the innovator of the modern public school system in England, Arnold was inculcated with a liberal attitude toward education from an early age. During his formative years and as a student at Oxford, he embraced the reform-minded ideas of social thinker John Henry Newman. In 1851 at the age of thirty, Arnold was appointed Her Majesty's Inspector of Schools, a post he held for the next thirty-five years. In his role as inspector, Arnold became intimately familiar with the disadvantages and inequalities inherent in the educational system from the favored aristocratic upper class to the ignored and impoverished lower class. Moreover, in his official capacity Arnold toured numerous schools and universities on the Continent which had already undergone extensive educational reforms. His comparative experiences at home and abroad yielded such essays as The Popular Education of France, with Notices of That of Holland and Switzerland (1861), A French Eton, or Middle-Class Education and the State (1864), and Schools and Universities on the Continent (1868), all of which influenced the ideas which found expression in Culture and Anarchy. Despite his best efforts to influence Parliament to initiate sweeping educational reform, it was not until Arnold appealed to the altruistic intellectual members of the English middle class with Culture and Anarchy that he began to gain a groundswell of support for his cause. Ultimately, Arnold's proposals and arguments contributed to the passage of the Elementary Education Act of 1870 which mandated that a state-run public educational program should replace the current private system of learning in England.

Plot and Major Characters

Although Arnold does not create specific fictional characters to express his ideas in Culture and Anarchy, he does infuse his essays with a narrative persona that can best be described as a Socratic figure. This sagacious mentor serves as a thematic link between each of the chapters, underscoring the importance of self-knowledge in order to fully engage the concept of pursuing human perfection. This mentor also identifies and classifies three groups of people who comprise contemporary English society. The first group is the Barbarians, or the aristocratic segment of society who are so involved with their archaic traditions and gluttony that they have lost touch with the rest of society for which they were once responsible. The second group—for whom Arnold's persona reserves his most scornful criticism—is the Philistines, or the selfish and materialistic middle class who have been gulled into a torpid state of puritanical self-centeredness by nonconforming religious sects. The third group is the Populace, or the disenfranchised, poverty-stricken lower class who have been let down by the negligent Barbarians and greedy Philistines. For Arnold, the Populace represents the most malleable, and the most deserving, social class to be elevated out of anarchy through the pursuit of culture.

Major Themes

Arnold introduces the principal themes of Culture and Anarchy directly in the essay's title. Culture involves an active personal quest to forsake egocentricity, prejudice, and narrow-mindedness and to embrace an equally balanced development of all human talents in the pursuit of flawlessness. It is a process of self-discipline which initiates a metamorphosis from self-interest to conscientiousness and an enlightened understanding of one's singular obligation to an all-inclusive utopian society. According to Stefan Collini, culture is “an ideal of human life, a standard of excellence and fullness for the development of our capacities, aesthetic, intellectual, and moral.” By contrast, anarchy represents the absence of a guiding principle in one's life which prevents one from striving to attain perfection. This lack of purpose manifests itself in such social and religious defects as laissez faire commercialism and puritanical hypocrisy. For Arnold, the myopic emphasis on egocentric self-assertion has a devastating impact on providing for the needs of the community; indeed, it can only lead to a future of increased anarchy as the rapidly evolving modern democracy secures the enfranchisement of the middle and lower classes without instilling in them the need for culture. Inherent in Arnold's argument is the idea of Hebraism versus Hellenism. Hebraism represents the actions of people who are either ignorant or resistant to the idea of culture. Hebraists subscribe to a strict, narrow-minded method of moral conduct and self-control which does not allow them to visualize a utopian future of belonging to an enlightened community. Conversely, Hellenism signifies the open-minded, spontaneous exploration of classical ideas and their application to contemporary society. Indeed, Arnold believes that the ideals promulgated by such philosophers as Plato and Socrates can help resolve the moral and ethical problems resulting from the bitter conflict between society, politics, and religion in Victorian England. As serious as Arnold's message is, he elects to employ the device of irony to reveal his philosophical points to his readers. Through irony, satire, and urbane humor, the author deftly entertains his readers with examples of educational travesties, he wittily exposes the enemies of reform and culture, and he beguiles his readers with self-deprecating humor in order to endear them to his ideas.

Critical Reception

Since its publication in 1869, literary scholars have generally regarded Culture and Anarchy as a masterpiece of social criticism. While it is true that Arnold wrote his essay in response to specific Victorian issues, commentators have since examined the work for its relevance to universal ethical questions and social issues in subsequent generations. Several twentieth-century critics have analyzed how Arnold employed the device of social criticism to advocate his particular brand of humanism. William E. Buckler has discussed Arnold's role as a classical moralist who believes that a truly conscious approach to life is its own reward while also facilitating personal growth. Other late-twentieth-century commentators such as Steven Marcus, John Gross, and Samuel Lipman have all endorsed Arnold's relevance to modern society with varying degrees of support. Marcus has asserted that the philosophical ideas in Culture and Anarchy resonate with modern concerns about culture and education just as they did during the author's time, pointing out that it is important to remember that a universal standard of excellence exists to which all reformers, philosophers, and critical thinkers should aspire. Lipman has added that “[there] can be little doubt that Arnold's great value to us today is not as a philosopher of community or of society, let alone of the state; his great value to us is as a lonely spokesman for the individual's search for an inward culture.” Other critics have challenged the claim that there is a timeless quality to Arnold's humanistic philosophy. Maurice Cowling has questioned the ability of Arnold's ideas to translate from the Victorian age to the modern day, particularly noting that the religious politics are strikingly different between the two periods. Vincent P. Pecora has examined Culture and Anarchy in light of Arnold's conspicuously absent thoughts on race relations as a factor in elevating one's level of culture, concluding that it is a fundamental flaw that cannot be ignored. Surveying the critical controversy surrounding Culture and Anarchy, Linda Ray Pratt has suggested that it stems from misunderstanding Arnold. According to Pratt, “[the] tension between Arnold's vocabulary, which has often taken on different connotations for today's readers, and the basic humaneness of his of his social vision is one reason for the confusion about his ideas.”

Principal Works

Alaric at Rome (poetry) 1840

The Strayed Reveller, and Other Poems (poetry) 1849

Empedocles on Etna, and Other Poems (poetry) 1852

Poems (poetry) 1853

Poems: Second Series (poetry) 1855

Merope (verse drama) 1858

On Translating Homer (lectures) 1861

The Popular Education of France, with Notices of That of Holland and Switzerland (essay) 1861

“The Bishop and the Philosopher” (essay) 1863

“Heinrich Heine” (essay) 1863

A French Eton; or, Middle Class Education and the State (essay) 1864

*Essays in Criticism (criticism) 1865

†“Culture and Its Enemies” (essay) 1867

New Poems (poetry) 1867

On the Study of Celtic Literature (criticism) 1867

‡“Our Liberal Practitioners” (essay) 1868

Schools and Universities on the Continent (essay) 1868

Culture and Anarchy: An Essay in Political and Social Criticism (essay) 1869

St. Paul and Protestantism, with an Essay on Puritanism and the Church of England (essay) 1869

Friendship's Garland (essay) 1871

Literature and Dogma: An Essay towards a Better Apprehension of the Bible (essay) 1873

God and the Bible: A Review of Objections to “Literature and Dogma” (essay) 1875

Last Essays on Church and Religion (essays) 1877

“Equality” (essay) 1878

Mixed Essays (essays) 1879

“Emerson” (essay) 1884

Discourses in America (lectures) 1885

Civilization in the United States: First and Last Impressions of America (essay) 1888

§Essays in Criticism: Second Series (criticism) 1888

Letters of Matthew Arnold, 1848-1888 (letters) 1895

Matthew Arnold's Notebooks (notebooks) 1902

The Works of Matthew Arnold. 15 vols. (criticism, essays, lectures, and poetry) 1903-04

The Letters of Matthew Arnold to Arthur Hugh Clough (letters) 1932

The Poetical Works of Matthew Arnold (poetry) 1950

Complete Prose Works. 11 vols. (criticism, lectures, and essays) 1960-77

*This volume contains “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time,” originally delivered as a lecture at Oxford in October 1864, and “The Literary Influence of Academies,” originally published in The Cornhill Magazine in August 1864.

†This essay was originally delivered as Arnold's last lecture as Professor of Poetry at Oxford in June 1867. It was published the next month in the Cornhill Magazine and was later divided into the introduction and first chapter of Culture and Anarchy.

‡This essay was first published in the Cornhill Magazine in July and September of 1868 and was later used as the final chapter of Culture and Anarchy.

§This volume contains “The Study of Poetry,” originally published in 1880 as the introduction to The English Poets.


J. Dover Wilson (essay date 1955)

SOURCE: Wilson, J. Dover. “Editor's Introduction.” In Landmarks in the History of Education: Culture and Anarchy, edited by J. Dover Wilson, 1932. Reprint, pp. xi-xl. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1955.

[In the following introduction, Wilson considers the development and background of Culture and Anarchy.]

Matthew Arnold holds a position in the history of modern English civilisation which it requires an unusual combination of qualities and interests to appreciate. As a poet and a critic he was the most considerable literary figure of the mid-Victorian period; for though his poetry ranks third after that of Browning and Tennyson, it is a good third, and...

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William E. Buckler (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: Buckler, William E. “Facing the Enemy Within: An Examination of the Moralist Mythos in Culture and Anarchy.” In Matthew Arnold's Prose: Three Essays in Literary Enlargement, pp. 67-112. New York: AMS Press, Inc., 1983.

[In the following essay, Buckler analyzes Arnold's role as a critical moralist, focusing on the high standard that the author set for himself and the society in which he lived.]

In the “Introduction” to Culture and Anarchy,1 Matthew Arnold said that, in his opinion, “the speech most proper, at present, for a man of culture to make to a body of his fellow-countrymen … is Socrates': Know thyself!” He...

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Robert Alan Donovan (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: Donovan, Robert Alan. “Mill, Arnold, and Scientific Humanism.” In Victorian Science and Victorian Values: Literary Perspectives, edited by James Paradis and Thomas Postlewait, pp. 181-96. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1985.

[In the following essay, Donovan compares Arnold's philosophy with that of John Stuart Mill, discussing Arnold's societal remedy of taking authority out of the hands of the state and placing it into the “hands of those who are able to transcend class spirit and prejudice.”]

In “Bentham” and “Coleridge,” two early essays long considered classics, John Stuart Mill defined the mental postures that, he thought,...

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Ira B. Nadel (essay date winter 1988-89)

SOURCE: Nadel, Ira B. “Textual Criticism and Non-Fictional Prose: The Case of Matthew Arnold.” University of Toronto Quarterly 58, no. 2 (winter 1988-89): 263-74.

[In the following essay, Nadel discusses the usefulness of applying new critical approaches, such as sociology, historicity, and semiology, to Culture and Anarchy in order to enhance understanding of the text.]

We see threatenings of confusion, and we want a clue to some firm order and authority.

(Matthew Arnold, cancelled passage, Culture and Anarchy)

In 1983 Jerome McGann declared that ‘textual criticism is in the...

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Richard D. Altick (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Altick, Richard D. “The Comedy of Culture and Anarchy.” In Victorian Perspectives: Six Essays, edited by John Clubbe and Jerome Meckier, pp. 120-44. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1989.

[In the following essay, Altick examines Arnold's use of wit and satire in portraying the governors of Victorian society as enemies of the people.]

Banter, levity, raillery, superciliousness, badinage, facetiousness, playfulness: all these terms, as well as the less common ‘coxcombry’ and ‘vivacities’, have been used by Matthew Arnold's critics, contemporary and modern, to describe his comic manner in Culture and Anarchy. He himself spoke of it...

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Wendell V. Harris (essay date March 1990)

SOURCE: Harris, Wendell V. “Interpretive Historicism: ‘Signs of the Times’ and Culture and Anarchy in Their Contexts.” Nineteenth-Century Literature 44, no. 4 (March 1990): 441-64.

[In the following essay, Harris compares Thomas Carlyle's “Signs of the Times” with Arnold's Culture and Anarchy, concluding that Arnold's societal solutions are much more radical.]

To adapt Northrop Frye's metaphor, Carlyle's stock has been steadily falling. To the contemporary reader his works are likely to look like mere rhetorical steam—at high pressure, but vaporous nonetheless—becoming substantial only when politically ominous. That Carlyle created the...

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Steven Marcus (essay date summer 1993)

SOURCE: Marcus, Steven. “Culture and Anarchy Today.” The Southern Review 29, no. 3 (summer 1993): 433-52.

[In the following essay, Marcus argues that Arnold's work, while powerful in its own time, is still applicable to the societal problems of today.]

Culture and Anarchy is one of the chief English books of the nineteenth century. It occupies a prominent place among the canonical Victorian works of cultural criticism—both of the words that go into this characterizing descriptive term being permanently associated with Matthew Arnold's intellectual and spiritual life's project. It is, moreover, an integral part of a tradition to which the principal writings...

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Stefan Collini (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Collini, Stefan. Introduction to Matthew Arnold: Culture and Anarchy and Other Writings, edited by Stefan Collini, pp. ix-xxxiv. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

[In the following essay, Collini discusses the purpose and style of Culture and Anarchy, while also commenting on the lasting impact the work has had on the debate about the relationship between politics and culture.]

Matthew Arnold is not primarily read or remembered for his contribution to the history of what has come to be known as ‘political thought’, and at first sight it may seem surprising to find him in such company. ‘Literary critic’ is the label most readily applied...

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John Gross (essay date July 1994)

SOURCE: Gross, John. “Matthew Arnold and Us.” Commentary 98, no. 1 (July 1994): 38-42.

[In the following essay, Gross presents an overview of the critical response to Arnold's work and concludes that Culture and Anarchy remains relevant to readers in modern times.]

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 event. 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...

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Maurice Cowling (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Cowling, Maurice. “One-and-a-Half Cheers for Matthew Arnold.” In Culture and Anarchy, edited by Samuel Lipman, pp. 202-12. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994.

[In the following essay, Cowling analyzes the intent of Culture and Anarchy and the difficulty of trying to translate the work into modern terms.]

In 1984 William Bennett, then chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and later President Ronald Reagan's Secretary of Education, published a pamphlet which implied that Matthew Arnold could be put to conservative use in American public discussion.1 What Bennett meant by this was not anything directly political, but that...

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Samuel Lipman (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Lipman, Samuel. “Why Should We Read Culture and Anarchy?” In Culture and Anarchy, edited by Samuel Lipman, pp. 213-27. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994.

[In the following essay, Lipman comments on the importance of Culture and Anarchy as a seminal text in helping form a society that has abolished anarchy.]

This essay is written by way of both conclusion and introduction, though it may well be said that I am using each of these words in a curious way. It is a conclusion in the sense that I have attempted to summarize Arnold's views in his time, a time different, like all times past, from our own; it is an introduction in that I have...

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Vincent P. Pecora (essay date spring 1998)

SOURCE: Pecora, Vincent P. “Arnoldian Ethnology.” Victorian Studies 41, no. 3 (spring 1998): 355-79.

[In the following essay, Pecora considers various critical approaches to Culture and Anarchy, paying particular attention to Arnold's notion, or lack thereof, of race.]

In the light shed by current trends in “cultural studies,” Matthew Arnold's version of culture would seem to be precisely that which must be contested: a grand edifice housing only those Europeans responsible for what Culture and Anarchy (1869) calls “the best that has been thought and known in the world” (Arnold 5: 113), dead white males whose “desire after the things...

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Linda Ray Pratt (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Pratt, Linda Ray. “Culture against Anarchy.” In Matthew Arnold Revisited, pp. 94-120. New York: Twayne Publishers, 2000.

[In the following essay, Pratt traces the development of Arnold's philosophy in works written prior to Culture and Anarchy, commenting on the incorporation of these ideas into his most well-known work.]

Looking back on Arnold's career from the perspective of more than a century, the break between the poet and the critic appears more sharply defined than it really was. As the poetry waned, the critical essay bloomed, but the ideas and concerns that marked his later work grew out of themes that were lifelong interests. Poems such as...

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Further Reading


McCarthy, Patrick J. Matthew Arnold and the Three Classes. New York: Columbia University Press, 1964, 257 p.

Provides an overview of Arnold's life and career.


Goodheart, Eugene. “The Function of Matthew Arnold: Arnold at the Present Time.” Critical Inquiry 9, no. 3 (March 1983): 451-68.

Considers the influence of Arnold and his works, including Culture and Anarchy.

Jasen, Patricia. “Arnoldian Humanism, English Studies, and the Canadian University.” Queen's Quarterly 95, no. 3 (autumn 1988): 550-66.

Examines Arnold's...

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