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.”