Essays In Criticism, First Series "Propagate The Best That Is Known And Thought In The World"

Matthew Arnold

"Propagate The Best That Is Known And Thought In The World"

(Magill's Quotations in Context)

Context: Matthew Arnold, critic in prose and poetry of nineteenth century society, politics, religion, and literature, establishes his criterion for any type of criticism by stating the two principal qualities to be curiosity, an attempt "to know the best that is known and thought in the world," and disinterestedness, the refusal "to lend itself to any of those ulterior, political, practical considerations about ideas . . . which criticism has nothing to do with." In defending his principles of literary criticism, he goes beyond nationalism and says:

But stop, some one will say; . . . when we speak of critics and criticism, we mean critics and criticism of the current English literature of the day; when you offer to tell criticism its function, it is to this criticism that we expect you to address yourself. I am sorry for it, for I am afraid I must disappoint these expectations. I am bound by my own definition of criticism: a disinterested endeavour to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world. How much of current English literature comes into this "best that is known and thought in the world"? Not very much I fear; certainly less, at this moment, than of the current literature of France or Germany.