Arnold, Matthew (1822–1888)

views updated


Matthew Arnold, the English poet and social and literary critic, was the son of Dr. Thomas Arnold, headmaster of Rugby. Matthew Arnold was educated at Winchester and Rugby and entered Balliol College, Oxford, in 1841. In 1847 he became private secretary to Lord Lansdowne, who in 1851 appointed Arnold inspector of schools, a position he held until 1886. In 1857 he was elected professor of poetry at Oxford.

As a critic, Arnold ranged over a broad spectrum from literary criticism through educational theory to politics, social thought, and religion.

Arnold's most important contribution to nineteenth-century thought was his discussion of the significance of culture as a social ideal. His related discussion of the function of criticism has been widely influential. He also contributed to the dispute over the relation between the Christian Scriptures and belief.

In Culture and Anarchy (London, 1869), Arnold defined "culture" as "a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world; and, through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits." Culture is thus a process of learning, which can refine individuals and reform societies. Arnold often attacked the kind of reforming or progressive spirit that is not governed by this humane reference. At the same time, he made it clear that the object of the learning and refining process was indeed reform. He laid great stress on the development of the individual through the right use of literature and knowledge, but the pursuit of total perfection was still the ultimate objective. He argued that culture taught men "to conceive of true human perfection as a harmonious process, developing all sides of our humanity; and as a general perfection, developing all parts of our society." Perfection, although an "internal condition," is nevertheless "not possible while the individual remains isolated. The individual is required, under pain of being stunted and enfeebled in his own development if he disobeys, to carry others along with him in his march towards perfection, to be continually doing all he can to enlarge and increase the volume of the human stream sweeping thitherwards."

This position illuminates some of the apparent paradoxes of Arnold's thinking. In one sense, he was clearly a liberal thinker, stressing the criticism of institutions and beliefs by thought and knowledge and placing central emphasis on the development of the individual toward a possible perfection. In other respects Arnold was a notable critic of much of the liberal thought of his time. He criticized the "stock notions" of nineteenth-century liberalism and was a particularly firm advocate of increased social intervention by the state. He criticized the common liberal conception that progress is merely mechanical and the liberals' preoccupation with material and external improvement, which not only ignored the human results of its materialist emphasis, but also failed to advance any conception of humanity toward the realization of which material progress might be a means. His criticism of the "stock notions" of industry and production as major social ends is of this character. He similarly criticized the standard conception of freedom"a very good horse to ride, but to ride somewhere." It is the way men use freedom, not merely their abstract possession of it, that for Arnold is really important.

Most liberal thought in his time opposed the state in the name of just this kind of abstract freedom. Arnold argued that the state was simply "the representative acting-power of the nation." To deny its right to act was to deny the possibility of any general action on behalf of the nation as a whole and to reserve the power of action to particular interests and classes. In the England of his time, he distinguished three classesthe aristocracy ("Barbarians"), the middle classes ("Philistines"), and the working class (the "Populace"). Social action by any one of these interests alone merely led to the clash of men's "worst selves." This disorder, or the resultant breakdown of effective government, would be "anarchy." But there existed, within each of these classes, "persons who are mainly led, not by their class spirit, but by a general humane spirit, by the love of human perfection." Each member of this human "remnant," maintaining his own "best self" by the process of culture and seeking to awake in others the "best self" now obscured by the "stock notions" and habits of the group, represented the "best self" of society as a whole. It was this "best self" that the state must represent and express.

Arnold never translated these ideas into a coherent political philosophy, but his liberal critique of liberalism was of considerable historical importance. The state, he felt, had to become a "centre of authority and light"; yet it must do this through the existing struggle, or deadlock, between limited interests and classes. Arnold's arguments, at this point, were sometimes vague. In line with his definition of culture as a learning process and with his career as inspector of schools, he stressed not politics, but education. It was in education that the state most needed to intervene, and Arnold acted as a tireless propagandist for a new system of humane state education.

Arnold saw the study of literature as a principal agency of the learning process, that is, of culture. At times, his definitions of criticism and of culture were virtually identical. Criticism was the central way of learning "the best that is known and thought in the world." Poetry in particular offered standards for the development of the best life of man.

In the same vein, in Literature and Dogma (London, 1873) Arnold offered to "reassure those who feel attachment to Christianity, to the Bible, but who recognise the growing discredit befalling miracles and the supernatural." For any adequate reading of the Bible, after the effects of the Higher Criticism and the scientific controversies, the spirit of culture was indispensable. Only by this approach could the Christian ethic, and its intense expression in the Scriptures as read undogmatically, be preserved in a time of inevitable change. In particular, it was necessary to understand that "the language of the Bible is fluid, passing and literary, not rigid, fixed, and scientific"; its truth had to be verified through reading, rather than merely assumed. The Christian ethic so verified would be stronger than the dogmatic theology that had made the Bible into what it evidently was not.

See also Belief; Literature, Philosophy of; Perfection.


works by arnold

Poetical Works. Edited by C. B. Tinker and H. F. Lowry. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1950.

Essays in Criticism. London: Macmillan, 1865.

God and the Bible. London: Smith, Elder, 1875.

Mixed Essays. New York: Macmillan, 1879.

Passages from the Prose Writings of Matthew Arnold, Selected by the Author. London, 1880. Edited by W. E. Buckler. New York: New York University Press, 1963.

Discourses in America. London: Macmillan, 1885.

Essays in Criticism, Second Series. London: Macmillan, 1889.

works on arnold

Bonnerot, Louis. Matthew Arnold, Poète. Paris: Didier, 1947.

Brown, E. K. Matthew Arnold. Toronto, 1948.

Eliot, T. S. "Matthew Arnold," in The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism. Cambridge, MA, 1932.

Trilling, Lionel. Matthew Arnold. New York: Norton, 1939.

Raymond Williams (1967)