Arnold: Using Hellenistic Education to Combat the Woes of Modernity

Arnold is dissatisfied with modernity to a greater extent than many of his contemporaries. This becomes clear in “Dover Beach” when he speaks of the wonders of modernity and technology that seem “So various, so beautiful, so new,” as having “… neither joy, nor love, nor light, / Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain.” The end result of modernity, as evidenced by the riots and unrest that Arnold say in his time, is a nation of men “…on a darkling plain / Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, / Where ignorant armies clash by night. “ He echoes this ominous warning in Culture and Anarchy when he says: “[we English have] blind faith in machinery, because of our want of light to enable us to look beyond machinery to the end form which machinery is valuable” (1598). The English, and the moderns in general, have been swept up in the crush of modernity without real understanding of how they should be aiding their fellow men. They follow their trivial, selfish desires.

In his solution to the problems of modernity, Arnold is like many of his contemporaries. He feels that it is duty to use moral and intellectual methods to enact social and cultural reforms which benefit everyone. He sees education as the primary means to accomplish this reform. His definition of what kind of education is different; he advocates the liberal arts. Rather than a trade and machine oriented education, Arnold feels that the English must turn to an older Hellenism, which he believes would aid men in “the pursuit of sweetness and light (1598)” that is necessary to build a society committed to the welfare of the whole. He believes that Hellenism and a Hellenistic education allow “our consciousness free play and enlarging (1603),” which will help individuals look past their own selfish personal, class, and professional interests, and consider the good of the country as a whole. This theme is also echoed in his reference to Sophocles in “Dover Beach,” who hears the roar of the ocean, and into whose mind “it brought… the turbid ebb and flow / Of human misery.” Sophocles was one of the Ancient Greek tragic playwrights, and his themes echoed the disastrous consequences of the selfish individual.

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2 thoughts on “Arnold: Using Hellenistic Education to Combat the Woes of Modernity

  1. I think your analysis is absolutely accurate. In reading it, I remembered something that I stumbled over while I was reading: while liberal arts are valuable, and the Hellenistic tradition encourages thoughtfulness and questioning, why would those methods help fix (for lack of a better word) the problems with modernity? Arnold is dissatisfied with the way the modern world is advancing, but to fix it he seems to believe in a return to what was; that is, the predecessor of religion. Isn’t that very school of thought what brought the moderns to their frustrated situation in the first place? The Enlightenment more often than not removed religion from the picture in favor of science, but that led to the rampant industrialization of society. Arnold advocates the study of the arts, but his disdain for religion contrasts his praise of morality, which is equally responsible for the Victorian plight. He seems to frequently contradict himself, and his advice on how to solve the issues of the modern world are as blind and confused as the ignorant armies he describes in “Dover Beach.”

  2. I hadn’t picked up on that particular meaning of Sophocles before — that his plays dwell on “the disastrous consequences of the selfish individual” — and its relevance to the selfish masses Arnold agonizes over in Culture and Anarchy. Sophie makes a good point, that Arnold advocates for the liberal arts but also states that they alone cannot fix the social ills of modernity, since the Hellenistic temperament is not oriented toward action. And that is where he advocates a yoking of Hellenism with Hebraism — the principle that is concerned with moral action rather than intellectual reflection. But, given the crisis of faith expressed in “Dover Beach,” is Arnold really hostile to religion? Perhaps a better way to think about this is to ask whether religion (or any particular religion) has a role in his ideas for culture.

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