Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy

I think that Arnold’s views do seem to be primarily conservative, because he seems  to condemn the liberal concept of thought. Arnold seems to yearn for a simpler time when one’s success was determined by the success of society as a whole, and not the success of one’s specific economic class. Arnold accuses post industrialist England of being too concerned with self serving behavior, and not having any concern for the public good. According to Arnold the effects of laissez faire capitalism are to blame for the concern with self serving behavior in England’s society. the movement of modernity are one of the reasons that British society is more concerned with the concerns of their own individual class than society as a whole. Arnold also repeatedly blames the new English pride of doing what one likes has also contributed to increasing self serving behavior. He states, “that it is a most happy and important thing for a man merely to be able to do as he likes” (1597). This newfound English pride has placed a higher priority on fulfilling one’s own personal desires to benefit that person as an individual instead of the community. Not only is this a selfish attitude, but it also invites the possibility of anarchy in society. Arnold also states, “Our notion of its being the great right and happiness of an Englishman to do as far….we are in danger of drifting towards anarchy” (1597). Arnold is saying that while a certain degree of freedom is important for a productive society, as well as human happiness, if everyone always did whatever they wanted without restraint there would be mass chaos, or anarchy. That is why as Arnold argues that Britain implemented a system of check and balances to prevent anarchy. He states, “Our familiar praise of the British Constitution….a system which which stops and paralyses any power in interfering with the free action of individuals. Meaning that a system of checks and balances is put into to place as a way to prevent an abuse of power, by keeping each individual’s actions in check. This is a conservative doctrine, because many liberalists living in England during this time were advocating for a laissez faire approach to government. Arnold wants to return to a time of eliminated classism and a sense of community where the public good and intellect are of the highest concern, instead of individualism and courage which are tearing apart society.


Sweetness and Light

Sweetness and Light is both philosophical and progressive simply because of Arnold’s analysis of the words “culture” and “curiosity.” Arnold gives an extended definition of the word “culture,” and also compares it to curiosity, which he defines as “valued” out of “sheer vanity and ignorance” and “as an engine of social class distinction.” At first, it sounds like he detests the idea of curiosity coinciding with culture. Then Arnold then goes on to point out that there are indeed aspects of curiosity that are “futile” and “merely a disease,” but there are also aspects that are worthy of praise and “natural.”

Arnold later reaches the conclusion that culture does not derive from curiosity, but rather from “a study of perfection.” This is to say that the culture thrives through the desires that people have in wanting to be good. Culture is the comprised of “sweetness and light,” or “the two nobler of things.” Sweetness and light being the “nourished” ideas and freedoms that come with culture.

Power to the State

Arnold is a progressive in the current sense of the term, but he disagrees with the progressive movement of his day. Today’s progressive movement typically places more power in the government. Whereas the conservative movement typically leaves the power among man’s “personal liberty” (1597). Arnold thought that the “great right and happiness” of people would eventually lead to “anarchy” (1597). He then criticized the liberal party of his day, stating their belief in “our system of liberty” is a “nostrum,” meaning false medicine (1598). He then proposes that to avoid anarchy, power must be given to the State. He asserts that the State is “the truest friend” and to avoid anarchy people must turn to “this authority,” implying the authority of the State (1600). This call to give power to the State, or to the government, currently falls within the progressive philosophy rather than the current conservative philosophy, which wants to keep power with the people.

A New Culture

In Culture and Anarchy, Matthew Arnold states that culture is “a study of perfection,” and “the pursuit of sweetness and light.” However, if one applied that simple description to T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” he would quickly come to the conclusion that Eliot’s poem is anything but an example of culture. Brokenness, confusion, and darkness reign in “The Waste Land;” this poem is certainly not a study of perfection. If anything, it is a study of the widespread imperfections in 20th Century Europe. The dark subject matter, fragmented language and use of quotation all contribute to the notion that though “The Waste Land” is far removed from Arnold’s idea of what culture should be, it remains culture.

Throughout the poem, Eliot quotes from a wide variety of famous literary works, writings that Matthew Arnold would certainly consider “culture.” For example, he often quotes and references ancient Greek and Latin stories, sometimes using the original language. Arnold absolutely loved the Greeks; in fact he considered the Greeks the grandfathers of all western culture, and their Hellenistic society something to be desired by Victorian English society. However, rather than using this classic culture to add clarity to his poem, Eliot uses it to add confusion and fragmentation. The epigraph is composed of a mash-up of Latin and Greek, giving the poem a jarring jumble of two different languages. The actual translation of the epigraph is equally unnerving; it consists of the Sybil’s request to die, a feeling mirrored by many WWI soldiers plagued with PTSD. Within the epigraph, Eliot sums up modern culture. He emphatically states that culture is not all about sweetness and light. Rather, culture is a fluctuating concept that changes with the prevailing mood of society. For post-World War I Europe, culture is darkness, fragmentation, and despair.

Eliot critiques education, isolation of individuals

Arnold believed that through education men could become (more) perfect individuals. As such individuals, they would be concerned with the social welfare of those around them and would work hard (within their respective classes and spheres) to better themselves and others morally and intellectually. In “The Waste Land,” Eliot presents the failure of this notion of culture. He depicts a place lacking in knowledge, and any kind of emotional attachment, occupied by isolated individuals.

The lack of knowledge, or the failure of education, is stated beginning on line 19: “What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow/ Out of this stormy rubbish? Son of man, / You cannot say, or guess, for you know only / A heap of broken images…/ And the dry stone no sound of water” (19-24). Here, education is depicted as being thoroughly inadequate; men have no notion of their history (symbolized by the image of roots), or even of themselves in the present time (symbolized by the branches). Rather than the real, useful, knowledge and education that Arnold believed in, Eliot depicts a world in which men have only “A heap of broken images” for guidance. The lack of knowledge is further seen in the lack of water (“no sound of water”). Eliot emphasizes this towards the end of the poem, saying: “If there were water we should stop and drink / Amongst the dry rocks one cannot stop or think” (335-36). As water is often associated with knowledge, the inability to find any spring, pool, etc. anywhere to drink from symbolizes the ignorance of the modern age.

The fragmentation of culture is also reflected throughout the poem in the lack of any kind of emotional connection between individuals. Eliot describes London and a crowd in that “Unreal City” (60), but as the crowd moves “..each man fixed his eyes before his feet” (65), suggesting that there is no connection and no desire for connection among anyone. Everyone is only interested in his own business. This is also reflected in the interaction between the typist and the “young man carbuncular” (231). They sleep together but have no real connection; the typist “is bored and tired” (236) and the young man “makes a welcome of indifference” (242). This scene presents both an emotional and a moral decay. Whatever culture these two are a part of, it has not made them better human beings.

The ignorance of the isolation together help to undermine any kind of culture that unifies individuals to become some “people” who work for the public good and ordaer. Instead, every human thinks himself a prisoner (“We think of the key, each in his prison / Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison” (414-415) ). In this manner, Eliot critiques Arnold’s notion of culture, showing that it leads only to confusion and the fragmentation and withdrawal of the individual from others.

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.

Dissatisfaction with Factories

Though Arnold’s “Dover Beach” and Culture and Anarchy are written in two very different styles, they both convey a sense of dissatisfaction with and concern for the increasingly modern state of England. One particular aspect of modernity that these works address is the reliance on machinery and the growth of factories during the Victorian Age in England. Each of these writings is highly critical of the major shift to industrialization. At the end of the first stanza of “Dover Beach,” Arnold describes the sound of the waves crashing on the shore as a “grating roar of pebbles which the waves draw back and fling” (9-10), how this sound continues non-stop (“Begin, and cease, and then again begin” [12]), and fills the air with “the eternal note of sadness” (14). This description calls to mind the new center of city life, factories. Machines make incredible amounts of noise, and for the factory workers, it seemed like the machinery never stopped. Lower class men, women, and children spent absurdly long hours in the factories, working for extremely low wages. At the end of the day, these people did not go home to a good meal and a comfortable bed. Often, they went home to an impoverished slum. Because of the poor working and living conditions, I see why Arnold may have accused the factories of filling the air with “the eternal note of sadness.” Life was terrible for factory workers.

In Culture and Anarchy, Arnold also accuses the rise of industrialization as being a source of problems for England. Arnold states that encouraging the spread of factories is in direct opposition to the encouragement of culture: “He who works for machinery…works only for confusion. Culture looks beyond machinery…Culture has one great passion, the passion for sweetness and light,” (1596). Later in the essay he refers to “our bondage to machinery” and “our idolatry of machinery” (1597). Obviously, Arnold does not appreciate the rise of industrialism in England. Not only has it caused immense social and infrastructure problems, but the worship of machinery also takes away from British culture, the “passion for sweetness and light” (1596). For Arnold, there is much more to life than productivity and making a profit. In order to have a balanced, prosperous society, culture must be just as highly valued as productivity.