Revolutionary or Traditionalist? The Call to Redefine Values

The question of whether or not Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy is conservative or progressive is a difficult one to answer, because, in actuality, it could be considered both. Arnold says “Culture is then properly described not as having its origins in curiosity, but as having its origin in the love of perfection… not merely… the scientific passion for pure knowledge, but also… the moral and social passion for doing good” (1596). His belief in the purpose of culture to be to propagate the value of learning for learning’s sake (the pursuit of what is known as pure knowledge) and his belief that culture should be equally focused on promoting the common good are not new values. The pursuit of knowledge solely for its propagation is reflective of some ancient Greek civilizations, and, in more recent times, the Renaissance, where the arts and sciences flourished. This growth was not due to a need for advancement, but because the focus of the age was on growth in the arts and sciences. His ideas surrounding culture working towards the common good are reflective of revolutionary ideals, which professed the need for a government whose purpose is to protect the rights and freedom of its citizens. Of course, many of the earlier revolutionary writers also clarified that freedom should be allowed only to the extent that one’s own freedom does not impinge on the freedoms of others, which Arnold does note later on. So yes, this could be considered a conservative viewpoint due to the call to remember what was once valued. However, Arnold’s call for reform is also progressive.

Arnold’s argument goes against the very foundations of the society that England has created for itself. He does not claim that the only solution is a “returning to the old ways;” instead, Arnold desires to take the society they have now and make it better. Yes, machinery and technological progress is useful. It opens up doors that previous generations could scarcely dream of. but it should not be achieved at the cost of forgetting to be curious, to be imaginative and discover for oneself what lies beyond the realms of the evident. Progress, that multi-million dollar word, should not be valued above human life, human decency. If his society is progressing, fantastic, but may these advancements contribute to the common good. It is not “every man for himself,” it is not “survival of the fittest,” it is one person and the next and the next- each with their own goals, each with their own needs, each with their own gifts. People, he says, cannot forget their humanity and the humanity of those above and below them. This is important- nay, necessary- for any progress to be made. By seeking these old-made-new values, society can advance towards what Arnold believes to be “perfection.”


Culture and Anarchy

In Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy, Arnold combats the current state of the growing and ever changing social reform movements that are being imposed and sanctioned upon the people by the majority.  Arnold’s emphasis on freedom and independence from tyranny in a progressive statement, “That it is man’s ideal right and felicity” (1597). Arnold’s strong statement here embodies the progressive attitude despite the political and social climate that he possesses. Though Arnold by no means is saying to give full power to the people, in such a bold piece and freedom based argument, he is quite progressive for the given era. Arnold, unlike many of his time, believed in giving power to the state but not in a tyrannical fashion that would lead to anarchy. Arnold’s attitude in such an era is progressive in itself as it seems to go against the norm. Arnold’s views with such an evolving community are hard to pinpoint whether he leads towards being conservative or progressive but I believe this quote is a key example for that argument.


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.

Fear of Anarchy

Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy ,especially the section “Doing as One Likes”, espouses a conservative view of human nature and government. It argues that too many liberties will only lead to pure anarchy. Like Burke and Hamilton, Arnold does not view large mobs agitating for political gains as a good thing. He worries about men “all over the country…beginning to assert… his right to march where he likes, enter where he likes, hoot where he likes, threaten as he likes, smash as he likes” (1598). He thinks that the opening of too many freedoms will only lead to some individuals imposing their “liberty” on others.  He has the entirety of the French Revolution as evidence that using violent means to better society rarely leads to any actual progress. This view does not oppose the idea of reform by the government. It does however oppose the idea of upending society to enforce a political viewpoint. Through one its most prominent writers we see how the Victorian Age’s reforms were a delayed reaction to the violent revolution across the channel.

Culture and Anarchy

Sweetness and Light is a progressive work focused on bringing power to the State. This contradicts the common belief that man doing as he pleases is “A most happy and important thing,” and “That it is man’s ideal right and felicity” (1597). Arnold identifies the division of people in classes as a source of some contention, and claims the unification of the people under the State would allow them to be more progressive, and also suggests giving power to the State rather than the people, and claims this is the only way to avoid anarchy. He says that people should “rise above the idea of the class” and unite as a whole under the State (1599). He argues the state has authority, “a much wanted principle,” (1599) to counteract anarchy, and that the State is the “truest friend” to the people (1600). The popular belief of the era was to give power to the people, which makes Arnold’s idea to give power to the State progressive for its time.

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.

Culture and Anarchy

Matthew Arnold, a 19th century intellectual and scholar, wrote one of his most stand-out pieces in 1869, “Culture and Anarchy” at end of a series of papers he delivered at Oxford university, just as Europe was going through dramatic social and industrial reformations. On page 1600, Arnold asserts that, “we are only safe from one another’s tyranny when no one has any power and this safety, in its turn cannot save us from anarchy.” At the time of its publication, many would probably have considered Arnold to be a progressive because he believed in personal reformation and the collective efforts of the people, presumably after they’ve worked on themselves, to bring about greater change, rather than one authority making social changes for the masses.

When reading this piece it was difficult for me to adjust to the history and politics of Europe rather than America. For example, I was trying to figure out what is considered progressive and what is considered conservative in that particular moment and place in time.