In ‘Culture and Anarchy,’ a social and political

In this lesson, we’ll look at Matthew Arnold’s ‘Culture and Anarchy,’ a social and political critique that explains Arnold’s understanding of the concept of culture and why society needed it. Following our summary and analysis, you can test your knowledge with a quiz!

Background to Arnold and His Ideas

Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) was one of the most well-known British political and poetical writers in his lifetime.

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Although he is now known primarily for his poetry, he was most provocative in his own Victorian society through his criticism and political writing. Culture and Anarchy, (1867-9) a long series of essays written by Arnold, was a political and social critique. Arnold’s work as an inspector of schools had brought him into contact with European thought, and from this, he based much of his criticism of British society. British society, he believed, was parochial and overemphasized the Protestant work ethic and money-making.

He helped popularize the phrase ‘Philistinism’ in English (by Philistine, he means someone who is ignorant of culture and arts). Culture and Anarchy was highly influential, particularly so in the twentieth century with John Reith, the man who established the British Broadcasting Corporation’s (or better known as the BBC) guiding ethos, its concepts of culture, and how to share it.Culture and Anarchy consists of six sections plus an introduction and a conclusion.

Arnold’s Definition of Culture

Arnold spends a lot of space explaining his idea of culture and how it differs from that of his critics’. To him, culture is a study in perfection, in making things better than they are, moved by the moral and social passion for doing good. He notes that religion suggests that the kingdom of God is within you, so culture places perfection in an internal condition. Furthermore, this has to be a collective movement.

The system that Arnold criticized taught, he believed, that a man values himself on how much of a commercial success he could be, rather than on who he ‘is.’ To Arnold, culture is ‘sweetness and light,’ although these terms in themselves need definition.

Arnold’s Function of the State

Light, as Arnold defines it, is intelligence as a component of perfection. Arnold is worth quoting directly here, ‘Our prevalent notion is . . .

that it is a most happy and important thing for a man merely to be able to do as he likes. On what he is to do when he is thus free to do as he likes, we do not lay so much stress.’ Arnold believed that this philosophy, the assertion of personal liberty, was such an important part of British life and was bringing society closer, in fact, to anarchy. To fix this problem, he believed the State was necessary.

A system of complete liberty, he argued, could not regulate itself. Therefore, society needs the State to prevent its descent into anarchy.

Arnold’s Views on Philistines

Earlier, Arnold argued that the pursuit of culture must be a collective movement. This philosophy, he argued, was at odds with the strong sense of individualism in Victorian British society, ‘every man for himself.

‘ Arnold believed that wealth is mere machinery and not greatness, and the people who believe otherwise are what he terms ‘Philistines.’ Arnold, seeing himself as a member of the middle class, believed that they were made up by and large by Philistines. However, he did not believe that any of the classes (the aristocracy, the middle class, and the working class) were right and the others were wrong. He believed the function of the State was to use the best ideas of all the classes. He also believed that his own society should not be afraid to look at other country’s systems of governing.

Hebraism vs Hellenism

It is worth noting that when Arnold was writing, nineteenth century Britain was devoted to Protestantism, though there was conflict between the official state religion (Anglicanism) and the tradition of Dissenters (the sects of more Puritanical Protestantism that had arisen during the English Civil War). There were many Dissenters to be found in the middle class and in government, and Arnold saw them partly responsible for Philistinism and a misunderstanding of the value of culture.Arnold believed Western society had been shaped by two strands of the thought, Hebraism (coming from the Judeo-Christian tradition), and Hellenism, coming from the culture of ancient Greece. He believed that British society was too much in thrall to Hebraism and needed a dose of Hellenism for balance. Hellenism, he believed, represented ‘sweetness and light.

‘ To his mind, in the Hebraist tradition, the concept of sin (essential to the Dissenters’ view of religion) spoiled the idea of being able to absorb sweetness and light. Arnold criticized Philistines for believing that the sum total of life was making money and religion.

Arnold’s Philosophy in Practice

Arnold analyzed several events from contemporary society to explore their relevance to his argument about culture.

These included the British Prime Minister moving toward giving Irish Catholics equal rights in Ireland. He was also concerned about the Real Estate Intestacy Bill and free trade, and the anti-Corn Laws, topics that impacted mid-nineteenth century life. Most relevantly for subsequent readers, Arnold was scornful of those who wanted to ravenously continue manufacturing in business at the cost of extreme poverty to those who lived in the East End of London. He was also critical of some religious people who suggested that large families were God’s will.

Lesson Summary

In Culture and Anarchy, which was a long series of essays written by Arnold that was a political and social critique.

Matthew Arnold was one of the most well-known British political and poetical writers in his lifetime, criticized the Victorian British society to which he belonged. He argued that Philistines, which are people who are ignorant of culture and arts and in this case, made up of middle class religious Dissenters and those obsessed with making money, misunderstood culture, which Arnold defined as a study in perfection, in making things better than they are, moved by the moral and social passion for doing good, and therefore, did not value it. He gave his conception of culture as aspiring toward perfection.He also advanced his belief that society needed the State to regulate it from excessive liberty.

He believed that society in its current state was embroiled in traditions of Hebraism (coming from the Judeo-Christian tradition), and that it should strive towards traditions closer to Hellenism, coming from the culture of ancient Greece. He believed that the values of Hellenism were rooted in sweetness and light, a combination of aspects that make up culture and the quest for profection.


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