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Hristo Boev


On first reading Mathew Arnold’s collection of essays entitled "Culture and Anarchy" we will recollect that he said some memorable things about culture, but what exactly did he mean by that and what exactly do these statements mean to the modern reader?

Another question that can certainly be posed would be: How did he define culture and what did it mean to him?

To expound his views on culture, Mathew Arnold constructed a book of 10 parts in which he addressed different aspects of culture the way it was perceived in 1869 in a number of binary oppositions. The resulting effort is a recommendation of culture to the public for mass consumption, in the same way a commercial would recommend or advertize mint tea to the mass audience telling them drinking it is good for them, the work being also a fundamental pioneer study of culture in its attempt to provide a working definition for it and to prevent anarchy from taking over, the latter being seen as detrimental to society as not drinking mint tea would be to our health.

The following passage is worth quoting in its entirety:

"And now to pass to the matters canvassed in the following essay. The whole scope of the essay is to recommend culture as the great help out of our present difficulties; culture being 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, which we now follow staunchly but mechanically, vainly imagining that there is a virtue in following them staunchly which makes up for the mischief of following them mechanically. This, and this alone, is the scope of the following essay. And the culture we recommend is, above all, an inward operation." (Arnold 2006: 5; italics mine, H.B.).

In this passage M. Arnold introduces two of the aspects making up one of the binary oppositions being at the core of his work - changing stock notions and habits exposing them to the idea of sweetness and light (borrowed as a term from J. Swift, Battle of the Books) as a way of refreshing them and changing them in such a way that people would be illuminated and would reconsider their mechanical following the latter:

The pursuit of perfection, then, is the pursuit of sweetness and light.

He who works for sweetness and light, works to make reason and the will of God prevail. He who works for machinery, he who works for hatred, works only for confusion. Culture looks beyond machinery, culture hates hatred; culture has one great passion, the passion for sweetness and light (Arnold 2006: 52).

Culture, then for M. Arnold is the process of enlightenment of the individual in particular and society as a whole through a spiritual inward experience. Thus experiencing culture is likened to experiencing the best which has been thought and said in this world. This famous phrase from Culture and Anarchy as a rather unorthodox definition of culture, turns the process of culture consumption into an almost divine experience, considering the fact that culture at that time was generally perceived to be nothing but a smattering of Ancient Greek and Latin completely at variance with the state of current affairs and impractical to the point of not trusting a person possessing this knowledge to be worthy of occupying a leading position in any institution (Culture and Anarchy, Introduction).

In the preface to the book, M. Arnold goes on to define culture as the study of perfection, a general perfection developing all parts of society. It is to be understood from the pages that follow in the book that another important binary opposition is culture as opposed to anarchy. Although he never defines it, "reading across his work, it is clear that anarchy operates as a synonym for popular culture" (Storey 1994: 16). Another binary opposition playing an essential role in M. Arnold’s essays in defining culture is the one of Hebraism and Hellenism.

In the chapter devoted to these two (Chapter 4) M. Arnold offers his interpretation of the way they operate as the two main forces at work in human society, Hellenism being defined as seeing things as they are and Hebraism to conduct and obedience and also the former being an expression of spontaneity of consciousness while the latter - strictness of conscience (Chapter 4). He also discusses their different way of treatment of sin as it stands in the way to perfection, hence impeding the settlement of culture, culture being the study of perfection (Culture and Anarchy). M. Arnolds admits that Hellenism as ideology was already gone for all practical purposes at his time being superseded by Hebraism. Both ideas, however, are seen by him as contributing to the human spirit, the latter being larger than any theory in its openness to the road to perfection. These two elements are seen by him as sequential, consequential and ultimately complementing elements of culture, the first being the ruling force during the Renaissance, the latter being connected to the movement of Christianity manifesting its revival in the Reformation period (Chapter 4).

In Chapter 1 entitled Sweetness and Light, M. Arnold prophetically foresees the advance of machinery and its powerful grip on the emerging industrial society as dehumanizing and depriving the human spirit of its natural aptitude for absorbing culture, a grim foreboding of dystopian works such as 1984 (1948) by G. Orwell, Fahrenheit 451 (1951) by Ray Bradbury or even a hyperlink to powerful manifestations of this idea in Cinema - movies such as Metropolis (1927), The Matrix (1999) or Equilibrium (2002):

Faith in machinery is, I said, our besetting danger; often in machinery most absurdly disproportioned to the end which this machinery, if it is to do any good at all, is to serve; but always in machinery, as if it had a value in and for itself. What is freedom but machinery? What is population but machinery? What is coal but machinery? What are railroads but machinery? What is wealth but machinery? What are, even, religious organisations but machinery? Now almost every voice in England is accustomed to speak of these things as if they were precious ends in themselves, and therefore had some of the characters of perfection indisputably joined to them (Arnold 2006: 37-38).

M. Arnold clearly makes a distinction between the mechanical advancement of humanity as satisfying its utilitarian ends and its reception of culture allowing people to form perceptions of the mechanical world as strictly mechanical, elaborating on his idea that culture is seeing things as they are, an entirely spiritual experience.

The major opponents to culture M. Arnold calls Philistines, thus giving rise to the modern usage of the term. The term is used in a binary opposition to the term Barbarians both discussed at length in Chapter 3. Philistines for M. Arnold are the middle class as being the major opponents to sweetness and light. The Barbarians, in a stark contrast to the commonly perceived term, are the Aristocracy. The Barbarians, just like the Aristocracy, seem also to be opposing culture, this opposition also being shared by the third class, which M. Arnold calls the populace. Representatives from all three classes embracing culture are referred to as the aliens (Chapter3). We cannot but appreciate the appropriateness of the terms in delineating the singularity of the proponents of culture as defined by M. Arnold.

The main objection to culture appears to come from the desire of all three classes - Barbarians, Philistines and Populace to do as they like (Chapter 2), a desire expressed mostly by the working class or populace, which M. Arnold attributes to their daily compulsion of material wants, leading us to the most important of all binary oppositions in this collection of essays - the one of culture and anarchy. Anarchy is defined as outbursts of rowdyism, social disintegration, mob riots, opposition to authority or simply, doing as one likes.

The function of culture as a product for mass consumption is linked with the potential demands of the middle class to which M. Arnold admits belonging. It is not by any means to be confused with mass culture from the modern point of view or what we also call pop culture. The high enlightenment effects of culture as perceived by M. Arnold will always be out of reach for the working class. All that is required of them is "that they recognize their cultural difference and acknowledge cultural deference" (Storey 1994: 17).

In chapter 5 entitled Porrum unum este necessarium or the One thing needful. M. Arnold discusses the possibilities for coming up with a resolution to the dilemma of culture and anarchy and comes to the conclusion that the only way for culture to prevail over anarchy is unsurprisingly more light:

"In short, so fatal is the notion of possessing, even in the most precious words or standards, the one thing needful, of having in them, once for all, a full and sufficient measure of light to guide us, and of there being no duty left for us except to make our practice square exactly with them" (Arnold 2006: 113; italics mine, H.B.).

The recurring theme of sweetness and light as a notion may be misconstrued to be a purely liberal idea typical of the post-enlightenment period in which the essays were written and in combination with the mutually complementing notions or forces of Hebraism and Hellenism, we may easily get to the conclusion that by culture M. Arnold means nothing but the gradual spiritual illumination or enlightenment of the individual in harmony with the others by means of reading books of writers of a proven value. This comes close to the general understanding of culture in our times as opposed to lack of culture. Another interpretation could be a religious one deconstructing the entire text as a call for the general public to follow the messiah (culture) on the road to God (enlightenment). There are certain indications allowing for this interpretation. Time and again, M. Arnold compares culture to religion across the essays and comes to the conclusion that they are similar in many ways. The reception of culture, like religion, also takes place within the individual which presupposes a divine sort of communication between culture and its recipient. M. Arnold also speaks of false light, which is not light but darkness, thus sending a religious warning for people to beware of false prophets. However, M. Arnold makes his intentions clear in the Conclusion where he gives some indications as to how culture is to be implemented. In his essays, culture is not opposed to lack of culture but to anarchy, which can be easily identified as mass culture or pop culture. Then the culture he speaks of is the one available but to a few chosen ones and regardless of the good intentions for their number to be increased, they are very likely to remain a minority due to the highness of the culture he has in mind.

What happens to anarchy then or the culture from the modern point of view which does not conform to prescriptive or didactic cultural codes? The answer to this question is to be found resoundingly clear in the Conclusion:

"And this opinion of the intolerableness of anarchy we can never forsake, however our Liberal friends may think a little rioting, and what they call popular demonstrations, useful sometimes to their own interests and to the interests of the valuable practical operations they have in hand, and however they may preach the right of an Englishman to be left to do as far as possible what he likes, and the duty of his government to indulge him and connive as much as possible and abstain from all harshness of repression." (Arnold 2006: 149; italics mine, H.B.).

What M. Arnold prescribes here is more in tune with the stern culture of the "noble horses" from Gulliver’s Travels as opposed to the colorful subculture of the "hideous yahoos" or even the world of the ominous crushing boot of The Iron Heel (1907) by Jack London as an early precursor of Fascism. We may as well agree with Norman Cantor who sees a natural continuation of the Enlightenment through to Victorianism and Fascism with the preceding period of Neo-Victorianism (Cantor 1988: 32) seeing these periods as advocating state-prescriptive cultures.

The ambiguities we encounter today while coming to terms with culture and criticism seem to be a direct result of the transformation of liberal humanism through the prism of the perceptions and practice of it exercised most notably by M. Arnold (Surbur 1998: 32). Those transformations can be observed in Culture and Anarchy as an early attempt at defining culture. Even though the so-called Arnoldian model of culture was to falter, namely in the idea of cultural difference and deference, M. Arnold’s ideas remain fundamental in mapping culture as well as a reference point against which we can appraise its modern manifestations.




Arnold 2006: Arnold, Mathew. Culture and Anarchy. New York: Oxford University Press Inc, 2006.

Cantor 1988: Cantor, Norman. The Victorian Achievement. // Cantor, Norman. Twentieth Century Culture Modernism to Deconstruction. New York: Peter Lang Publishing Inc, 1988.

Storey 1994: Storey, John. Part 1. The Culture and Civilisation Tradition. // Storey, John. Cultural Theory and Popular Culture. London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1994.

Surber 1998: Surber, Jere Paul. The Critical Discourse of Liberal Humanism. // Surber, Jere Paul. Culture and Critique: An Introduction to the Critical Discourses of Cultural Studies. Boulder: Westview Press, 1998.



© Hristo Boev
© E-magazine LiterNet, 23.06.2011, № 6 (139)