Monday, March 20, 2017

Matthew Arnold's Culture and Anarchy (1869)


"[Matthew Arnold's] Culture and Anarchy appeared in book form just one year before Forster’s all-important Education Act of 1870 and it posed questions that still perplex us today: what kind of life should individuals in mass societies be encouraged to lead? How do such societies best ensure that our quality of life is not impoverished ? How to preserve an elevated and exclusive freedom of thought in an age of democratic fervour?
Opposed to this exalted assertion of an ideal version of “the good life”, there was the vulgarity, vigour and vehemence of Victorian England at its zenith. This, Arnold argues, was a heedless and exuberant individualism (replete with prejudice, greed, xenophobia, racism, intolerance and aggression) that would lead to anarchy. He nails this claim by showing how Victorian barbarism affected all strata of national life.
In some of his wittiest and most entertaining passages, Arnold divided English society into three classes — the Barbarians, the Philistines, and the Populace. (With an almost audible sigh, he complains: “It is awkward and tiresome to be always saying the aristocratic class, the middle class, the working class.”) The Barbarians or aristocracy, he says, have a superficial “sweetness and light”, but are too concerned with the maintenance and enjoyment of their privileges to attain a true sense of beauty and a true liberation of thought:
The Barbarians had the passion for field-sports; as of the passion for asserting one’s personal liberty…. The care of the Barbarians for the body, and for all manly exercises; the chivalry of the Barbarians, with its characteristics of high spirit, choice manners, and distinguished bearing – what is this but the politeness of our aristocratic class?” 
The Philistines or middle classes are devoted to money-making and a narrow form of religion; they are indifferent or hostile to beauty; and they are ‘the enemy of the children of light’, or servants of the idea.” 
Finally, the rowdy Populace are violent in their prejudices and brutal in their pleasures. But all three groups are agreed that “doing as one likes” is the chief end of man, and all are self-satisfied."

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