Matthew Arnold (1822 – 1888)

On 20 March 2017, The Guardian printed Robert McCrum’s contribution to a series:

The 100 best nonfiction books: No 59 – Culture and Anarchy by Matthew Arnold (1869)

Below are some selected paragraphs:

“In 1848, a year of European revolutions, Matthew Arnold, the eldest son of a celebrated Victorian headmaster, voiced fears about his society that still seem hauntingly prescient and topical. “I see a wave of more than American vulgarity, moral, intellectual, and social, preparing to break over us,” he wrote. Arnold was also a poet, critic and educationist of great distinction. In Dover Beach, his finest poem, he expressed similar anxieties in some famous lines:

And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.

“…In sentiments that would later be developed and enriched by the more feverish imagination of Oscar Wilde, for whom “culture” was at once sacrosanct and sublime, Arnold believed that a full apprehension of its virtues must be attained by a knowledge of the best that has been said and thought in the world, by the free play of the mind over the facts of life, and by a sympathetic attitude towards all that is beautiful. In one typical passage, he expresses his argument thus:

“I have been trying to show that culture is, or ought to be, the study and pursuit of perfection; and that of perfection, as pursued by culture, beauty and intelligence, or, in other words, sweetness and light, are the main characters.”

Arnold’s famous borrowing from Jonathan Swift – “Sweetness and light” – expresses culture as a dynamic concept: “sweetness” as a mature sense of beauty, and “light” as the exercise of an alert and active intelligence…”

“A Signature Sentence:

“But, finally, perfection, – as culture, from a thorough disinterested study of human nature and human experience learns to conceive it, – is a harmonious expansion of all the powers which make the beauty and worth of human nature, and is not consistent with the over-development of any one power at the expense of the rest.”

Three to Compare:

John Henry Newman: The Idea of a University (1852/1858)

Charles Darwin: The Origin of Species (1859)

John Stuart Mill: On Liberty (1859)”

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