Returning to Matthew Arnold

Sometimes appreciation of a book depends on when you read it


Lately I’ve been revisiting books that I vaguely remember from college and graduate school. Most had little effect on me at the time, but I am drawn back to them for mysterious reasons, sensing that I will respond differently now. This is certainly the case with the writings of the 19th-century British poet and critic Matthew Arnold.

I first read Arnold in college and, again, in larger chunks, in graduate school. I liked “Dover Beach,” his one poem still widely anthologized, but found the rest of his poetry (and all of his criticism) verbose and tedious. Phrases like “sweetness and light” and “the best that has been thought and said,” central to the Arnoldian lexicon, felt saccharine and elitist when I read them in the mid-1970s. In a period of political tumult, Arnold seemed a fusty personage, out of joint with the time. Lionel Trilling, the great public intellectual of the mid-20th century, was one of Arnold’s most ardent defenders, but he died in 1975, the year I entered graduate school.

But I now see Arnold differently. Though not without his blind spots and inconsistencies, he has an astonishing breadth of vision and depth of insight. My early dismissal of his work reflects how often we reject things that we might otherwise like, based solely on accidents of timing. I had simply read Arnold at the wrong moment—wrong for me and wrong for the times.

Arnold’s most cogent observations about society come in three chapters of his 1869 book Culture and Anarchy—Chapter 1: “Sweetness and Light,” Chapter 3: “Barbarians, Philistines, Populace,” and Chapter 4: “Hellenism and Hebraism.” Of these, Chapter 3 seems the most relevant to our times.

In it, Arnold renames the social classes of English society. He calls the aristocracy, the Barbarians; the middle class, the Philistines; and the working class, the Populace. Arnold’s nomenclature emphasizes the tendency of social classes to reduce themselves to stereotypical interests. He maligns all three of them for embracing what he calls “bathos”—sentiment undiluted by facts, judgment, or taste.

Today, we might say that the Barbarians correspond to our older moneyed class—families several generations removed from making their fortunes that devote themselves to managing their wealth and promoting their own notions of public good. The Philistines would still be the middle class—not so much the owners of the means of production, as in 19th-century England, but the higher-earning professionals in our information economy. The Populace would still be low-paid and unskilled labor—not factory labor, as in Arnold’s day, but those employed in our service industries.

Arnold goes on to discuss how each class has strayed from the cultivation of its “best self” and the pursuit of “right reason” in the areas of culture, religion, and politics.

In culture, using the French Academy as his model, he laments the absence of a central governing body that would guard and teach “the best that has been thought and said in the world.” There is something to be said for setting cultural standards, especially when we consider how market-driven and niche-oriented our society has become—more about maximizing profits than inspiring quality and creativity. The prestigious literary organizations that do exist make no pretense of serving the population at large.

Arnold’s ideas about religion are less compelling. On one point, however, he is adamant: the value of a religion should not be judged by the number of its adherents. “If the followers of a doctrine are really dupes, or worse, and its promulgators are really fanatics, or worse,” he writes, “it gives the doctrine no seriousness or authority the more that there should be found 200,000 souls,—200,000 of the innumerable multitude with a natural taste for the bathos,—to hold it, and 20,000 rifles to defend it.”

But it is in politics that Arnold’s ideas seem most relevant.  Politicians address voters “with so much flattering and coaxing, that they [the public] shall not suspect their ignorance and prejudices to be anything very unlike right reason, or their natural taste for the bathos to differ much from a relish for the sublime.” Politicians, in other words, say what lends comfort to their constituencies, rather than what supports their best selves.

Arnold blames the press for encouraging this state of affairs. Newspapers, he writes, deal in bathos under the assumption that we shall “by the mercy of Providence, and by a kind of natural tendency of things, come in due time to relish and follow right reason.” More simply, the press indulges our lowest tastes while assuming that higher ones will somehow emerge when needed. They won’t, but this is still assumed in the way the media operates. Our sound-bite society, with its predilection for style over substance, bathos and sensationalism over information and judgment, seems predicated on it.

Arnold’s solution to societal problems lies with leadership. In the three principal classes, he says, there exist “a certain number of aliens, if we may so call them,—persons who are mainly led, not by their class spirit, but by a general humane spirit, by the love of human perfection; and that this number is capable of being diminished or augmented.” That would be an alien invasion we could welcome with open arms.


Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Paula Marantz Cohen’s new book, Of Human Kindness: What Shakespeare Teaches Us About Empathy, will be published next month.


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