“Essays in Criticism” (by Matthew Arnold)
Two or three months ago we made some observations on an article of Mr. Matthew Arnold's, in the National Review, on the functions of criticism. Mr. Arnold has republished that and some other essays in an excellent little volume, which contains, amongst other things, a preface replying in the most goodhumoured manner imaginable to his various critics, and several notes levelled at our article. We have, on former occasions, remarked upon most of the essays thus republished, and we do not mean to return to them. They have very good points. Some of them are exceedingly interesting, and all of them display a remarkable power of appreciation. Thus the essays on Heine, on Marcus Aurelius, on the Pagan and Mediaeval Moral Sentiment, and two others on Maurice and Eugènie de Guérin, are all full of interest, and will introduce the great bulk of Mr. Arnold's readers to topics with which they are not likely to have been familiar previously, and to a mode of treatment which he is certainly right, in considering as uncommon in English periodical writing. We heartily wish them success. They form a most aggreable volume, written in excellent taste by a refined and highly cultivated man. There are, however, other matters in the book on which we should wish to say a word or two in a tone, if possible, as goodhumoured as that of Mr. Arnold himself. His retorts upon our criticisms are in perfect good temper, and some of them are very happy. His Preface is a curiosity, coming as it does from a man who so suffered many things from many reviewers and is determined to be no better, but rather to become worse, an to go on not only repeating, but even exaggerating, the sins for which it was their painful duty to take him to task. Like the early Christians exposed to wild beasts in the arena, Mr. Arnold has been baited by reviewers. For instance, he is attacked by Mr. Wright, the translator of Homer, and by one. "Presbyter Anglicanus," whom he accuses of writing, not merely in the Examiner, but in “half a dozen of the daily newspapers ” as well. The Guardian has acted toward him the part of a “kind monitor,” and has charged him with making jokes. He stands in awe of the “magnificent roaring of the young lions of the Daily Telegraph,” though whether they have actually assailed him or not does not appear; and the Saturday Review has treated him most unkindly. His attitude in the midst of this storm of censure is almost as peaceful as that of Daniel in the den of lions, seated, as the showman observed, on his three-legged stool and reading the Times newspaper. He returns blessings for curses, gently reproves the Examiner, gravely exonerates the Guardian from the faintest suspicion of levity, suggests for the Editor of the Saturday Review the honor of a statue in a temple dedicated to Philistinism, and asks Mr. Wright—who, it appears, lives at Mapperley—for information about Wragg, the young woman whose arrest Mr. Arnold so feelingly deplored in his remarkable contribution to the National Review. We will not object to the statue which he proposes for us, and let him have all the honours of the small war which we have carried on; nay, we will even tell him something about Wragg. She is still in custody in Nottingham Gaol, and will be tried at the assizes to be held there sometime between the 9th and 13th of next month. The only objection to Mr. Arnold's Preface is that it is too goodnatured. There is no pleasure in hitting to man who will not hit you back again; who says meekly that it is not his nature to “dispute on behalf of any opinion . . . very obstinately"; who cares little for argument, and “has a profound respect for intuitions"; who thinks that truth is something to be seen, and not to be proved; and who, strong in that conviction, sees exclusively by his own inner light, and, like the humming-bird when pressed in the chase (to quote the showman a second time), retires into his interior by coping down his own throat, whence, illuminated by the inner light, he smiles benignantly on his baffled pursuers.
Admitting that it is not easy to argue with any one who takes such an ethereal view of things, and has such a pleasant way of slipping through every difficulty, we must notice one or two of his replies, inasmuch as they illustrate the texture of his mind and the principles which pervade every word that he writes. In our former notice we observed upon Mr. Arnold's passion for eternal, truths, and remarked that, after all, he specified only one eternal truth, which appeared to us to be false. The great principle in question, reiterated in the present volume, was and is as follows:—
‘To count by tens is the simplest way of counting: that is a proposition of which every one from here to the antipodes feels the force—so at least I should say it we did not live in a country where it is not impossible that any morning we may had a letter in the Times declaring a decimal coinage an absurdity.’On this we observed that the proposition in question is not true; that counting by tens is not the simplest way of counting, though there is a certain degree of convenience in taking the base of an established system of notation, whether it happens to be ten or anything else, as the unit of tables of coinage or weights and measures. We further observed that the number ten is a very inconvenient base, especially for low numbers, and that twelve is far more convenient. Hence we argued that, to make his proposition true, it ought to have been stated thus:–It is convenient to take an established base of notation as the unit of tables of coinage, weights, and measures. If ten is given as the established base of notation, then to count by tens is the simplest way of counting for numbers above twenty. If Mr. Arnold looks back to the article in question, he will see that this was the result of our criticism. He has followed our statement hastily, and has ascribed to us the following strange piece of nonsense:—
‘To take as your unit an established base of notation, ten being given as the base of notation, is, except for numbers under twenty, the simplest way of counting,’We said nothing of the sort. Indeed the words have no meaning. He then goes on to make the following remark:—
‘The mass of Frenchmen, by legislating as they did, showed a keen susceptibility to purely rational intellectual considerations. On the other hand, does my reviewer say that we keep our monetary system unchanged because our nation has grasped the intellectual proposition, which he puts in his masterly way thus: “to count by twelves has the advantage of taking for your unit a number in itself far more convenient than ten for that purpose”? Surely not; but because our system is there, and we are too practical a people to trouble ourselves about its intellectual aspect.’Mr. Arnold has again done our statement injustice. The two lines which he quotes as an “intellectual proposition” form one step in an argument which fills a paragraph of twenty-two lines, and which we think Mr. Arnold will not find it easy to condense into a smaller compass. It would be absurd to say that our monetary system is upheld because it is duodecimal. It is neither purely duodecimal nor purely decimal, but a mixture of the two; and, whatever Mr. Arnold may think, we said before, and now repeat, that the reason why the English people keep the system unchanged is that the Decimal Coinage Commissioners proved, on purely theoretical grounds, that it is a more convenient one than the decimal system. The “mass of Frenchmen’’ no doubt trusted the opinion of some Commission of their own, and the difference between the two countries is a difference of theory. This is the very point which we tried to establish, and which Mr. Arnold is apparently quite unable to understand. Does he deny that there ever was a Decimal Coinage Commission, or that it reported in favour of the existing system, or that it gave reasons for so reporting, or that it was on account of that report that the system was maintained? Unless he can deny one at least of these propositions, he must admit that the question is between theory and theory, not between theory and neglect of theory. To say that “we are too practical a people to trouble ourselves about the intellectual aspect" of the question is really to talk without a meaning. In proportion as people are practical they act in a reasonable manner. What could be less practical than to refuse to substitute a rational and convenient for an irrational and inconvenient system of coinage? and how can a system of coinage be rational unless and except in so far as it is convenient?
Another of Mr. Arnold's observations is even more curious. He said, and says again, “When one looks at the English Divorce Court . . . which in the ideal sphere is so hideous . . . one may be permitted to find the marriage theory of Catholicism elevating and refreshing.” Upon this we observed that Mr. Arnold had no right to object to practical measures on theoretical grounds, and that he ought to wait to abuse the Divorce Court till he had got a theory which would fully explain all the duties of the Legislature in the matter of marriage. Upon this Mr. Arnold remarks:—“My critic wants me to produce a plan for a new and improved Divorce Court before I call the present one hideous. But God forbid that I should thus enter into competition with the Lord Chancellor!” God forbid, indeed, for Mr. Arnold's own sake; but his critic wanted no such thing. We carefully avoided saying what Mr. Arnold puts into our mouths. Our demand was, not for a working plan, but for “a theory which will fully explain all the duties of the Legislature on the subject of marriage.” A Court which has to deal with adultery cannot of course be ornamental. The question therefore is, whether the Divorce Court is more hideous than it ought to be. This depends on the question, what is the theory on which a legislator ought to deal with marriage? and unless Mr. Arnold can state such a theory and defend it, he has no right to condemn the existing Court. Not only is he unable to state such a theory, but he does not seem to see the necessity for it. He says, indeed, that he condemns the Divorce Court because “it is not the result of any legislator's meditations on the subject of marriage. Rich people had an anomalous privilege of getting divorced; privileges are odious, and we said everybody should have the same chance. There was no meditation about marriage here; that was just the mischief.” It is amusing to hear Mr. Arnold say that impatience of an “anomaly" was the reason why the Divorce Court was established. It is one of the counts in his indictment against the ross British Philistine that he does not care for anomalies. A few pages before, he had said, “For a thing to be an anomaly we consider to be no objection to it whatever.” Where, however, did he learn that “no meditation about marriage” preceded the legislation which produced the Divorce Court? The subject had been discussed in England for a great length of time, and from every point of view, and it is quite easy to state the theory upon which gradually come to the conclusion that there ought to be a way of judicially dissolving marriage in certain cases. The “idea" of the Court, to use Mr. Arnold's own phraseology, is not hard to describe. It is that in foro humano marriage ought, to be considered as a condition founded on a contract in which the public are interested, and which therefore ought not to be dissolved without the intervention of the law, and for causes legally defined; and that the rights and duties of the married state in foro divino, be they what they may, ought to be enforced by the conscientious, and not by the legal, sanction. He will find, if he turns to the Statute-Book, that this theory, not of marriage itself, but of the relation of the English Legislature to marriage (which is a very different thing), influenced many other Acts of Parliament besides the one in question—for instance, the Marriage Act of 1836, which it would be absurd to ascribe to impatience of an anomaly. This theory may be true or false, but it is just as much a theory as any other; and Mr. Arnold, in this as in all other cases, shows himself perfectly unable to conceive that any one can hold any theory at all which is not expressed in some short, smart phrase, like “the Catholic idea of marriage which exhibits marriage as indissoluble,” “that Protestant idea of marriage which exhibits it as a union terminable by mutual consent.”
Unable or unwilling to comply with what we think was a very reasonable demand— the demand for a theory of the relations between the Legislature and marriage as a condition precedent to the condemnation of a practical measure—Mr. Arnold does give us some sort of advice, if he gives us no guidance:—
‘If my practical critic will himself accompany me for a little while into the despised world of ideas; if, renouncing any attempt to patch hastily up, with a noble disdain for transcendentalism, our present Divorce law, he will but allow his mind to dwell a little first on the Catholic idea of marriage which exhibits marriage as indissoluble, and then upon that Protestant idea of marriage which exhibits it as a union terminable by mutual consent; if he will meditate well on these, and afterwards on the thought of what married life according to its idea really is, of what family life really is, of what social life really is, and national life and public morals, he will find after a while, I do assure him, the whole state of his spirit quite changed; the Divorce Court will then seem to him, if he looks at it, strangely hideous; and he will at the same time discover in himself, as the fruit of his inward discipline, lights and resources for making it better of which he does not dream.’Mr. Arnold, of course, has gone through all this “inward discipline" himself; for, if he has not, how can he possibly know what effect it will produce? Why then does he not comply with our request, and give us, as the fruit of his reflections and of the lights and resources which they have produced in him, a theory of the relations of the Legislature to marriage? No one asks him for practical details, but we have a right to ask for a statement of general principles. If he has them, why not state them? If he has them not, his contemplations have produced no effect. As matters stand, we cannot but suspect the real truth to be that Mr. Arnold, like every other decent person, has been much disgusted by the reports of the Divorce Court trials; that he knows little or nothing about jurisprudence, or about the way in which law-makers ought to deal with marriage or with the other great interests of life; and that he feels pleasure in using vague and big phrases about “the Catholic idea" and “the Protestant idea,” “married life according to its idea,” &c. &c., without attaching any particular meaning to those words.
It is no reproach to any one to be a man of taste and not a man of thought, but he ought not to deny to the whole English nation the power of thinking, merely because their thoughts do not happen to be expressed in a way which suits his taste. He ought also to try to understand that people may be influenced by difficult as well as by easy theories, and that in this complicated world the difficult theories are very often the true ones.
Saturday Review, February 25, 1865.