Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Mr. Matthew Arnold and his countrymen

Mr. Matthew Arnold has contributed to the first number of the new series of the National Review a paper on the functions of criticism at the present time, which is an excellent specimen of that peculiar turn, both of style and thought, with which of late years he has so often amused and rather surprised his readers. Few readers of the better class of periodical literature need to be told that Mr. Arnold is a very clever man, possessed in an unusual degree of some very uncommon gifts. He is always brilliant, good-natured, entertaining, and even instructive. There is generally a certain degree of truth in what he says, and, whatever, its nature may be, there can never be any doubt about its good faith. Mr. Arnold's utterances may not be the result of any profound meditation, but they at least represent genuine likes and dislikes. He does really work himself, at any rate for the time being, into an esoteric enthusiasm for the particular point which he enforces. It is also to be noticed that his points are always of the same kind. His self-imposed mission is to give good advice to the English people as to their manifold faults, especially as to their one great fault of being altogether inferior, in an intellectual and artistic point of view, to the French. He is so warm upon this subject that he has taught himself to write a dialect as like French as pure English can be. Indeed, it is a painful duty to admit that his turn for French is so strong that the undefiled well is sometimes very near defilement. Take such a sentence, for instance, as the following:—“But Burke is so great because, almost alone in England, he brings thought to bear upon politics, he saturates politics with thought; it is his accident that his ideas were at the service of an epoch of concentration, not of an epoch of expansion.” We can most hear the head-voice, with its sharp nasal ring, and see the eloquent hands gracefully turned outwards, as if to point first to the epoch of concentration and then to the epoch of expansion, with which a French lecturer would hand us this neat little sentence. The exquisite French-English in which Mr. Thackeray so much delighted is only a very little more of a caricature.

Mr. Arnold's present object is to make English criticism ashamed of itself and conscious of its own contemptible character. Like all that he writes, his article is very pretty reading, but from first to last it appears to us to be fundamentally wrong, and, in particular, it totally fails to apprehend that against which it is directed. The truth is that, like his French models, Mr. Arnold has quick sympathies and a great gift of making telling remarks; but, also like them, he has hardly any power of argument. At least, if he has, he rarely shows it. His general object in the paper before us is to defend some observations which he had made elsewhere on the functions of criticism; but the greater part of it is composed of illustrations of the poverty and vulgarity of the modern English mind, with an attempt to explain the cause and the remedy. The cause of our unfortunate condition is, he says, our constant anxiety about immediate practical results. The remedy is that criticism, and thought in general, ought to be disinterested. “And how is it to be disinterested? By keeping aloof from practice; by resolutely following the law of its own nature, which is to be a free play of the mind on all subjects which it touches; by steadily refusing to lend itself to any of those ulterior political practical considerations about ideas which plenty of people will be sure to attach to them, which perhaps ought to be attached to them, which, in this country at any rate, are certain to be attached to them quite sufficiently, but which criticism has really nothing to do with. Its business is simply to know the best that is known and thought in the world, and, by in its turn making this known, to supply a current of new and fresh ideas.”

In illustration of his meaning, he tells us that the French live by ideas. ... Speaking of the French Revolution, he says, “That a whole nation should have been penetrated with an enthusiasm for pure reason” (can Mr. Cobden have been looking at the National Review?), “and with an ardent zeal for making its prescriptions triumph, is a very remarkable thing. . . The French Revolution derives from the force, truth, and universality of the ideas which it took for its law, and from the passion with which it could inspire a multitude for those ideas, an unique and still living power.” It failed in practice by attempting to give an immediate practical application to those “fine ideas of the reason;” but we English, who are great in practice, never ascend to ideas at all. A member of Parliament blasphemously said to Mr. Arnold, “That a thing is an anomaly I consider to be no objection to it whatever.” We think ourselves a wonderful people—teste Mr. Adderley, who made a speech to that effect to the Warwickshire farmers, and Mr. Roebuck, who said so, to the Sheffield cutlers; but criticism ought to see how short we, fall of anything like, ideal beauty. Mr. Roebuck spoke of the “unrivalled happiness” of England. Mr. Adderley spoke of “the Anglo-Saxon race . . . the best breed in the whole world.” Mr. Arnold, representing the higher criticism, read in a newspaper that a woman named Wragg was in custody at Nottingham for child murder. Of this the higher criticism says:– “Wragg! If we are to talk of ideal perfection, has any one reflected what a touch of grossness in our race, what an original shortcoming in the most delicate spiritual perceptions, is shown by the natural growth amongst us of such hideous names—Higginbottom, Stiggins, Bugg . . . and the final touch, Wragg is in custody? The sex lost in the confusion of our unrivalled happiness.” Criticism, ought to show that Wragg should have been called (say) Fairfax; and that, instead of saying “Wragg is in custody,” the brutal journalist should have said, “And so, on that cold November night, the door of Nottingham gaol was shut behind our sinful sister.” To the general public this way of putting it may not seem to make much difference, but Mr. Arnold thinks otherwise:– “Mr. Roebuck will have a poor opinion of an adversary who replies to his defiant songs of triumph only by murmuring under his breath, “Wragg is in custody,” but in no other way will these songs of triumph be gradually induced to moderate themselves.” We do not envy the higher criticism if it has to go about “murmuring Wragg is in custody,” till all after-dinner speeches rise to the level of ideal beauty.

More serious functions, however, do present themselves for criticism in the other illustrations given by Mr. Arnold. He tells us, for instance, that “the British Constitution, seen from the speculative side, sometimes looks a colossal machine for the manufacture of Philistines.” Then criticism, looking at the Divorce Court, “in which the gross, unregenerate British Philistine has indeed stamped an image of himself.” . . . “may be permitted to find the marriage theory of Catholicism refreshing and elevating.” Some parts of the marriage theory of Catholicism, as expressed in Suarez' De Matrimonio, would, by the way, form an appropriate appendix to the Times' report of the Codrington case. Dr. Colenso is a mere Philistine of rather a contemptible kind, though M. Renan (with whom Mr. Arnold by no means agrees) is quite the reverse:– “Bishop Colenso's book reposes on a total misconception of the essential elements of the religious problem as that problem is now presented for solution. To criticism, therefore. . . well meant, of no importance whatever. M. Renan's book attempts a new synthesis of the elements furnished to us by the four Gospels,” and such a synthesis “is the very essence of the religious problem as now presented.” The higher criticism, of course, knows what the religious problem is, and how it is presented, and therefore it treats M. Renan with respect, and Bishop Colenso with the most curious kind of contempt—the contempt of a benevolent elder sister for the little girl who thinks that the world is a sham because she has discovered that her doll is stuffed with straw.

Mr. Arnold's theory, diffused over more than twenty pages, may be shortly expressed thus, for the most in his own words:—
“The prescriptions of reason are absolute, unchanging, of universal validity.”
 It is the function of the higher criticism to discover and state these prescriptions of reason, leaving to others the inferior task of adapting them to practice.

English criticism is deficient in caring only for immediate practical results, putting on one side the prescriptions of reason.

Unless by some means this is remedied, the nation's spirit “must in the long run die of inanition.”

Let us now consider what this theory is worth. Mr. Arnold overlooks two considerations which dispose of his whole argument about the present state of English criticism. These are, first, that there is in England a school of philosophy which thoroughly understands, and on theoretical grounds deliberately rejects, the philosophical theory which Mr. Arnold accuses the English nation of neglecting, and that the practical efforts of the English people, especially their practical efforts in the way of literary criticism, are for the most part strictly in accordance with the principles of that philosophy. Secondly, that whereas, according to his own system, practice and theory form different spheres—practice to be regulated by a view to immediate results, theory by a view to pure reason (whatever that may be)—and whereas, practical objections only ought to be applied by him to practical inquiries, and objections drawn from pure reason to theoretical inquiries, yet again and again he objects to specific practical measures on theoretical grounds.

First, there is in England a school of philosophy which perfectly understands, and on theoretical grounds deliberately rejects, the philosophical theory which Mr. Arnold accuses the English of neglecting. Mr. Arnold's whole essay assumes the truth of the transcendental theory of philosophy. Englishmen are merely practical, they have no philosophy in them at all, because they set on one side prescriptions of reason, absolute, unchanging, and of universal validity.” This is just like saying a man has no religion it is, however because he is not a Roman Catholic. Mr. Arnold surely cannot be ignorant of the fact that, from the days of Hobbes and Locke to those of Mr. Mill and Mr. Bain, the most influential of English thinkers have utterly denied the truth of transcendentalism, and have constantly affirmed that all knowledge is based upon experience and sensation. This may be true, or it may be false, but it is just as much entitled to be called philosophy as anything else. Now the commonest acquaintance with this view of things will show that in principle, though of course not in detail, it justifies the common run of English criticism—that is, of the remarks which English people make on passing events for practical or literary purposes. Take, for instance, Mr. Arnold's member of Parliament who did not object to anomalies. What Mr. Arnold viewed as his blasphemy really amounts to this:—Political institutions exist for the purpose of producing a maximum of happiness, in the wide sense of the word. Experience, alone can show what institutions, in a given case, will produce that result. Experience is either in the inductive or in the deductive stage. It is in the inductive stage until its results have fallen into the general principles, like those of mathematics, which can be applied at once to particular cases. When they have, it is in the deductive stage. Our political experience has not yet reached the deductive stage. It is still inductive. But, in considering institutions inductively, it can be no objection to them that they are anomalies—i.e. that they vary from some principle asserted to be true, for induction considers them only as facts, and does not, and by its very nature cannot, recognise the truth of the principles which they are said to contradict. Before Mr. Arnold lectures the English nation on their want of logic, he ought to understand that a man may deny his major without denying the force of syllogisms in general. The member of Parliament meant, “Your general principles being false, it is no objection to any institution that, judged by them, it is anomalous.” No man out of a madhouse ever says, Admitting the truth of your premisses and the form of your syllogism, I deny the truth of the conclusion.

In fact, no nation in the world is so logical as the English nation, Once get it well convinced of the truth of a general principle—which is, as it ought to be, considering how hard it is to state general principles correctly, a very hard task—and it will do anything. For instance, the English nation believes in political economy, and the consequence is that it is the only nation in the world which has established free trade. The new Poor Law and the Bank Charter Act were based upon the principles of the same science. Bentham persuaded the English nation that the greatest happiness of the greatest number was the true rule for legislation, and every part of the law has been reformed by degrees by the application, more or less skilful and complete, of that abstract principle. Newton persuaded the English nation that the force of gravity varies inversely as the square of the distance, and this doctrine, with its consequences, was accepted and worked out to its practical results by the English nation before any other people fully took it in. Mr. Mill has persuaded the English nation that men ought to argue, not from universals to particulars, but from particulars to particulars, and the practical influence of this highly abstract principle is seen in that state of criticism to which Mr. Arnold objects. Our modern Indian policy has been governed by the abstract principle that the natives ought to be civilized on the English pattern. When abstract principles like these are embraced by and do influence the English people most deeply, is it just, or even decent, to talk about “British Philistines” because we English do not choose to recognise as eternal truths a set of platitudes which may be proved to be false? And is it better than sophistry to try to bolster up the credit of these platitudes, in the face of their notorious failure, by saying that they are true in the sphere of absolute reason, and that, in order to purge our grossness, we ought to go and live in that sphere, murmuring under our breaths “Wragg is in custody”: Our English notion is, that the only test which you can judge of the truth of a general principle is its application to facts. If it will not open the lock, it may be a very pretty key, but it is certainly not the true one. It is from facts only that principles can be got, and it is by facts only that their truth, when they are got at, can be tested. Mr. Arnold is like a man who says to a painter or a sculptor, “What a gross Philistine you are to pass your time in chipping at that hideous stone, dabbling with that nasty clay, or fiddling about with oil-paints and canvas. Why do you not at once rise to the sphere of pure reason, and produce, as I do in my dreams, statues and pictures of eternal and absolute beauty?”

Mr. Arnold, like other transcendentalists, is very shy of giving us an eternal truth to look at. He does, however, try his hand at one, and a better illustration of that great maxim, “I never heard of an eternal truth without thinking of an infernal lie,” has seldom been seen:– “The prescriptions of reason are absolute, unchanging, of universal validity. 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; at least, I should say so if we did not live in a country where it is not impossible that any morning we may find a letter in the Times declaring that a decimal coinage is an absurdity.” This is a marvellous passage. The Decimal Coinage Commissioners declared against the scheme. One of them was Lord Overstone. Imagine Mr. Matthew Arnold asserting that Lord Overstone is incapable of abstract thought on his own subjects! Apart from this, Mr. Arnold is not only wrong, but so clearly wrong that there is probably little hope of convincing him of it. What he calls a self-evident proposition is, in the first place, not abstract; in the second place, it is not true; and in the third place, if it were both abstract and true, it would not prove the consequence connected with it. First, it is not abstract. The abstract proposition is that, if any system of notation whatever be given, there will be some convenience in making the base of that system the unit of tables of weights, measures, and coinage. This is, no doubt, true. But some other abstract propositions are also true, one of which is that to be a multiple of many factors is a convenience to which regard should be had in choosing a base of notation. Now, the number ten has but two factors, two and five, both of which are prime numbers, and ten is therefore a very inconvenient base for a system of any kind. Twelve, on the other hand, is highly convenient, being divisible by four factors, of which two only are primes. Hence there is a balance of advantages. To count by tens has the advantage of taking as your unit the base of an established system of notation. To count by twelves has the advantage of taking as your unit a number in itself far more convenient for that purpose. The advantage of counting by twelve is principally felt in small calculations done in the head. The advantage of counting by ten is principally felt in large calculations done on paper, and is not felt till you get past twenty. Hence a system of pounds reckoned on the decimal basis, and shillings and pence reckoned on the duodecimal basis, combines two sets of advantages. On the other hand, the decimal system is notoriously inconvenient for small transactions.

To sum up—our transcendentalist supposes himself to be statin an abstract proposition when he is stating a concrete one. Instead of saying “to count by tens,” he should say, “to take as your unit an established base of notation.” He supposes himself to be stating a true proposition when he is stating a false one. It is not true that to count by tens is the simplest way of counting, or that it is the most convenient, unless you add the very material clauses—“ten being given as the base of notation,” and “except for numbers under twenty.” Lastly, he supposes himself to be stating a complete proposition when he is stating one which is incomplete; for it does not follow that, because a particular way of counting is the simplest, any special system of coinage ought to be adopted. To count by ones, to have a separate name for each number, would no doubt be simpler than to count by tens, but no one advocates such a system. Let it be observed that each of these objections is theoretical. Mr. Arnold may call his countrymen gross Philistines as much as ever he pleases, but they will always be able to reply—We object to what you call your theories, not because they are theories, but because they are not true theories, but arbitrary generalities, which we can show to be rash, false, or at best incomplete.

The second objection to Mr. Arnold's theory is that, according to his own view, theory and practice form different spheres –practices to be regulated by a view to immediate results, theory by pure reason. Yet he constantly objects to practical measures on theoretical grounds. Thus, he says that the Divorce Court is a hideous institution, and that it is refreshing to turn from it to the Catholic marriage theory. What relation, on his principles, is there between the two things? By his own rule, he cannot inquire into, and has no right to notice, the hideousness of the Divorce Court. That is a practical question, a matter of business to be decided on common earthly grounds. The Catholic marriage theory, we suppose, is a matter of pure reason. Let each have its sphere, but unless and until pure reason can work out its marriage theory in a sufficiently definite shape to solve, every practical question connected with the marriage law, those who hold it have no other right to call the Divorce Court hideous than the authors of the Divorce Act have to call them visionary. If theorists are not sure enough of the truth of their theories to take the responsibility of putting them in practice, they have no right to depreciate the rule of thumb. When Don Quixote refused to try his sword on the second edition of his helmet, he surely renounced the right to sneer at less romantic wares. When Mr. Arnold has got a theory which will fully explain all the duties of the legislator on the matter of marriage, he will have a right to abuse the Divorce Court.

Much the same may be said of Mr. Arnold's criticism on Dr. Colenso. His book, he says, is “of no importance whatever” to criticism. It “reposes on a fundamental misconception of the essential elements of the religious problem.” M. Renan's book, on the other hand, deals with the very essence of the religious problem. “For saying this" (in Macmillan's Magazine), says Mr. Arnold, “I was greatly blamed, because I was told that I was a liberal attacking a liberal; yet surely I had a right to say that a man in pursuit of truth had taken a false method.” Certainly some of Mr. Arnold’s readers thought, and still think, that, considering how, desperately hard the lower criticism was on Dr. Colenso, the higher criticism might have chosen some other victim, or some other time for scourging that particular victim. It was not, however, for this alone that Mr. Arnold was blamed, but for something very different. It was for the way in which he argued that it was a crime against literary criticism and the higher culture to attempt to inform the ignorant. He was blamed for saying much which was summed up in these words, “Knowledge and truth, in the full sense of the words, are not attainable by the great mass of the human race at all.” In reference to the matter in hand, this meant, “Ordinary English people have no business to have any opinion on the question whether or not the whole of the Pentateuch is true. The higher matters to M. Renan and a few others, and it is bad taste, a low vulgar thing, to address them on the question.” This was very different from saying that Dr. Colenso's method was false. It said that his object was bad. Granting the goodness of the object and the truth of the assertions, it was simply absurd to deny their relevancy. Indeed, Mr. Arnold did not deny it. His point was, that the book ought not to have been written. This is altogether inconsistent with his present view, which is, that practice and theory ought to be divorced. Theory ought to sit on a hill retired, and argue high about a new synthesis of the four Gospels, and care nothing for practice. Let it, then, care nothing for practice, but do not let it attack practical men for making practical remarks. Dr. Colenso wrote ad populum. Mr. Arnold denied his right to do so, but it is very hard now to change the charge, and to blame him for having addressed the higher culture of Europe in a popular way. Dr. Colenso's book may or may not repose on a false conception of the religious problem, though it is a strong thing to assert that a critical inquiry into the Old Testament must, under all circumstances, be simply worthless; but Mr. Arnold's criticism certainly reposes on a false conception of Dr. Colenso's book, Indeed, his two criticisms “repose” on conflicting conceptions, and, as in the case of other attempts to sit on two stools at once, the result is grotesque.

The way in which Mr. Arnold treats Dr. Colenso is an excellent illustration of the fundamental weakness which affects all that he writes. With all his ability, he sometimes gives himself the airs of the distinguished courtier who shone so bright and smelt so sweet when he had occasion to talk with Hotspur about the prisoners. He is always using a moral smelling-bottle, like, those beloved countrymen, who, at foreign tables d'hôte, delight to hold forth on the vulgarity of “those English.” Dr. Colenso condescended to do a sum about the “800 and odd pigeons.” Mr. Arnold is almost ready to faint, till he is consoled by the thought of M. Renan and his sublime synthesis. He reads or looks at the Codrington case (which certainly had a strong scent about it), and, murmuring under his breath, “Gross unregenerate British Philistines,” flies in despair to the Catholic marriage theory, which purifies the country of Rabelais, Diderot, Faublas, Montépin, and M. Dumas fils.

Saturday Review, December 3, 1864.

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