Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Mr. Arnold on the Middle Classes

The last number of the Cornhill Magazine contains one of those odd articles which Mr. Matthew Arnold so much delights in writing. It is called “My Countrymen,” and is written apparently in order to teach that degraded part of creation, the British middle classes, what the intelligent foreigners think about them. The article begins by referring to some advice which we had the honour of tendering to Mr. Arnold about a year ago, on the impropriety of describing the whole Enghish nation as a parcel of miserable Philistines, destitute of all the higher mental gifts, and especially of a certain quasi-divine power of understanding and believing in ideas which it appears belongs exclusively to the French. Mr. Arnold was struck, he tells us, by this article. It made him “make a serious return on himself,” and he resolved never to call his countrymen Philistines again till he had thought more about it. In the course of his meditations, he found that other people besides the Saturday Review were opposed to him. In the face of Mr. Bazley, the member for Manchester, the Nonconformist, the Daily News, and the Daily Telegraph, by all of which authorities he was contradicted, he found it impossible to persist in his old accusations. He decided that he would never call his countrymen Philistines any more, and he recorded his resolution in a beautiful and appropriate Scriptural quotation. “He that is unjust let him be unjust still, and he that is filthy let him be filthy still, and he that is righteous let him be righteous still, and he that is holy let him be holy still.” We should be sorry to suggest that Mr. Arnold has broken his good resolutions by describing the unfortunate Philistines as unjust and filthy, but it appears to us that he thinks there are few just men, and not many clean beasts, on this side of the British Channel. His way of conveying his impression as to the “filthiness” of the unclean animals who ought to rush violently down the cliffs at Dover and Brighton is by repeating the views taken by (possibly ideal) foreigners of our nation character, and communicated to him during a foreign tour of some months which he lately made upon public business. He shows us what a terrible opinion our foreign friends have formed of us, and he tells us by implication that we may or may not be Philistines, but that foreigners consider us as such, and that, in his own opinion, they have much the best of the argument. It is worth while to state the arguments of his foreign friends, and to say just a few words on them. It may be true that we care too little what foreigners think about us, and, whatever else may be said of Mr. Arnold, no one will deny that few people can be better qualified to repeat in a pleasant half-foreign style the commonplaces about England and things English which happen to be current for the moment amongst literary foreigners.

First, it appears that the German and French newspapers treat us with contempt. The Kolnische Zeitung was graciously pleased to observe that the Russians, “in spite of their splendid courage, were in the Crimean war constantly beaten by the French; nay, decidedly beaten even by the English and the Turks.” “One of the gravest and most moderate of French papers” was indignant at English coldness about a proposed commission to stop the cholera. “Let us speak to these English,” said the indignant journalist, “the only language they can comprehend, England lives for her trade; cholera interrupts trade; therefore it is for England’s interest to join in precautions against cholera.” Mr. Arnold says that such compliments are displeasing to remember and to repeat: We can only say with the Roman matron of old—the type, by the way, of Lord Derby's coalheaver—“Paete, non angit.” If it were worth while to retort upon the Kolnische Zeitung, and the grave French paper, we might mention one or two English victories won, not over Russians, and some cases in which English money has been spent for other than mercenary objects; but foreigners of course know best. Inkermann and Alma are the only names on the colours of the Guards, and our French friends know precisely how much trade Parry and Franklin found in the Polar Sea, and how much money profit we got from the African blockade.

The foreign newspapers, however, are not our only instructors. Our wretched foreign policy has brought us “to the third place in the world's estimation, instead of the first. He who disbelieves it, let him go round to every embassy in Europe, and ask if it is not true.” Really it is not worth the trouble to make such a long journey for such a small piece of news. What we are is a matter of some importance; what other people think of us is a matter on which Mr. Arnold, charm he never so wisely, will never persuade one Englishman in ten thousand to take the faintest interest. “What do I care,” is the unexpressed feeling of the typical Englishman, “whether some man who happens by accident to have heard my name (which he can neither pronounce nor even spell) does or does not despise the person whom he associates with it? I would not walk across the room to make him think me a hero or to prevent him from thinking me a rogue.”

We learn, however, more in detail what are the opinions of our foreign friends about us. The foreigners despise us because we never, in foreign affairs, “really comprehend the situation, so that they can never, feel us to be in living, sympathy with them.” “England is like the young man from the country, who talks to the nursemaid after she has upset the perambulator.” This is rather an elaborate comparison, and refers, it seems, to some entertainment of Mr. John Parry's with which we do not profess to be acquainted, but it is clearly explained in course of time. Translated into prose, it means that the English press often writes superficially, and with very imperfect knowledge, about foreign affairs. This we think is true. In the course of the last ten years, for example, articles on the policy of nearly every foreign country in the world have appeared in the columns of this and other journals, and no doubt plenty of mistakes are to be found in them. We are, however, inclined to believe that on the whole it is better, and shows not less intelligence, to say many things and to make many mistakes, either from imperfect information or from bad judgment, than to say nothing at all, and make no mistakes, simply because you are allowed to say nothing except what the Government likes. Dead horses never shy, and it is surprising how few political mistakes are made by newspapers which are not permitted to discuss political questions. If the foreigners might talk, we should hear what we should hear. Their omniscience is notorious. No foreign journal ever displayed ignorance about English affairs, or made a false prophecy as to the course of events in England.

Mr. Arnold's foreign friends were so kind as not only to turn up the files of the Times and the Saturday Review, for the sake of exposing their ignorance of foreign politics, but to undertake to show why Englishmen did not, and indeed could not, “comprehend the situation.” They had, of course, a neat little theory much at the service of their English guest. He asked them whether our fathers and grandfathers, whom they admitted to have been “the foremost people in Europe,” did not “comprehend the situation,” and whether we did not comprehend it at least as well as they? The question, to a plain English mind, appears rather mysterious; but Mr. Arnold knows how to handle the foreigner just as Andrew Fairservice knew the Highlanders. “No man alive can cuitle up Donald better than himself.” His foreign friends understood him at once. “Yes,” replied my foreign friends, “they comprehended the situation, as they had it, a great deal better; their time was a time for energy, and they succeeded in it perfectly. Our time is a time for intelligence, and you are not succeeding in it at all.” Our fathers and grandfathers destroyed Napoleon's attempt at European supremacy. After the peace, Scott and Byron established a literary influence. “We believed in you for a good while, but gradually it began to dawn upon us that the era for which you had the secret was over, and that a new era for which you had not the secret was beginning.” The work of the old era was a work of force—the conquest of Napoleon; and, being then an aristocratic people, we did it. The work of the new era is “to make human life, hampered by a past which it has outgrown, natural and rational.” In this our present Government does not shine, because it is a middle-class, and not an aristocratic, Government.  The proof is that neither the Crimean war nor the Indian mutiny nor our Italian policy raised our reputation, whilst our Danish and our American policy lowered it. “You are losing the instinct which tells people how the world is going; you are beginning to make mistakes; you are falling out of the front rank.” . . . “You bear with your whole weight on the intelligence of the middle class, and intelligence, in the true sense of the word, your middle class has absolutely none.” If he had not been overpowered by the very fact that he was talking to foreigners, Mr. Arnold might, we think, have answered with some plausibility—“Gentlemen, without being aware of it, you contradict yourselves in every sentence. We fail, you say, because the age is one for intelligence, and not for force. The proof lies in the Crimean war, the Indian mutiny, our Italian, Danish, and American policy. If you insist on contrasting force and intelligence, were not all these matters, matters not of intelligence, but of force? Force, you tell us, is our forte, intelligence our foible, and the proof you give is that we fail in cases where force is required. Again, war was the problem of the last generation. The leading a natural and rational life is the problem of this generation. We fail, you say, in the second, as our fathers succeeded in the first. The proof of our failure in leading a rational life is the weakness of our military policy. Again, we were formerly an aristocratic power; now we are a middle-class power. Strength is the characteristic of an aristocracy. That, it seems, cannot be expected of us; but we ought to be intelligent, and the proof that we are not is that our military policy is not successful. We can have no brains, because we do not perform those feats of strength for which brains are not required, and which you yourselves say do not constitute the problem of the age. Pray, gentlemen, be consistent. Make up your minds as to what you really mean. If it is that we ought to lead a natural and rational life, let our military policy alone. If it is that we ought to perform feats of military prowess all over Europe, let our middle-class intelligence alone, and blame us for want of energy, not for unfitness for situations which require intelligence, and not energy.” Mr. Arnold might have gone a little further, and might have observed that to distinguish between energy and intelligence is as difficult as to discover an age which requires only one of them. Intelligence is nothing else than intellectual energy, and energy in the management of affairs is nothing else than vigorous exertion of the mind upon those affairs. Suppose, however, that the two are distinct; what sense is there in saying that, in the days of the French Revolution, there was no necessity for intelligence, and that in our own there is no use in energy? To us it appears that in every age both intelligence and energy are absolutely indispensable conditions of every kind of success, but we are mere unclean animals. “He that is filthy let him be filthy still.”

Nothing but a deep consciousness of this prevents us from developing a suggestion which presents itself upon reading the criticisms of Mr. Arnold's friends about the Indian mutiny. “Can you, with all your powers of self-satisfaction, suppose that your Indian mutiny raised you?” Purblind as we are, we can just fancy it possible that the history of the Indian mutiny may have suggested to one or two intelligent foreigners the reflection that it is as well to think twice before you bring the English nation to bay, and that those who sell the skin may find it rougher work than they expected to kill the bear. The Sepoys were not the only characters in history who had to learn by experience that it is possible to underrate even Englishmen.

Mr. Arnold did not think of these observations, but it did occur to him to quote to his foreign friends Mr. Lowe's speech upon Reform. “How,” he asked, “can you deny the practical intelligence and good sense of the English middle classes when you remember that they elect the House of Commons, and when you think of all the improvements made by the House of Commons since the Reform Bill?” Well done, Mr. Arnold. Let us see what the intelligent foreigners replied to this argument. They admitted somewhat contemptuously the truth of the statement. “No doubt,” they said, “your middle class found a great deal of commercial and social business waiting to be done which your aristocratic Governments had left undone and had no talents for doing.” But “let us set claptrap on one side.” “What is the modern problem?” To make human life, the life of society all through, more, natural and rational; to have the greatest possible number of one's nation happy.” And then the foreign friends proceeded to show, in the teeth of their own admission, what poor stuff English reforms are, and what a wretched thing the life of the English middle classes is. As to English reforms we have this sweeping remark:--"You may have done, for you, much for religious toleration, social improvement, public instruction, municipal reform, law reform, but the French Revolution and its consequences have done upon the Continent a great deal more.” “Do you suppose that we should tolerate in France, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, your London corporation and London vestries, and London as they make it?” “Such a spectacle as your Irish Church Establishment you cannot find in France or Germany. Your Irish land question you hardly dare to face. Stein settled as threatening a land question in Prussia.” Mr. Arnold was over-crowed by all this. He says, “I am no arguer.” The more's the pity. If he had been, he might have made a much better fight than he did. He might have said:– “When you want to make a powerful impression, do it by a good broad sweeping assertion about the French Revolution and the general excellence of Continental government. To discuss all the questions which such an assertion raises is obviously hardly possible, but still think of what may be said on the other side. If you are so perfectly well-governed, why are there so many wars and tumults? Why did the Italians, who would not endure our London vestries for an instant, find it necessary to go through a whole series of revolutions a very few years ago? Why have the French, who view the Irish Church with such intense and sublime disgust, propped up a certain Established Church in the centre of Italy by an armed force, which commenced operations by besieging and taking Rome, and putting down the authorities chosen by the people? Why does Herr Bismark treat the Prussian Parliament so haughtily? Why do the ablest of Frenchmen, men like De Tocqueville, write about the condition of their country like so many unhappy Jeremiahs? In one word, why is political freedom, as we understand and practise it, confined to a few small countries like Belgium and Switzerland? Give us at least some plausible answer to such obvious questions as these before you overwhelm us with your generalities about the French Revolution and the principles of 1789, which, after all, might have been marked, like the blankets in a lodging-house—‘Stolen from America.’” Something like this Mr. Arnold certainly appears to have said to his foreign friends; but his whole report of the controversy is pervaded by a touching modesty which invariably makes him look as if he had got the worst of the controversy, even when he had the best of it.

The chief weight of the attacks of his foreign friends upon our unfortunate selves, however, bore not so much on our politics as on our social life. “Are you a success with your middle classes?” they asked, in that pretty French-English which Mr. Arnold renders so happily. “They have the power now; what have they made of themselves? What sort of life is theirs? A life more natural, more rational, full of happiness, more enviable, therefore, than the life of the middle classes on the Continent?” There are, they added, “three factors” of a “natural, rational life satisfying the modern spirit”; that is to say, the growth of a love of industry, trade, and wealth, the growth of a love of the things of the mind, the growth of a love of beauty. The English middle classes have the first of these three factors to perfection, but they have no notion whatever of either intelligence or beauty. “Drugged with business, your middle class seems to have its sense blunted for any stimulus besides, except religion. It has a religion” (half a score he might have said), “narrow, unintelligent, repulsive.” “The religion of your middle class is the very lowest form of intelligential life that one can imagine as saving.” Even in heaven it appears Mr. Arnold will never forgive the English tradesman. He will smell of the shop in the midst of harps, crowns, and wings. “What other enjoyments have they? The newspapers, a sort of eating and drinking which are not to our taste, a literature of books almost entirely religious or semireligious, books utterly unreadable by an educated class anywhere, but which your middle class consume, they say, by the hundred thousand; and in their evenings, for a great treat, a lecture on teetotalism or nunneries. Can any life be imagined more hideous, more dismal, more unenviable?” Mr. Arnold may rest his reputation on this. Noble disdain for all shopkeepers, past, present, and future—shopkeepers in the heavens above, in the earth beneath, and in the waters under the earth—cannot well go much further. He curses them in their uprising and downlying, in their religion, in their literature, in their amusements, in their meals, in their families, in their society, in their want of society; and, in order to do so more effectually, he puts his curses into the mouths of a gang of foreign Balaams, who certainly do the work for which they were fetched more efficiently than their prototype.

Many questions suggest themselves to the mind on reading Mr. Arnold's vehement invectives against the middle classes. Who are the middle classes, and why does Mr. Arnold hate them so bitterly? Are inspectors of schools members of the middle class, or the ordinary run of professional men? Or is “middle class”, only an elaborate name for small shopkeepers? Mr. Arnold vouchsafes one little gleam of information on such points, though even in that he runs into a curious confusion. He thought to himself, “As to our middle class, foreigners have no notion how much this class with us contains, how many shades and gradations in it there are, and how little what is said of one part of it will apply to another.” As this would have afforded a conclusive answer to the whole tirade of the “foreign friends,” Mr. Arnold of course did not say it, for if he had his paper would simply have shown how very little foreigners know about England. By referring to it, however, Mr. Arnold shows that he has adopted a form of composition, which obliges him to give conclusive answers to what he wishes to represent as unanswerable arguments against himself, and to pretend that the answers are inconclusive. To affect to be beaten by a man of straw, who not only will not knock you down but cannot even stand on his own legs, is to repeat the misfortune of the little boy who made his right hand play at chess with his left, and, intending to give the right hand the victory, ended the game by a stalemate. Having thought, in his own mind, of the conclusive answer to the foreign friend, Mr. Arnold of course could only feebly hint at a very small part of it:—
‘Something of this sort I could not help urging aloud. “You do not know,” I said, “that there is broken off, as one may say, from the top of our middle class a large fragment which receive the best education the country can give, the same education as our aristocracy, which is perfectly intelligent, and which enjoys life perfectly. These men do the main part of our intellectual work, write all our best newspapers, and cleverer people, I assure you, are nowhere to be found.”’
Some of these gentlemen, we rather think, are inspectors of schools, and Mr. Arnold is better qualified to describe their merits than to point out how ludicrously unlike the truth the description of the life of the rest of the middle classes is. To say that the intelligent foreigner's description of the English middle class does not fit that small section of it of which the writer knows the habits and feelings, is like desiring a person who abuses a picture-gallery, on the supposition that it contains only one picture, to take notice that there is one other picture to which his charges do not apply. The true answer is that the collection contains several thousand pictures, and that his remarks have but the very slightest possible bearing on any one of them. The “foreign friend,” however, is still too hard for Mr. Arnold. Even this middle-class doré does not satisfy his fastidious mind. “Clever enough, but they show not much intelligence in the true sense of the word ” . . . “they do not believe in ideas.” We are glad at last to be able to confront our foreign critic and his English admirer with positive evidence against his heresies. They do believe in 279 ideas on political subjects alone. Are they not written in the book of Mr. Charles Buxton?

It is hardly worth while to write seriously upon such a subject, and yet the greatness of the nation to which we belong is a topic on which the coldest of cold Englishmen can hardly write merely in the tone of banter, however trifling may be the occasion which leads him to treat of it. Amongst thirty millions of men and women there will of course be found a vast mass of dull, commonplace, stupid people, whose lives must look to bystanders, whether countrymen or not, drearier than they really are. If such persons are free, and accustomed as such to speak their minds on all sorts of subjects with perfect openness, they will no doubt talk a vast deal of nonsense, and lay themselves open to any quantity of criticism. There are, moreover, real faults in the English character, and some of them are in a rough way caricatured by Mr. Arnold's foreign friends; but if any one seriously doubts whether England is a great nation and is doing a great work in the world, let him look, not at the position which our country may hold for the time being in the opinion of foreign diplomatists, or at the phrases which happen to be fashionable in French or German society about our middle class (of which they know considerably less than they know about the feelings of polar bears and walruses), but at a few broad facts.

England is the only great European country, which enjoys political freedom to its full extent, and has succeeded in reducing it to a practical shape. The prospects of political freedom over Europe depend largely on its success and permanence in England.

England is the only great country in which the religious controversies of the day, controversies deeper and more important than those which caused the Reformation, have taken a practical form, and are likely to lead to definite practical results. What in France and Germany is confined to a small class of learned men is coming to be preached on the housetops in England to a people slow to be convinced, but apt to be much in earnest in acting on their convictions.

England governs with absolute power 150,000,000 of people in. India. The English Government there is labouring honestly and vigorously to use its power for the good of those millions, and to lead them on to changes, political, moral, and religious, hardly exemplified before in the history of any part of the world.

England exercises a qualified and ill-defined supremacy over Canada, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and various other places of less importance. These regions will be the homes of many millions of English people in another century, and their fortunes may be influenced most deeply, for good or evil, by English legislation and English thought.

Look well at these four facts, think what they mean, try for a moment to take their measure, and then ask whether it is worth while to give even a passing thought to the opinion which the Prussians may form of our attitude in the Danish question. Think, too, for a moment of the intense and varied energy with which millions of men are working out different bits of one or more of these vast problems. Remember that every ship loaded by the despised shopkeeper, every order taken by the vulgarest traveller, every article written in a penny paper, every vote given by a £10 householder, goes to make up the vast whole which constitutes the action of England on the world; and if you still sneer at the general result, and still fail to see the lines of greatness and majesty through the dust and sweat and noise and turmoil which, obscure what they develop, you despise human life itself. There are those who think otherwise, and who would prefer to grind in such a mill, ever so roughly, ever so coarsely, ever so meanly, all the days of their life, to the most aesthetic form of dawdling that could be invented by a joint committee from all the cafés and theatres between the Mediterranean and the Baltic.

Saturday Review, February 10, 1866.

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