Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Mr. Matthew Arnold on Culture

It was hardly to be expected that Mr. Matthew Arnold would descend from his professorial chair without a parting fling at the Philistines. He has selected “Culture” as the subject of his concluding lecture, which is republished in the Cornhill Magazine for July, and has already elicited very various strictures from different quarters. One of his critics is prepared to admit all that he has urged on the importance of culture, in the extended sense here given to the term as including the highest ideal and harmony of “beauty, sweetness, and light”—with the reserve, however, that to make it consciously the main object of pursuit is to sacrifice all about it that is best worth attaining, which in a certain sense is true. Another thinks it sufficient to meet his commendation of Oxford for, theoretically at least, recognising his ideal, with irrelevant sneers at the bigotry of Oxford Toryism, as though it were any disproof of the general scope and tendency of University education in producing a certain cultivated habit of mind to say that Convocation has bullied Professor Jowett and ejected Gladstone. The real question at issue between Mr. Arnold and his opponents, of whom he here takes Mr. Bright and Mr. Frederick Harrison as the typical representatives, lies deeper, and is certainly not an unimportant one. It comes, as we understand it, pretty much to this—whether action, and chiefly political or commercial action, is the great end of life, so that all which does not directly promote it, and still more whatever even temporarily retards it, is trivial, if not positively injurious; or whether, strictly religious considerations apart, humanity has not some higher interests than are represented by tariffs or Reform Bills, and to which the latter stand at best in the relation of means to ends. Indeed, it might be considered a phase of the old controversy about the true nature of happiness. Much that Aristotle says of the harmonious play and balance of faculties which comes into his definition of happiness is not unlike Mr. Arnold's definition of culture. On the other hand, Mr. Bright thinks culture synonimous with “a smattering of the two dead languages,” while Mr. Harrison can see no use in it except for a critic of new books; nay, in a political point of view it is worse than useless, it is a positive nuisance, with its turn for small fault-finding, and disinclination for rough-and-ready methods of settling things. “The man of culture is in politics one of the poorest creatures alive.”

Mr. Arnold appeals in defence of his own view to the analogy of religion. The Bible says that “the kingdom of God is within us,” and in like manner culture consists in an internal condition of the powers of the human soul, and not in any of the external adjuncts which may indirectly contribute towards such a state, but cannot produce it, and still less become a substitute for it. He might have quoted, with equal fitness, another text. “Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment?” The advance of mere material and mechanical civilization may indeed multiply the opportunities and remove the hindrances of increasing knowledge, but still it must ever remain true that “the railway and the steamship” are neither the measure nor the subject matter of “the thoughts that shake mankind.” If religion regards wealth as only valuable according to the use men make of it, so also, in relation to the equilibrium and perfection of all the spiritual energies of humanity, wherein true culture consists, wealth is only a means to an end. Bodily health and muscular vigour is no more the essence of culture than of Christianity. Neither, again, is the liberty for every one to say and do what he likes, which is the Paradisaic Utopia of Mr. Bright and the Daily Telegraph, much better than a fools' Paradise, unless we have got people to like what is true and good, or, in other words, to dwell in a congenial atmosphere of sweetness and light. Mr. Arnold contrasts culture with religion, as embracing a wider range of aspiration, and insisting on a more complete standard of internal perfection. The one is content with teaching us to subdue our “animality,” while the other will not allow us to rest till all the higher faculties have attained their full development, and are attuned to a faultless harmony. The Puritans deserved high praise, he thinks, for their stern consistency in working out their religious ideal, but they were terrible Philistines for all that. They had nothing of sweetness, and not too much of light. True, but then their religious ideal was a narrow and one-sided one. And a good deal which Mr. Arnold brings under the head of culture seems to belong quite as much to the perfect expression of the religious character. There is surely some truth in the old-fashioned idea of the Christian gentleman, which implies that the Christian and the chivalrous type have a good deal in common. Or, to take a modern example—which Mr. Arnold certainly will not object to, as it is a favourite one of his own— the elements of religion and of culture are so indissolubly blended in the lofty moral “distinction” of Eugénie de Guérin, that it is difficult to say where one ends and the other begins, or to draw the line where they shade off into each other. That is a very different type of excellence no doubt from the Puritan's, but it is at least as far removed from the perfection of mere intellectual culture with the animal nature unsubdued, which the lecturer also holds to be quite inadequate. And his constant adoption, as though instinctively, of Scriptural language to clothe his own estimate of the meaning and value of culture points to a similar conclusion as to the intimate connexion, not exactly in Mrs. Proudie's sense, between “civilization and Christianity.” Mr. Arnold's great abhorrence is for vulgarity. He quotes with emphatic, we had almost said with unctuous disgust, the motto of the Nonconformist newspaper, “The dissidence of Dissent and the Protestantism of the Protestant religion,” and contrasts it with St. Peter's words, “Finally, be of one mind, united in feeling”; but his extract proves at least that the Nonconformist maxim sins no less against the laws of religion than of culture. He dislikes it because it is vulgar, not because, as he insists, it is unscriptural, just as some years ago he severely censured Bishop Colenso for his criticisms on the Pentateuch, not because they were false—for he seemed disposed to admit that they might be true—but because there was a vulgarity in obtruding qustions on public notice which disturbed the popular belief. Mr. Arnold's sympathies would evidently gravitate towards what George Eliot somewhere calls “a great, roomy, universal Church,” but he has a nervous horror of all kinds of “religious organizations” for active purposes, and, we suspect, would look on any systematic efforts, say for the conversion of the heathen, or the promotion of Ragged Schools or boys' Homes, or the reclaiming of prostitutes, as scarcely less “fussy” and vulgar than “the hideous and grotesque illusions of middle-class Protestantism” whereof the Nonconformist is the theological exponent. In rebuking the impatience which those who are eager to be up and doing feel at that “turn for small fault-finding”—in other words, for minute and delicate criticism—which is incidental to a highly-cultivated mind, he seems to forget that all action would be paralysed if we waited to decide on our method of procedure till every criticism had been discussed and answered.

It is very characteristic of Mr. Arnold that he selects Abelard— whom Mr. Harrison would probably regard as no better than a clever sophist—as the great apostle of mediaeval culture. So far there is nothing to object to. But we doubt if he would be ready to do equal justice to the merits of Abelard's great opponent. There is too little of dignified repose about St. Bernard to suit Mr. Arnold's ideal; he made too much “fuss” about orthodoxy, and the Crusades and the current morality of the age, and several other practical matters beneath the attention of a philosopher. Yet St. Bernard was certainly a greater man than Abelard, and we are by no means sure that he had not more of “sweetness, and light” about him. Butler points out that the passive contemplation of suffering, without any effort to relieve it, tends to deaden our sympathies rather than to quicken them, and all experience goes with him. It is true in the same way that the quiescent pursuit of self-culture, even in its highest forms, unaccompanied by an active interest in the social or moral problems that surround us, is more likely to enervate and demoralize our mental energies than to brace them. It is only fair indeed to say that Mr. Arnold accepts as a necessary evil what he cannot bring himself to admire or to approve. He would very likely admit that St. Bernard's work was requisite for the due development of European society, but he would regret that St. Bernard was sacrificed to it. Money-getting and busy industrialism, vulgar as they are, are beneficial for the future; but the main body of Philistines, whose function is to be hewers of wood and drawers of water for the chosen people of culture in the coming ages, are sacrificed. The misplaced zeal of some of our youthful gymnasts may provide a sounder physical type for the next generation; but the present generation of boys meanwhile is sacrificed. Puritanism and Nonconformity were required for the moral and religious education of the country; but Puritans and Nonconformists were sacrificed by wholesale. The battle of freedom of speech must be fought out, but “the young lions of the Daily Telegraph,” whose roaring is neither cultivated nor melodious, “in the meanwhile are sacrificed.” There is a great deal of truth of course in all this, but it strikes us that a theory which has to leave so broad a margin for exceptions can hardly be a complete rationale of the facts of the case. Mr. Arnold has a strong grasp of one aspect of the truth, and it is a very important one, but he falls into a very common kind of mistake when he puts it forward as the whole truth.

Still, after making all deductions, the view dwelt upon in this lecture is incomparably higher and truer than its opposite. We prefer the liberalism of the apostles of culture to the liberalism of Bright and Beales, which is not altogether so unlike the old Puritan fanaticism, only that it has more of the political and less of the religious element about it. It was a pious wish of George III. that the time might come when every one of his subjects would be able to read his Bible; but still the example of Scotland has proved that some very ugly exhibitions of religious feeling may co-exist with a minute familiarity with the written word, if they do not sometimes spring out of it. And even in a country which realized the fondest dreams of our Reformers, where every man had his vote, to say nothing of voting by ballot, there might be many things considerably the reverse of perfection. If to deserve success is better than to win it, to know how to make the ‘noblest use of influence is better than to possess it.  What a man is matters more than what he does; but then, again, what he is depends fully as much on what he does as on what he knows: Culture alone will not give sweetness, nor even “flexibility,” though it is an immense, and ordinarily an indispensable, assistance in acquiring those qualities. Moreover, bodily culture, of which Mr. Arnold speaks so slightingly, formed an integral part of that Greek ideal of perfection to which he rightly attributes so high a spiritual significance. The Greek palaestra corresponded to the modern cricket-field. But there is no present danger of physical education, or mechanical and commercial industry, being at a discount. Culture is far more liable to be depreciated than to be overvalued. That without what he happily calls the “glow of life and thought,” which is the result of culture in the largest sense of the word, material comfort and political freedom can as little give worth and perfection to our moral being as food and clothing can give vigour to our animal organism without the glow of health, is the lesson which Mr. Arnold designs to teach. And we may be grateful to the teacher without altogether agreeing with him. It is just the lesson which, in an age and country like our own, men have the least inclination, and the greatest need, to learn,

Saturday Review, July 20, 1867.

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