On Sweetness and Light, Discipline and Creativity: Culture and Anarchy

The Derby Day (1856-8) by William Powell Frith. Photo CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 via Tate Britain

Culture and AnarchyCulture and Anarchy by Matthew Arnold

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I had heard others speak of this book as if it were a cult classic. Any wonder. There are so many things going on in this work. I am still trying to see where Matthew Arnold fits in with the likes of Edmund Burke, John Stuart Mill, David Ricardo, Thomas Malthus, and Herbert Spencer. He was a professor of poetry by profession, and his niece, Mrs Humphrey Ward, became a metonym for a conservative wowser. So he was hardly a John Stuart Mill, yet he was also rather short of being a Herbert Spencer. He seemed to be the reverse of a modern Australian Liberal (not liberal) - he did not support free trade but looked to the cultural elite, while remaining socially conservative. The brief introduction eludes to the lack of definitions in the work, and this is supported by a critique of the work by Henry Sidgwick entitled The Prophet of Culture (provided as an appendix). Indubitably, the two were friends, but with some rather major philosophical differences. There are extensive notes and these are important due to the number of then-contemporary social, political, cultural, and religious debates (as indicated by the list of important thinkers above) that would be lost on most modern readers (or me, at least). These are rather important to understanding the context but I suspect the different disciplinary groups did not necessarily cross paths in their intellectual outputs. For my own memory, it is useful to outline some of Arnold's key ideas. First, culture is the seeking (as opposed to achieving) perfection in the pursuit of reason and the will of God. The phrase "sweetness and light" is used by Arnold to refer to the pursuit of beauty (in the Hellenistic sense) and light as intellect. Sidgwick counters with "fire and strength" as being more important to improving society (referring, in particular, to religion). Arnold navigates two approaches to understanding culture (albeit somewhat difficult to articulate a precise definition of either) as Hebraising (referring to the Hebrew penchant for religious discipline) versus Hellenism (referring to the Ancient Greek aesthetic and penchant for reason). Arnold brings in the idea of class here (something completely overlooked by many modern works that assume the myth of egalitarianism in contemporary society is not a myth at all), and names the classes the Barbarians (the aristocracy), the Philistines (the middle class) and the Populace (the working class). Given the book was published in 1869, the "Populace" was still a few decades away from any formal political power, and class-based rioting was emerging as a problem for the likes of Burke (who had issues with the Lockean and Rousseauian conceptions of the social contract. Indeed, Arnold was a form of anti-Jacobin). Arnold was closer to Hobbesian support for a strong State, but tempered by the idea that representatives of each class should strive to represent their ideal best selves (as a class rather than individuals), and the idea of the State was to enable such striving for social and political perfection. There were a few snippets that drew lines where the State should and should not intervene, relating to Nonconformism and antidisestablishmentarianism (I always wanted to use that word - but I must qualify, it relates to then-contemporary debates over the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland [refer to the Irish Church Act 1869], rather than the Church of England - but I had to use the word!) rather than intervening to protect the poor (some Malthusian debate was definitely going on at this time in history). Nevertheless, Arnold was opposed to government "control for control's sake" (p. 170) over education policy, and preferred the Continental approaches to education that had clear strategic objectives rather than simply government control. Sidgwick puts some of this confusion to rest - he is by no means a fan of this particular piece of Arnold's work but empathises with his cause to strengthen society by increasing its culture. Here, Sidgwick's essay does a great service to Arnold's theme, and the two works together are important. Sidgwick (p. 172) surmises that Arnold "wishes for reconciliation of antagonisms" - be these Hebraism versus Hellenism, class differences, or culture and religion (or sweetness and light versus fire and strength) - in an effort to improve society. Without Sidgwick's contribution, it would be easy to miss Arnold's point. But that does not make the work of any less value. Some of these statements have been made by others (including the introduction), and Arnold's belief in the "law of perfection" reminds me of a scene from The Last Samurai where Tom Cruise narrates: "From the moment they wake they devote themselves to the perfection of whatever they pursue". This was a difficult read. Not like Sir Walter Scott's work where one can readily get bogged down in Gaelic dialogue, but because numerous reference to the notes (there are as many notes as pages) are necessary to understand the context, and there is so much jam-packed in this otherwise short essay, that it takes a while to sink in. While that should not diminish the importance of the work, if the attitude to difficult works today is anything to go by - where we are routinely told by lazy egoists (as opposed to egotists) if we cannot explain something to a three year-old child we don't understand it ourselves - then Arnold is amiss. But he was so close to being a futurist that this work ought to be more widely read, not as a cult classic (which arguably it deserves to be), but because we are reaching the culmination-point Arnold seemed to warn about,- should we ever relegate "sweetness and light" to "fire and strength".

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