Apart from "Dover Beach," Matthew Arnold is probably best known for catch phrases:

Many of these smart phrases, T. S. Eliot observed, were never defined and Arnold, any way, was no good at reasoning (he was a satirist). Even so, we can get his drift, as they say. What did he believe, what was he trying to do, and is it of any use today? At heart Arnold, I suspect, was an intellectual — defined by Paul Johnson as one to whom ideas are more important than people. The ideas that appealed were French, and abstract. He was also a statist in the French mould, and at the same time a home grown social engineer and bureaucrat with blinkered vision. Religion, for example, was a closed book to him. He was like a tone deaf man wanting to disband the orchestra because he thinks Mozart is random noise. More incredibly, he failed to notice that his own century was one of the most creative in English history. (Accusing the middle class of scientific incuriosity in the century of Faraday, Darwin and Clerk Maxwell is a bit curious in itself.)

The Socratic question "how should we live?" was fundamental to him, and was a moral one. The speech "we are such stuff as dreams are made on" at the end of The Tempest, for example, he called a moral idea. By it he meant something like "the application of ideas to life, or ideas to show us how to live." Most imperative was growth via an overview of the whole of culture. With it we overcome our narrowness and bigotry to see the world steadily and see it whole, as Sophocles did. Criticism is the way: ask what does this book do for us and our society? Culture is active, working away unobserved inside us. Art, also, should "animate and ennoble." Poetry changes us by overcoming despair, laziness, doubt, and selfishness. It works through "beauty" and "power." The more beautiful, the more powerful. It makes life bearable. For this reason, poetry would replace religion in time.

Meanwhile, the obstacle was the middle class and its two big vices: addiction to liberty (freedom is a good horse but where are you riding it?), and their cultural, intellectual and religious narrowness. They were drab, complacent, illiberal, and dismal. They were Puritans who read the Bible incorrectly. He wanted them, in their dark industrial towns, to bask in the serenity and sunshine of his own Hellenism and French ideas. In the 1870s he set about saving Christianity by stripping out the religion while leaving moral usefulness behind. The Bible was poetry. God was only a metaphor and so could be replaced by a new a definition: "a consciousness of the not ourselves that makes for righteousness'. Education was the way to all this. Not state controlled, he argued against Mill, but state guided. The state brought out our "best selves." Ministers of the Crown grew in wisdom in office, and had access to unlimited information.

But was he changing towards the end of his life, and mellowing? He died in Liverpool of a heart attack at the age of sixty-six while waiting to meet his daughter on her return from the United States. By then he'd lost three of his five children, and perhaps age and loss had changed him in some ways. In 1863, in Spinoza and the Bible, he compared the intellectual life to the Christian one. In the latter you are transported by love, in the former by following the reasoning of Plato. Yet Plato very specifically says they are two ways to the same end — a meeting with The Good. Arnold failed to make the connection. However sixteen years later in his essay on Byron he recognised the value of Wordsworth's joy in nature as being "healthful and true." It's also moral because it shows us how to live. In fact, what we have is almost a formula: Joy + Healthfulness = Truth. In other words there's more to life, and deeper experiences, than abstract ideas.

What's happened to those ideas? His wish for state-provided education has come about and been extended to universities. Mill was right, however, and Arnold was wrong — state provision has meant more state control. Even Arnold's own Oxford comes under Government pressure from time to time to lower its standards in the name of social engineering. He would be shocked as well at the lowering of standards in primary education (for thirty-five years he was a schools inspector.). He was wrong, too, in thinking Ministers of the Crown grow wise in office. (They are also quite capable of cherry-picking information to support their own prejudices.)

Christianity has declined, without leaving a moral residue behind. Attacks on it have been increased, particularly by Darwinists, though the ratio of believers to disbelievers among scientists hasn't altered since Arnold's day. Anti-Christian books, like his own Literature and Dogma (1873), are still best-sellers. Poetry hasn't replaced religion, however. There are now tens of thousands of poets and probably an equal number of poetry readers, each reading only their own work it often seems.

Arnold hoped that when the English had made themselves comfortable, they'd turn to French ideas. What seems to have happened is that, without that overview which he thought so important, the English have lost sight of their own empiricist background while, at the same time, people with power have adopted abstract ideas. Everybody, in any case, is now subordinate to the European Union, a very old French desire admired by Arnold in Queen Victoria's day. The abstract ideas which have won out are sub-Marxist and post-Foucault, not Arnold's. The aim of his statist successors is now egalitarian: a levelling down, not a lifting up. If they think of him at all, it would be only to dismiss him as elitist. What connects him to the 21st century, in other words, is a cast of mind not a mindset.

Are any of his banished ideas worth salvaging? Getting rid of his concept of the overview, to begin with, seems insane. Until the 1960s it was called "having a well-stocked mind" and was one of the aims of education. It seems to me to be common sense to teach children where they stand in the scheme of things and how they got there. It could be brought back with profit. Criticism in the sense of asking "does this make us bigger and better?" might be usefully revived, as well. Art to "animate and ennoble" is problematical; it's such an alien idea it's hard to imagine how it could work, but is it such a bad one? The question "how should we live?" is being raised again since things are going quite badly wrong. Bringing back his concept of excellence could do no harm, either. He never argued, as some claimed, for an English imitation of the French Academy. He was pointing out that the Academy existed because the concept of excellence was prevalent in France to begin it. A prevailing excellence in all walks of life was what he advocated. Too often state control, which he so favoured, is against it. If he could come back and see us today would he, I wonder, remember the wise old saw: "Be careful what you wish for — it could come true."?

July 2008


Allott, Kenneth. Matthew Arnold. London: Longmans Green, 1968.

Collini, Stefan. Arnold. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Arnold, Matthew. The Complete Poems. ed. Kenneth and Miriam Allott. London: Longmans, 1987.

Arnold, Matthew. Poetry and Criticism. ed. A Dwight Culler. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1961.

Arnold, Matthew. Selected Poems and Prose. Ed. Miriam Allott. London: Dent, 1978.

Arnold, Matthew. Selected Prose. ed. P J Keating. London: Penguin Books, 1970.

Eliot, T. S. Selected Essays. London: Faber and Faber, 1980.

13 July 2008