There is no earthly thing more mean and despicable in my mind than the English gentleman destitute of all sense of his responsibilities and opportunities, only revelling in the luxuries of our high civilization, and thinking himself a great person. — II, 213; Arnold to J. P. Gell, 12 April 1840

Although Thomas Arnold may have had an early Tory phase, this famous early Victorian liberal argued that the aristocracy acted as a great force for evil, injustice, and instability in both ancient Rome and contemporary Europe. As he wrote to his friend Justice Coleridge, he criticized democracy and aristocracy equally in his history of Rome:

You will not sympathize with all the sentiments about Aristocracy, but I think, if you ever see the subsequent volumes, you will find that I have not spared the faults of Democracy. Still I confess that Aristocracy as a predominant element in a government, whether it be aristocracy of skin, of race, of wealth, of nobility, or of priesthood, has been to my mind the greatest source of evil throughout the world, because it has been the most universal and the most enduring. Democracy and tyranny, if in themselves worse, have been, and I think ever will be, less prevalent, at least in Europe; they may be the Cholera, but aristocracy is Consumption; and you know that in our climate Consumption is a far worse scourge in the long run than Cholera. [II, 122; 18 May 1838]

As recent scholarly studies have shown, Victorian authors frequently used images of contamination and disease to write about threats to society. Usually, it is an image used by conservative thinkers threatened by foreign cultures, subversive ideas, or threats to conventional notions of race, class, and gender. I suppose that working-class radicals might have compared the wealthiest and most politically powerful classes to unpleasant things, but Arnold seems highly unusual in comparing the aristocracy to a mysterious but widespread disease!


Stanley, Arthur Penrhyn. The life and correspondence of Thomas Arnold, D.D., late head-master of Rugby school, and regius professor of modern history in the University of Oxford. 4th ed. 2 vols. London: B. Fellowes, 1845.

Last modified 16 August 2006