The essays that comprise Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy first appeared in Cornhill Magazine during the years 1867 and 1868. As Dan noted in our last discussion, books have often originated in other forms of writing, and magazine serialization is a common example. Written in an era of rapid social change in England, the book argues that culture – broadly conceived – provides a necessary antidote to the struggles of the age. Though authored in a very different time and place, it has been selected for consideration here due to its continuing relevance.
I want to talk about Culture and Anarchy because of Donald Trump, but that’s not at all to say that I want to talk about Donald Trump. Returning to this book I am reminded that our discussion to date has been true – that sensitivity and empathy and conscientiousness are the spiritual byproducts of book learning, and that these have practical impact on the world in which we live. When it comes to living happily, finding satisfaction, being good citizens, and choosing competent leaders, “culture” is a guiding star. Arnold makes this case emphatically, arguing that:
All the love of our neighbor, the impulses toward action, help, and beneficence, the desire for removing human error, clearing human confusion, and diminishing human misery, the noble aspiration to leave the world better and happier than we found it—motives eminently such as are called social—come in as part of the grounds of culture, and the main and preeminent part. Culture is then properly described not as having its origin in curiosity, but as having its origin in the love of perfection; it is a study of perfection. It moves by the force, not merely or primarily of the scientific passion for pure knowledge, but also of the moral and social passion for doing good (40-41).
Arnold aligns his commitment to culture with others’ commitments to religion, noting that both pursue the same end – that of coaxing the individual to be always growing, developing, and chasing perfection each and every day. Culture motivates us to be better, and the more of it we get the more we want and need.
For me, growing up in the church, this sort of rhetoric was commonplace. We were always pushed to be better – sharper, better informed, better prepared to defend the faith, more moral, less inhibited, and generally unburdened by sin.
As an adult, I have often found this impulse lacking in the secular world, where motivation tends to come mostly in the form of money. You work harder to get a promotion or a raise, a better job, a bigger house, a fancier car, a more exotic vacation, and financial security for your family. In fact, I think it’s relatively uncontroversial to observe that these are the incentives that drive contemporary life. They are why many new college students and their parents opt for the business school rather than the liberal arts.
But Arnold argues that wealth is only “machinery,” the equipment you use to acquire or to create the things that actually make life worth living, and that too often we mistake the machinery for the value.
Instead, he advocates culture as the means to sweetness and light, confronting the world with an earnest desire to improve both it and the people who live upon it. This desire works at cross-purposes with that of wealth accumulation for wealth’s sake, and the crass manipulation of the people for political purposes, as through rhetoric that promotes hatred and sows confusion:
He who works for sweetness and light, works to make reason and the will of God prevail. He who works for machinery, he who works for hatred, works only for confusion. Culture looks beyond machinery, culture hates hatred; culture has one great passion, the passion for sweetness and light. It has one even yet greater—the passion for making them prevail. It is not satisfied till we all come to a perfect man; it knows that the sweetness and light of the few must be imperfect until the raw and unkindled masses of humanity are touched with sweetness and light (66).
Finally, Arnold completes this thought by melding his discussions of culture and religion, declaring men of culture to be “apostles of equality.” These are the individuals whose public contributions are truly uplifting and edifying, working in opposition to those that seek to divide, deceive, and degrade:
This is the social idea; and the men of culture are the true apostles of equality. The great men of culture are those who have had a passion for diffusing, for making prevail, for carrying from one end of society to the other, the best knowledge, the best ideas of their time; who have labored to divest knowledge of all that was harsh, uncouth, difficult, abstract, professional, exclusive; to humanize it, to make it efficient outside the clique of the cultivated and the learned, yet still remaining the best knowledge and thought of the time, and a true source, therefore, of sweetness and light (67).
Arnold gives us a lot to consider, and at points it feels like he is writing specifically for an audience in the United States, 2016.
That is a quality of timeless writing – it finds application in many different nations and historical moments, because it deals in the basics of human nature. I thought maybe we could talk about this book in a way that does some justice to its original purposes while also applying it to contemporary matters. What do you make of Arnold’s pitch for culture?
I like a lot of Arnold’s book, and I’ll get to that. But I want to start by contesting your suggestion that in “the secular world,”
motivation tends to come only in the form of money. You work harder to get a promotion or a raise, a better job, a bigger house, a fancier car, a longer vacation, and a more financially secure situation for your family. In fact, I think it’s relatively uncontroversial to observe that these are the incentives that drive contemporary life.
These are big aspects of our lives, no doubt, and we talk about ‘em a lot – but I’m not sure that it’s because we think they’re all that matters. Rather, I suspect that it’s because we have those things in common. We all gotta make a living.
But outside of work – well, to some degree, we each do our thing: gardening, going to church, writing blogs. And that seems entirely appropriate to a liberal society.
I think I hear you asking – yearning? – for something more, though. More public talk about virtue and moral self-improvement? Something else?
I’d like to stand by this claim, but I’ll try to clarify it a bit. I don’t mean to suggest that money and possessions and security are all that matters, but rather that they are the incentives offered to us by our culture – which is not culture in Arnold’s sense.
Clearly, people have hobbies and pastimes that they enjoy, but these rarely constitute studies in perfection. Maybe it is better to say that our culture holds comfort as a pinnacle value, and money is the machinery by which comfort is achieved. In either case, I don’t think Arnold would approve. Comfort is too low as an ideal. It is a characteristic of what he will later call the “Philistine.”
Now, it’s not lost on me that any discussion of the merits (or demerits) of money and comfort is bound to be a privileged discussion. This is the sort of conversation that you can only have once your basic needs are met. (As Hegel once said, kind of snarkily, “Seek ye first food and shelter, and then the kingdom of heaven shall be added unto you.”) But the point is that material prosperity is more mechanism than value – you can spend your whole life pursuing more and more of it without ever reaching fulfillment.
This is one of the lessons from my childhood that I continue to learn, and it’s significant to me that Arnold conflates his vision of culture with religion.
As a child in a very religious family I was always taught that the secular world offered only materialistic incentives, and that these were far too fleeting to matter in the grand scheme.
As an adult I have come to believe that this is largely but not entirely true. Arnold, at least, offers us a vision for living that is relentlessly introspective and progressive but without relying on a dogma. He challenges us to think of our lives in terms of growth, and always to become better humans.
So yeah, I don’t know exactly what I would need to hear from people to be persuaded that they were invested in this stuff, but the closest approximations I can think of are all species of church talk.
Would it be too cheeky (or pompous) of me to suggest that this blog fits the bill, too? I mean, here we are talking about Arnold and books and self-improvement, with nary a church in sight! And this doesn’t strike me as the least bit rare; you and I have mutual friends who love this kind of thing.
I suppose I’m not super-comfortable talking about “our culture,” since I don’t think of our culture as one thing. I see it more as a million sub-cultures and individual impulses and experiments, all jostling around.
Now, I don’t mean to suggest that we can’t say anything about our culture. (There are some tendencies that you and I would readily recognize as more American than, say, Spanish.) But I do want to say that when we talk at this level of abstraction, I start to get lost.
Where do you get the sense that our culture treats comfort as a pinnacle value? (Are we just talking about advertisements and cable TV?) And do you see it as the pinnacle value? Or are there others? If there are others, might some of them compete with comfort for our attention and esteem? Might there be tension among our pinnacle values? And even if our culture does seek comfort, maybe comfort is largely instrumental. Perhaps we want rooms of our own so we can learn carpentry, take up boxing, explore old movies, etc?
I use these examples deliberately, because to be honest, I’m not what Arnold is talking about when he speaks of self-perfection. I get that he wants to see more introspection and moral self-reflection, more kindness and openness, less defensiveness and rigidity. I want those things too. But I’m not clear on exactly what role “culture” needs to play.
He’s pretty convinced that reading is essential: “…a man’s life of each day depends for its solidity and value on whether he reads during that day, and far more still, on what he reads during it.”
I’m less convinced. Maybe that’s a funny thing to say, given how central reading is in my life. But I’m very conscious of the fact that much of my reading is motivated by a sense of lack. Sometimes, I treat reading as a prompt for thinking, because I’m not that good at thinking through things by myself. Other times, I use reading as a means of addressing – or escaping from – emotional difficulty (boredom, confusion, frustration with myself).
In other words, I often read because I don’t know how not to (or because it’s too painful not to).
But not everyone feels this way. Some people are able to make their way through complicated thickets of ideas – or deep emotional challenges – with nothing more than their own minds, a good conversation partner, or perhaps a pad of paper. Others watch movies or play guitar. Therapists can help. So can meditation. Or climbing a mountain, or hitting the speed bag at the gym, or going for a really long run.
And of course, not everyone faces the same mix of challenges. I suspect that some people are more emotionally healthy to start with, and that they’re less in need of self-improvement. And because they’re doing alright, perhaps they’re already well-suited to exert the beneficent influence on society that Arnold seems to value so highly.
I’m still afraid of losing myself in abstractions here. Let me ask you this: if you look at your own life (or perhaps the life of our friends who aren’t likely to read this blog, and who we should therefore feel free to analyze/mock openly), what should you be doing that you aren’t already doing? What should I be doing? Or, rather, what would more perfect versions of us be doing?
Okay, since you’re putting me on blast here, I will use myself as an example. After I finished college, I went in a bit of different direction from most of my friends and family. As they started careers and marriages, I started graduate school, thinking that it would equip me to ask the type of questions I wanted to ask, and learn the things I wanted to learn, and also because on some level I thought it would make me a better person.
But it wasn’t quite what I expected. We weren’t all wearing togas and eating olives and having wide-ranging discussions. There was some of that – or some approximation of that – but in my experience graduate school was largely about professionalization.
Our professors whipped us into shape by developing our habits – reading all the time, writing all the time, understanding the basics of publication, etc. We were doing the sort of work we liked to do, but we weren’t exactly doing it because we liked to do it. We were doing it to produce and to build the sort of resume that could get us employed sometime after graduation.
In that sense, my desire for culture – as Arnold understands it – gradually went the way of the working world. I wasn’t a thinker so much as a producer. I was entering a rat race, and trying to compete, and doing it all so that I could get the job I wanted, have the security I wanted, and make the money I wanted. (After all, I had averaged about $20,000 per year throughout my twenties.)
I still think of graduate study as one of the great intellectual opportunities available to inquisitive people, but I have found that even it ultimately bends to the demands of the market. You work hard to graduate, to get a job, to get promoted, to get raises, to provide for your people.
Eventually financial concerns become central to your life, and you are caught up in the machine. And that has been my experience as someone who is highly motivated to pursue culture. Most people are probably not – as you mention, they’ve got other things going on.
I guess what I’m claiming here is that most people are so driven by careers and schedules and general busyness – so consumed by the pursuit of the machinery of happiness – that they find their lives drained of happiness itself.
The United States is a nation awash in productions – most of them unnecessary – and yet we are constantly driving ourselves to produce more. I’m not entirely sure why. It doesn’t seem to be making people happier.
That’s why Arnold speaks to me. I take him to be telling us to step back from the rat race, focus on the simple things that are truly important, and cultivate our souls.
For me the blog counts, and I’m sure many people have personal relationships that do too. But for many others this sort of thing is hard to find.
Which brings me back to the comment I made at the start of this post. At this writing, approximately 44% of the U.S. electorate intends to cast a vote for Donald Trump, a man very profoundly antithetical to culture. I look at their anger, their resentment, their often overt racism, and I think…. what?
I think I was trying to say something else, though, too – which is that the pursuit of perfection (or just self-betterment) doesn’t necessarily look like anything special. I’m not sure it looks like anything at all. After all, perfection, culture, and self-betterment aren’t goals that you can aim at directly: they’re concepts. They have to take specific form in order to become doable – and often, those forms are very ordinary, like the hobbies and practices we mentioned earlier.
Plus, treating your pursuits as a means to something else – even (or perhaps especially) as lofty as self-perfection – is often self-defeating. It’s often when you do things for their own sake – growing gardenias, thinking about why the pastor’s sermon annoyed you, reflecting on your relationship with your parents, meditating – that life feels richest and deepest.
All that said, though, I agree with you: I think our world would be a cooler, kinder, and more gratifying place if truth, honesty, and intellectual rigor were more widely valued. And I’d love to think more about what it would take for us to move in that direction.
Electing Donald Trump probably won’t help. But then, I don’t imagine that one leader or role model will make a huge difference in the long run anyway (at least on this front). These are deep cultural and psychological threads we’re talking about here. Maybe we can pick it up there next time.