#7) Culture and Anarchy III: Hebraism and Hellenism and Donald Trump

arnoldThis is the final installment of a three-part series on Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy, with application to the 2016 election. The post considers Arnold’s distinction between Hebraism and Hellenism, proposing (and critiquing) ways that it may correspond to contemporary political differences. One side in this election seems drawn to authoritarian leadership (Trump) while the other favors openness and equality (Clinton). Eric suggests that Arnold’s terms are useful, Matt says maybe not.


Let’s go once more to the well with community and freedom and Donald Trump and Matthew Arnold.

In Chapters 4 & 5 of Culture and Anarchy, Arnold identifies and critiques a pair of impulses that, he says, are central to thought and action in the western world. These he calls “Hebraism” and “Hellenism.” The first, traceable back through St. Paul into the Hebrew tradition, is concerned with pure discipline. The second, traceable through Plato to the Greeks, is concerned with pure knowledge. Together, they’re yin and yang.

Another way to say this is that Hebraism is about action, while Hellenism is about thought:

The uppermost idea with Hellenism is to see things as they really are; the uppermost idea with Hebraism is conduct and obedience. Nothing can do away with this ineffaceable difference. The Greek quarrel with the body and its desires is, that they hinder right thinking; the Hebrew quarrel with them is, that they hinder right acting. (130)

Arnold suggests that, though they follow different routes, these impulses pursue the same final aim: “man’s perfection or salvation.” He goes out of his way to laud both as “august and admirable.”

In fact, we could probably extrapolate Arnold’s impulses into our modern conceptions of freedom. Insofar as Hellenism values free and unencumbered thought, it represents negative liberty. Hebraism, concerned with self-mastery and discipline, represents positive liberty. Each has its place, and both are important.

But Arnold goes on to critique the Hebraism of English Puritanism, the strain of thoughtless obedience that had by then transplanted itself to New England and spread out into the American ethos. Surviving today in various shades of fundamentalism, this is the mindset that orients itself according to the “one thing needful,” the narrow, simplistic, singular end of human life.

I said earlier that Arnold’s evangelistic view of culture reminded me of church life, and that his devotion to sweetness and light felt to me very religious, for being secular. Toward the end of the book he addresses that relationship directly, placing culture somewhere toward the center-left of a continuum between thought (on the left) and obedience (on the right).

Is that a fair reading? And is it fair to situate the political right in the United States alongside the puritanical right that Arnold critiques?


I’m not sure if it’s a fair reading of Arnold, if only because I don’t know Arnold beyond what we’ve read together. But I’m skeptical of that reading of “the right.” In fact, I’m not even sure how closely it aligns with a left portrait of the right. From a generic left perspective, I think the political spectrum tends to look something like this:

The right is primarily interested in negative liberty and its associated economic freedoms. Outcomes – including equality – are relatively unimportant.

The left acknowledges the value of negative liberty and associated economic freedoms. But the left also values equality of opportunity (positive liberty).

In this view of things, the right only has one idea, whereas the left acknowledges more complexity (and hence goes in for messier, more pragmatic policymaking).

But I’m not sure how much “thought” or “obedience” have to do with either side of the equation. Yes, conservatives from Burke on down have emphasized the value of tradition, but that doesn’t necessarily mean blind obedience or an aversion to thought.

I’ve read lots of right-leaning writers who offer robust responses to the left picture I painted above, for example. The ones I tend to like most say things like: We’d love to create more equality of opportunity, but governments tend to represent inefficient – or even counterproductive – ways of doing so. We accept that our individual preferences don’t necessarily map well onto official or institutional arrangements, but that’s just how it is. And some of us also do a lot of charity/private sector/community-level work to make the world more like the one we hope to see.

The right’s emphasis on the dignity and prerogatives of the individual also suggests something about the value of thought (as opposed to obedience): Your life is yours. Think about how you want to live it, because no one can do that thinking for you.

Now, whether individual citizens actually take up that freedom to think is another question. But I’m not sure they fail to do so on the right any more than than on the left. (There’s plenty of obedience and conformism on both sides – though usually not to the same causes.)

This might relate: In Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle, Chris Hedges says that a third of Americans never finish a book after high school, and neither do 42 percent of college grads.


That’s fair – my question was imprecise practically to the point of pointlessness. I was referring to the Trumpian right, the constituency that craves a strong authoritarian leader to give orders and punish evildoers and keep the nation safe from millions of amorphous threats – someone who will act rather than think.

I certainly don’t characterize the broader right in this way. (In fact recently I was listening to a conversation between Ezra Klein and Yuval Levin that puts the distinction into perspective.)

But in recent months I have been really struck by the way that white evangelicals have lined up behind Trump, a man who is perhaps the perfect avatar for the greed, lust, selfishness, and sin that they have always claimed to oppose.

There are only so many ways to interpret it – Republican loyalty, Clinton hatred, maybe sincere faith in Trump leadership. George Lakoff claims, again, that they just want a father.

Even if this election cycle is some weird outlier driven by a perfect storm of crazy influences, I still want to pin it down, somehow, to principles. Since the white evangelical tradition in the United States traces its lineage back to the Puritans, and since the Puritans represented – in Arnold’s view – an unthinking will to obedience, I’m looking to draw (possibly force) a connection that can explain why this ultra-pious group has been so instrumental to the rise of such a flamboyantly unpious, authoritarian candidate.

In doing so, I don’t mean to suggest that obedience is a property specific to the right. But I also want to resist the “both sides” treatment. After all, only one side has given us Trump.


If we held a poll and asked Americans to name someone they really admire, I’d be very surprised if Trump got many votes. But this is an election, and he doesn’t have to be all that attractive. He only has to look better than his opponent. And for many of the groups you mentioned, he looks way better than Hillary Clinton.

That said, I like Lakoff’s family-structure stuff, too. At least in some ways, Trump does fit that strict father mold. Of course, unlike the god of many evangelical Christians, Trump isn’t a particularly predictable father. On the other hand, he’s nuance-free – with him, it’s unthinking certainty all day long. And if you’re feeling scared, frustrated, confused, or anything else that you don’t know how to deal with, his brand of blame-it-on-some-ultra-simplistic-scapegoat-and-then-kick-the-shit-out-of-that-scapegoat might sound pretty attractive. So long as you don’t allow yourself to feel the moral doubts rumbling underneath your veneer of righteousness.

So yeah, Trump does seem to have set a new standard for non-thought and exuberant childishness. To be honest, though, I’m not sure how much his supporters believe that he’ll take effective action to protect the nation, etc. Part of me thinks that his success represents a triumph of cynicism. That is, maybe voters doubt that they’ll get much from either candidate after the election, and they’re making a kind of subconscious grab for the best thing on offer – an entertaining ride in the here and now.


If that turns out to be true, then maybe Arnold does not have much to offer us in this moment. His characterization of a populace without culture is not yet that of a populace without something to lose. But he does argue – as does Plato in Book VIII of Republic – that the love of freedom qua freedom, without something higher to direct our aspirations, tends toward anarchy – and there is something anarchical in the sort of cynicism you describe.

I don’t doubt that some of those who have supported Donald Trump do so because he speaks to their legitimate fears and in opposition to the economic and cultural shifts that seem to have left them behind. But in cultivating these fears, Trump has offered nothing of substance to allay them, and there is no reason to believe that he ever will. For every legitimate concern he raises, he offers half a dozen demagogic, racist, misogynistic, bigoted, or otherwise loony appeals. His candidacy was a joke from the start, his nomination is a national embarrassment, and his presidency would be an unmitigated disaster.

By way of inoculation, I think our education system needs to lean into its acculturating role, embrace the task of training critical citizens, and tout habitual reading all along the way. It won’t make us perfect, but for God’s sake it will have to make us better.

About Eric

Eric Miller teaches in the Department of Communication Studies at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania.
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