Commonplace: Matthew Arnold on Winning the Culture War

Matthew Arnold wrote in Culture and Anarchy:

Oxford, the Oxford of the past, has many faults; and she has heavily paid for them in defeat, in isolation, in want of hold upon the modern world. Yet we in Oxford, brought up amidst the beauty and sweetness of that beautiful place, have not failed to seize one truth:—the truth that beauty and sweetness are essential characters of a complete human perfection. When I insist on this, I am all in the faith and tradition of Oxford. I say boldly that this our sentiment for beauty and sweetness, our sentiment against hideousness and rawness, has been at the bottom of our attachment to so many beaten causes, of our opposition to so many triumphant movements. And the sentiment is true, and has never been wholly defeated, and has shown its power even in its defeat. We have not won our political battles, we have not carried our main points, we have not stopped our adversaries’ advance, we have not marched victoriously with the modern world; but we have told silently upon the mind of the country, we have prepared currents of feeling which sap our adversaries’ position when it seems gained, we have kept up our own communications with the future. Look at the course of the great movement which shook Oxford to its centre some thirty years ago! It was directed, as any one who reads Dr. Newman’s Apology may see, against what in one word maybe called “liberalism.” Liberalism prevailed; it was the appointed force to do the work of the hour; it was necessary, it was inevitable that it should prevail. The Oxford movement was broken, it failed; our wrecks are scattered on every shore:

Quae regio in terris nostri non plena laboris?
[Virgil: “What region of the earth is not full of our calamities?”]

But what was it, this liberalism, as Dr. Newman saw it, and as it really broke the Oxford movement? It was the great middle-class liberalism, which had for the cardinal points of its belief the Reform Bill of 1832, and local self-government, in politics; in the social sphere, free-trade, unrestricted competition, and the making of large industrial fortunes; in the religious sphere, the Dissidence of Dissent and the Protestantism of the Protestant religion. I do not say that other and more intelligent forces than this were not opposed to the Oxford movement: but this was the force which really beat it; this was the force which Dr. Newman felt himself fighting with; this was the force which till only the other day seemed to be the paramount force in this country, and to be in possession of the future; this was the force whose achievements fill Mr. Lowe with such inexpressible admiration, and whose rule he was so horror-struck to see threatened. And where is this great force of Philistinism now? It is thrust into the second rank, it is become a power of yesterday, it has lost the future. A new power has suddenly appeared, a power which it is impossible yet to judge fully, but which is certainly a wholly different force from middle-class liberalism; different in its cardinal points of belief, different in its tendencies in every sphere. It loves and admires neither the legislation of middle-class Parliaments, nor the local self- government of middle-class vestries, nor the unrestricted competition of middle-class industrialists, nor the dissidence of middle- class Dissent and the Protestantism of middle-class Protestant religion. I am not now praising this new force, or saying that its own ideals are better; all I say is, that they are wholly different. And who will estimate how much the currents of feeling created by Dr. Newman’s movement, the keen desire for beauty and sweetness which it nourished, the deep aversion it manifested to the hardness and vulgarity of middle-class liberalism, the strong light it turned on the hideous and grotesque illusions of middle-class Protestantism,— who will estimate how much all these contributed to swell the tide of secret dissatisfaction which has mined the ground under the self- confident liberalism of the last thirty years, and has prepared the way for its sudden collapse and supersession? It is in this manner that the sentiment of Oxford for beauty and sweetness conquers, and in this manner long may it continue to conquer!

For those unfamiliar with Matthew Arnold’s unique system of thought, as I was before reading this book, he describes society in three categories. The hereditary aristocracy he calls ‘barbarians;’ the middle-class industrialists ‘Philistines;’ what we would call the working class, or what Marx called the proletariat, Arnold names ‘the Populace.’ The lovers of culture, of “sweetness and light” as he describes it, may belong to any class, but their allegiance to culture will necessarily alienate them somewhat from that class. Arnold’s point here is that political victory in a cultural cause, the Oxford Movement, for instance, which Arnold greatly admires, is less important than the effect which “sweetness and light” has in the long run on a society. At this point Arnold has lived long enough to see the Oxford movement fail; but also to see the victorious middle-class Protestantism which defeated it begin itself to falter. And now, over a century after Arnold wrote, what remains to us from that time but the great beauty, sweetness, and light of the Oxford movement; the social conscience of Dickens; the conservatism of Trollope; and the sublime prose of Matthew Arnold? The progressive protestant movements of that time have long been swept over by new, less Christian movements, and nobody reads their statesmen.

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THOMAS HOLGRAVE is a conservative but not necessarily a hipster. He is the publisher of The Hipster Conservative. He has never read a comic book he liked. He is an occasional theologian who has been known to become quite exercised over questions of Puritan doctrine and practice. Not much else is known about him.

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