Reason or Treason
"SWEETNESS AND LIGHT" was not the best of phrases even in Victorian times. Besides, Matthew Arnold had borrowed it from Jonathan Swift. But the eminent Victorian poet-critic's oft-quoted formula for mental harmony has clung to his reputation like a sugary burr. Successive generations of collegians, coming upon it in more modern times, have turned away, convinced that Arnold's comments on the world are about as relevant to the tough-minded 20th century as those, say, of Harriet Beecher Stowe.
This is a pity. Despite an occasional ultra-rarefied phrase, Arnold was the most trenchant critic of his century—a fact which has inspired Professor Super's mammoth scholarly edition of all his scattered works. He was also a worldly, witty man whose comments most of the time could apply to the ills of our age as well as to those of his own.
The Darkling Plain. Arnold began, almost a century before Sartre, as something very like a modern existentialist. "Let us be true to one another.'' he wrote in Dover Beach, for
... the world
Unlike many a modern intellectual. Arnold did not retreat into ivory-tower aestheticism, sour stoical isolation or epicurean sensuality. Instead, in the muscular Victorian fashion, he drowned his sorrow at his loss of faith by working to keep alive a critical spirit in an age of complacency. Though his purpose was solemn, Arnold often indulged in levity that disturbed the specific gravity of fellow Victorians—and led to a cartoon by irreverent Max Beerbohm mocking them both. The cultural history of man, he wrote in Culture and Anarchy, his most famous essay, is an interplay between what Arnold called Hebraism—the urge of conscience to follow the best moral light man has—and Hellenism—the spirit of inquiry that constantly questions conscience to be sure that it does not mislead, that the best light is not superstitious darkness. He foresaw that the 19th century's grim but necessary preoccupation with industrial growth would pass away, and a time would come "when man has made himself perfectly comfortable and has ... to determine what to do with himself." To provide a standard for that coming day, he proposed to seek out and proclaim "the best that has been known and thought in the world."
Sly Dig. As visiting poetry professor at Oxford and (for 40 years) a tireless reformist inspector of the British school system, Critic Arnold had many a platform from which to praise past excellence and take potshots at John Bullish complacency. He had a gift for making a phrase stick. After Arnold so summed him up, Romantic Poet Percy Bysshe Shelley has indelibly remained "an ineffectual angel." His fellow Britons Arnold divided into three groups: "the Barbarians [aristocracy], the Populace and the Philistines," an epithet which for Arnold summed up all the sins of the muscular, muddleheaded, self-satisfied British middle class. He takes a sly dig at the scarcity of inquiring minds in England by noting that Britain is the only country in the world where curiosity, far from being a prized intellectual quality, means merely the unpleasant urge to nose into other people's business.
Promised Land. Criticism for Arnold was not a matter of practical reforms but a perilously held, ultimately priceless state of mind. To see things steadily and see them whole. Never to praise what is merely good as if it were really excellent. Above all, in an age much given to partisanship, to remain "disinterested." One of Arnold's heroes was Edmund Burke—not because he agreed with Burke's views, but because, after years of eloquent attack on the French Revolution, Burke closed his commentary by admitting that another interpretation might one day be possible.
Today in England and America society seems to be emerging upon an upland of plenty which Arnold predicted would nourish a renewed concern for culture, thought and ideas. The fact would please Arnold. But with a cultivated scholar's penchant for reading national character in small cultural details, he would be acutely downcast by one outwardly insignificant philological decline. Arnold's favorite word, "disinterested," which epitomized precisely the state of objective fair-mindedness he sought, has disappeared—in the U.S. at least. A partisan-minded culture, with very little use for objectivity, has let it be ground down to just plain "uninterested."