It was by chance that my first reading of Culture and Anarchy with my students coincided with the centenary of its publication. But it was not by chance that I chose to read it then, in 1969, at the height of the culture war. Anticipating that war by more than a century, Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) wrote a passionate defense of culture—high culture, we would now say—against the prevailing low culture that he saw as tantamount to “anarchy.”
Arnold’s culture is high indeed. It is nothing less than the pursuit of “sweetness and light” (Jonathan Swift’s epigram for beauty and intelligence), “total perfection,” “the best which has been thought and said,” and the “right reason” that comes from the “best self” rather than the “ordinary self.”
His countrymen, unfortunately, were animated by quite the opposite principle: “doing as one likes” and “saying what one likes.” Perhaps out of deference to John Stuart Mill, Arnold did not cite On Liberty to that effect (the book had appeared, to great acclaim, only a decade earlier). Instead, he quoted a Mr. Roebuck, a Liberal member of Parliament who was fond of asking, “May not every man in England say what he likes?”—asserting that this was the source of England’s greatness. To which Arnold replied that culture requires that “what men say, when they may say what they like, is worth saying—has good in it, and more good than bad.” Anything short of that is an invitation to anarchy, for it lacks “the much wanted principle” of authority that governs the culture as well as society.
Culture and Anarchy (1869) was not well received. One critic mocked the author as the “prophet of culture,” another as the creator of a “new religion called Culture . . . a sort of Eleusinian mystery,” still another as an egotist who wanted to “make the world a more agreeable place for Mr. Matthew Arnold to live in by multiplying images of Mr. Matthew Arnold.” Rejecting his conception of culture, they also denied the charge of anarchy—denied, in effect, that there was a culture war.
A century later, my students, in the midst of their culture war, recognized in Arnold’s culture the oppressive great-books mentality they were battling in the university. So far from rejecting the charge of anarchism, the more militant of them accepted it. What Arnold praised as authority, they denounced as authoritarian, and what he decried as anarchy, they took to be liberty at its best—the perfect liberty that was the antithesis of the perfect culture he celebrated.
It is almost with nostalgia that I now reread Culture and Anarchy—nostalgia for the old culture war that had not yet confronted such truly subversive forces as multiculturalism, postmodernism, deconstructionism, and the like. An Arnoldite, like myself, confesses to having lost that war. But a new reading raises the prospect of another war that is more ominous.
If Culture and Anarchy may be read as “culture vs. anarchy,” so “Hebraism and Hellenism” (the title of one chapter) may be read as “Hebraism vs. Hellenism.” The antithesis seems to be unambiguous: “The governing idea of Hellenism is spontaneity of consciousness; that of Hebraism, strictness of conscience” (italics in original). “The uppermost idea with Hellenism is to see things as they really are; the uppermost idea with Hebraism is conduct and obedience.” “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.” Hellenism is comfortable in the “pursuit or attainment of perfection”; Hebraism, obsessed with sin, sees only “the difficulties which oppose themselves” to perfection.
This is a powerful theme, and a disturbing one, especially now, when England is experiencing a recurrence of antisemitism. In this context, even the word “Hebraism” may be suspect, all the more when it is pitted against that worthy cause, Hellenism. Yet a more careful reading may allay that anxiety, for the “Hebraism and Hellenism” of this chapter is not analogous to the “culture and anarchy” of the title. Hebraism may be criticized for being insufficiently appreciative of culture, but not, surely, for being anarchic. A creed whose “uppermost idea” is “conduct and obedience,” “right acting,” and “strictness of conscience” can hardly be accused of “doing and saying what one likes.”