Culture and Anarchy – Matthew Arnold

Arnold, M. 1869, Culture and Anarchy, London: Smith, Elder and Co.

The idea of sweetness and light at first seems light odd terminology to describe culture and it’s use, however, as you read through Arnold’s work it seems to work as a late Nineteenth century view on the world and associated cultures.

Arnold discusses how ‘people will try to give the masses an intellectual food prepared and adapted in the way they think proper for the actual condition of the masses,’ however he thinks this and other techniques of religious and political conditioning as completely dissimilar to how culture works.

‘Culture works differently’

He says how it ‘works to do away with classes, to make the best that has been thought and known in the world current everywhere.’ This is seen as a social idea to engage everyone in knowledge and to humanise it (not just reserved for the highly educated) and therefore ‘of sweetness and light’.

This type of thinking in the days where communication was slow and education was only for the rich is fascinating and shows how integrated culture is at every level, every background and all walks of life. He sees the spread of culture as positive; however is it just what we would describe today as ‘high culture’ that he would want to be spread?

Arnold looks at how the bourgeoisie have been ruling and behaving how they like for years and when the proletariat decide they want to behave in the same manner, ‘his apparition is somewhat embarrassing, too many cooks spoil the broth.’ This could be applied to when Pavarotti gained commercial appeal, those who originally liked him as ‘high culture’ now dismisses him as something just for the mainstream, in a negative manner.

The idea that ‘culture simply means trying to perfect oneself, and one’s mind as part of oneself,’ was then overshadowed by the ‘worship of machinery’ (as this was during the industrial revolution). If we put this idea towards behaviour today, our obsession has moved to capitalist materialism and I.T. The search for perfection comes from the emulation of created celebrities and unrealistic constructed images. The search for perfection is never ending.

The idea of ‘aliens’ in society who are led by a general humane spirit could be compared to hippy’s of today who live outside the social norms, however it could be argued to how far outside these norms anyone actually lives in today’s society, as education and political systems mean we all legally conform in some way or another.

He finishes with a look to the future – where hopefully ‘a revolution’ will take place. Skip forward 142 years – has the revolution took place? Have there been great changes in terms of the class system? Perhaps those still in wealth may think so, however those scraping together enough to pay for fuel, clothing and food on a weekly basis may disagree. Our culture seems like a distraction to the unhappiness.


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