“the best which has been thought and said…”

This quotation was used liberally by the previous Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, and by a number of teacher bloggers, as a guiding principle for the content of the school curriculum. It comes from the preface of Matthew Arnold’s essay Culture and Anarchy. Arnold says:

The whole scope of this essay is to recommend culture as the great help out of our present difficulties; culture being a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which must concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world, and through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits, which we now follow staunchly but mechanically, vainly imagining that there is a virtue in following them staunchly which makes up for the mischief of following them mechanically.” (p.5)

The appeal of “the best which has been thought and said” is immediate. Who, after all, would advocate ‘the worst’ or ‘the most mediocre’? But the problems of applying it as a guiding principle are obvious. How do we know what’s ‘best’? Who decides on the criteria?  I assumed these questions must have occurred to Matthew Arnold too, so I read Culture and Anarchy to see how he tackles them.

In the summer of 1867 Arnold delivered his last lecture as Professor of Poetry at Oxford. It was entitled Culture and its Enemies and published in the Cornhill Magazine shortly afterwards. In the lecture, Arnold complained that his contemporaries tended to be too practical and not theoretical enough; his critics accused him of the opposite.   In response he wrote a series of essays that were published in book form as Culture and Anarchy in 1869. The chapters in the second edition (1875) were given titles: Sweetness and Light; Doing as One Likes; Barbarians, Philistines, Populace; Hebraism and Hellenism; and Our Liberal Practitioners.

anarchy

The choice of anarchy in opposition to culture wasn’t just a literary device; anarchy was a real threat to the stability of society at the time, as exemplified by the French revolution and the American civil war that had only just finished. A recurring complaint throughout the essay is the idea of “the Englishman’s right to do what he likes; his right to march where he likes, meet where he likes, enter where he likes, hoot as he likes, threaten as he likes, smash as he likes. All this, I say, tends to anarchy…” (p. 57).

Many of the examples of the ‘Englishman’s right to do what he likes’ were the result of demonstrations in support of the second Representation of the People Act (Second Reform Act), eventually passed in 1867, which doubled the number of men entitled to vote and which had met with robust opposition in some quarters.

culture

Arnold proposed culture as the only way to avoid anarchy because the alternatives (e.g. religion, philosophy, politics) had failed to do that. Arnold’s culture is the study of perfection (p.34). It originates in the individual being the best they can be, but results in practical outcomes that, if applied collectively, could make a significant difference to society. For Arnold, culture is characterised by sweetness and light which he equates with ‘reason and the will of God’, and by the endeavour to make reason and the will of God prevail.

He characterises the aristocracy, middle class and working class as Barbarians, Philistines and Populace respectively, but recognises that individuals within each class were “led, not by their class spirit, but by a general humane spirit, by the love of human perfection”. Although tempered by ‘class instinct’, that humane instinct could be propagated by the authority of ‘a commanding best self’ or ‘right reason’ (p.81).

the best which has been thought or said

Arnold sees the human striving for perfection as influenced by two forces which he labels Hellenism and Hebraism; Hellenism is the desire to see things as they really are, and Hebraism a desire for good conduct and obedience. Characterising culture in this way allows Arnold to refer to literatures with which he is very familiar; classical Greek texts, the Bible, and the Church Fathers.

Those cited by Arnold are many and varied. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle rub shoulders with the prophet Zechariah, the Church Fathers, Liberal politicians, Nonconformist preachers, and columnists in The Times and the Daily Telegraph. The Liberals, Nonconformists and columnists are included presumably because Arnold was responding to criticisms that his writing was detached, and wanted to demonstrate the relevance of culture to contemporary challenges such as free trade, the extension of the franchise, and the disestablishment of the Irish Church. Some appear to be there only so Arnold can ridicule them.

To me, despite Arnold’s lofty aspirations for culture, his model came across as rather superficial and parochial. He cites great thinkers, but they are primarily from the Hebraic, Greek, and Christian traditions he’s familiar with and approves of. He doesn’t unpack their ideas or critique them, despite there being no shortage of thinkers who were unpacking Hebraic, Greek, and Christian ideas and critiquing them at the time.

Arnold’s argument is based on the assumption that Hebrew, Greek, and Christian thinking must be right and that the three strands were all striving for a form of perfection that existed – at least as an ideal.  His worldview undoubtedly raises the reader’s gaze to higher things than the sordid practicalities of everyday life. But I felt that he looked straight past the sordid practicalities that many people have to deal with in order to start striving for perfection. He seemed more concerned that people trying to gain (prohibited) entry to Hyde Park for a Reform League demonstration had broken railings and smashed windows, than that that many of the demonstrators didn’t have a vote (p.57). And more concerned about a theological misconception that children were sent from God, than that those in East London ‘had hardly a rag to cover them’ (p.140).

I can see why Culture and Anarchy might appeal to Michael Gove. It’s full of high ideals and the names of Great Thinkers. It’s also very wordy; Arnold essentially says what he has to say in his 30-page Preface; the other 150-odd pages are, in my view, superfluous. And the entertainingly critical references to contemporary pundits would be familiar territory to Gove, previously a columnist for The Times.  But it’s all too easy, if your basic needs are being met and you’re highly literate, to assume that the really important thing in life is striving for high ideals via conversations that take place in the news media, rather than knowing where your next meal is coming from and having some control over your day-to-day existence.

I felt Culture and Anarchy didn’t address the root causes of the challenges facing English society in the mid 19th century, or how they could best be tackled. Nor that ‘the best which has been thought and said’ comes close to telling us what education should look like.

Note

I read the Oxford World Classics edition of Culture and Anarchy, published in 2006. It has a useful introduction and chronology of Arnold’s life, and excellent historical explanatory notes. Irritatingly, there’s no index, but the cover image, London Street Scene by John Orlando Perry (1835) is superbly well chosen.

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3 thoughts on ““the best which has been thought and said…”

  1. A great read as ever. Do you not think that regardless of his particular philosophical context, the idea that “the best of that which has been thought and said” by humanity is all of humanity’s heritage and intellectual right?

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