Thoughts on Arnold

I have finally started reading the work of the Nineteenth-century British literary critic Matthew Arnold, on the recommendation of my old Humanities teacher. So far I have got through Democracy and The Function of Criticism at the Present Time, which are quite interesting when set alongside each other. In the latter essay, Arnold defines criticism (being primarily interested in literary criticism) as "a disinterested endeavor to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world." He strenuously argues that the best criticism must be divorced from any direct involvement in immediate "practical" affairs. When a critic is personally involved in political or social projects, and attempts to advance a given outcome with his work, his efforts will necessarily distort his thinking and result in criticism that does not honestly respond to the material at hand:
Criticism must maintain its independence of the practical spirit and its aims. Even with well-meant efforts of the practical spirit it must express dissatisfaction, if in the sphere of the ideal they seem impoverishing and limiting. It must not hurry on to the goal because of its practical importance. It must be patient, and know how to wait; and flexible, and know how to attach itself to things and how to withdraw from them. It must be apt to study and praise elements that for the fulness [sic] of spiritual perfection are wanted, even though they belong in the practical sphere to a power that is maleficent. It must be apt to discern the spiritual shortcomings or illusions of powers that in the practical sphere may be beneficient. And this without any notion of favoring or injuring, in the practical sphere, one power against the other.
Which is not to say that criticism should have no impact on the world; much the contrary. By identifying and clarifying the best ideas — or what are perceived to be the best ideas — the critic helps ensure that these ideas will inevitably enter the practical realm, but only once they have been suitably refined by the critic.

The sentiment here is valuable — to a point. Certainly one wishes to retain enough disinterestess in his perception of the world so that it does not become clouded by prejudgements. It is well-established that most people will accept or discard hard pieces of data based on whether they conform to existing mental models; more insidiously, two people will take the same dataset and interpret it in wildly different ways based on what each of them brings to the exercise. So a conscious attempt at disinterestedness in thought is to be commended (even while true disinterestedness is impossible — and therefore should not be pretended to, especially not in one's own mind).

The difficulty arises if one becomes so detached from the "practical" world, and so enamored of theory and austere logic, that one forgets how messy human nature can be. Such critics and thinkers often propose new social or political orders that seem splendid on paper, but when translated into the real world become disastrous. Which brings us to the first essay noted above, Democracy.

Arnold, ruminating on the debasing cultural tendency of democracy and noting democracy's inevitable rise in Britain, wishes to find a replacement for the declining aristocracy as an ennobling influence on the polity. Fearing that Britain will become "Americanized," i.e. will see its appreciation for high culture swept away in a tide of boorish populism, Arnold advocates for the State to assume greater power over society, and to use that power to improve the lot of the lower and middle classes. In particular he speaks of a system of public education that would instill love for high culture into the masses.

Concerning the traditional English suspicion of powerful governments, Arnold replies thusly:
In other countries the habits and dispositions of the people may be such that the State, if once it acts, may be easily suffered to usurp exorbitantly; here they certainly are not. Here the people will always sufficiently keep in mind that any public authority is a trust delegated by themselves…. Here there can be no question of a paternal government, of an irresponsible executive power, professing to act for the people's good, but without the people's consent, and, if necessary, against the people's wishes; here no one dreams of removing a single constitutional control, of abolishing a single safeguard for securing a correspondence between the acts of government and the will of the nation.
This will come as a surprise to modern Britons, who must pay a television tax even if they do not own a television, who are largely forbidden to own weapons of any kind and are absolutely forbidden to defend themselves against attackers, who can be imprisoned for "hate speech" even as burglars are let go with verbal warnings as a matter of policy, who are now under the juristiction of a genuine secret police.

Arnold seems to have forgotten that people can get used to anything, and easily become used to encroaching government power. Moreover, governments are genetically predisposed to seek greater power; it is their natural function. As President Reagan warned, "Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction."

Arnold's specific recommendation, that of a public school system, is particularly apropos. Arnold desires for such a system to be a means for instilling culture; in practice, we find that government-run schooling is usually a means for indoctrination. Truly good culture is typically suppressed, as free-thinkers are not what governments want for citizens. Even when governments are not being malicious, culture and the arts are usually the first subjects to get the ax when budgets are tight. Far more important that good public citizens know how to work their calculators right. (This is aside from the indisputable truth that public schools, taken as a class, do a poor job of teaching their students anything, never mind high culture.)

Arnold was certainly correct to worry about the decline of the national culture. He was also correct that government power, when used judiciously, can serve to preserve and nurture culture. But he profoundly underestimated the degree to which, as his contemporary Lord Acton noted, "Power tends to corrupt." Were he indeed concerned with preserving liberty, Arnold may well have been more hesitant to recommend goverment expansion if he had more exposure to the "practical" realm.

Human nature cannot be boiled down to nice abstractions. People are messy. Theoreticians forget this at society's peril.

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