Matthew Arnold 
Irving Babbitt

This article, a review of Matthew Arnold: How to Know Him, by Stuart P. Sherman, first appeared in The Nation, August 2, 1917. It currently is available in Irving Babbitt, Character and Culture (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 1995).

Two or three good articles on Matthew Arnold have been written, notably that by Mr. W. C. Brownell in his Victorian Prose Masters, but Professor Sherman has the distinction of writing the first good book. Without being blindly partisan, Professor Sherman is himself a convinced Arnoldian, and so his interpretation has something of that 'indispensable personal gusto' of which he speaks. . . .

Now that Arnold and his message have been put thus persuasively before Americans, one is naturally tempted to inquire what value this message is likely to have for them. In answering this question, it is well to insist with Professor Sherman on a point that is often missed—on Arnold's essential modernity. What is more, one may affirm that Arnold was misunderstood by his contemporaries, not because he was less modern, but because he was more modern than they, and that he is still misunderstood for the same reason. One needs, however, to protect this statement by a definition of the word modern. This word is often used, and no doubt inevitably used, to describe the latest thing; but it is not in this sense merely that men like Goethe, Sainte-Beuve, and Renan use it—Renan, for example, when he speaks of Petrarch as the 'founder of the modern spirit.' It is not in the sense of the latest thing that Arnold uses the word in his address on The Modern Element in Literature. According to all these men, the modern spirit is synonymous with the positive and critical spirit, the refusal to take things on authority. The Greeks of the great period are, according to Arnold, modern in this sense and therefore much nearer to us than the men of the Middle Ages. Practically this positive and critical temper has been fostered by physical science and the type of progress that is due to science. This positivism has been more or less inimical to tradition ever since the Renaissance, but the decisive collapse of outer authority took place in the course of the eighteenth century. What supervened in many individuals upon the discrediting of all the forms of the past was a great spiritual isolation, a feeling of vacancy and forlornness; life no longer seemed to them to have any center or meaning. The old order had lost its hold on their intellect, but still retained its hold on their imagination. Perhaps no Englishman has expressed more perfectly than Arnold in his poetry this particular form of nostalgia. Arnold, it is true, did not continue to wander disconsolate 'between two worlds, one dead, the other powerless to be born'; but if he finally threw in his lot with the modern spirit and the future, it was only after a severe struggle. He had, as Professor Sherman says, a 'somewhat unhappily divided personality.' He was later to praise the Greeks, not only for being positive and critical, but also for achieving what we too must achieve if we are to carry through our modern experiment successfully—the union of imagination and reason. This union is far from perfect in Arnold himself. His dominant note when he is most himself imaginatively is elegiac. He even seems at times, as someone has complained, to reduce the Muse to the rôle of hospital nurse. His reason so disapproved of this use of poetry that he actually withdrew for a time his Empedocles from circulation. On the other hand, when he set out to write poetry that would satisfy his reason, his imaginative fire seemed to desert him. Professor Sherman remarks of the very austere Merope that it will seem to some 'a melancholy illustration of the disaster in store for a poet who sets out on his progress attended by an inspector of schools, a professor, and a critic.'

II It was not unusual toward the middle of the nineteenth century for a man to adopt like Arnold a positive and realistic attitude and at the same time to cast many a lingering look behind, to feel, so far as the struggle between the old order and the modern spirit was concerned, that his heart and his head did not belong to the same individual. Wherein Arnold differed from the ordinary man of this type as well as from his contemporaries in general was in the completeness of his positivism. Those who prided themselves most on their modernity were positive only according to the natural law; as for the human law they were simply for getting rid of it along with the traditional forms in which it had got itself embedded. But man, Arnold insisted, is the creature of two laws. In addition to his ordinary self of passing impulse and desires he has a permanent self that is felt in its relation to his ordinary self as a power of control. As a matter of experience, man can find happiness only in so far as he exercises this control. To deny such a conflict in man between a law of the spirit and a law of the members is simply to avert one's face from the facts and so to fall short of being completely positive and critical. The result of such an evasion is moral anarchy, all the more dangerous, one may add, when combined with an increasing grip on the natural law, or what amounts to the same thing, an increasing mechanical and material efficiency.

To be an active and militant humanist along these modern lines was an extremely rare achievement during the last century not merely in England, but on the Continent. One can scarcely find any equivalent among the Frenchmen who were in so many respects Arnold's masters. Sainte-Beuve, for example, was active and militant, but as a servant of the natural law. His humanism was on the whole epicurean, something that resided less in his character than in his sensibility. Anatole France is as a matter of fact nearer to Sainte-Beuve in the quality of his humanism than is Matthew Arnold.

Arnold's remedy for anarchy—the failure to rise sufficiently above the level of one's ordinary self—is, it is hardly necessary to say, culture. The warfare that Arnold waged on the Philistine in the name of culture is not to be confused with the romantic revolt from convention. To the respectability of the Philistine, Heine opposed, Arnold complains, positive disrespectability. So far from favoring Bohemianism, Arnold was not willing to pardon any outer irregularity even in a Dante. What the romanticist attacked first of all in the Philistine was his lack of aesthetic refinement; what Arnold attacked first of all was his lack of wholeness. The opposite of the man who is aiming at totality is the man who suffers from a stunted growth, who has partial and provincial views. 'I hate all over-preponderance of single elements.' This sentence more perhaps than any other that could be cited gives the key to Arnold's prose writings. In working out his model of a rounded human nature that he sets up for imitation he turns to the past; for if the positivist is not willing that the past should be imposed on him as a dogma he admits its validity as experience. The human law is not susceptible of final abstract formulation. It is many-sided and elusive. For this or that aspect of it we need to go to this or that country or individual or period. Greece can supply certain elements, Judea certain other elements, to the man who seeks to live proportionately. Arnold always assumes a core of normal experience, a permanent self in man, and rates a writer according to the degree of his insight into this something that abides through all the flux of circumstance, or, as he himself would say, according to the depth and soundness of this writer's criticism of life. It was inevitable, as Professor Sherman points out, that Arnold should be comparatively indifferent to that great fetish of modern scholarship, the historical method, which tends to deny the enduring scale of values, and to see everything relatively, to account for everything in terms of time and place.

The few writers, chiefly poets, who seem to Arnold to tend to imaginative wholeness, to combine ethical insight in an eminent degree with excellence of form, or, as he would say, high seriousness of substance with the grand style, he puts in a class apart; they differ from other writers not merely in degree but in kind. This general distinction, which goes back to Aristotle, is surely sound, and those who have sought to discard high seriousness in favor of intensity or some other criterion are simply compromising poetry and literature; they are playing into the hands of the utilitarian, who would relegate literature to the recreative side of life, who has no place in his scheme of things for the literature of wisdom, literature that ministers to leisure in the Aristotelian sense. It must be granted, however, that Arnold is not always as clear or consistent as he might be in the working out of his main distinction. When we ask him for a definition of the grand style in poetry and of the special quality of imagination, the ethical imagination, as one may say, that underlies it, he supplies us instead with brief passages from the great poets that we are to use as touchstones, a method not always easy to reconcile with his previous assertion that the worth of a poem is determined, not by separate passages, but by its architectonics, its total structure. He fights shy of theory because 'the critical perception of poetic truth is,' he feels, 'of all things the most volatile, elusive, and evanescent.' So far as he means by theory the merely metaphysical, every type of positivist will sympathize with him. But there seems to be something more than this in his avoidance of theory—some survival, namely, of the romantic fear of precise analysis. I have already mentioned Aristotle, and as a matter of fact Aristotle is almost necessarily the master of those who, like Arnold, seek to put humanistic and religious truth on a critical basis. Now two things are needed to make the complete Aristotelian: in the first place, hard consecutive thinking in working out principles, and in the second place, the utmost flexibility in the application of them. For, though fixed principles exist, one must grant Bergson that life in the concrete is 'a perpetual gushing forth of novelties.' If one is to bridge correctly the gap between the general law and the particular instance, one cannot be too finely perceptive, too 'undulating and diverse.' Unfortunately, Arnold seems at times to carry over into the realm of principle, where hard consecutive thinking is the prime requisite, the fluidity that is only permissible in the realm of practice.

Inasmuch as high seriousness of substance and the grand style coexist only in the best poets, Arnold is led to set up the best poetry as a substitute for philosophy and religion; to proclaim that what is best in philosophy and religion themselves is their unconscious poetry. Various correctives to statements of this kind may be supplied from Arnold himself, yet, even so, this remains his dubious side. One may affirm that the man of today will be more aided in his struggle toward standards by the study of Aristotle (perhaps the most modern of the ancients), especially of the Ethics and Politics, than by reading Homer, the chief of poets; and one may at the same time refuse to go to the opposite extreme with Plato and indict Homer for his lack of religious seriousness. Yet Aristotle's excellence of substance, so far from being associated with the grand style, is associated with something that at times comes perilously near jargon.

In the Ethics the most uncompromising analysis kindles at last into religious insight. Arnold got from Christianity much that Aristotle did not have. His attempt to bring this Christian truth into line with the modern spirit in the form of culture has in it much that is admirable, but seems to fall somewhat short in both the keenness of analysis and the insight. Of much of the opposition that Arnold aroused he himself has given the correct explanation: 'More than half the world can never accept the person of whom they learn, but kick at the same time they learn.' We can nevertheless understand the uneasiness of those who felt that he did not perceive the full gravity of the situation that has been created by the weakening of the traditional beliefs. Nor is it certain that he has rescued the full soul of truth from these beliefs in his definition of religion as morality touched by emotion. Jonathan Edwards, who combined genuine religious insight with the most unacceptable form of theology, insists in one of his sermons that religion is more than mere intellect or morality or emotion; it is above and beyond all these; it is a 'pure supernatural light.' The early Buddhists, who carried into this question an almost more than Aristotelian thoroughness of analysis, recognized a stage in meditation when religion is still mingled with emotion, but as the meditation deepens, the emotion disappears and gives way to unalloyed peace—alta rerum quies. The problem at bottom is whether in his dealings with religion Arnold rises far enough above the naturalistic level, which in his case means the stoical level. Professor Sherman suggests this problem very happily when he detects the autobiographical note in Arnold's comment on the final inadequacy of the philosophy of Marcus Aurelius. The point might be further elucidated by contrasting Arnold with Tennyson. Arnold did not, like Tennyson, accept the Victorian compromise; intellectually he is more firmly knit than Tennyson, superior to him, as he himself says, in being in 'the main movement of mind' of his epoch. But there has passed into some of Tennyson's poems, into Crossing the Bar, for example, or the Ode to Virgil, a something that is simply not found in Arnold, a suggestion, at least, of the pure supernatural light.

III If Arnold did not quite succeed in bringing religion into accord with the modern spirit without any sacrifice of its essence, he was surely on the right track even here. On the other hand, he not only worked out a positive and critical humanism that is very sound in itself, but he saw with admirable clearness the rôle that the humanistic idea should play in a democracy. In this respect he was ahead not only of his own time, but of ours. The England of his time still felt the reaction that had followed the struggle against revolutionary radicalism and Napoleon. So far as 'the main movement of mind' interfered with the stock notions of the middle class which was succeeding in power to the aristocracy, it was simply for getting rid of mind. 'Arnold bent his chief efforts against this intellectual imperviousness, but he did not therefore wish to go back to the sheer expansiveness of the revolutionary period—its throwing off not only of outer but of inner checks. But what has actually been coming about both in England and in America has been just that—a resumption of the main expansive movement, a resurgent radicalism, attended more and more by the advent to power of what Arnold terms the populace. A writer like H. G. Wells harks back over the heads of the Victorians, as Professor Sherman pointed out in the Nation, to revolutionary Utopists like Shelley.

To say that most of us today are purely expansive is only another way of saying that most of us continue to be more concerned with the quantity than with the quality of our democracy. But this attitude raises very grave questions. Democracy is now going forth on a crusade against imperialism. The whole teaching of history is that the upshot of a certain type of democracy—and there are signs that this is the very type that is being developed—is imperialism. The only way to avert this danger may be to recognize the aristocratic principle, the need of standards and discipline. In that case Arnold, in working for a qualitative and selective democracy, showed himself more hard-headed and realistic, more modern, in short, than most of us. Anyone who should succeed today like Arnold at his best in being completely modern, positive, that is, according to both the natural and the human law, would make our eager progressives, the editors of the New Republic, let us say, seem almost archaic. Even an editor of the New Republic may, it is true, be modern enough to see that democracy needs discipline. In that case he looks for this discipline to some form or other of 'efficiency,' an excellent thing in its place, but when thus lifted out of its place leading straight to that Philistinism or worship of mere machinery against which Arnold waged lifelong warfare. Not to get beyond the idea of material organization as a remedy for moral anarchy is still to linger in the zones of illusion peculiar to the nineteenth century.

Arnold looked, so far as he looked to any outer agency for securing a qualitative democracy, to an education that was to be held up to high standards by the state and was in turn to supply the state with trained leaders. The contrast between the man who is positive according to both the human and the natural law and the man who is positive only according to the natural law comes out in his debate with Huxley on the rival claims of science and literature. Huxley, however, was comparatively moderate in his naturalism. The full peril of trying to bring the whole of human nature under a single law is seen in Herbert Spencer, who believed in man's descent from the anthropoid ape and worked out a scheme of education which puts an undue emphasis on this connection. In maintaining that Arnold's solution of the all-important problem of getting a leadership for democracy is a sort of compromise between Carlyle and J. S. Mill, Professor Sherman is ingenious but not always convincing. It seems hardly possible to secure a humanist by mediating between a romanticist and a utilitarian. One hesitates to grant Professor Sherman that Carlyle's temper was 'soundly conservative' or that his psychology, even in his old age, was that of the true Tory. A full discussion of this is not here possible. Let us simply ask ourselves what Doctor Johnson, perhaps the last of the great Tories, would have thought of anything so eruptive and irrational as Carlyle's notion of the 'hero'; whether he would, like Carlyle, have seen in the French Revolution 'a Truth clad in hellfire' and rejoiced in its 'bursting through formulas and customs.' The securing of a high quality of leadership through the interplay of education and government is as a matter of fact the central idea of Aristotle, an idea that Arnold completes from Christianity. Professor Sherman himself suggests as much when he writes: 'By taking thought Arnold had become ardently progressive. . . . He aimed at something like the democracy of Athens—without the slaves. He aspired toward a society in the grand style for everybody. . . . That remote ideal he had in mind when he called himself a Liberal of the future.' Arnold, if not quite so sanguine as this passage implies, wished at least a society in which the failure of anyone to measure up to the best standards should be due to inner, not outer, hindrances.

IV Arnold, then, wished to go with democracy, but on condition—and in this he showed the true modern spirit—that it should be a qualitative and selective democracy. He held that a democracy of this type might in forming its standards derive much aid from criticism. For an example of what he meant by criticism one may turn to his comments on our American democracy. It is interesting to read after the lapse of more than thirty years his address on Numbers and his essay on Civilization in the United States, and ask ourselves whether we have corrected what he perceived to be our main peril—the drift toward commonness, the lack in our national life of 'depth and savor.' In many respects this drift toward commonness, some might maintain, instead of being checked has been accelerated. 'The Americans are an excellent people,' Arnold wrote from Boston in 1883, 'but their press seems to me at present an awful symptom.' This symptom has become still more awful. We have witnessed since then the rise of the scarehead and the comic supplement. It was said of the people of ancient Miletus that, though they were not fools, they did just the things that fools would do. A glance at a current display of our newspapers and popular magazines suggests that, though we are not fools, we are reading just the things that fools would read. An American of the present day reading his Sunday newspaper in a state of lazy collapse is one of the most perfect symbols of the triumph of quantity over quality that the world has yet seen. Various views have been put forth as to the essence of democracy. If a man went simply by what he saw, he might be tempted to affirm that the essence of democracy is melodrama. It is the eagerness for the melodramatic thrill to which our newspapers and our 'movies' cater. It is melodrama that attracts the five million or more readers of the novels of Harold Bell Wright.

Charlie Chaplin, it was recently announced 'officially,' is to receive $1,075,000 for appearing in eight films. This and similar facts would seem to throw some light on the passion we are developing for 'whatsoever things are elevated.' Goethe's warning against the bondage of the commonplace that Arnold was so fond of quoting (Was uns alle bändigt, das Gemeine) needs to be supplemented by another sentence of Goethe's as to the source of this bondage: 'The pursuit of pleasure makes common' (Geniessen macht gemein). Our old Puritan standards, Arnold notes, inculcated reverence, and in so far were a corrective of commonness. But from the point of view of the moral realist the main movement in this country would seem to have been from Puritanism toward epicureanism. We are, to be sure, very 'idealistic'; but our 'idealism' resolves itself largely on analysis into the very thing to which Arnold objected—into having an almost religious regard for the average man and deferring unduly to his opinions as expressed in shifting majorities. If the various symptoms of commonness I have been citing show anything, they show that the average man we have thus idealized is increasingly epicurean; he is for making the most of the passing moment with scant regard for any abiding scale of values. 'Good time' are the magic words that many Americans of today seem to see written in great blazing letters on the very face of the firmament. If this drift continues, we may, in spite of our 'progressiveness' and 'idealism,' develop a psychology not unlike that of the Roman decadence. It is not sure that the optimistic temper that Arnold admired in Americans and singled out for special praise in Emerson is entirely unconnected with our religion of the average man and the absence of standards it presupposes. It is easier to be buoyant if one thinks with the Ohio lady of whom Arnold tells, that excellence is common and abundant, than if one holds with Arnold himself that 'excellence dwells among rocks hardly accessible, and a man must almost wear his heart out before he can reach her.' Yet a buoyancy that is won at the expense of standards may turn out to have its drawbacks.

The majority, says Arnold, following the sages, is unsound. If we are to get quality in our democracy, it will not be so much through endless schemes for uplifting the average man as through increasing the size of our 'remnant.' This doctrine of the saving remnant has been denounced as priggish. It is the exact opposite. A man to belong to the remnant must be humble, must feel the need of looking to some standard set above his ordinary self. Anyone who thus looks up has some chance of becoming worthy to be looked up to in turn. If a considerable group of individuals thus take on the yoke of a common standard, it will tend by its concerted effort and the force of its example to leaven the whole social lump. Part of our failure to achieve a sufficiently large remnant with high standards Arnold connected with our education. He was 'more than doubtful about our pullulating colleges and universities.' The changes in our education since his visit can scarcely be said to have met his objections. Those who have been shaping our educational destinies during the past generation or two have in point of fact been even nearer in spirit to Herbert Spencer than to Huxley. Our reformers said with truth that the old college curriculum needed broadening. What they have actually done is not to broaden this curriculum but to change its essence. The main trend has been away from an education that was, in intention at least, partly humanistic, partly religious, to an education that is partly sentimental, partly utilitarian. Our latest exponents of 'this brisk and flourishing movement,' as Arnold calls it, are working with a veritable gusto to get rid of what vestiges of humane standards we still have. Here again the proper procedure is not to attempt a mere return to tradition, but like Arnold to oppose to a one-sided positivism a thoroughgoing positivism, to insist on the facts in human nature that our Abraham Flexners simply fail to grasp.

I have perhaps been overstating the case that might be made out against us from a strictly Arnoldian point of view. Arnold's main contention, however, can scarcely be said to have lost its force: that we are too much taken up with the quantity and not enough with the quality of our democracy. If we let our ordinary selves run riot, it may be well to reflect, the resulting harm will not be confined to the aesthetic sensibilities of a few 'highbrows.' Our only choice, as I have said, may prove to be not between a qualitative and a quantitative democracy, but between a qualitative democracy and imperialism. The great foe of democracy, a foe that has repeatedly been fatal to it in the past, is anarchy, and the corrective of anarchy, we cannot repeat too often, is not efficiency (as the term is now understood efficiency moves on the merely naturalistic level of man's being), but humanistic or religious discipline. If we are to have such a discipline we must have standards, and to get our standards under existing conditions we must have criticism. What the Americans most urgently require,' says Arnold, 'is a steady exhibition of cool and sane criticism.' So far from having solved this problem, the 'human problem,' as Arnold terms it, we have not as yet even faced it fairly. We have no end of clever people, but clever people without standards. Professor Sherman not only joins to unmistakable brilliancy a concern for standards, but he is getting at his standards in a thoroughly modern and positive way. We may hope that in this respect he is a precursor, one of those sharpshooters of whom Arnold speaks who go in advance of 'the elephantine main body' and prepare the future.

Updated 3 June 2024