All sweetness and light

Two hundred years after his birth, critic and poet Matthew Arnold still has much to teach conservatives

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This article is taken from the December/January 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Reacting to covid policies and wokeness, conservatives have become monomaniacal about freedom. It’s not hard to see why. The Left’s support for both — one curbing civil liberties and the other threatening their right to expression — has reinforced the Thatcherite rhetoric that the right must be the bastion of freedom. This was not lost on Liz Truss when she declared: “That is what Conservatism is about. It is a belief in freedom.”

Yet freedom “is a very good horse, but to ride somewhere”. These words by the Victorian poet and cultural critic Matthew Arnold ought to resonate at a moment when conservatism is in search of direction. They offer a much-needed qualification of the freedom, progress and “growth” that modern conservatives say they covet.

This is the bicentenary of Matthew Arnold’s birth. Born in 1822 in the village of Laleham on the River Thames to the Anglican cleric and educational reformer Thomas Arnold, he was one of the most original thinkers in the history of English political thought and a major influence on Roger Scruton. His literary talents were recognised at a young age when he was awarded a scholarship to study at Oxford, later becoming a fellow of Oriel College. As well as working as an inspector of schools, he was a celebrated author, perhaps most famous for his lyric poem “Dover Beach”.

Arnold’s view from the moonlit shores of Dover beach is a picture of the times in which he wrote. The “sea of faith” that he describes ebbing away into the distance represents the disenchantment of Victorian England, which he blamed not so much on the demise of traditional religion — for he was a quintessential freethinker — but rather to its hollowing out, where the church’s teachings and rites had become mere conventions that people followed without any real personal connection to God. Left behind was the “darkling plain” of industrial modernity, where the clangs of machinery, “alarms of struggle and flight”, and factory smog concealed the beauty of nature.

“Dover Beach” laments the coming of a brave new world, one driven by the hubris of man, in which mechanisation has triumphed over mystery. Arnold’s scepticism towards the doctrine of progress is the subject of much of his prose, but can perhaps be found best summarised in the opening lines of his poem “Self-Deception”: “Say, what blinds us, that we claim the glory of possessing powers not our share?” In these words we hear his frustration with the Prometheanism of the emergent modern era, where men had become fixated on material prosperity to the detriment of their souls.

These were the times against which Arnold was reacting. Yet despite his fears about what lay on the tenebrous horizons of the darkling plain, they did not make him a reactionary. Though he was romantic and indeed often nostalgic about the past — his writing embellished with references to antique myths and heroes, and his personal life ostensibly informed by traditional virtues — he did not believe that the solution was simply to return to it. Essentially, Arnold sought not to revolt against the modern world, but to find a way to ensure that it served humanity’s spiritual needs.

Arnold believed it was possible to move forward without abandoning the eternal values that had guided the past. Technological advancement and individual liberty, he decided, were not inherently destructive forces; rather, they had become so because they had lost sight of truth, beauty and goodness — the ideals towards which culture had once aspired. 

Fixation on progress and freedom for their own sake was destined to become destructive

Without reference to these ideals, fixation on progress and freedom for their own sake was destined to become destructive and, eventually, anarchic: This was the premise of his seminal work Culture and Anarchy, published in 1869, in which he laid down his path for navigating tradition and modernity.

The problem, as Arnold saw it, was that society had become too set in its ways, forgetting why and to what end those ways had originally been established. This was true not only of politics — which saw freedom “worshipped in itself, without regard for which freedom is to be desired” — but also religion, which he felt had become ossified into a lifeless body of “stock maxims” followed by the masses out of habit. This he felt to be a grave deviation from the real purpose of both politics and religion: to lead human beings towards moral and spiritual perfection. This is where the horse has to ride.

Following Plato, Arnold believed that human beings are naturally inclined towards “that which is lovely”, but that the mechanisation of modern society had inhibited all forms of contemplation. This he associated not only with the industrial revolution and the imposition of machinery in a literal sense, but also the mechanical adherence to tradition: what is the point in tradition, Arnold provokes us to ask, if it is not actively inspiring us towards the ideals which it was originally meant to represent? 

Arnold was not afraid to challenge the old ways as much as the new. He believed that we should focus more on the end than on the means, and do so in the spirit of “Hellenism” — a mode of being to which he famously attributed the qualities of “sweetness and light” (by which he meant “beauty” and “goodness”).

It was out of his imaginative synthesis of Platonism and Victorian freethought that Arnold called for the creative statesman; someone who could “swim with the stream, but swim with it philosophically”. He believed we have no choice but to move with the times, but that our leaders must critically discern what does and does not ultimately propel us towards the highest goods. He rejected the “infinite march of progress” that Max Weber later ascribed to modern Western society; for Arnold, the march should be finite, with perfection as its ultimate end.

It was the responsibility, he believed, of political, educational and religious authorities to lead this process of discernment, towards a renewed understanding of culture as: 

the pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most 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.

Thus Arnold was not averse to challenging the “stock notions” to which many conservatives cling; especially those concerning education, the economy, elite institutions, and, most pertinently, the worship of freedom for its own sake.

Arnold would surely have condemned modern conservatism’s utilitarian approach to education. Amid calls to cut the humanities and assess the worth of degrees through purely quantitative measures, the real purpose of pedagogy has been forgotten. Practical skills are necessary, but that does not require us to neglect history, literature, philosophy and religion; for they provide us with knowledge of “the best that has been thought and said” and, in turn, the best ways to live. 

They are treasure troves of the “answers that have been discovered to enduring questions” which Scruton ascribed to tradition. As soon as education becomes removed from the pursuit of the good life, focused instead on profit and international competition, it becomes mechanical.

But even those institutions which defend classical education can lose sight of the good. Elite public schools may preserve the Western canon, but what is the use if they are failing to inspire pupils to live virtuously? Traditionalism, Arnold warns, risks becoming mechanical in this way. 

We should not be averse to drawing knowledge from elsewhere

To prevent this, we should not be averse to drawing knowledge from elsewhere, so long as it flows towards sweetness and light; for even the deepest reserves can benefit from the replenishment of fresh streams. After all, if culture is about seeking the best “in the world”, then it should welcome the wisdom of other traditions towards a more holistic vision of the truth. 

Where educational institutions become mechanical, so do the societies they produce. Today more young people attend university than ever, yet they scarcely channel their knowledge into culture, or the pursuit of perfection. Instead, talents are wasted on the endless proliferation of industries intent on making every aspect of life more “convenient” or “efficient”, often to the end of spiritually impoverishing humanity rather than enriching it. In the 1860s, Arnold saw the beginnings of an industrial society severed from higher aspirations, with his critiques of Victorian capitalism proving more relevant today than ever.

In Culture and Anarchy, he complained that too many men had put their faith in the false ideals of utility, wealth, and worldly power. These things, he insisted, were mere machinery, and machinery should be only a means to an end. Those who do not acknowledge this, he warned, have “putteth a stone in a sling” (Proverbs 26:8); “for any one can perceive how this honouring of a false ideal, not of intelligence and strenuous virtue, but of wealth and station, pleasure and ease, is a stone from a sling to kill in our great middle class, in us who are called Philistines”.

Arnold charged the middle class with Philistinism because they had prioritised utility over beauty; they were lacking in “sweetness”, or aesthetic sensibility. Given that in Arnold’s time even the pumping stations were adorned with architectural splendour, he could hardly have imagined an England willing to demolish its historic buildings for swathes of characterless Barratt homes. Yet he knew that when we cease to value beauty as a mode of spiritual expression, it is bound to perish altogether. He was surely correct in his diagnosis of Philistinism as both a cause and symptom of middle-class malaise.

Meanwhile the upper class had problems of its own. Arnold likened aristocrats to “barbarians”, who still savoured a sense of “sweetness” in the aesthetics of high culture, but lacked “light”, or interior virtues. He saw their ancestral gold and silver to be just as bound up in materialism as the middle classes’ iron and coal; without moral richness, they were worthless. In truth, we need both sweetness and light. Beauty must be illuminated by goodness, or else it is just another empty spectacle of modernity. It was this that led Arnold to assert the need for a truly virtuous aristocracy, which could in turn exert a positive influence on political leaders.

Without righteous authorities, he said, “not only do we get no suggestions of right reason … but a kind of philosophical theory is widely spread among us to the effect that there is no such thing at all as a best self and a right reason having claim to paramount authority”. This is perhaps the most controversial aspect of his politics, at least for modern, freedom-loving conservatives: the need for authority. 

For Arnold, it was necessary for the creative statesman to be actively invested in the self-betterment of society. Unlike the libertarian Right, he was not averse to the state having a strong hand in economic and social affairs.

Arnold would surely have despaired at the assaults on culture committed in the name of the “free market”. Enterprise, in his worldview, should only be a means to flourishing, directed towards healthy living, creative expression, and the refinement of culture. Where it becomes corrupt, exploiting our base desires and insecurities for the purpose of profit, our leaders must intervene, regulating the market to realign it with the good. Reluctance to do so has been a consequence of worshipping free-trade as an end in itself; capitalism, Arnold contends, must overcome this mechanical tendency.

If the horse is veering off course, its reins must be tugged; a precept that applies not only to free trade, but also free speech. It is no use, Arnold argues, insisting on the “right” to express our each and every opinion; we should instead seek to speak the truth. For “the aspirations of culture, which is the study of perfection, are not satisfied, unless what men say … is worth saying”. In other words, free speech absolutism tends towards anarchy; it is the antithesis of culture.

Today, it seems strange that Matthew Arnold considered himself a liberal. That he sought to temper human progress with the “Hellenic” spirit of antiquity certainly seems to defy contemporary understandings of the term. 

This is because while modernity takes for granted the primacy of libertine freedom — freedom from restriction of any kind — he believed in what we might call Platonic freedom: freedom to aspire towards truth, beauty and goodness. Such metaphysical notions have been deemed obsolete by secularism and scientism, which, in reducing human life to something purely quantitative, impair our vision of any higher existence. Without this vision, as we learn from scripture, the people perish (Proverbs 29:18).

Of this Arnold was acutely aware, making a compelling (if implicit) case for the revival of metaphysics. Now, when politics has become utterly bereft of sweetness and light, is surely the time for such a revival. 

Conservatives must reorient freedom, progress and “growth” towards culture, the pursuit of perfection, and redefine human happiness as spiritual flourishing as opposed to mere material prosperity. They must overcome the mechanical tendencies posed, in different ways, by both neoliberalism and austere traditionalism, turning a stream of fresh and free thought on the principles they once claimed to represent. Until then, they will remain on the darkling plain.

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