Matthew Arnold: Culture and Perfection

Culture and Anarchy is an 1869 book by Matthew Arnold, a Victorian poet and social critic. Originally published as a series of essays in periodicals, and later collected into book form, the central piece, ‘Culture and Anarchy’, starts by responding to this comment on the value of culture:

“Culture is a desirable quality in a critic of new books, and sits well on a professor of belles lettres; but as applied to politics, it means simply a turn for small fault-finding, love of selfish ease, and indecision in action. The man of culture is in politics one of the poorest mortals alive. For simple pedantry and want of good sense no man is his equal. No assumption is too unreal, no end is too unpractical for him. But the active exercise of politics requires common sense, sympathy, trust, resolution, and enthusiasm, qualities which your man of culture has carefully rooted up, lest they damage the delicacy of his critical olfactories.”

It’s a pretty standard disparagement of the cultural elite: they sit around and talk about their books, but they don’t do anything – can’t do anything, even. They can’t act in any practical, political way. When it comes to the real world, they dither and debate. Arnold responds to this comment by outlining his definition of culture and making a case for its importance in society. That initial response is what we’re talking about today.

  • The text: Culture and Anarchy
  • The author: Matthew Arnold
  • Read it yourself: I’m reading the Penguin classic edition, but as with all beautiful things, it’s on Gutenberg too.

Arnold begins by agreeing with the general spirit of the criticism above. In his view, the sort of culture which “plume[s] itself on a smattering of Greek and Latin” is “valued either out of sheer vanity and ignorance, or as an engine of social and class distinction.” But he also contends that there is another conception of culture founded on much nobler grounds: “Culture is then properly described … as having its origin in the love of perfection; it is a study of perfection. It moves by the force, not merely or primarily of the scientific passion for pure knowledge, but also of the moral and social passion for doing good.” Arnold further argues that while it is obviously important to act, we also want to act well – and we need to learn what acting well means. Culture, which is the study of perfection, is therefore a requisite foundation teaching us how we should act. It might seem like just lounging about and talking about nothing, but in fact, Arnold says, “the mere endeavour to see and learn the truth for our own personal satisfaction is indeed a commencement for making it prevail.” We study perfection so that we can become perfect. The pursuit of culture is not self-indulgent, but is tied to the moral and social imperative to act, to improve both ourselves and the broader wellbeing of the human race, to make culture – perfection – prevail.

So this is quite a different view of culture to how we normally think about it. Today culture is more associated with identity – so there are a bunch of different countries and ethnicities, and they all have their own cultures. Culture shapes your customs, your language, your beliefs – it’s a fundamental part of who you are. And then culture also has this second meaning – you often hear people talk about arts and culture, right, or they talk about a cultured person. In that sense, they’re referring to intellectual and artistic products – whether that’s art, painting, literature, song, dance, anything like that. In this second sense, culture refers to the productions of a particular society. And we tend not to think of those productions in terms of the pursuit of perfection. We have a spirit of egalitarianism that sees all cultures – in the first sense – as having their own intrinsic value and worth. And that’s appropriate. We exist in the wake of a spirit of dominance, of colonialism and imperialism that sought to destroy indigenous cultures and replace them with ostensibly superior Western cultures. Against that spirit, we now promote egalitarianism, recognising that all cultures have their own intrinsic value and worth. That doesn’t mean that every culture is perfect or even necessarily healthy – but it is a recognition that at base, every culture has something to bring to the table.

And I think that’s part of why this idea of culture as a pursuit of perfection has gone out of style. Perfection implies a ranking, a grading system, where some cultures are better and others are worse. And that clashes with our sense of egalitarianism, where every culture is treated as equal – at least in the sense that every culture has its own unique perspectives and ways of being, and that these differences have inherent value. I think a lot of conservatives really struggle with this idea. When you talk to them, you can see them reaching for this instinct of, like – that the horrors of colonialism don’t invalidate perfection as a concept. You see this when people complain about cultural relativism, or when they complain about political correctness. They want to make judgement calls about groups or ideas being good or bad, better or worse, and they feel like those judgements are stifled to the detriment of our broader pursuit of truth and perfection.

On that note, you might be interested to know that, alongside culture, Arnold sees religion as another way of pursuing perfection. Obviously religion is again one of those spaces where people want to talk about absolute good, or absolute perfection. They want to talk about which doctrine is true, which prophets or holy books are better – and again, you’ll see this idea that the bad things that happen shouldn’t invalidate God as a concept. In the wake of the Christchurch shooting, I saw one scumbag (Robert Nicholson, second from the bottom) arguing that oh yes, well, it’s bad that somebody killed some Muslims, but also it’s high time that us Christians have a proper debate with the Muslims about which version of God is true. The comment was a callous, single-minded pursuit of doctrinal perfection over and above basic empathy for the people who were suffering. And it’s rationalized as a pursuit of perfection, as a pursuit of the true God, the real God – which in and of itself does seem like an important goal, albeit not one that should be approached in this way. I think for the rest of us, for the Christians who’re also capable of being normal, decent human beings, it’s tricky to try and find a middle ground between pursuing the idea of perfection, which we do legitimately believe in, and the idea of relating to people who have different views on what that perfection might be.

So here’s a question. Say someone is born without legs. They live their life, and they die and go to heaven, where they receive a new, perfect human body – it’s like their old body, but it’s renewed and made perfect for eternity. Does that perfect body have legs? Or can you be perfect without them? What about if someone’s autistic? Is autism a defect that will be removed from a perfect body, or is it a normal and even perfect part of our natural human diversity? Is there only one type of perfect body, something that we’re all meant to have and that we’ll all eventually get, or are there several types of perfect body? Is perfection singular or plural? The same question can be applied to our problem with culture. If culture is a study of perfection, can there be multiple, equally valid ways of studying the same thing? Can we study perfection from all these different perspectives and find different aspects of it each time? Or, even further, can perfection itself be multiple? Can it be a range, a spectrum, rather than a single fixed point? The Christian believes that God, who is perfect, is both one and three. Could perfection be plural? Could it be both singular and plural at the same time? The resources of Trinitarian theology might hold the key to reimagining our concept of perfection, such that we could retain Arnold’s idea of culture as the pursuit of perfection while also validating and upholding the range of cultural differences in an ecumenical world. Maybe that’s the model of perfection that God intended for us all along.


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