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Culture and Anarchy by Mathew Arnold Essay

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Updated: Jan 21st, 2020


Culture is the way of life of a particular people or society. These include beliefs, traditions, food, customs, dress, language, music, art and literature. When someone is immersed in a new culture apart from the one he is used to, someone feel vulnerable, frustrated and fearful.

This is due to the lack of awareness to the new culture. Also when someone moves to new place, it is both exciting and overwhelming but at the same time someone can get culture shock.

It is natural for someone to experience all this due to all the changes people encounter. It is usually hard adjusting to a new place, friends one hang out with, the way they talk, express themselves, all this is new but the best thing about it all is that it is temporally.

Culture by Mathew Arnold

Mathew Arnold defines culture as study of perfection. In such a case, harmonious perfection is a general perfection that affects all the members of society because if one member suffers, all the others must suffer with it. The entire book of Arnold takes culture as collection of everything what is the best and perfect in the world.

The book was written when it was a time of political and social change. The book argues in reconstructing England social ideology. Mathew Arnold states that culture is the process of self discipline and coming out of self centering but having an obligation to the whole society.

Sweetness and Light

This is the title of the first chapter of Mathew Arnold. Materialism is one of the themes that come out. Materialism covers all the individuals who perceive England from an economic point of view. Arnold argues that England achievements are in poetry, universities instead of mines, railways and factories.

The prominent theme in the second chapter is scholarly totalitarianism. It is explained as doing what you want, having freedom. Also he brings in the instrument of social perfection. Arnold advocates for a situation where the state protects its citizens against anarchy.

The Three Groups in the Society

Arnold has a theory of the benefits of a strong state and can be understood by how he writes of social class. Arnold resents aristocracy for its greed and outmoded customs and he suggest that it should be supplanted by the state. The second group, for which Arnold holds a lot of criticism, is Philistines.

They are selfish and materialistic. They are the middle class.The third group is the populace.They are the poverty stricken, lower class who have been neglected by the Barbarian and selfish Philistines. Arnold shows that uneducated English people could achieve form of perfectionism by using their skills and talents.

The three groups comprise the English society. For Arnold, Populace is the group of people whom to be removed out of anarchy through the pursuit of culture.

Therefore, when we speak of ourselves as divided into Barbarians, Philistines, and Populace, we must be understood always to imply that within each of these classes there are a certain number of aliens, if we may so call them, people who are mainly led, not by their class spirit, but by a general humane spirit, by the love of human perfection (Arnold 110 b).

Main Themes

The main themes all have one agenda. Culture involves forsaking ones narrow mindedness to pursuit perfectionism. Anarchy represents the lack of guiding principle which prevents someone to achieve perfectness.

Arnold stresses that without instilling people the need of culture, it can lead to increased anarchy hence he introduced the idea of Hebraism and Hellenism. Arnold explains Hebraism as the behavior of people that are ignorant or opposed to culture. Hellenism refers to being open-minded.


Arnolds argues that those who labor for sweetness and light labors for the will of God to win through. One who labors for loathing, labors for confusion as well. He, who works for hatred, works for confusion. According to Arnold, culture despises spite and is passionate about sweetness and light.

The preachers of culture will always have a difficult time and they are likely be considered as Jeremiahs as opposed to friends and patrons.

That, however, will not prevent their doing in the end good service if they persevere. ‎Protestant religion;’ There is sweetness and light, and an ideal of complete harmonious human perfection! Arnold stresses that one only needs the language of religion to judge culture. ‘At long last, be of one in body and soul,’ quotes St. Peter (Arnold 27 c).

Arnold further wrote that culture seeks to do away with the classes, to make all men live in atmosphere of light and sweetness. Arnold recommends culture as our great help to come out of our difficulties.

There is another view of culture, the desire to see things as they are, to stop human error and to leave the world happier than it was found.

These motives are social and come out as parts of the grounds of culture. Culture moves by the force of moral and social passion of wanting to do well. Arnold wants culture to be of service, culture which believes in making reason and the will of God prevail.

Arnold criticisms

One of the areas where Arnold has shown criticism is religion. Arnold’s religious views were unorthodox during his times. His views were influenced highly by Baruch Spinoza as well as his father (Freud 3). For instance, he opposed the supernatural claims of religion even after while having a soft spot for ritual.

Arnold wants to belong to a practical position that is concerned with the poems of religion than the presence of God. He wrote in the preface of God and the Bible in 1875 “The personages of the Christian heaven and their conversations are no more matter of fact than the personages of the Greek Olympus and their conversations’’.

On the other hand, he also noted down in the matching book, “To come out of the belief of Christianity depending on miracles to Christianity depending on normal truth is a big change.

Those who have fixed them to Christianity can bring the change of depending on normal truth of the gospel instead of depending on miracles. Arnold defined Religion as morality touched with emotion (Arnold 43 b). Arnold was also a political liberal, and he saw that democracy would bring power to the masses and England to bring in culture for not Apathy to follow.

Arnold wanted culture to be the new religion of the west maintaining social order. He further explains that culture would be a civil religion anyone could accept and to which there anyone could conform.

It required no fixed beliefs, had no fixed end but needed someone to pursue perfectness. Therefore, he saw social transformation and culture as solution for all ills. Arnold was viewed as late, decayed advocate of the compromised civil religion by Edmund Burke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.


There are several scholar and modern artist who have given their views on culture and anarchy by Mathew Arnold. Lincoln Allison retired as a reader in politics at the University of Warwick finds Arnold “Culture and Anarchy” work written by Mathew Arnold to express mad, bad and dangerous ideas. According to Lincolns, Arnold is compassionate and bright towards culture and anarchy (4).

In the second chapter, he sees to take on scholar and moral positions which he thinks as mad, bad and unsafe to show than any writer he knows. In the second chapter where Lincoln Allison finds Arnold misleading, doing as one likes comes out clearly. It is an error because Arnold equates freedom with being able to do what one wants. It is an error which leads to anarchy.

In his discussion, William E. Buckler portrays Arnold as a classical moralist who with a firm belief that a true approach to life is a reward in itself and it facilitates personal growth.

Although Arnold strove to imitate classical Greek and Roman models in his poetry, Buckler agrees that his work manifests Romantic subjectivism. As a matter of fact, he continues to say that Arnold work is one of the most celebrated works of social criticism to be written. His work has become a reference point for all the discussions in relation between politics and culture.

Works Cited

Arnold, Matthew (a). Complete Prose Works. R. H. Super Ed. University of Michigan Press,1960. Print.

Arnold, Matthew (b). Culture and Anarchy. J. Dover Wilson Ed. Cambridge: University Press, 1960. Print.

Arnold, Matthew (c). Essays in Criticism, Second Series. London: Macmillan, 1888.

Arnold, Matthew (d). Mixed Essays. London: Macmillan, 1880. Print.

“Culture and Anarchy.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2011. Web. <>.

Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents. Reissue edition, July 1989. Print.

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