Friday, January 27, 2017

But Mr. Arnold ... Nobody's Perfect!

Poet and critic Matthew Arnold (1822-1888)
Hats off to the eighteen hardy souls who braved Monday night’s northeaster for our discussion of four essays from Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy. We held a lively conversation, and there were spirited critiques of Arnold’s view of individualism in a liberal society, and his apparent lack of interest in scientific endeavor.  One participant mused, What if Arnold could have looked at images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope?

We spent some time homing in on Arnold's definition of “culture.”   At various times he calls it “the love and pursuit of perfection,” “a study of perfection,” and something that “originates in the love of perfection.”

In the part called “Hebraism and Hellenism,” in which Arnold compares these two wellsprings of his Victorian England, he writes, “And yet the lesson must perforce be learned, that the human spirit is wider than the most priceless of the forces that bear it onward, and that to the whole development of man, Hebraism is, like Hellenism, but a contribution.”

Indulge with me if you will in a “thought experiment.”  Reflect on a person dear to you and who had a great influence on you: a parent or grandparent, mentor, friend, spouse, teacher, clergyperson.  Now the Arnoldian trick question: Did that person achieve perfection?  The answer is obvious.  Nevertheless, for you, that individual human being possessed a wideness of spirit that qualified her or him as a person of culture, as Matthew Arnold would have it.