Classical CriticismMatthew Arnold

Exploring Matthew Arnold’s Humanism: Literature as a Critique of Life

Matthew Arnold, a well-known figure in Victorian literature and criticism, firmly believed that literature played a vital role in both critiquing society and promoting the well-being of humanity. In this article, we will delve into Arnold’s humanistic perspective on literature, specifically focusing on his belief that literature serves as a means to analyze life. We shall explore his thoughts on the significance of culture, his comparison between English and continental European cultures, as well as his notion of personal fulfillment. Through an examination of Arnold’s ideas, we can gain valuable insights into how literature can shape our understanding of society and ourselves.

Matthew Arnold; The Educational Inspector

During Matthew Arnold’s tenure as an educational inspector in 1851, he embarked on a journey that led him to appreciate the broader culture and recognize the importance of literature. Initially finding little satisfaction in this role, Arnold’s visits to various regions across England offered him unique perspectives on English culture. These experiences laid the foundation for his subsequent literary and social criticisms. As an inspector, Arnold had the opportunity to assess non-conformist schools and propose changes to the education system, which further fueled his interest in understanding how culture impacts the real world.

Literature and Comparison of Cultures

The influence of France on Arnold’s perspective on culture was quite significant. He had a deep appreciation for French culture and frequently visited the country, even examining their educational institutions. Arnold believed that the literary tradition in France surpassed that of England, leading him to compare English and continental European cultures more broadly. In his writings, he pointed out the flaws of Victorian England’s narrow mindedness, snobbish individualism and limited view of high-class culture. Inspired by Hellenism, Arnold stressed the importance of culture in nurturing individuals and enabling them to lead meaningful lives.

Exciting Topic: Analysis of Essay “The Function of Criticism at Present Time” by Matthew Arnold

Arnold’s Concept of Culture

According to Arnold, culture extends beyond literature and art; it encompasses all aspects of human growth and fulfillment. He criticized the materialistic focus and shallow pursuits prevalent during the Victorian era. Instead, he advocated for a broader understanding of culture that went beyond mere entertainment. Arnold believed that literature had the power to delve into the complexities of human existence while critiquing societal values, offering a deeper comprehension of life itself. In his essays, he challenged the prevailing notion that culture was solely an indicator of social status and proposed a more inclusive and meaningful definition.

Literature as a Means of Critiquing Life

Arnold viewed literature from a humanistic perspective, recognizing its potential as a valuable tool for critiquing life and society. He firmly believed that through the medium of literature, individuals could gain profound insights into the complexities of human existence, challenge societal norms and engage in introspection. According to Arnold, literature possessed the ability to question prevailing ideologies and inspire personal and societal growth.

Arnold’s own literary works, particularly his collection of essays titled “Culture and Anarchy,” exemplify his conviction in the role of literature as a critique of life. Within these essays, he critically examines various facets of society including education, politics and religion. Through his writings, Arnold aimed to encourage readers to contemplate their own lives alongside the broader society they were part of.

The Impactful Influence of Literature on Society

Arnold acknowledged the profound influence that literature has on shaping both societies and individuals. He firmly believed that it possessed the potential to act as a catalyst for social change by challenging established norms and fostering critical thinking among its readers. By presenting alternative perspectives and exposing flaws within society’s fabric, literature had the power to motivate individuals to question the existing order and strive towards a more promising future.

Arnold’s ideas regarding the transformative power of literature still resonate strongly in contemporary times. Literature continues to play a crucial role in examining life and fostering conversations about significant social matters. It allows us to delve into various viewpoints, connect with diverse encounters and develop a profound comprehension of both us and the world we inhabit.


Matthew Arnold’s humanistic perspective on literature highlights its role as a means to analyze and evaluate life. Through his literary works and essays, he advocated for a broader comprehension of culture and the importance of literature in fostering human well-being and societal progress. Arnold’s belief in the transformative potential of literature to challenge established norms and inspire positive changes remains pertinent even in contemporary times. As avid readers and writers, we can continue to delve into the intricacies of existence through literature, contributing to an ongoing discourse on relevant social issues.

By considering literature as a critical lens for understanding life, we possess the opportunity to shape a more empathetic, inclusive and reflective society.

The freest and most perfect culture will be that which most thoroughly carries out this great conception of rendering a service to those who have the fewest material advantages, and yet are not of the lowest class; of raising to as high a point as possible the powers of all classes” – Matthew Arnold


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