Classical CriticismMathew Arnold

Matthew Arnold’s “Culture and Anarchy”: A Comprehensive Analysis

Matthew Arnold, a well known poet and cultural critic from the Victorian era, extensively wrote about culture and anarchy in his influential work called “Culture and Anarchy.” This significant essay was serialized in Cornhill Magazine between 1867 1868 and later published as a complete book in 1869. In this piece, Arnold explores the goals of culture while critiquing the emerging forces of industrialism, mercantilism and political unrest during Victorian England.

In “Culture and Anarchy,” Arnold passionately defends the value of genuine culture, which he defines as the pursuit of excellence on both personal and societal levels. He argues that true culture, characterized by the harmonious blend of beauty and intellect, motivates individuals and societies to strive for the improvement of humanity. This analysis provides a thorough examination of Arnold’s work by exploring key ideas, themes and arguments presented in “Culture and Anarchy.”

The Essence of True Culture: “Sweetness and Light”

The central argument in Arnold’s “Culture and Anarchy” revolves around the concept of authentic culture encapsulated by his famous phrase “sweetness and light.” According to Arnold, true culture merges the sweetness found in beauty with the light that emanates from intelligence and reason. It represents an ongoing quest for perfection within individual character as well as societal cohesion.

Arnold expresses his critique of Victorian England’s preoccupation with materialism and industrialism, arguing that these obsessions have caused a disregard for genuine culture. He contends that the English populace has become overly focused on personal liberty and self-centered endeavours, neglecting the significance of “sweetness and light.” According to Arnold, this failure to prioritize authentic culture hampers both individual and societal progress and well-being.

The Dangers of Anarchy and Industrialism

In his examination of the challenges confronting Victorian society, Arnold emphasizes the dangers associated with anarchy and unbridled individualism. He puts forth the argument that anarchy, which entails a lack of standards and guidance, is prevalent in England’s new democracy. This state of anarchy undermines the pursuit of genuine culture and impedes social progress.

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Arnold also critiques the adverse impact of industrialization on the collective mindset. The rapid industrial development in Victorian England has resulted in a neglect of intellectual and moral growth. The emphasis on material gain and personal success has overshadowed the significance of nurturing authentic culture, leading to a society that is morally and intellectually impoverished.

The English Class System: “Barbarians,” “Philistines,” and the “Populace”

When analyzing the English class structure, Arnold divides society into three distinct segments; the “Barbarians” (the aristocracy), the “Philistines” (the middle class) and the “Populace” (the working class). As per Arnold’s view, each social class exhibits fundamental flaws that hinder the pursuit of genuine culture.

The Barbarians, known for their lofty spirit and refined manners, remain closed off to new ideas and lack intellectual curiosity. The Philistines, representing religious nonconformity and materialistic values, possess energy and morality but fail to embody the essence of true culture. Its sweetness and light. The Populace, still struggling with poverty and limited access to educational opportunities, find themselves raw and unaware when it comes to matters of culture.

According to Arnold, individuals who believe in genuine culture can arise from any social class and surpass the constraints imposed by their societal standing. He highlights the significance of acknowledging and surmounting the imperfections present in each class to cultivate a society that values the pursuit of excellence.

Hebraism and Hellenism: The Clash of Influences

Arnold explores the contrasting influences of Hebraism and Hellenism on English culture. Hebraism represents the Semitic influence, while Hellenism represents the classical Greek and Roman influence. According to Arnold, Hebraism has long been dominant in English culture, and he suggests that it’s time for Hellenism to regain its prominence.

Hebraism, rooted in religious and moral principles, has shaped English culture by emphasizing discipline, self-control and adherence to traditional values. On the other hand, Hellenism embodies the pursuit of knowledge, beauty and intellectual curiosity. Arnold believes that finding a balance between these two influences is crucial for fostering genuine cultural development.

The Benefits of Hellenism and the Role in English Culture

In his exploration of Hellenism’s impact on English culture, Arnold highlights its positive contributions. Hellenistic ideals encourage intellectual growth, the pursuit of knowledge and an appreciation for beauty. They cultivate a spirit of curiosity and inquiry that allows individuals to transcend limitations and strive for perfection.

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Arnold argues that it is essential for Hellenistic ideals to play a more significant role in English culture as they counterbalance the dominance of Hebraism. Incorporating values such as pursuing knowledge, appreciating artistry and nurturing intellectual curiosity from the Hellenic tradition would not only enrich English society but also contribute to authentic cultural progress.

Freedom and the Nature of True Perfection

Arnold delves into the concept of freedom and its connection to genuine perfection. He asserts that true freedom goes beyond mere absence of restrictions; rather, it involves the freedom to fulfill one’s duties and serve others. According to Arnold, genuine perfection is an inner state that surpasses personal desires and encompasses the overall well-being of society.

While acknowledging the injustices prevalent in Victorian England, such as the poverty faced by the working class, Arnold advises caution against hasty and drastic actions. He believes that proponents of culture should focus on discerning what is truly good and strive towards achieving it through introspection, observation and fostering genuine cultural values.

The Role of the State and the Denouncement of Mass Protests

Arnold highlights the significance of the state in promoting authentic culture and maintaining social harmony. He argues that the state, as a representation of a nation’s collective “best self,” should play a central role in nurturing endeavors towards perfection. Arnold urges advocates for culture to lend their support to the state since it provides essential structure and order for society to flourish.

In his concluding remarks, Arnold condemns all forms of mass protests and demonstrations, even those championing causes he deems noble. He suggests that individuals who truly embrace culture should refrain from actively engaging in public affairs and instead dedicate their efforts to observing, contemplating and advocating for genuine culture and its goals. Arnold argues that large scale demonstrations disrupt the harmony of society and impede the pursuit of true excellence.


Matthew Arnold’s “Culture and Anarchy” is a significant work in literature and culture, offering influential ideas about what true culture is and how it impacts society. Arnold delves into the dangers of anarchy, the influence of Hebraism and Hellenism and emphasizes the state’s role in promoting genuine culture. His insights shed light on the challenges that Victorian England faced and are still relevant to today’s discussions on culture and societal progress.

Arnold encourages the pursuit of perfection, the cultivation of goodness and enlightenment and transcending societal divisions. These principles continue to motivate individuals and communities to strive for intellectual, moral and cultural excellence. “Culture and Anarchy” serves as a timeless reminder of how true culture can profoundly shape both individuals and society for the better.


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