Sweetness and Light

The Industrial Revolution, along side the obvious technological and economic changes, implied a tectonic shift in how we see and interact with the world and each other. This because the “modes of production” changed. And you don’t have to be an orthodox Marxist jabbering about base and superstructure to understand that how and where you make what you need to survive effects your and your societies entire way of life.

The idea of ‘culture’ dates back to the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution. In earlier times, culture was something that might be applied to an individual (probably an aristocrat), but no concept of ‘culture’ as:

  1. the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively.
  2. the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society.

existed. The Industrial Revolution alienated workers from their products; the move from the farm or the market or the sea to a factory was a shock. Rabid demand for labour brought the bulk of populations into major urban centers. This time (1750-1850, say) is also the rise of the middle class, and the so called Bourgeoisie Revolutions (American, French, 1848); there is a perception among elites all over Europe that commerce, industry, and some sort of middle-class led democracy is the wave of the future. Our modern idea of culture is a response to these huge changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution.

NPG x127404; Matthew Arnold by Elliott & Fry

Matthew Arnold, an English poet, and more importantly, a literary and social critic, is the height of English Victorian middle class social commentary. His ideas and writings about culture are, from our sobered post-modern perspective, a bit prone to hyperbole and naive. “Culture,” he writes in Culture And Anarchy, “is properly described not as having its origin in curiosity, but as having its origin the love of perfection; it is a study of perfection.” This quote is from the essay entitled “Sweetness and Light” and it is thus from Arnold that we get that phrase.

He is also well know for being the popularization of the term of “philistines”. As he is concerned with culture, its study, accumulation, and how to spread it and teach it to as many people as possible, he coins three euphemisms for the three major class of English society at the time. The aristocracy were termed “barbarians” in reference to their wild and implosive ways; their dated leadership of the nation. The “philistines” are England’s large and politically emerging middle class, which Arnold describes as being the least educated in Europe. They love vulgar entertainments, and Arnold feels they need to be groomed by public education to make them a viable ruling class. The last class is the “populace” which connotes workers, farmers, etc.

What interested me the most was his astute observation about the role of “Hellenism” and “Hebraism”. These strains of thought, or conceptions of humanity and belief, often contrasting, from the fundamental tensions of Western society, says Arnold (I think he’s definitely on to something). Hellenism is anything that is conceded with aesthetics; beauty, spontaneity, aristocratic panache and virtue. “The uppermost idea with Hellenism is to see things as they real are; the uppermost idea with Hebraisim is conduct and obedience.” Hebraism emphasizes moral thought and action, duty, and keeping the law. “The governing idea of Hellenism is spontaneity of consciousness; that of Hebraism, strictness of conscience.” Noting that public speakers will invariably promote one or the other, he stress that both strains of equal importance.

Arnold, ultimately, represents a height, an apex. He is the voice of a certain way of seeing society and the world that, while our way of living today is based on it his way of seeing things, we no longer really believe it ourselves. I want to agree with Arnold.

 matthew-arnold

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