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Culture and Anarchy

3.45  ·  Rating details ·  839 ratings  ·  62 reviews
Matthew Arnold's famous series of essays, which were first published in book form under the title Culture and Anarchy in 1869, debate important questions about the nature of culture and society. Arnold seeks to find out what culture really is, what good it can do, and if it is really necessary. He contrasts culture, which he calls the study of perfection, with anarchy, the ...more
Paperback, Oxford World's Classics, 221 pages
Published June 15th 2009 by Oxford University Press (first published 1869)
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Feb 03, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: reviewed
But what is greatness?— culture makes us ask. Greatness is a spiritual condition worthy to excite love, interest, and admiration; and the outward proof of possessing greatness is that we excite love, interest, and admiration.

Matthew Arnold's Culture and Anarchy was an odd book to come back to in these times of talk about making things "great" again. I had first read the book way back when I was at university. Back then, I read the book with the purpose of finding arguments for and against differ
E. G.
Note on the Text
Select Bibliography
A Chronology of Matthew Arnold

--Culture and Anarchy

Appendix: Henry Sidgwick, 'The Prophet of Culture'
Explanatory Notes
I don't know where to even begin with this book. It is glorious and meaningful, useful, worthy and important - and it is also horrifying in its use of elitist rhetoric (we're here to perfect ourselves, didn't you know? and that's possible through cultural education! Perfection!), its colonial project (where an "epoch of expansion" is related not just to consciousness, but gets tacked on to a middle class progress narrative), not to mention the false parallels it draws between Jewish and Greek cu ...more
May 12, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Reason -- "Sweetness and Light" -- Culture -- Perfection -- for Arnold these terms are nearly synonymous, and all underlie the same central claim: the cause of disorder is both identifiable and curable. Arnold's goal here is not to propose a specific program of reform but, as he says in Democracy, to "invite impartial reflections." While Arnold does not precisely live up to his own asserted impartiality, his essay does seem constructed to persuade rather than to argue. This results from a combin ...more
Hal Johnson
Too much culture, not enough anarchy.
Feb 23, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
When it comes to pure malicious wit, nobody beats Matthew Arnold, not even Jonathan Swift. The six short essays in Culture and Anarchy would have long passed out of print if they were not such fun. The first three essays take aim at all segments of society: the working, middle and aristocratic classes; leftwing, centrist and rightwing politicians; England, Europe and America; Nonconformists and conformists.

Evidently, even today, some people are sulky about Arnold’s poison-dipped sword, but he g
Mar 07, 2019 rated it did not like it
Shelves: owned, uni
Literally couldn't read more than 5 pages at a time without losing track, and even within those 5 pages kept getting distracted. 1/5 would not recommend, also still only have a very vague sense of what it was about. ...more
Adrian Colesberry
Arnold's idea of culture could not be less in vogue these days. As it is always salutary to read the out-of-vogue, I strongly recommend this book to everyone. Today, culture is used to mean what used to be called society or even traditional society. This entire book is Arnold's bid for culture to mean the collection of all that is best and perfect in the world and the agreed-upon commitment to develop that perfection even further, an idea that today we can only weakly express with the word civil ...more
I don't know how to rate this. There is good writing and very intelligent ideas (regarding culture), but they are overshadowed by the alarming conservatism of it all (the middle class with their tea rooms, disgusting!) and silly concepts (light, sweetness?). Also, too much love for the Establishment and Academies. It just amazes me that someone who is apparently so intelligent can say things like everybody is either Barbarians, Philistines or Populace except for men of culture, who are above cla ...more
Christopher Rush
Indeed, yes. Though this is somewhat different from what you think it is going to be, based on your limited knowledge for what Arnold is arguing, and thus one could find it somewhat disappointing, but it should not be disappointing. What was somewhat surprising was Arnold's great phrase "the best of what's been thought and said" appears so soon in the book, in the preface, and then is never mentioned again. Arnold more often mentions the importance of letting one's reason play freely over issues ...more
Michael Percy
Dec 07, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: reviewed
I had heard others speak of this book as if it were a cult classic. Any wonder. There are so many things going on in this work. I am still trying to see where Matthew Arnold fits in with the likes of Edmund Burke, John Stuart Mill, David Ricardo, Thomas Malthus, and Herbert Spencer. He was a professor of poetry by profession, and his niece, Mrs Humphrey Ward, became a metonym for a conservative wowser. So he was hardly a John Stuart Mill, yet he was also rather short of being a Herbert Spencer. ...more
Fred Dameron
May 15, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I'm extremely glad that my youngest recommended this series of essays to me. For those of us who believe in thought instead of blind obedience to a ruling elite this is a must read. Arnolds "Culture and Anarchy" has as many lessons for the reader of 2017 as it had for the reader in 1860's. Arnold cuts society into three classes. Barbarians, the ruling elite, Philistines, the middle class trying to ape the elite, and the masses. Arnold further divides these classes into Hebraists and Hellenistic. ...more
Jerry Wall
Anarchy implies unpleasantness in society while culture is seen as the best way to deal with others in society. He does get lost in religion and the religion of his day.'

Culture is then properly described not as having its origen in curiosity but in a study of perfection. It moves by the force, not merely or primarily of the moral and social passion for doing good.
Wilhelm von Humboldt, one of the most beautiful and perfect souls that have ever existed, used to say that one's business in life wa
Piers Haslam
Mar 22, 2019 rated it liked it
Obviously this is more an intriguing historical relic than anything. That said, there are some really interesting points about the tension between the desire to do good and be moral and the more sedate pursuit of knowledge. Although Arnold puts these in terms of 'Hebraism' and 'Hellenism', we can easily broaden these themes out to think about this fascinating relationship. Along with Ruskin, this has really helped me get a tangible sense of Victorian outlooks on the society. ...more
Matthew Gurteen
Mar 21, 2020 rated it it was ok
I usually can forgive eighteenth and nineteenth-century philosophy if I disagree with so long as it is well written. This simply was not though. I think Arnold has a few interesting points about finding your 'best self' and some interesting discussions on religion, but most of the time it's just unsupported, and often contradictory, rambling. I think it can be enjoyed more as a historical artifact rather than for any other reason. ...more
Ellana Thornton-Wheybrew
The phrase "of its time" springs to mind.

He does go into quite a bit of detail about the laws regarding marrying a dead wife's sister. A little too much detail.

I found it interesting that, in the preface, Arnold suggests that America is so smart because it has shaken off the shackles of religion.
Sep 23, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A bit rambling, but still a classic.
Dorothy Himberc
Almost every idea in this book horrifies me. But, while indulgently, it isn't poorly written. ...more
Katie Boe
Big yikes. Did Arnold cherry-pick his own argument? The Greeks were also pioneers in technology.... He seems to have overlooked that....
I. Sweetness and Light
IV. Hebraism and Hellenism
Andrew Noselli
Jan 26, 2021 rated it it was ok
I had mistaken purchased its reputation as an example of early modern literary criticism. Wrong !
Danushka Devinda
Mar 05, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I mark it as read, as I trudged through 100pages for nearly a week. N extremely difficult read. Some good moderately easy to understand passages every now again that makes you happy, but overall a difficult text. I am not a lazy reader. Sadly, I have to stop reading this.
Tim McKay
I believe even for the time in which this book was written the author's prose was dated but what would expect from a man who promotes "being" and loathes "becoming."

Did Mr. Arnold come up with the phrase "do as you are told", if he didn't he was a definite disciple.
Aug 07, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Interesting, but not complete. His social criticism of the late 1800s remains relevant today. The anarchical, destructive tendencies of socialism; the closed minded, overly "mechanistic", and materialistic tendencies of liberalism; and the corrupt and dying Toryism of his day. His defense of elevated culture is great, how it needs both "Hellenism" (philosophy) and "Hebraism" (morality/religion), to urge people towards better lives. His view of religion, however, is that it exists as an expressio ...more
Ali Nazifpour
Mar 23, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
"Culture and Anarchy" is a book written in 1875. Yet, it's a very relevant book today. If you look past the vocabulary, you'd have no idea, based on the content, that it's not written in 2014. The main crust is a defense of "culture", that is philosophy and other intellectual pursuits. It opposes the anti-intellectual attitudes that are rampant even today, and in our poisonous environment of postmodernism and postcolonialism and cultural relativism reading this book is very interesting. I also f ...more
Fred R
Dec 17, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Many of the specific categories and oppositions he sets up don't seem to hold water, but I wholeheartedly endorse the general thrust of the argument. Of every human product it can be asked: "does this build up civilization, or tear it down?"

To give you a sense of his thought processes:

"So all our fellow-men, in the East of London and elsewhere, we must take along with us in the progress towards perfection, if we ourselves really, as we profess, want to be perfect; and we must not let the worshi
Marts  (Thinker)
Matthew Arnold's collected essays, previously published periodically as magazine articles.
The time is Victorian England and Arnold contrasts culture; an avenue to breaking down humanity's barriers and a means of creating human perfection, with anarchy; a mood of unrest resulting from certain elements of the modern life.
Therefore since through the decades perfection has not been achieved through culture, anarchic tendencies have developed...

"without order there can be no society and without socie
Sep 01, 2015 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This essay collection sat on my shelf for a good couple years and might never had seen the light of day if I hadn't been surprised by its being mentioned in Ulysses. I think I only ordered it to round out the rest of my remaining balance on an Amazon giftcard. Although the essays push their points from a specific national view, the main thrust is something always of value and that is the endeavoring spirit of curiousity. Arnold seeks a return to the inventive Hellenic disposition for he senses a ...more
Ade Bailey
Jun 06, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Reading again, after many years in the wilderness of cultural studies bitterness, that home for frustrated and hateful spoilt brats all over the rich world. Undergraduates are taught to sneer at this book (of course, on the basis of a two or three page extract), in the beginning of their indoctrination into despising of the literary. There is, it is true, much to object to, but the light irony of its writing is delight and powerful of itslf: the issues it deals with frighteningly familiar themes ...more
Feb 03, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: cultural-theory
This is 19th Century wit at its absolute best, and a wonderful work of cultural and political criticism (if not one that might find much more favor now than at the time it was written). Arnold's conclusions are frequently not those that I would advocate, and his analysis is not that of a thoroughly principled philosopher (as he freely admits), but there's a great deal of brilliance here, and one would be foolish to discount the entire work simply because it might not always agree with one's own ...more
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Matthew Arnold was an English poet, sage writer and cultural critic who worked as an inspector of schools. He was the son of Thomas Arnold, the famed headmaster of Rugby School, and brother to Tom Arnold, literary professor, and William Delafield Arnold, novelist and colonial administrator.

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“The whole scope of the essay is to recommend culture as the great help out of our present difficulties; culture being a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world, and, through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits, which we now follow staunchly but mechanically, vainly imagining that there is a virtue in following them staunchly which makes up for the mischief of following them mechanically. This, and this alone, is the scope of the following essay.” 3 likes
“For what can give a finer example of that frankness and manly self- confidence which our great public schools, and none of them so much as Eton, are supposed to inspire, of that buoyant ease in holding up one's head, speaking out what is in one's mind, and flinging off all sheepishness and awkwardness, than to see an Eton assistant-master offering in fact himself as evidence that to combine boarding-house- keeping with teaching is a good thing, and his brother as evidence that to train and race little boys for competitive examinations is a good thing?” 3 likes
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