T.S. Eliot: Culture and Anarchy

James Matthew Wilson

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The title of my talk today may strike some of you as curious, if not confused. One recognizes the name of the Nobel-prize-winning Anglo-American poet and critic, T.S. Eliot; one may recall also that, late in his career, he published a small book entitled Notes Toward the Definition of Culture (1948). But the phrase, “Culture and Anarchy” belongs to a different author altogether. For, this is the title of Victorian poet and critic Matthew Arnold’s most famous prose work. In its pages, he proclaimed culture to be the “pursuit of perfection” over against the materialism of the Philistine industrialists then transforming the topography and demography of British life. A political liberal, Arnold saw that democracy would bring power to the masses, and so to them also England must bring culture if anarchy were not to follow in its place. A skeptic regarding what he called religious “dogma,” Arnold believed that most of life consisted of “conduct” or morality, that most of religion did as well, and that literature was at once the highest expression of religion and, not incidentally, the touchstone for all morality. Again, anticipating an age of mass democracy and mass unbelief, Arnold intimated culture would become a new religion for the West, providing us with the secular scripture required for social order if our civilization was to survive. One may no longer believe Genesis, said Arnold, but the great masses may gain calm, consolation, and a desire for perfection, while reading Milton’s Paradise Lost of a Sunday.

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