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Culture and Its Discontents

Friday, November 5, 2010

Matthew Arnold understood that culture is a permanent invitation to all to stand upon the shoulders of giants who have gone before.

I’ve been reading Matthew Arnold’s essay “Culture and Anarchy,” which was published in parts in 1868 and in time was recognized as perhaps his most important contribution to our understanding of the word “culture” and its place in human life. It was in this essay that he defined culture, famously, as “the best which has been thought and known in the world.” Unfortunately, it was also in this essay that he characterized the ideal state of human development as one of “sweetness and light,” a phrase he actually borrowed from Jonathan Swift.

Arnold begins his essay by deploring the notion, eagerly promoted by the business- and action-oriented liberals of his day, that culture is mere dilettantism—a smattering of Greek and Latin, a fondness for belles lettres, and a complete absence of any practical ability whatsoever. The sense that culture is something slightly effeminate, or at least not truly manly, and an indulgence best left to certain enclaves of people already under suspicion, persists broadly into our day. It only serves to enforce the sense that, to the American ear, “sweetness and light” sounds all too like the caricature Mark Twain drew of the tea-sipping namby-pamby parson.

The sense that culture is something slightly effeminate, or at least not truly manly, and an indulgence best left to certain enclaves of people already under suspicion, persists broadly into our day.

Arnold distinguishes two general aspects of the human psyche, that concerned with conduct and action and such notions as rules and sin, and that concerned with knowledge and understanding. Fully developed individuals and societies are those, he says, in which both aspects receive their full due and are in balance.

The England of Arnold’s day was, in his view, lopsidedly absorbed and shaped by the former aspect, and he would doubtless say the same of contemporary America. This was, he says, a consequence of the focus of the dominant political class and its clients, the rising and rumbustious middle class, upon a narrow ideology and the policies promoting it. Without a more comprehensive, a more informed and thoughtful point of view, he tells us, such policies are as likely to fail of their ostensible objects as not. This more comprehensive, informed, thoughtful view is attained through culture, by which means alone an individual may achieve his most perfect self.

America has long been home to the cult of what used to be called the self-made man. By this phrase we have meant the man (or woman) who carves and scratches his way up from where he started, employing such native wit and cunning as he may have been blessed with, and resulting in some form of small-e empire: a business, a political fiefdom, great wealth. An Arnoldian would remind us how rare are true craftsmen in any field, the making of selves not excluded.

America has long been home to the cult of what used to be called the self-made man.

Of course, no man is truly self-made, not even in America. Everyone, even an American, arrives at self-consciousness having accepted much that was made before him—fire, the wheel, and various other material conveniences, along with language, arithmetic, and sundry other useful mental tools and disciplines. The man who excels in creating or manipulating material things is often richly rewarded by society. The man who inclines to explore further that latter sort of pre-existing goods, however, is apt to learn early in life that a great many of his peers do not so highly value them and that he opens himself to unflattering comment by his attention to them.

While reading “Culture and Anarchy” I found myself thinking, oddly, of Davy Crockett, he of the coonskin cap, he who “cilled a bar on this tree,” he who was finally among the dead at the Alamo. And he who took as his life’s motto “Be sure you’re right, then go ahead.” Not the most memorable of lines, certainly, and it is questionable whether it would be as familiar to us as it is but for the mid-20th-century revival of the Crockett story on television by Walt Disney and the late Fess Parker’s comfortable impersonation of him.

A Google search on the motto turns up, among the references to the Parker version of Crockett, a book titled The Hand Book of Illustrated Proverbs (and with the subtitle “Comprising also a Selection of Approved Proverbs of Various Nations and Languages, Ancient and Modern. Interspersed with Numerous Engravings and Descriptions: Adapted for the Use of All Ages and Classes of Persons”) by one John W. Barber, published in New York in 1857. Barber devotes two pages to this particular bit of wisdom, beginning with this verse:

If in the path of life, safe and correct you’d be,
Believe not all you hear, regard not all you see:
One says this way is right, the other says not so,
Come quickly here, this is the only path to go.
Be cautious all, abroad, mind where you tread,
Be not deceived, be sure you’re right, then go ahead.

He tells us that the proverb “is believed to be of American origin, and has come into use in quite modern times,” but he says nothing of Davy Crockett, dead only 20 years before. This may reflect indifferent research on Barber’s part, or it may simply be a very early instance of the coastal media elite’s disdain for anyone from flyover country.

Now, Davy Crockett was no Abe Lincoln, but he was something of a frontier politician. His skill as a hunter won him respect, and his homely and humorous manner on the stump won him votes, so he was able to spend a little time in the Tennessee legislature and then in the U.S. House of Representatives. His actual accomplishments were few, and he made the mistake of allying himself with the Whig Party, in opposition to Andrew Jackson’s Democrats. That ended his political career. It was then that he decided to go to Texas.

In both politics and in that last fateful decision, he was no doubt sure he was right. And, in some vague sense, he may have been, for it may be that martyrdom at the Alamo is what put him over the top, mythwise. Without that, he would perhaps have been just another Mike Fink, the legendary riverboatman whose fame faded with his century. But this is speculation. Given a second chance, we can certainly imagine Davy deciding to back Jackson or to skip that trip to San Antonio. We can suggest that, however sure he may have been, he wasn’t necessarily right.

Readers of a certain age will recall hearing Jimmie Dodd singing:

Proverbs, proverbs, they’re so true.
Proverbs tell us what to do.
Proverbs help us all to be
Better Mouseketeers.

What to do, but not how. Be sure you’re right. Easily said; not so easily accomplished. What, beyond native wit and cunning, might help?

Not, clearly, a smattering of Greek and Latin, nor the ability to recite in order the kings and queens of England. But a working acquaintance with the best that has been thought and known in the world? A familiarity with what has been supposed or proposed, and what has been argued cogently for or against it? The insight into human nature that comes from reading the best literature? As Arnold would surely not have said, it couldn’t hurt.

Culture is a permanent invitation to all to stand upon the shoulders of giants who have gone before. How sad is the spectacle of the man who spurns the invitation to climb to those shoulders! And how finally ridiculous is he when, moved perhaps by some pressing problem that does not yield to his rote formulas, he removes his blinders and complains that he cannot see the forest for the knees.

Robert McHenry is the former editor of Encyclopædia Britannica.

FURTHER READING: McHenry also authored "The Creedalists," explored "Marx, Hubbard, and the Totalitarian Impulse," and mourns "The Death of the Cool." Charles Murray explains how “The Tea Party Warns of a New Elite. They Are Right,” Ayaan Hirsi Ali discusses “How to Win the Clash of Civilizations,” and Roger Scruton considers “Shocking the Bourgeoisie.”

Image by Darren Wamboldt/Bergman Group.

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