Post-Enlightenment Culture

‘Religion says: The kingdom of God is within you; and culture, in like manner, places human perfection in an internal condition, in the growth and predominance of our humanity proper, as distinguished from our animality.’ (Matthew Arnold, Culture and Anarchy) To what, in your opinion, does Matthew Arnold give primacy: ‘culture’ or ‘religion’? Arnold gives primacy to ‘culture’ in Culture and Anarchy, especially in the chapter entitled ‘Sweetness and Light’.

However, we must firstly decide what Arnold means by ‘culture’, a word that has so many connotations yet is so hard to define precisely. The difficulty inherent to this word is due to its relative nature. What one person calls ‘culture’ another may view as mere vanity or elitism; by the same rationale what someone else calls ‘culture’ may be described as mere middle-class populism. Ultimately there is no empirical definition that can fully describe all aspects of it, and to further the complexity of this linguistical problem, ‘culture’ is always changing. Therefore, in order to come to the decision that Arnold gives ‘culture’ primacy over ‘religion’, we must accept his definitions as a subjective truth, relative to his time.

Arnold’s first definition of ‘culture’ is that it is the fruit of ‘genuine scientific passion ‘. By this he means the thirst for knowledge, the desire to improve our understanding of the world we live in. He leaves no space for religion in this view of ‘culture’, and so it could be argued that ‘culture’ is superior to ‘religion’. However, this is an over-simplified description of ‘culture’, a fact that Arnold immediately recognises and amends. Therefore, the evidence provided by this initial definition for the primacy of ‘culture’ is by no means conclusive.

Arnold modifies his definition of ‘culture’ to ‘a study of perfection’. He envisions this as a combination of scientific research and morality, [Culture] moves by the force, not merely or primarily of the scientific passion for pure knowledge, but also of the moral and social passion for doing good. In this way knowledge and (Arnold’s belief in) Man’s beneficence merge to create ‘culture’. Although I have decided that Arnold thought higher of ‘culture’ than ‘religion’, Arnold’s insistence on a high level of morality to achieve this glorious age of enlightenment should not be underestimated. Indeed, in order to reach the heights of ‘culture’, a state that Arnold believed needed to be attained by, as opposed to already encompassing, the society he lived in, a ‘high level of morality is indispensable’.

As such, a difficult aspect of determining Arnold’s positioning of ‘culture’ and ‘religion’ is what he meant by ‘religion’. Arnold believed in morality and …the love of our neighbour, the impulses towards action, help and beneficence, the desire for removing human error, clearing human confusion, and diminishing human misery, the noble aspiration to leave the world better and happier than we found it…

These are all positive notions than one would generally align with the tenets of Christianity, indeed this feeling is enforced by his Biblical quotation of ‘love thy neighbour’. However, to Arnold these ‘Christian’ feelings are more Humanist than religious, and whilst he appreciates most of the efforts of ‘religion, that voice of the deepest human experience’, he still rails against the Church and the Protestantism of his time.

He likens his society’s reliance upon religious organisations to a dependence on machinery, and excessive reliance upon machinery is the nemesis of culture, according to Arnold’s beliefs. Pre-empting the idea of commodity fetishism, Arnold believes faith in machinery is ‘our besetting danger’, as the regard in which wealth and industry is held is disproportional to the intrinsic value; their cultural value approached zero. Therefore, if religious organisations are also machinery then they lack any cultural value and must rank lower than ‘culture’.

Another reason religious organisations fall short of being cultural is because they fail to realise that it requires a well rounded and multi-faceted populous to achieve ‘culture’. According to Arnold, [Culture] is a harmonious expansion of all the powers which make the beauty and worth of human nature, and is not consistent with the over-development of any one power at the expense of the rest.

Religion fails to produce this well rounded being as it concentrates on the negative aspects of humanity in a bid to tame them. Instead of concentrating on the idealistic trinity of ‘beauty, harmony, and complete human perfection’ they strive to ‘conquer the obvious faults of our animality and human nature perfect on the moral side’. Arnold presents this as being oppressive rather than en-lightening through the use of the word ‘conquer’. This indicates how he saw the Church, as representative of religious organisations, failing to make any attempt to create spiritual growth from within people, and he believes that whilst we still use the Church as a moral crutch we can never progress culturally.

Arnold states that culture must be a ‘general expansion’, as over-development of any one of the ‘voices’ of human experience is detrimental to society as a whole, and these voices, ‘art, science, poetry, philosophy, history, as well as religion’ should all be commensurate in the individual and the masses. In this way Arnold believes that ‘culture goes beyond religion, as religion is generally conceived by us’.

I believe this is proof positive that Arnold gives primacy to ‘culture’, but even this is not unproblematic because of the appendage of ‘as generally conceived by us’. This could be seen as a disclaimer of sorts, as Arnold would certainly have wished to avoid accusations of irreligiousness, and the possibility of legal action against him. However, it could also point to a special conception some people may have of religion, which allows it to out rank ‘culture’. But, even if this is the case, Arnold’s previous argument would negate the possibility of this level of belief really being superior to ‘culture’, as the expansion of ‘culture’ must be an overall expansion, and this minority would be contrary to the general move towards a higher cultural epoch.

Indeed, Arnold believes that ‘religion’ is only one of the many ‘voices of human experience’, so it is a sub-division of ‘culture’. Only when it is combined with the arts and sciences is the entity ‘culture’ created. At some stages in Culture and Anarchy, ‘culture’ and ‘religion’ appear to be equally rated by Arnold, but even then an underlying argument can be found for the supremacy of ‘culture’.

For example, Arnold calls religion ‘the greatest and most important of the efforts by which the human race has manifested its impulse to perfect itself’. So, at first impressions, it would appear that ‘religion’ has primacy over ‘culture’. However, as has already been noted, the desire to perfect ourselves is one of the most crucial element of ‘culture’, according to Arnold. Therefore, this quote can be de-constructed to ‘religion is merely a manifestation of our inner desire for culture’, rather than being its spiritual better.

Arnold does say that religious organisations have worked on a greater scale for mankind’s benefit than poetry, another ‘voice of human experience’, and a kindred spirit of ‘culture’, I have called religion a yet more important manifestation of human nature than poetry, because it has worked on a broader scale for perfection, and with greater masses of men. However, if the past belongs to ‘religion’, the future belongs to poetry. Arnold believes that poetry seeks to make ‘sweetness and light…characters of perfection’, and if this idealism could be added to ‘the religious idea of a devout energy’ then this would create an uber-culture, capable of transforming and governing sociological changes, including the role of religion in society.

In conclusion, Arnold sees ‘culture’ as an invaluable aid to the find the ideal state of consciousness for mankind, and to achieve this he believes in the endless expansion of our understanding, knowledge, reasoning and morality. However, can this ideal ever be reached if the desire for expansion is endless? Surely it is paradoxical because if Arnold believes in the capability of infinite improvement, then there can be no end. We can always get better, but never be the best. This, however, is still no bad thing, as it means we should never stop progressing and evolving.

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