The Role of the Individual in Matthew Arnold’s “Culture and Anarchy”

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The Role of the Individual in Matthew Arnold’s “Culture and Anarchy”

Culture, as defined by Matthew Arnold in his essay “Culture and Anarchy,” is the drive to attain perfection through development and growth bolstered by knowledge and appreciation of the beauty of humanity. Granted, this is an oversimplification of Arnold’s complex musings on what culture is, but this broad concept of culture, here, is useful in the discussion of the role of the individual in society. Ideally, for Arnold, those that perpetuate this idea of culture are the same people who ought to comprise a kind of rational control within the State. Arnold works to define the three classes of 19th century England (Barbarians, Philistines, and Populace), and makes it clear, following his conditions for culture, that none of the classes have the appropriate means to govern properly. Arnold says, “It seeks to do away with classes; to make the best that has been thought and known in the world current everywhere.” Ostensibly, it is up to the individual to transcend their class, and nurture the State in a utilitarian fashion. However, the chasm between the maturation of the individual and the ultimate betterment of the community seems daunting.

Arnold’s ideal culture originates with the individual, as it is “a study of perfection,” which is “an inward condition of the mind and spirit.” Yet, “Perfection, as culture conceives it, is not possible while the individual remains isolated,” because, it is necessary, in order to obtain a collective perfection, that there be a ready exchange of ideas and sense of commonality. How can the potential danger of isolation via individualism be curbed? Additionally, Arnold is aware that a weighty facet of individualism is that people are concerned with, and believe in, having their personal freedoms—the “right to do what [one] likes.” This assumption of personal freedom can, according to Arnold, lead to anarchy.

It looks, then, as if there must be a...
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