Mar 1, 2011

Matthew Arnold at the Book Club

Some time back. I recounted portions of discussions that took place when the Cumberland County Library Great Books Club read Immanuel Kant's essay Towards Perpetual Peace.  As a philosopher by both profession and inclination, I was very interested to see what non-academic educated, interested, attentive readers would make of that classic philosophical work.  In explaining that interest, I mentioned a notion found (though not originated) in Alasdair MacIntyre's thought -- the idea and experience of  taking what "plain persons" make of things as one important criterion, all too often ignored or disparaged (at other times idolatrously invoked) by academic types.  That entry, somewhat surprisingly to me, has occupied a place each month among the most read in my blog (explanation as to why that is so, perhaps someone will suggest in a comment?)  So, since we had another rather philosophical text to explore together, I thought I'd add another post to what threatens to become a series  (next month, William James' essay "Pragmatism" -- how can I resist writing on that?)

This month's reading selection consisted in portions from Matthew Arnold's Culture and Anarchy, a work which I freely cop to not having read but only read references to -- one of those someday-to-be-remedied gaps in my education, though shamefully not of my library:  the sections "Sweetness and Light," "Doing as One Likes," "Barbarians, Philistines, Populace, and Hebraism and Hellenism."  Only four of us made it this time -- scheduling conflicts, family visits, thunder and lightening threats of a real downpour last night, all pruned our numbers -- myself, the librarian who coordinates the club, and two other locals, one a former military man, the other a transplanted French woman.

Predictably, the discussion ranged over many points and passages of the text, ran off on a few fruitful tangents, and came back to its implications or applications for contemporary affairs.  The very first remark that was made -- I'll report that one, and just summarize the others, because this one was rather striking -- was stylistic:  Arnold used self-deprecation well as a device (specifically in the section "Doing As One Likes"), listing criticisms made against his "religion of culture" from various sides, and then addressing them, showing that he understood but could not agree with his opponents and why.  By engaging in such measured dialogue, by granting the relative rightness of opposing views and only then pointing out their shortcomings, by profit[ing] by the objections I have heard and read," Arnold thereby models aspects of the very stance of culture he espouses.

As with so many other thinkers there is a certain degree of schematicism to Arnold's thought, and this has its good and its bad points.  His distinction between classes, their common and proper objects of concern, their good and bad proclivities and potentials, their distinctive insufficiently cultured types -- these seemed quite valuable and on track to us.  The notions of Hellenism or Hebraism on the other hand, seemed rather suspect, and the view that races could be identified with such broad cultural orientations entirely hogwash (to use a nice period term).

I pointed out that even in the discipline of philosophy itself, the Greeks were never actually Hellenes in the sense Arnold gives the term, where its "uppermost idea" is "to see things as they really are" in opposition to "conduct and obedience." Among so many other (Leo Strauss' notion of Logos vs. Torah comes to mind) Emile Brehier, whose multivolume History of Philosophy still lines many a library shelf (and over all, is quite good") makes a similar distinction and a similar mistake -- to which his fellow philosophers pointed out:  What about the Stoics?  The Epicureans? The Skeptics?  In all these -- and so many other major Greek philosophical schools -- the ethical, the practical is not so neatly extricable from the metaphysical or the epistemological.

Why are such schemas, contrasting ethical and the conceptual foundations and aims, relied upon?  They neatly order our thinking about things, allowing us to engage in deductive reasoning.  So-and-so is a Hebraic type, because he is a Reformer -- then we know all about the person and what he will be doing, what his motivation will be . . . . There's always a danger to this sort of classificatory schematic, an approach that still finds so many adherents in our time (though thankfully, a little less with race or religion as its determinant distinguisher), and seemed so attractive to thinkers of Arnold's time.  As one of the members pointed out, they were the inheritors of the Enlightenment, including a sort of faith in the efficacy of "scientific" classification.

As an aside, I do have to say that upon retrospect, I do find one imaginative comparison Arnold makes in "Hellenism and Hebraism" well worth exploring later -- particularly in comparison to Nietzsche's and Kierkegaard's portrayals of Socrates.  He attributes to Carlyle:
a very happy saying, whether it is really Mr. Carlyle's or not -- which excellently makes the essential point in which Hebraism differs from Hellenism.  "Socrates," this saying goes "is  terribly at ease in Zion." Hebraism -- and here is the source of its wonderful strength -- has always been severely preoccupied with an awful sense of the impossibility of being at ease in Zion.
Returning to the club discussion, the contrast between a sort of enlightenment, secularizing perspective fundamentally reliant on and confident in rationality and a perspective rooted in -- and ever returning as a source and guide for its rationality to -- revealed religion turned the conversation towards Islam considered not just as religion but also in terms of culture, and towards the uncertain and complex revolution ongoing in the Middle East.

A number of scholars have at different times suggested that one prerequisite for easier relations between Islam and modernity (as conceived of in the West -- a big assumption made, in my view, that there's one model of what we ought to call "modernity") would be Islam undergoing something akin to the Protestant Reformation, which not only questioned, but fractured and diffused religious authority, thereby creating opportunities for the freedom which led to western liberal democracy and its ways of life as we know it today.  Certainly in Arnold's schematic philosophy of history progress is articulated along those lines -- and as a Catholic and a medievalist, I have to admit bristling while reading his dismissal of an entire period as mere Dark Ages -- but can Islam fit into that schema of Hellenism and Hebraism?

I pointed out that a problem other scholars had raised with the idea of an Islamic Reformation is that, at least for the Sunni world, there is no central figure, no single institution, no hierarchy to react against, to evaluate and find wanting in light of the holy, revealed scripture.  For the Shia, of course, there is such a possibility, as another group member pointed out, but their minority status and the fundamental divisions between Sunni and Shia would preclude such a Reformation, were it to take place from being viewed as applicable to Muslims considered as a whole.

Talk of the Shia brought up Iran, and that turned the conversation towards the developments taking place day by day in the Muslim Middle East.  I suspect that Arnold's categories, despite a seductive appearance of applicability, really are not that home or useful there -- matters are much more complicated and call for concepts both more numerous and more closely contoured to the realities --  but there is a utility also in trying them out in conversation, stretching them, and then realizing that they don't really fit.  That line of discussion was closed by one of those incisive and illuminating remarks which rings with a certain unmistakable truth, but which one quickly finds oneself at a loss to unfold:  what many of the protesters are effectively giving voice to is not that they want a democratic, military-autorcratic, or Sharia regime, but something more basic.  They are saying: "Enough! We want to live like people!"

We couldn't go, of course, without talking about Arnold's tripartite class analysis, articulated on Aristotelian lines of virtues as happy means contrasted with vices of excess and deficiency.  The upper class, for instance, divide out thus:
[I]f the perfect and virtuous mean of that fine spirit which is the distinctive quality of aristocracies, is to be found in a high, chivalrous style, and its excess in a fierce turn for resistance, that its defect must lie in a spirit not bold and high enough, and in an excessive and pusillanimous unaptness for resistance.
Virtues of the middle class (the one Arnold acknowledges as his own) include "that force by which our middle class has done its great works, and of that self-reliance with which it contemplates itself and them."  Its excesses are an excessive individualism, a fanaticism about holding one's own opinion; its deficits, a sort of servility or an enervated ineptitude for works.  The lower, working class ought to rightly develop and use its powers of sympathy and action -- Arnold does not spend so much space in this essay on that class as he does the others in this essay -- and presumably its vices consist in a lack of any refinement, order, consideration for something other than brutish satisfactions.

Each of the classes faces, and typically gives into, temptations which cut its members off from something higher, something better, something altogether transcending, though incorporating the virtues of, the classes.  Arnold calls this "culture," the "pursuit of perfection".  When members of those classes succumb to those temptations, they become (or remain) the types Arnold calls "Barbarians," "Philistines," or "Populace."  A common structure of motivation marks all of them.
All of us so far as we are Barbarians, Philistines or Populace, imagine happiness to consist in doing what one's ordinary self likes.  What one's ordinary self likes differs according to the class to which one belongs, and has its severer and its lighter side.
In each of these, there is a distinctive failure of practical reasoning that eclipses, truncates, channels desires and apprehension of what is basically good.  Barbarians will focus either on "honors and consideration" or "field sports and pleasure."  Philistines are drawn towards "fanaticism, business, and moneymaking" or towards "comfort and tea meetings."  The Populace,"bawling hustling, and smashing,"or, alternately, "beer."  All of these, in their own ways, are or can be good things, enjoyable at least.  And in all of them lies the possibility of not looking to anything higher, deeper, more valuable, of getting caught up in what Arnold terms "machinery," things instrumentally good or valuable which are mistakenly turned into ends in themselves (in which he even includes freedom) -- a utilitarian perspective, broadly speaking.  Beyond class lines and preoccupations, however, lies possibilities for engaging and pursuing what is of greater, intrinsic value:
in each class there are born a certain number of natures with a curiosity about their best self, with a bent for seeing thing as they are, for disentangling themselves from machinery, for simply concerning themselves with reason and the will of God, and doing their best to make these prevail -- for the pursuit, in a word, of perfection. . . Natures with this bent emerge in all classes -- among the Barbarians, among the Philistines, among the Populace.  And this bent always tends to take them out of their class, and to make their distinguishing characteristic not their  Barbarism or their Philistinism, but their humanity.
These are people, he goes on, "who are mainly not led by their class spirit, but a general humane spirit, by their love of human perfection."

Arnold was a major proponent of a humanistic education, that is, one in which the disciplines and the works of the humanities figure centrally and determinately.  Philosophy, history, politics (not political science), literature, rhetoric, religious studies (and to be sure in the arts as well) -- in these we introduce (or least many of us do) students to great, worthwhile works that speak to, cajole, elicit, even bemoan their common humanity -- something that requires cultivation, unfolding, work, sometimes disciplining and decision -- also something that is not just within the student but requires the student to go outside of themselves into something or someone else, to learn, to appreciate, to commune.

By its very nature, a book group is likely to draw people who see matters, particularly of education, along lines of this sort, and the discussion ended with some conversational reflection on the present generation in our colleges and universities.  As a professor, I find something very attractive in Arnold's articulation of culture not as an acquisition, nor as just an openminded stance, but as the pursuit of perfection (not least since it hearkens back to Plato, Aristotle, Augustine. . . .), a recognition of intrinsic value residing in cultural products and works, value that cannot be hoarded, purchased, but can only be acquired by effort, by opening and even sometimes subordinating oneself to an Other that has so much to reveal, but only to those who approach in the right way, with curiosity, eagerness, even love -- even to ask the ever-present student (and all to often faculty) question "what is this good for?" blows a cold wind that shrinks the petals back protectively around the prize.

And I wondered out loud:  "How can I get my students to see that?"  To sense that, not just something but so many somethings wonderful always right in front of them, just requiring they make use of the amazing opportunities they are being provided -- even at a very low-tier institution like mine, one can find the professors who know, care, communicate; one can read the books, marvel, reflect, and grow; one can hear the music; one can see the artwork; one can learn other languages, hear their resonances, read their stories -- and on most of our students (as I suspect in most places) these opportunities to engage things of intrinsic value, and to be oneself changed in the process are entirely tossed aside.

There are causes for this, of course -- and in his essays, Arnold stressed the need to create conditions in which culture could thrive -- and we touched on why so many colleges and universities are ineffective in leading students to anything remotely like what Arnold called "culture."  Marginalization of the humanities in so many ways is one main cause.  Instead of supplying a real core of an education, the humanities are passed over in favor of much more vocational, Arnoldian "machinery," fields;  education (which one would think could foster a genuine humanism, but which more typically stymies it) , business, law, engineering, medicine, (and in many cases) natural sciences and social sciences.  The humanities themselves are reduced to mere means to ends of getting by, graduating, "being educated"  in a shallow sense.  Professors in the humanities who alienate their students, who simply push ideologies, who take every opportunity to tear down, "unmask," deconstruct the few bits of culture students are lucky enough to encounter in their education certainly do not help matters either.

There are issues of student motivation as well -- to get anything out of, say a Sophocles play, one has to first actually read it -- and many show up to class without doing even that -- and one must read it attentively.  Then one must allow oneself to be drawn into it, without making excuses about its seeming lack of "relevance" to oneself -- trusting that if people of all sorts off cultures, of all walks of life, could come to love that dramatic work, there must be something worthwhile there -- long enough for one to glimpse at least some facet of its intrinsic value.  One must be, or force oneself to be, generous with time, effort, attention, rather than just egoistically expecting the other to appeal to, to entertain, essentially to pleasure oneself.  The present generation of students as a whole -- in America, not everywhere -- appears singularly unequipped for exercising such necessary generosity.

We didn't come up with solutions -- we're just a book club after all! -- and I'd be very interested to read comments of anyone who has even an inkling of one.  We did though find Arnold's thought helpful in articulating this problem in a way getting at the fundamental issues, and that for me -- aside from the pleasure of exploring another thinker's reflections  -- certainly rendered it a good read and linchpin for discussion.