Oxford poetry professor and later Britain’s inspector of schools, Matthew Arnold (1822-1866), sought to uplift his nation’s citizenry. A popular writer whose profound works carry much relevance for the U.S today, he often repeated the following phase: “Not a having and a resting, but a growing and a becoming is the character of perfection as culture conceives it. The pursuit of perfection, then, is the pursuit of sweetness and light.” Borrowing Jonathan Swift’s phrase, “sweetness and light,” Arnold meant it to be the ancient Greek ideal of a perfectly well-rounded nature in people. Sweetness meant the love of beauty, both material and spiritual, and Light, unbiased intelligence – the two to join and have the freest play.
On religious ethics, Arnold felt that morals and conduct were overemphasized to the neglect of New Testament love and concern for others. On democracy, he believed that political rivalry and self-interest were dangerously insufficient and destructive, that a free people should rise to the objective scrutiny of ideas and those in power as well as to do what is good for society. On religion, he wrote poems, such as “Dover Beach,” which analyzed the problems of seclusion (ignorance, self-indulgence and depression) that accompanied dwindling faith. His religious concerns a source of anxiety for him, in several essays he sought to establish the essential, positive truths of Christianity. Arnold took John Donne’s timeless line, “No man is an island, entire of itself” to heart. Criticizing the mind-set of many that gave little will and thought to uplifting self and society, he argued that a vibrant culture of people would “make the best that has been thought and known in the world current everywhere; to make all men live in an atmosphere of sweetness and light.”
Al Yee, Missoula