On the Modern Element in Literature by Mathew Arnold | Full Text

Mathew Arnold's Essay On the Modern Element in Literature Full Text

On the Modern Element in Literature Text

It is related in one of those legends which illustrate the history of Buddhism, that a certain disciple once presented himself before his master, Buddha, with the desire to be permitted to undertake a mission of peculiar difficulty. The compassionate teacher represented to him the obstacles to be surmounted and the risks to be run. Pourna – so the disciple was called–insisted, and replied, with equal humility and adroitness, to the successive objections of his adviser. Satisfied at last by his answers of the fitness of his disciple, Buddha accorded to him the desired permission; and dismissed him to his task with these remarkable words, nearly identical with those in which he himself is said to have been admonished by a divinity at the outset of his own career: ‘Go then, O Pourna’, are his words ; ‘having been delivered, deliver ; having been consoled, console; being arrived thyself at the farther bank, enable others to arrive there also.


It was a moral deliverance, eminently, of which the great Oriental reformer spoke; it was a deliverance from the pride, the sloth, the anger, the selfishness, which impair the moral activity of man – a deliverance which is demanded of all individuals and in all ages. But there is another deliverance for the human race, hardly less important, indeed, than the first-for in the enjoyment of both united consists man’s true freedom but demanded far less universally, and even more rarely and imperfectly obtained; a deliverance neglected, apparently hardly conceived, in some ages, while it has been pursued with earnestness in others, which derive from that very pursuit their peculiar character. This deliverance is an intellectual deliverance.


An intellectual deliverance is the peculiar demand of those ages which are called modern; and those nations are said to be imbued with the modern eminently in which the demand for such a deliverance has been made with most zeal, and satisfied with completeness. Such a deliverance is emphatically whether we will or no, the demand of the a which we ourselves live. All intellectual pursuit age judges according to their power of helping to satisfy this demand of all studies it asks, above all the question, how far they can contribute to this deliverance.


I propose, on this my first occasion of speaking here, to attempt such a general survey of ancient classical literature and history as may afford us the conviction – in presence of the doubts so often expressed of the profitableness, in the present day, of our study of this literature – that, even admitting to their fullest extent the legitimate demands of our age, the literature of ancient Greece is, even for modern times, a mighty agent of intellectual deliverance; even for modern times, therefore, an object of indestructible interest. But first let us ask ourselves why the demand for an intellectual deliverance arises in such an age as the present, and in what the deliverance itself consists! The demand arises, because our present age has around it a copious and complex present, and behind it a copious and complex past; it arises, because the present age exhibits to the individual man who contemplates it the spectacle of a vast multitude of facts awaiting and inviting his comprehension. The deliverance consists in man’s comprehension of this present and past. 1 begins when our mind begins to enter into possession of the general ideas which are the law of this vast multitude of facts. It is perfect when we have acquired that harmonious acquiescence of mind which we feel in contemplating a grand spectacle that is intelligible to us; when we have lost that impatient irritation of mind which we feel in presence of an immense, moving, confused which, while it perpetually excites our curiosity, perpetually baffles our comprehension.


This, then, is what distinguishes certain epochs in the history of the human race, and our own amongst the number; on the one hand, the presence of a significant spectacles to contemplate ; on the other hand, the desire to find the true point of view from which to contemplate this spectacle. He who has found that point of view, he who adequately comprehends this spectacle, has risen to the comprehension of his age : he who communicates that point of view to his age, he who interprets to it that spectacle, is one of his age’s intellectual deliverers.


The spectacle, the facts, presented for the comprehension of the present age, are indeed immense. The facts consist of the events, the institutions, the sciences, the arts, the literatures, in which human life has manifested itself up to the present time: the spectacle is the collective life of humanity. And everywhere there is connexion, everywhere there is illustration: no single event, no single literature, is adequately comprehended except in its relation to other events, to other literatures. The literature of ancient Greece, the literature of the Christian Middle Age, so long as they are regarded as two isolated literatures, two isolated growths of the human spirit, are not adequately .comprehended; and it is adequate comprehension which is the demand of the present age. We must compare,’ the illustrious Chancellor of Cambridge’ said the other day to his hearers at Manchester – we must compare the works of other ages with those of our own age and country: that, while we feel proud of the immense development of knowledge and power of production which we possess, We may learn humility in contemplating the refinement of feeling and intensity of thought manifested in the works of the older schools. To know how others stand, that we may know how we ourselves stand; and to know how we ourselves stand, that we may correct our mistakes and achieve our deliverance – that is our problem.


But all facts, all the elements of the spectacle before us, have not an equal value- do not merit a like attention: and it is well that they do not for no man would be adequate to the task of thoroughly mastering them all. Some have more significance for us, others have less; some merit our utmost attention in all the details, others it is sufficient to comprehend in the general character, and then they may be dismissed.


What facts, then, let us ask ourselves, what elements of the spectacle before us, will naturally be most interesting to a highly-developed age like our own, to an age making the demand which we have described for an intellectual deliverance by means of the complete intelligence of its own situation ? Evidently, the other ages similarly developed, and making the same demand. And what past literature will naturally be most interesting to such an age as our own? Evidently, the literatures which have most successfully solved for their ages the problem which occupies ours: the literatures which in their day and for their own nation have adequately comprehended, have adequately represented, the spectacle before them. A significant, a highly-developed, a culminating epoch, on the one hand, a comprehensive, a commensurate, an adequate literature, on the other, these will naturally be the objects of deepest interest to our modern age. Such an epoch and such a literature are, in fact, modern, in the same sense in which our own age and literature are modern; they are founded upon a rich past and upon an instructive fullness of experience.


It may, however, happen that a great epoch is without a perfectly adequate literature; it may great age, a great nation, has attained a remarkable fullness of political and social development, without intellectually taking the complete measure of itself, without adequately representing that development in its literature. In this case, the epoch, the nation itself, will still be an object of the greatest interest to us but the literature will be an object of less interest to us: the facts, the material spectacle, are there, but the contemporary view of the facts, the intellectual interpretation, are inferior and inadequate.


It may happen, on the other hand, that great authors, that a powerful literature, are found in an age and nation less great and powerful than themselves; it may happen that a literature, that a man of genius, may arise adequate to the representation of a greater, a more highly-developed age than that in which they appear; it may happen that a literature completely interprets its epoch, and yet has something over ; that it has a force, a richness, a geniality, a power of view which the materials at its disposition are insufficient adequately to employ. In such a case, the literature will be more interesting to us than the epoch. The interpreting power, the illuminating and revealing intellect, are there; but the spectacle on which they throw their light is not fully worthy of them.


And I shall not, I hope, be thought to magnify too much my office if I add, that it is to the poetical literature of an age that we must, in general, look for the most perfect, the most adequate interpretation of that age, – for the performance of a work which demands the most energetic and harmonious activity of all the powers of the human mind. Because that activity of the whole mind, that genius, as Johnson nobly describes it, without which judgement is cold and knowledge is inert: that energy which collects, combines, amplifies, and animates’, is in poetry at its highest stretch and in its most energetic exertion.


What we seek, therefore, what will most enlighten us, most contribute to our intellectual deliverance, is the union of two things, it is the co-existence, the simultaneous appearance, of a great epoch and a great literature.


Now the culminating age in the life of ancient Greece, I call, beyond question, a great epoch; the life of Athens in the fifth century before our era I call one of the highly-developed, one of the marking, one periods in the life of the whole human said that the ‘Athens of Pericles was a vim at the summit of his bodily strength and mental There was the utmost energy of life there. Du private, the most entire freedom, the most und and intelligent observation of human affairs rapidly examine some of the characteristics distinguish modern epochs; let us see how far culminating century of ancient Greece exhibits the let us compare it, in respect of them, with a much later a celebrated century; let us compare it with the age of Elizabeth in our own country.


To begin with what is exterior? One of the most characteristic outward features of a modern age, of an age of advanced civilization, is the banishment of the ensigns of war and bloodshed from the intercourse of civil life. Crime still exists, and wars are still carried on; but within the limits of civil life a circle has been formed within which man can move securely, and develop the arts of peace uninterruptedly. The private man does not go forth to his daily occupation prepared to assail the life of his neighbour or to have to defend his own.With the disappearance of the constant means of offence the occasions of offense diminish; society at the last aquires repose, confidence, and free activity. An important inward characteristic, again, is the growth tolerant spirit that spirit which is the offspring of an enlarged knowledge; a spirit patient of the divers of habits and opinions. Other characteristics are the multiplication of the convenience of life, the formation taste, the capacity for refined pursuits. And this lea us to the supreme characteristic of all maturity of man himself; the tendency to observe facts with a critical spirit; to search for their law not to wander among them at random; to judge by the rule of reason, not by the impulse of prejudice or caprice.


Well now, with respect to the presence of all these characteristics in the age of Pericles we possess the explicit testimony of the immortal work – of the history of Thucydides. The speaking is the gradual development of Grecian society up to the period when the Peloponnesian War commenced – the Athenians first left off the habit of wearing arms is, this mark of superior civilization had, the age of Pericles, become general in Greece, had long been visible at Athens. In the time of Elizabeth, on the other hand, the wearing of arms was universal in England and throughout Europe. Again, the conveniences, the ornaments, the luxuries of life, had become common at Athens at the time of which we are speaking. But there had been an advance even beyond this, there had been an advance to that perfection, that propriety of taste which proscribes the excess of ornament, the extravagance of luxury. The Athenians had given up, Thucydides says, had given up, although not very long before, an extravagance of dress and an excess of personal ornament which, in the first flush of newly discovered luxury, had been adopted by some of the richer classes. The height of civilization in this respect Seems to have been attained; there was general elegance and refinement of life, and there was simplicity. What was the case in this respect in the Elizabethan age? The scholar Casaubon, who settled in England in the reign of James I, bears evidence to the want here, even at that time, of conveniences of life which were already to be met with on the continent of Europe. Hand, the taste for fantastic, for excessive personal adornment, to which the portraits of the time bear Testimony, is admirably set forth in the work of a great novelist, who was also a very truthful antiquarian-in the Kenilworth of Sir Walter Scott. We all remember the description, in the thirteenth and fourteenth chapters of the second volume of Kenilworth, of the barbarous magnificence, the fierce vanities of the dress of the period.


Pericles praises the Athenians that they had discovered sources of recreation for the spirit to counter balance the labours of the body: compare these, compare the pleasures which charmed the whole body of the Athenian people through the yearly round of their festivals with the popular shows and pastimes in Kenilworth. We have freedom’ says Pericles ‘for individual diversities of opinion and character: We do not take offence at the tastes and habits of our neighbour if they differ from our own. Yes, in Greece, in the Athens of Pericles, there is toleration, but in England, in the England of the sixteenth century?-the Puritans are then in full growth. So that with regard to these characteristics of civilization of a modern spirit which we have hitherto enumerated, the superiority, it will be admitted, rests with the age of Pericles.

Let us pass to what we said was the supreme characteristic of a highly-developed, a modern age–the manifestation of a critical spirit, the endeavour after a rational arrangement and appreciation of facts. Let us consider one or two of the passages in the masterly introduction which Thucydides, the contemporary of Pericles, has prefixed to his history. What was his motive in choosing the Peloponnesian War for his subject? Because it was, in his opinion, the most important, the most instructive event which had, up to that time, happened in the history of mankind. What is his effort in the first twenty-three chapters of his history? To place in their correct point of view all the facts which had brought Grecian society to the point at which that dominant event found it; to strip these facts of their exaggeration, to examine them critically. The enterprises undertake in the early times of Greece were on a much smaller scale than had been commonly supposed. The Greek chiefs were induced to combine in the expedition again Troy, not by their respect for an oath taken by them a when suitors to Helen, but by their respect for the preponderating influence of Agamemnon: the siege of Troy had been protracted not so much by the valour of the besieged as by the inadequate mode of warfare necessitated by the doubt Thucydides perfect; but observe how in these and many other points he labours to correct popular errors, to assign their true character to facts, complaining, as he does so, their habit of uncritical reception of current stories. So little a matter of care to most men’, he says, ‘is the search after truth, and so inclined are they to take up any story which is ready to their hand.’ ‘He himself’, he continues, ‘has endeavoured to give a true picture, and believes that in the main he has done so. For some readers his history may want the charm of the uncritical, half-fabulous narratives of earlier writers: but for such as desire to gain a clear knowledge of the past, and thereby of the future also, which will surely, after the course of human things, represent again hereafter, if not the very image, yet the near resemblance of the past – if such shall judge my work to be profitable, I shall be well content.


What language shall we properly call this? It is modern language; it is the language of a thoughtful philosophic man of our own days; it is the language of Burke or Niebuhr assigning the true aim of history. And yet Thucydides is no mere literary man; no isolated thinker, speaking far over the heads of his hearers to a future age-no: he was a man of action, a man of the world, a man of his time. He represents, at its best, indeed, but he represents, the general intelligence of his age and nation of a nation the meanest citizens of which could follow with comprehension the profoundly thoughtful speeches of Pericles.

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