Matthew Arnold: Literature and Science

Practical people talk with a smile of Plato and of his absolute ideas; and it is impossible to deny that Plato’s ideas do often seem unpractical and impracticable, and especially when one views them in connection with the life of a great work-a-day world like the United States. The necessary staple of the life of such a world Plato regards with disdain… but what becomes of the life of an industrial modern community if you take handicraft and trade and the working professions out of it? The base mechanic arts and handicrafts, says Plato, bring about a natural weakness in the principle of excellence in a man, so that he cannot govern the ignoble growths in him, but nurses them, and cannot understand fostering any other. (Matthew Arnold)

One cannot refuse to admire the artist [Plato] who draws these pictures. But we say to ourselves that his ideas show the influence of a primitive and obsolete order of things, when the warrior caste and the priestly caste were alone in honour, and the humble work of the world was done by slaves. We have now changed all that; the modern majesty consists in work, as Emerson declares; and in work, we may add, principally of such plain and dusty kind as the work of cultivators of the ground, handicraftsmen, men of trade and business, men of the working professions. Above all is this hue in a great industrious community such as that of the United States.

Now education, many people go on to say, is still mainly governed by the ideas of men like Plato… It is an education fitted for persons of leisure in such a community. This education passed from Greece and Rome to the feudal communities of Europe, where also the warrior caste and the priestly caste were alone held in honour, and where the really useful and working part of the community, though not nominally slaves as in the pagan world, were practically not much better off than slaves, and not more seriously regarded. And how absurd it is, people end by saying, to inflict this education upon an industrious modern community, where very few indeed are persons of leisure, and the mass to be considered has not leisure, but is bound, for its own great good, and for the great good of the world at large, to plain labour and to industrial pursuits, and the education in question tends necessarily to make men dissatisfied with these pursuits and unfitted for them!

The more one learns the more dissatisfied one might be with handicrafts and trades, because it’s so difficult to change the world with one’s hands rather than one’s mind.

That is what is said. So far I must defend Plato, as to plead that his view of education and studies is in the general, as it seems to me, sound enough, and fitted for all sorts and conditions of men, whatever their pursuits may be. “An intelligent man,” says Plato, “will prize those studies which result in his soul getting soberness, righteousness, and wisdom, and will less value the others.”

The harmony of the soul, which centers in Plato’s teachings, does call for order, shunning the discord of the vices. Plato’s tripartite soul calls reason to attach itself to the noble and honorable in aid to reign in the unruly passions.

Still I admit that Plato’s world was not ours, that his scorn of trade and handicraft is fantastic, that he had no conception of a great industrial community such as that of the United States, and that such a community must and will shape its education to suit its own needs. If the usual education handed down to it from the past does not suit it, it will certainly before long drop this and try another. The usual education in the past has been mainly literary. The question is whether the studies which were long supposed to be the best for all of us are practically the best now, whether others are not better. The tyranny of the past, many think, weighs on us injuriously in the predominance given to letters in education. The question is raised whether, to meet the needs of our modern life, the predominance ought not now to pass from letters to science; and naturally the question is nowhere raised with more energy than here in the United States. The design of abasing what is called “mere literary instruction and education,” and of exalting what is called “sound, extensive, and practical scientific knowledge,” is in this intensely modern world of the United States, even more perhaps than in Europe, a very popular design, and makes great and rapid progress.

            The United States’ public education system, as it presently is, cannot compete with other nations. We know that it is time for reform, but the focus is on exhaustive test scores that do not exactly lead to a higher quality of teaching. There is little joy in the classrooms, teachers find their job tiring, and there is no time to reflect on the day. My own education was left wanting, if only I had the will to want! After high school I went directly to work in a trade, where I was taught that, “if you work hard enough you can eventually live the good life.” I was taught a lie. Huxley wants to pass the predominance of the literary to that of scientific knowledge and fact.

I am going to ask whether the present movement for ousting letters from their old predominance in education, and for transferring the predominance in education to the natural sciences, whether this brisk and flourishing movement ought to prevail, and whether it is likely that in the end it really will prevail.

When Arnold speaks of “letters” he means literary works in poetry and prose, from Plato to Newton. However, Huxley believes, that a general education in science isn’t enough to make a practical change in the world. Science ought to come first.

Some of you may possibly remember a phrase of mine which has been the object of a good deal of comment, an observation to the effect that in our culture, the aim being to know ourselves and the world, we have, as the means to this end, to know the best which has been thought and said in the world. A man of science, who is also an excellent writer and the very prince of debaters, Professor Huxley, in a discourse at the opening of Sir Josiah Mason’s college at Birmingham laying hold of this phrase, expanded it by quoting some more words of mine, which are these: “The civilised world is to be regarded as now being, for intellectual and spiritual purposes, one great confederation, bound to a joint action and working to a common result, and whose members have for their proper outfit a knowledge of Greek, Roman and Eastern antiquity, and of one another. Special local and temporary advantages being put out of account, that modern nation will in the intellectual and spiritual sphere make most progress, which most thoroughly carries out this programme.”

“The aim [of culture] being to know ourselves and the world” and furthermore, “to know the best which has been thought and said in the world.” This is quintessential Matthew Arnold, a professor and a man of literature. Thomas Henry Huxley, a man of science goes on to quote Arnold, which states that the classical education will bring with it a literary, progressive flourishing.

Now on my phrase, thus enlarged, Professor Huxley remarks that when I speak of the above-mentioned knowledge as enabling us to know ourselves and the world, I assert literature to contain the materials which suffice for thus making us know ourselves and the world. But it is not by any means clear, says he, that after having learnt all which ancient and modern literatures have to tell us, we have laid a sufficiently broad and deep foundation for that criticism of life, that knowledge of ourselves and the world, which constitutes culture. On the contrary, Professor Huxley declares that he finds himself “wholly unable to admit that either nations or individuals will really advance, if their outfit draws nothing from the stores of physical science. An army without weapons of precision, and with no particular base of operations, might more hopefully enter upon a campaign on the Rhine, than a man, devoid of a knowledge of what physical science has done in the last century, upon a criticism of life.”

Arnold believes that the “Criticism of life” is found through literature, which make it possible to know ourselves and the world. Huxley believes there can be no advancement of culture if it not a scientific advancement. The Rhine river is the boundary of the civilized world. It can only be a scientific culture that crosses the Rhine, Huxley believes.

What Professor Huxley says, implies just the reproach which is so often brought against the study of belles lettres, as they are called: that the study is an elegant one, but slight and ineffectual; a smattering of Greek and Latin. and other ornamental things, of little use for any one whose object is to get at truth, and to be a practical man. So, too, M. Renan talks of the “superficial humanism” of a school-course which treats us as if we were all going to be poets, writers, preachers, orators, and he opposes this humanism to positive science, or the critical search after truth. And there is always a tendency in those who are remonstrating against the predominance of letters in education, to understand by letters belles lettres, and by belles lettres a superficial humanism, the opposite of science or true knowledge.

The classical education of Greek and Latin are of little use to the practical man of science, Huxley believes. We can’t all live the life of a poet, writer critic, professor, etc… M. Renan, a philosopher, historian, and writer, has some agreements with Huxley calls the classical education a “superficial humanism”, for it doesn’t prepare all men for a world of scientific progress.


Arnold is saying that life isn’t just about the scientific pursuit. The domains of the power of beauty, the power of social life, and the powers, of intellect and knowledge, which science partly inhabits, are all imminently important for the life of a human being. Can we partition the beautiful, the social, the scientific, the moral, the political, the familial, the legal into windowless rooms? We might see further if we tear down the walls that partition our lives off. In conjunction with this, the human intellect strives to find order and peace amongst all of these domains. Finally, our hearts should never be too far from our hearts.

So Arnold is saying that science only gets us so far in telling us about life. It doesn’t explain how one should conduct ourselves in life, or explain the need of beauty or why I’m so inclined towards it. Science is coming up short in these most intimate domains of human life!



Or to go higher than the pupils of our national schools. I have in my mind’s eye a member of our British Parliament who comes to travel here in America, who afterwards relates his travels, and who shows a really masterly knowledge of the geology of this great country and of its mining capabilities, but who ends by gravely suggesting that the United States should borrow a prince from our Royal Family, and should make him their king, and should create a House of Lords of great landed proprietors after the pattern of ours; and then America, he thinks, would have her future happily and perfectly secured. Surely, in this case, the President of the Section for Mechanical Science would himself hardly say that our member of Parliament, by concentrating himself upon geology and mineralogy, and so on, and not attending to literature and history, had “chosen the more useful alternative.”

The British Parliament member left with the idea that if America had acquired a prince and mined their minerals all would be sweet–as if the mining of coal could make a country great. What makes a country great, in the eyes of Arnold, is not coal but its capacity to create awe. The beauty of other countries have moved others to follow in their footsteps ever since the time of Greece and Rome. It’s how interesting they are that makes them great.

If then there is to be separation and option between humane letters on the one hand, and the natural sciences on the other, the great majority of mankind, all who have not exceptional and overpowering aptitudes for the study of nature, would do well, I cannot but think, to choose to be educated in humane letters rather than in the natural sciences. Letters will call out their being at more points, will make them live more.

            Science can tell us about particles, movements, compounds, evolution but it has no place to tell us about morality and beauty, about how we should live our lives. It only answers one frail dimension of the ancient command ‘know thyself’.


Defuit una mihi symmetria prisca, — “The antique symmetry was the one thing wanting to me,” said Leonardo da Vinci; and he was an Italian. I will not presume to speak for the Americans, but I am sure that, in the Englishman, the want of this admirable symmetry of the Greeks is a thousand times more great and crying than in any Italian. The results of the want show themselves most glaringly, perhaps, in our architecture, but they show themselves, also, in all our art. Fit details strictly combined, in view of a large general result nobly conceived; that is just the beautiful symmetria prisca of the Greeks, and it is just where we English fail, where all our art fails. Striking ideas we have, and well-executed details we have; but that high symmetry which, with satisfying and delightful effect, combines them, we seldom or never have. The glorious beauty of the Acropolis at Athens did not come from single fine things stuck about on that hill, a statue here, a gateway there;—no, it arose from all things being perfectly combined for a supreme total effect. What must not an Englishman feel about our deficiencies in this respect, as the sense for beauty, whereof this symmetry is an essential element, awakens and strengthens within him! what will not one day be his respect and desire for Greece and its symmetria prisca, when the scales drop from his eyes as he walks the London streets, and he sees such a lesson in meanness as the Strand, for instance, in its true deformity!

The symmetria prisca, or pure symmetry that Leonardo Di Vinci so strive towards is the relationship, or harmony, between the seen, the felt, the known, and the thought (D. Robinson The Greek Legacy). Taking a look outside all I see are mere boxes. The architecture is practical, not fantastical. It doesn’t speak to what human beings are capable of at our highest achievements. Instead, it proves what we are capable of when we have industry in mind. What would it take to achieve this pure symmetry again? Reflecting back at what I know about the Greeks he thought how Greek culture was like boiling away the inessential. They were under so much pressure that it created an earnest outlook that would come to outlast all other civilizations because of their religion and how dangerous their surroundings where. They knew to understand themselves and their place in the cosmos was to understand what most moves them in life as in war. This is the source of their earnest outlook.

And so we at last find, it seems, we find flowing in favour of the humanities the natural and necessary stream of things, which seemed against them when we started. The “hairy quadruped furnished with a tail and pointed ears, probably arboreal in his habits,” this good fellow carried hidden in his nature, apparently, something destined to develop into a necessity for humane letters. Nay, more; we seem finally to be even led to the further conclusion that our hairy ancestor carried in his nature, also, a necessity for Greek.

            Amazing to think that this quadruped was destined to Greek, for the Greek achievement didn’t die with Greece. It lives on today. Look at our course material in the best schools colleges and universities, or the architecture of Washington DC. It’s so very ingrained in us that we may not notice it unless our education and environment were so impoverished that we walk around in a world half conscious of what life means and entails.

*All italics comes from Matthew Arnold’s Literature and Science, which was a response to Thomas Henry Huxley address where he introduced to the world a school in the United States that would not teach the classics. Writing that is not in italics are my own thoughts.


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