Saturday, 30 April 2011


I've been studying the splendid 'Dover Beach' with my son, for his AS level English. Of course many people know about Arnold's definiton of culture as being "the best which has been thought and said", but I think it is worth quoting the whole paragraph from the introduction to Culture and Anarchy:

The whole scope of the essay is to recommend culture as the great help out of our present difficulties; culture being a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world, and, through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits, which we now follow staunchly but mechanically, vainly imagining that there is a virtue in following them staunchly which makes up for the mischief of following them mechanically.

What I like best is "turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions", the (given current orthodoxies - stock notions - which tend to assume the superiority of Now) paradoxical idea being that the past can make rosy the future by curing the present, and that if you want fresh and free thought, look back - to Arnold, say - rather than simply gathering your stock notions, either staunchly or mechanically, from the Opinion pages of the Daily Mail or the Guardian.

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