By N.S. Palmer
Matthew Arnold? Who’s that? Didn’t he play a character on the TV series “Roseanne”?
Nope, that’s a different Arnold. As far as I know, they’re not related. Actor Tom Arnold, who appeared on “Roseanne,” is funnier but has said little about the human condition.
Matthew Arnold was a 19th-century English poet and social critic who has a lot to say that illuminates our current problems. In his day, he was most famous as a poet, being considered the third-best poet of the 19th century, right after Tennyson and Browning. His other claim to fame was as a son of Thomas Arnold, the real-life headmaster of England’s Rugby School who was fictionalized in the popular 1857 novel Tom Brown’s Schooldays and makes a cameo appearance in the 1969 novel Flashman.
Today, most people read almost nothing that was written before last month, let alone before they were born. As a result, they have no inkling that the furious debates they hear every day are pretty old stuff.
The same issues and arguments arise in society after society, century after century. They arise because they come not from technology or any unique conditions of the present era, but from human nature and the nature of human society. Those things don’t change.
Matthew Arnold on Empathy for Others
There’s a joke about the run-up to the Bush-Cheney regime’s invasion of Iraq in 2003. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell are sitting in a tavern. Rumsfeld says to the bartender, “We’ve decided. We’re going to kill a million Iraqis and Britney Spears.” The bartender, in horror, gasps “Why are you going to kill Britney Spears?” Rumsfeld laughs and turns to Powell triumphantly. “See? I told you that nobody would care about the million Iraqis.”
Matthew Arnold would understand that joke.
In his book Culture and Anarchy, Arnold describes how Englishmen of his time viewed other races and nationalities:
It never was any part of our creed that the great right and blessedness of an Irishman or, indeed, of anybody on earth except an Englishman, is to do as he likes. And we can have no scruple at all about abridging, if necessary, a non-Englishman’s assertion of personal liberty. The British Constitution, its checks, and its prime virtues, are for Englishmen. We may extend them to others out of love and kindness, but we find no real divine law written on our hearts constraining us so to extend them.
In other words, we reserve our empathy mainly for our relatives, our group, and our nationality. Anyone outside those groups is a second-class citizen of the human race.
We wouldn’t explicitly think of them — whether “they” are Irish, African, Arab, Muslim, or members of some other group — as sub-human, undeserving of compassion or human rights, but that’s how our baser selves feel about them. That’s why we instinctively recoil at the suggestion of killing Britney Spears but are less troubled, at least on a gut level, with the idea of killing a million “foreign devils” who look different from us, who speak an unintelligible language, and who follow a “heathen religion.”
Matthew Arnold had never heard of sociobiology or kin selection, because in his time those theories hadn’t been invented. But he would have understood their basic idea: We tend to help those who are genetically related to us. We regard with suspicion anyone who is not so related. The closer the relation, the greater the emotional bond, so people in the same family have the greatest loyalty to each other. People in the same group or nationality, though more distantly related, are more likely to share genes than people in different groups or nationalities. Hence, they regard “their own” people as having human rights, but are ready to attack and kill “the other” people.
Atheists on the Warpath
It’s Christmas time, and that means one thing: Atheists are on the warpath. Again.
According to Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association, their message of Christmas cheer is
… just to say that you can be good without God, so their atheist neighbor down the street shouldn’t be vilified as though he is immoral.
Also, of course, if you believe in God, they think you’re a gullible fool. Either that, or you’re so terrified of death that your reason has deserted you and you’ve taken refuge in childish fairy tales.
But let’s get back to Mr. Speckhardt’s point. Matthew Arnold had a fair amount to say on the subject. He was no secular humanist, but by 19th-century Victorian standards, he was quite a freethinker. He was frankly sceptical about the Biblical stories of miracles, but he didn’t want to get rid of the Bible or belief in God. He just wanted to reinterpret them in ways he thought were compatible with modern science. So atheists find him congenial in a lot of ways.
However, unlike contemporary atheists, Arnold recognized the great value of faith in God and in a transcendent moral order to which we are all accountable. He writes about Christianity, but his remarks apply to any theistic religion (such as Judaism) that includes a strong and enlightened moral code. In his book God and the Bible, Arnold writes:
At the present moment, two things about the Christian religion must surely be clear to anybody with eyes in his head. One is, that men cannot do without it; the other, that they cannot do with it as it is.
Nobody with eyes in his head claims that an atheist can’t be a good person. It’s just more difficult to be a good person when one believes that there is no transcendent moral order and that one will never be called to account for one’s misdeeds. Life is hard enough for most people. Why make it harder for them by taking away beliefs that reinforce their conscience and strengthen their better selves? Psychology, history, and common sense testify in unison on behalf of Bible-based religion.
Thus, whether true or not, the Bible and theistic religion are socially beneficial. Given that there are also persuasive (though not conclusive) reasons for believing them to be true, it becomes, in the words of George Bush’s CIA director, a “slam dunk.”
Freethinker that he was, Arnold was also too smart to believe that we can safely ignore history and human experience that show the value of faith in God. In that respect, he was a conservative. Another passage in God and the Bible reads like a description of today’s fashionable atheists:
Only when one is young and headstrong can one thus prefer bravado to experience, can one stand by the Sea of Time, and instead of listening to the solemn and rhythmical beat of its waves, choose to fill the air with one’s own whoopings to start the echo.
Copyright 2009 by N.S. Palmer. May be reproduced as long as byline, copyright notice, and URL (http://www.ashesblog.com) are included.