Matthew Arnold: “Sweetness and Light”


Summary by Sarah K. Wilson


              Some people look down on “culture” because they see it as a knowledge of what’s “in” that serves to distinguish one from the lower classes.   Arnold believes that culture should be sought out of curiosity, meaning a “liberal and intelligent eagerness about things,” or “a desire after the things of the mind simply for their own sakes and for the pleasure of seeing them as they are” (466).  Beyond this, culture is also a “study of perfection” which “moves by the force . . . of the moral and social passion for doing good” (467).  In other words, culture can teach intellectual and moral good.  One who embraces this culture, works to bring about intellectual and moral good in his life and work to make those things “prevail” in society. 

              Compared to utilitarianism, this pursuit seems “selfish, petty, and unprofitable”; however, a society of intellectually and morally developed people, people who seek culture as a “study of perfection,” is the only truly great society (467).  In this sense, culture is actually quite beneficial.   Pursuing culture means realizing what’s important in life.  Wealth, health, physicality are all meaningless.  Only intellectual and moral development are important. (470).

              Culture is worthwhile because it reminds us of what’s important and renews our passion for “sweetness and light” (471).  When true culture is achieved, true greatness occurs and social classes are destroyed.


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