Be Ye Perfect

There are always a few books on the shelf in the bathroom that one grabs in those moments of peaceful, if somewhat uncomfortable, solitude. I am careful to select those books. My rule is that they must be books I ought to be plodding through but can only bring myself to pick up if I’m trapped for five minutes and can’t find anything better. That’s how I came to be reading Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy (1867-69) and noticing how peculiar was his usage of the word “culture.” (I can’t tell you how much it puts our house guests at ease when they find themselves face to face with a blue “Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought” casually laid next to the roll of toilet paper. Really warms up the place.)

As the title of the series of essays would suggest, “culture” is everything for Arnold, both hiearchically above and subsuming all the best institutions of British life in the 19th century: religion, the arts, citizenship, education. “I am a Liberal, yet I am a Liberal tempered by experience, reflection, and renouncement, and I am, above all, a believer in culture.” (Incidentally, you can hear the first hints of his critique of liberalism along lines that have a droll similarity to Alasdair MacIntyre’s: liberalism is, in essence, a “secondary virtue,” or “machinery” as Arnold would call it, whereas culture is a primary virtue, since it is the pursuit of perfection.)

But as the text unfolds, I can’t help but notice that Arnold’s “culture” and our “culture” are quite different. And I don’t mean merely that we define them differently, but more that we use them differently in a sentence. It isn’t just what culture is that has changed since 1867 but where culture is located.

Arnold begins by disagreeing with some interlocuters, you know, those low brow types who diss culture. Frederic Harrison, a positivist foil for Arnold, says “Culture is a desirable quality in a critic of new books…but as applied to politics, it means simply a turn for small fault-finding, love of selfish ease, and indecision in action.” Arnold, on the other hand, defines it as “having its origin in the love of perfection; it is a study of perfection [emphasis his].”

The difference that strikes me is not between Harrison and Arnold but between both of them and us. It will become obvious the moment I say the phrase “the culture wars.” Take two things, maybe “wokeism” and “Trumpism,” and make them at war with one another. They are ideologies, but more, because they also have trappings, behaviors, rituals that go alongside. This bundle we call “culture.” One culture is at war with another. They exist outside of, in excess of any one individual or even any group of countable individuals.

But Harrison says that culture is “a desirable quality in a critic of new books.” It’s within a person. A person is not a part of culture, a person has culture. Arnold says culture is “a study of perfection.” That is more active than Harrison, but it is obviously still an action undertaken within the individual. If I said “American culture is a desirable quality in Guy Fieri,” I am using the word “culture” in a way foreign, but not unrecognizable, to current readers.

The usage is, prima facie, closer to the etymology of the word, as the emphasis is on one’s education rather than a reified thing existing outside. It’s curious to me that that would seem to track with similar developments in the etymology of “religion,” which is something one has, even into the 19th century, more than something one adheres to.

I wonder, in passing, when the shift occurred? Maybe Arnold scholars would point to Arnold’s very opposition of culture and anarchy as a watershed moment in the history of the word. I don’t know.

But another word Arnold uses a lot is “perfection,” and this word itself has a fascinating history, but we and Arnold are on one side and previous eras on another. The word is obviously Latinate but has a very different meaning in a pre-modern context. The difference is not hard to state: now “perfect” means “as good as it can be,” whereas in, for instance, Thomas Aquinas, “perfect” merely means “completed.” That is its more literal definition in Latin, “per-” meaning something like “thoroughly” and “-fect” coming from the past participle of facere meaning “having been done.” But there is a world of difference there: if I said “liber meus perfectus,” I just mean that my book is completely done, but if I say “my book is perfect,” I am a rash and arrogant idiot spouting obvious falsehood.

Or, as Thomas Aquinas puts it, “The first type of perfection is present when the thing has all that makes up its substance. The whole object’s form is its perfection and arises out of the integrity of its parts,” (ST I, 73, 1c). Umberto Eco glosses it thus: “perfection means the complete realization of whatever it is that the thing is supposed to be,” from The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas (1988).


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