Liberation Through Ideas


Matthew Arnold
Watts, George Frederic; Matthew Arnold; National Portrait Gallery, London;

[Note: This is taken from Hamilton Wright Mabie’s Books and Culture.]

Matthew Arnold was in the habit of dwelling on the importance of a free movement of fresh ideas through society; the men who are in touch with such movements are certain to be productive, while those whose minds are not fed by this stimulus are likely to remain unfruitful. One of the most suggestive and beautiful facts in the spiritual history of men is the exhilaration which a great new thought brings with it; the thrilling moments in history are the moments of contact between such ideas and the minds which are open to their approach. It is true that fresh ideas often gain acceptance slowly and against great odds in the way of organized error and of individual inertness and dullness; nevertheless, it is also true that certain great ideas rapidly clarify themselves in the thought of almost every century. They are opposed and rejected by a multitude, but they are in the air, as we say; they seem to diffuse themselves through all fields of thought, and they are often worked out harmoniously in different departments by men who have no concert of action, but whose minds are open and sensitive to these invisible currents of light and power.

The first and the most enduring result of this movement of ideas is the enlargement of the thoughts of men about themselves and their world. Every great new truth compels, sooner or later, a readjustment of the whole body of organized truth as men hold it. The fresh thought about the physical constitution of man bears its fruit ultimately in some fresh notion of his spiritual constitution; the new fact in geology does not spend its force until it has wrought a modification of the view of the creative method and the age of man in the world; the fresh conception of the method of evolution along material and physical lines slowly reconstructs the philosophy of mental and spiritual development. Every new thought relates itself finally to all thought, and is like the forward step which continually changes the horizon about the traveler.

The history of man is the story of the ideas he has entertained and accepted, and of his struggle to incorporate these ideas into laws, customs, institutions, and character. At the heart of every race one finds certain ideas, not always clearly seen nor often definitely formulated save by a few persons, but unconsciously held with deathless tenacity and illustrated by a vast range of action and achievement; at the heart of every great civilization one finds a few dominant and vital conceptions which give a certain coherence and unity to a vast movement of life. Now, the books of life, as has already been said, hold their place in universal literature because they reveal and illustrate, in symbol and personality, these fundamental ideas with supreme power and felicity. The large body of literature in prose and verse which is put between the covers of the Old Testament not only gives us an account of what the Hebrew race did in the world, but of its ideas about that world, and of the character which it formed for itself largely as the fruit of those ideas. Those ideas, it need hardly be said, not only registered a great advance on the ideas which preceded them, but remain in many respects the most fundamental ideas which the race as a whole has accepted. They lifted the men to whom they were originally revealed, or who accepted them, to a great height of spiritual and moral vision, and a race character was organized about them of the most powerful and persistent type. The modern student of the Old Testament is born into a very different atmosphere from that in which these conceptions of man and the universe were originally formed; but though they have largely lost their novelty, they have not lost the power of enlargement and expansion which were in them at the beginning.

In his own history every man repeats, within certain limits, the history of the race; and the inexhaustible educational value of race experience lies in the fact that it so completely parallels the history of every member of the race. Childhood has the fancies and faiths of the earliest ages; youth has visions and dreams which form, generation after generation, a kind of contemporary mythology; maturity aspires after and sometimes attains the repose, the clear intelligence, the catholic outlook of the best modern type of mind and character. In some form every modern man travels the road over which his predecessors have passed, but he no longer blazes his path; a highway has been built for him. He is spared the immense toil of formulating the ideas by which he lives, and of passing through the searching experience which is often the only approach to the greatest truths. If he has originative power, he forms ideas of his own, but they are based on a massive foundation of ideas which others have worked out for him; he passes through his own individual experience, but he inherits the results of a multitude of experiences of which nothing remains save certain final generalizations. Every intelligent man is born into possession of a world of knowledge and truth which has been explored, settled, and organized for him. To the discovery and regulation of this world every race has worked with more or less definiteness of aim, and the total result of the incalculable labors and sufferings of men is the somewhat intangible but very real thing we call civilization.

At the heart of civilization, and determining its form and quality, is that group of vital ideas to which each race has contributed according to its intelligence and power,—the measure of the greatness of a race being determined by the value of its contribution to this organized spiritual life of the world. This body of ideas is the highest product of the life of men under historic conditions; it is the quintessence of whatever was best and enduring not only in their thought, but in their feeling, their instinct, their affections, their activities; and the degree in which the man of to-day is able to appropriate this rich result of the deepest life of the past is the measure of his culture. One may be well-trained and carefully disciplined, and yet have no share in this organized life of the race; but no one can possess real culture who has not, according to his ability, entered into it by making it a part of himself. It is by contact with these great ideas that the individual mind puts itself in touch with the universal mind and indefinitely expands and enriches itself.

Culture rests on ideas rather than on knowledge; its distinctive use of knowledge is to gain material for ideas. For this reason the “Iliad” and “Odyssey” are of more importance than Thucydides and Curtius. For Homer was not only in a very important sense the historian of his race; he was, above all, the expositor of its ideas. There is involved in the very structure of the Greek epics the fundamental conception of life as the Greeks looked at it; their view of reverence, worship, law, obligation, subordination, personality. No one can be said to have read these poems in any real sense until he has made these ideas clear to himself; and these ideas carry with them a definite enlargement of thought. When a man has gotten a clear view of the ideas about life held by a great race, he has gone a long way towards self-education,—so rich and illuminative are these central conceptions around which the life of each race has been organized. To multiply these ideas by broad contact with the books of life is to expand one’s thought so as to compass the essential thought of the entire race. And this is precisely what the man of broad culture accomplishes; he emancipates himself from whatever is local, provincial, and temporal, by gaining the power of taking the race point of view. He is liberated by ideas, not only from his own ignorance and the limitations of his own nature, but from the partial knowledge and the prejudices of his time; and liberation by ideas, and expansion through ideas, constitute one of the great services of the books of life to those who read them with an open mind.