The term obviously takes its name from the nineteenth-century poet and critic Matthew Arnold, but what makes something “Arnoldian?” Is there a certain artistic aesthetic that can be assigned to him? Not really. Is there a well-defined school of criticism that traces its roots to him? Well…there’s Lionel Trilling, sort of…but no. Was he even the greatest of poets or critics? He was no such thing.
So what is it that I’m doing here?
When I assign something to the Arnoldian Project, I’m trying to remove it from the realm of certainty. If something takes a clear, moral stand, it is probably not very Arnoldian. If complexity is teased out and admired, it probably is. If evil is vilified, not Arnold’s concern. If good is criticized, right up Arnold’s alley. Partisanship is a dereliction of intellectual duty. The Arnoldian is not interested in identifying wrongs, but in challenging rights.
Lionel Trilling described Arnold as such:
he was not so much concerned with combating vile positions as with refining relatively good ones: as a critic he would rather harry his friends than destroy his enemies
Arnold was against machinery and so am I.
Arnold was for massive sideburns and I guess they’re OK too.
Most importantly for this blog, Arnold was for vigilant revision of self. This may best define the Project. About the state of England, Arnold once wrote,
Undoubtedly we are drawing on towards great changes: and for every nation the thing most needful is to discern clearly its own condition, in order to know in what particular way it may best meet them. Openness and flexibility of mind are at such a time the first of virtues
The Arnoldian Project is a celebration of virtue.