This article was last modified on December 12, 2010.

Matthew Arnold and The Ideal State

Matthew Arnold was an Englishman who wrote in the 1860s on matters of politics and culture. His background was as a secretary for the Whig politician Lord Lansdowne, Chief Inspector of Schools and Professor of Poetry at Oxford. His wife, Frances Lucy Wightman, was also the daughter of a prominent judge.

As a social critic, he wrote on culture, equality, democracy and other issues he felt worth discussing, calling out noted politicians and religious leaders of his day. One topic he returned to again and again was the State.

What is the State?

“The State is properly just what Burke called it — the nation in its collective and corporate character. The State is the representative acting-power of the nation; the action of the State is the representative action of the nation.” [Arnold: 23] Whether the State be a monarchy or a representative democracy, this is a truism: what the State does, so are the people judged by that action. Should the president decide a course of action, we may say “Washington” or “the United States” acted, as though we collectively made our move rather than one man, or a small group of men. (Incidentally, I am told the Edmund Burke reference is not exact, but the general flavor of his words.)

Arnold later again calls the State “the nation in its collective and corporate character”, and this time elaborates that part of its being is “controlling, as government, the free swing of this or that one of its members in the name of the higher reason of all of them, his own as well as that of others.” [Arnold: 88] The State is not just what people view from outside, but the will of the people within. Supposing that one man commits murder and wills not to be put in prison. As a member of the State, his will is not taken into account when the will of the all the members collectively (including himself) decides against him. People have many individual rights and freedoms, but even these are contingent on the belief of the collective State that such rights exist.

Fear of the State

In Arnold’s time, and surely no less today, people are in fear of the State and in giving the State too much power.

“With many Englishmen, perhaps with the majority, it is a maxim that the State, the executive power, ought to be entrusted with no more means of action than those which it is impossible to withhold from it; that the State neither would nor could make a safe use of any more extended liberty; would not, because it has in itself a natural instinct of despotism, which, if not jealously checked, would become outrageous; could not, because it is, in truth, not at all more enlightened, or fit to assume a lead, than the mass of this enlightened community.” [Arnold: 1]

“I propose to submit to those who have been accustomed to regard all State-action with jealousy, some reasons for thinking that the circumstances which once made that jealousy prudent and natural have undergone an essential change. I desire to lead them to consider with me, whether, in the present altered conjecture, that State-action, that was once dangerous, may not become, not only without danger in itself, but the means of helping us against dangers from another quarter.” [Arnold: 2]

“I am very sure that, strengthen in England the action of the State as one may, it will always find itself sufficiently controlled.” [Arnold: 13] Unlike France, “the genius and temper of the people of this country are such as to render impossible” state abuse. [Arnold: 14]

Substitute “America” for “England”, and I think this speaks for itself.

The Benefit of a State

Arnold believes “it is not State-action in itself which the middle and lower classes of a nation ought to deprecate; it is State-action exercised by a hostile class, and for their oppression.” [Arnold: 19]

“The State can bestow certain broad collective benefits, which are indeed not much if compared with the advantages already possessed by individual grandeur, but which are rich and valuable if compared with the make-shifts of mediocrity and poverty.” [Arnold: 17] Specifically, Arnold is referring to education. The aristocracy has no need for State intervention, easily affording the finest schools and tutors. But the country as a whole gains when the poor are educated, even in the most modest way.

What the State Should Be

Should the State be run by the aristocracy, the middle class, the working class or someone else? What should the State be?

Those who fear the State, fear it as a tool of a particular class. “If we strengthen the State with the aristocratic class in occupation of the executive government, we imagine we are delivering ourselves up captive to the ideas and wishes of our fierce aristocratical baronet”. If the middle class or the working class, theirs views would dominate and possibly oppress.[Arnold: 99] This has not changed: the rich fear giving the poor too much power, and the working class often resent the wealthy.

“We want an authority, and we find nothing but jealous classes, checks, and a dead-lock; culture suggests the idea of the State. We find no basis for a firm State-power in our ordinary selves; culture suggests one to us in our best self.” [Arnold: 99] We must not build a State on petty interests but on our grand interests — the ones that make us proud to be human and not just animal. Arnold’s answer, in other terms, is this maxim: “The State is of the religion of all its citizens, without the fanaticism of any of them.” [Arnold: 154]

The State “should be a power which really represents its best self, and whose action its intelligence and justice can heartily avow and adopt; not a power which reflects its inferior self, and of whose action, as of its own second-rate action, it has perpetually to be ashamed.” [Arnold: 24] Arnold suggests that, in the case of England, the State should be seen as the State of Shakespeare and Newton, a State that foreign nations can admire and Britons can be proud of. What for America? We are nation of scientific genius, military might and a culture that revolves around film. What do we wish to exemplify in our State — the military strategies of MacArthur or the advances of Einstein, who we can claim as our own by adoption? Of course, we may wish to push for both, but as an overall picture of a people, science ought to trump success in war.

Arnold sides with the Liberals in his view of the State, and quotes the French philologist and historian Joseph Ernest Renan: “A Liberal believes in liberty, and liberty signifies the non-intervention of the State. But such an ideal is still a long way off from us, and the very means to remove it to an indefinite distance would be precisely the State’s withdrawing its action too soon.” Of course, ultimately, all political parties want to reduce the influence of the State. The trick is when and how. Some elements can be removed now, but others remain necessary or are at least preferable until local replacements can be set up.

Why do we need the State? “Because a State in which law is authoritative and sovereign, a firm and settled course of public order, is requisite if man is to bring to maturity anything precious and lasting now, or to found anything precious and lasting in the future. Thus, in our eyes, the very framework and exterior order of the State, whoever may administer the State, is sacred”.


What lessons can an Englishman writing in the 1860s tell us about America in the 2000s? Perhaps none, perhaps many. I think more the latter.

Indeed, the State is a necessary part of government. Even the most radical anarchists and communists admit that the State serves some kind of purpose, even if only temporary. If necessary, we should want the State to reflect the people it represents. As Arnold says, we want a State that shows our very best and speaks of culture. In terms of America, it is very well to think of America as a military superpower (this has its uses), but a better goal is to uphold America as a land of freedom and opportunity. Does the State still symbolize this ideal, if it ever did? Could it be adjusted to this concept more?

And also, we must work to think of the State as more than a tool of a class, or of certain elites. We should work on pushing for laws so the legislators craft bills and vote on them with the interests of the country in mind. Unfortunately, as our country stands today, elections are won largely on campaign commercials and less on ideas — he who buys the most time wins the seat. This person may want our best interests, but he may only want the best for himself and his friends. Cronyism runs rampant, and it is through the door of bought elections that cronies begin their takeover.

Yes, I believe that while Arnold was writing in a certain time and place, his general ideas resonate even now, across the pond. Now, if I am right, the next step is to pursue such greatness as he speaks.


Arnold, Matthew. Culture and Anarchy and Other Writings Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Also try another article under Political
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

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