Last week, BBC Radio 4 broadcast a series of five programmes about the origin, meaning and significance of the word ‘culture’. The hook on which the series hung was the opposition between the ways in which the word was defined and discussed in two almost contemporary books – Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy: An Essay in Political and Social Criticism (1869) and E.B. Tylor’s two-volume Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Art, and Custom (1871) – both of which we have reissued in the Cambridge Library Collection.
Arnold (1822–88) was the son of Dr Thomas Arnold, the great reforming headmaster of Rugby School, and was widely respected as a poet and cultural commentator. His book consists of a series of essays, first published in the Cornhill Magazine between 1867 and 1868, in which he famously sought to define culture as ‘a study of perfection’, which ‘seeks to do away with classes; to make the best that has been thought and known in the world current everywhere; to make all men live in an atmosphere of sweetness and light’. ‘Sweetness and light’ has lost the moral force with which Arnold invested it, and I can’t imagine it being used today except in a mocking or derogatory sense. However, I’ve just been re-reading Trollope’s The Last Chronicle of Barset, and was struck by how frequently the adjective ‘sweet’ is applied to the Rev. Septimus Harding, the ‘hero’ of the first Barsetshire novel, whose death terminates the final one. Mr Harding is an unworldly clergyman, who always tries to do good and will willingly believe ill of nobody – in his case, ‘sweetness’ seems to be the outward manifestation of a pure and godly soul.
The concept of culture as high and elevating (which echoes the works of Ruskin (though he himself apparently never used the word) and also of Newman) was opposed by the ideas of Edward Burnett Tylor (1832–1917). A Quaker, and therefore excluded from university education, Tylor as a young man travelled for his health (he was tubercular), and fetched up in Mexico, where he spent four months exploring the ancient civilisations in the company of the ethnologist Henry Christy. He is considered by many to be the first scientific ‘anthropologist’: he was certainly the first reader in (and later professor of) anthropology at the University of Oxford.
Tylor’s definition of culture lacks any moral element: ‘Culture or Civilization, taken in its wide ethnographic sense, is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.’ Greatly influenced by Darwin (whose Descent of Man was also published in 1871), Tylor believed that all humans had the same inherent intellectual capacity, but that the speed of the evolution of their different cultures had kept some peoples at the level of ‘savagery’, and others at that of ‘barbarism’: ‘civilisation’ (as exemplified in Europe and the United States) was the highest stage of development, and colonialism was potentially a good thing as it would speed up the process by which the less developed peoples achieved civilisation.
Tylor was also very interested in folk tales and other survivals of earlier stages in the ‘advanced’ civilisations: tracing the universal themes of such tales, whether they originated in Germany, the Middle East or the Pacific Islands, demonstrated the underlying sameness of all types of Homo sapiens sapiens, however great the superficial differences they seemed to show. This interest in myth was of course taken a stage further by Jane Ellen Harrison and especially by Sir James Frazer.
So (summing up a complex debate in hugely over-simplified terms) should culture be pursued as a study of perfection, the rounding up of ‘the best which has been thought and said in the world’ (define ‘perfection’ and ‘best’); or is it [just?] a useful shorthand for that basket of attributes, material and intangible, which defines any society at any period in its history?