What does Culture have to do with Happiness?

In 1869, Matthew Arnold, a respected English author, poet, and literary critic, wrote a very influential book, Culture and Anarchy.  This book was one of the first devoted to the understanding of culture (humanities) and its influence among society.  The book is still important in today’s world.

Prior to Arnold’s work, culture had the meaning of connoisseurship or appreciation of the fine arts.  But Arnold did not agree with that definition calling it “vanity and arrogance,” a “badge” of class distinction.

Arnold redefined culture as “a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world …”  By the word perfection he meant our growth to the highest form of humanity.

Arnold went on to say, that this pursuit of perfection was “… the general harmonious expansion of those gifts of thought and feeling, which make the particular dignity, wealth, and happiness of human nature.”  More importantly, he mentioned that the aim of culture is to encourage “a harmonious perfection, developing all sides of humanity … a general perfection, developing all parts of society.”  In essence, the goal of culture was not just to bring about happiness in the individual, it was also to allow the society to flourish.

One final quote from Arnold, “There is a view in which all the love of our neighbor, the impulses towards action, help, and beneficence, the desire for removing human error, clearing human confusion, and diminishing human misery, the noble aspiration to leave the world better and happier than we found it,—motives eminently such as are called social,—come in as part of the grounds of culture, and the main and pre-eminent part.”

It is for all these reasons mentioned above that the fine arts (“arts”) are included with the ideas of great thinkers (“prose’) – the culture as defined by Arnold – into one exposition so that all can find their way to achieving happiness and, simultaneously, contribute to the flourishing of society.

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