It has been 150 years since Matthew Arnold published his groundbreaking work, Culture and Anarchy. His essays in book form are not only a powerful critique of Victorian society and values but also of modern ones. Contemporary political, economic and cultural issues provide an opportunity to revisit Arnold’s thought critically, to assess his enduring legacy, and to appraise the modern predicament in relation to distinguished cultural achievements from the past.
In the wake of the Brexit phenomenon, Victorian cultural superiority and idealism are worth exploring. Despite the invocation of ethnocentrism (e.g. Saxon-Celtic roots and Latin-French influences), Arnold strongly appealed to (English) national unity. The curtailment of the mechanic spirit would not only prevent unwarranted cultural uniformity but also provide the conditions for the continual improvement of the mind. Hence, it would be possible to find balance, light, and sweetness through cultural development in a society struggling with political turmoil, social change and the search for a sense of self. Like the Victorian sages, Brexiteers came up with new solutions to the country’s social and identity problems. Under the aegis of gaining back control over their lost national identity, Brexiteers recovered a national discourse based on myths, historical recreations, and constructed insights into a glorious past. The past, the present, and the future are thus unavoidably entangled, and all the more so in any reassessment of English (cultural) identity in the present.