I have been re-reading “Culture and Anarchy”, Matthew Arnold 1869. (Arnold was the son of Dr Arnold who founded Rugby school)
What I am about to tell you is the wisest thing I have ever heard and it’s the greatest advice this diary can pass on to you. It is a star to live your life by: it is Arnold’s concept of the Best Self . This and the concept of Sweetness and Light are ideas I have carried with me since my first reading a good twenty years ago.
The concept of sweetness and light (originally put forward in “The Battle of the Books”, Jonathan Swift) prepares the way for understanding the Best Self, these two passions are complements, the dynamics of the Best Self.
Sweetness is empathy, our heart.
Light is the scientific passion, our mind.
We all know our Best Self, especially when we compare it to our ordinary self. Our ordinary self does what it likes: feeds on desire and wants immediate gratification – sucking up what it can – childish; it loves to act, often with passion but without much thought; it wants material success, is envious and gets its adrenalin through gossip, causing trouble and the “culprit” is punished. The cleverest thing to say about the Best Self is that you know it – it’s when you’re kind and brave and stand up for things.
Arnold elaborates on the passions of the Best Self.
Sweetness, the ancient Greeks had it:
The moral fibre is light –that “desire for the things of the mind for their own sakes and for the pleasure of seeing things as they are”. Not simply as we would like them to be. This is intellectual bravery.
How do we cultivate our Best Self? I give you my own example; as a child I was not spiteful and because of the crucifixion I knew there was suffering in the world. I needed information. Although I read it was not until I was 11 and went to grammar school that I discovered literature. Aged 18 or 19 my friend Susan who I had met at teacher training college introduced me to theatre. In my late 20’s I started to understand politics, the hippies politicized us, there were “underground” bookshops. Malcom introduced me to art but no light went on. Then in my late 30’s I met my friend Gary Ness. He directed my reading, Bertrand Russell, Huxley, Proust, introduced me to art and music. I would not be the same person if I had not met Gary, he sparked off my vision of the world. My husband Andreas has an original view, no-one could tell you what he tells, he seems to see the soul of things.
When I was young I absorbed pop- culture which is fine. Teenagers have a great time running around but it can’t last. You need to inform yourself, find what you’re looking for. I am self- educated but until those introductions I didn’t know where to find it. When the lights switch on and you begin to see, you have to continue. Your authority is your Best Self: it’s a moral choice, an attempt to understand the world and be part of the great human drama.
TRUE CULTURE IS PRODUCED BY SWEETNESS AND LIGHT,
THE BEST SELF IS THE PROTAGONIST.
Arnold’s talk of the pursuit of our perfection refers to each our fulfilment and to our evolution, our ability to become more human, more civilized through culture. Leading up to and throughout the twentieth century the main ethos has been the cultivation of the ordinary self – doing as we like! This ethos is now global. We have been arrested in our development. This is why politicians cannot progress, they’re stuck in a trap, glued to the rotten old financial system. Progress is measured by consumption. This is why I say we’re dangerously short of culture. If our ethic was that of the Best Self we would have different values, we would not have Climate Change. It’s not that people don’t go to art galleries etc. and engage with our great cultural tradition. They do, but their passion is not aspirational. We have been trained up as consumers, we do not engage with ‘the best that has ever been thought or said or shown’. Nevertheless the art lover is a freedom fighter for a better world.