Liberalism. As It Was So It Shall Always Be.


In Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians, mock biographical essays on 4… well… eminent Victorians, the author goes to town on Dr. Thomas Arnold, self-styled educational reformer, longtime Rubgy School headmaster and father of poet, Matthew Arnold. “The son of a respectable Collector of Customs, he had been educated at Winchester and at Oxford, where his industry and piety had given him a conspicuous place among his fellow students,” Strachey writes of the young Dr. Thomas. “It is true that, as a schoolboy, a certain pompousness in the style of his letters home suggested to the more clear-sighted among his relatives the possibility that young Thomas might grow up into a prig; but, after all, what else could be expected from a child who, at the age of three, had been presented by his father, as a reward for proficiency in his studies, with the twenty-four volumes of Smollett’s History of England?”

Later on, Strachey describes the adult Dr. Thomas’ Liberal politics in a manner which caught my attention for its modern appropriateness. A definition that appears to never go out of style.

Now, I know some of you will see this as a partisan attack. But, let me assure you as much as I can, that when I read this passage, party politics was the furthest thing from my mind. It was the concept of liberalism that sprung out at me. The notion of not-conservative, I would call it. A contrast versus a designation. This is what I’m not not this is what I am.


He was, as he constantly declared, a Liberal. In his opinion, by the very constitution of human nature, the principles of progress and reform had been those of wisdom and justice in every age of the world — except one: that which had preceded the fall of man from Paradise. Had he lived then, Dr Arnold would have been a Conservative. As it was, his Liberalism was tempered by an ‘abhorrence of the spirit of 1789, of the American War, of the French Economistes, and of the English Whigs of the latter part of the seventeenth century’; and he always entertained a profound respect for the hereditary peerage. It might almost be said, in fact, that he was an orthodox Liberal. He believed in toleration, too, within limits; that is to say, in the toleration of those with whom he agreed…He had become convinced of the duty of sympathising with the lower orders ever since he had made a serious study of the Epistle of St James; but he perceived clearly that the lower orders fell into two classes, and that it was necessary to distinguish between them. There were the ‘good poor’ — and there were the others. ‘I am glad that you have made acquaintance with some of the good poor,’ he wrote to a Cambridge undergraduate; ‘I quite agree with you that it is most instructive to visit them.’ Dr Arnold himself occasionally visited them, in Rugby; and the condescension with which he shook hands with old men and women of the working classes was long remembered in the neighbourhood. As for the others, he regarded them with horror and alarm. ‘The disorders in our social state,’ he wrote to the Chevalier Bunsen in 1834, ‘appear to me to continue unabated. You have heard, I doubt not, of the Trades Unions; a fearful engine of mischief, ready to riot or to assassinate; and I see no counteracting power.’

transcribedly submitted by Cityslikr



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