Matthew Arnold’s Concept of Hebraism and Hellenism


Matthew Arnold (1822-1888), a literary figure of the Victorian age, comes next to Browning and Tennyson. He is a poet, critic, religious thinker and educationist. He has the experience of twenty- four years as the inspector of schools. It provided him so much time to meet the different classes and examine their behaviours and habits. This experience pursued him to write ‘Culture & Anarchy’. In his book, he has also discussed various topics about true culture. In this book, he has discussed Hebraism and Hellenism.

In the inception of the topic, he discusses doing and thinking. His general view about human beings is that they prefer to act rather than to think. He rejects it because mankind is to err and he can not always think right, but it comes seldom in the process of reasoning and meditation, or he is not rightly guided by the light of true reason. The nation follows the voice of its conscience and its best light, but it is not the light of true reason except darkness. In his opinion, the nation is energy or the capacity of doing but it is not intelligence or capacity of thinking rightly. Such energy that has the sense of obligation and duty must be related to the best light.

He talks about the great idea to know and the great energy to act. Both are the most potent forces, and they should be in harmony by the light of reason. So, they are Hebraism and Hellenism. He insists on the balance of the both thought and action (Hellenism and Hebraism). The final aim of Hellenism and Hebraism is the same as man’s perfection and salvation. He further discusses that the supreme idea with Hellenism or the Greek Spirit is to see things as they really are, and the supreme idea of Hebraism or the Spirit of Bible is conduct and obedience. He points out that the Greek philosophy considers that the body and its desires are an impediment to right thinking, where as Hebraism considers that the body and its desires are an obstacle to right action. The root idea of the both is the desire for reason and the will of God, and the desire of love of God. Hebraism studies the universal order and observes the magnificence of God apparent in the order, whereas Hellenism follows with flexible activity. Thus Hellenism acquires spontaneity of consciousness with a clearness of mind, and Hebraism achieves a strictness of conscience with its clarity of thought. In brief, Hebraism shows stress on doing rather than knowing, and follows the will of God. Its primary idea is absolute obedience to the will of God.

Hellenism and Hebraism both are directly connected to the life of human beings. Hellenism keeps emphasis on knowing or knowledge, where as Hebraism fastens its faith in doing. The concluding aim of both is the partaking of divine life with knowledge and action. He describes that the Bible reveals the truth which awards the peace of God and liberty. The simple idea of Hellenism is to get rid of ignorance and to see things as they are and to search beauty from them. Socrates, as Hellenic, states that the best man is he who tries to make himself perfect, and the happiest man is he who feels that he is perfecting himself. He does not tell us how it is to be done, and how to see things in their reality and beauty.

Now, Matthew Arnold turns to Sin that spoils the efforts to achieve Hellenism. He is of the opinion that Sin is an obstacle to perfection because it brings hurdles in knowing ourselves; it impedes man’s passage to perfection. He calls it a mysterious power that is hostile to man. The discipline of the Holy Scripture teaches how to avoid and stop the Sin. Therefore, Hellenism speaks of thinking clearly and seeing things in their essence and beauty; where as Hebraism speaks of becoming conscious of the Sin and keeping away from it.

In this treatise, Arnold asserts that there is enough of Hellenism in the English nation, and he emphasizes on Hebraism, because it is based on conduct and self- control. He admits that the age is incapable of governing itself in the pursuit of perfection, and the bright promise of Greek ideal is faded. Now the obedience or submission must be to the rules of conduct, as expressed by the Holy Scripture (Bible).Hellenism lays its main stress on clear intelligence, where as Hebraism keeps main stress on firm obedience, moral power and character.

Arnold talks about the idea of immortality as illustrated by St. Paul, the Christian saint and Plato, the Greek philosopher, but the both have left something unexplained. So, the problem of human spirit is still unsolved in both Hebraism and Hellenism. In this respect, the writer finds triumph of the great movement of Christianity on the man’s moral impulses. He accepts that Renaissance re-established Hellenism and man’s intellectual impulses in Europe and Puritanism embraced the blessings of both Hellenism and Hebraism. In Reformation, there was the more influence of Hebraism than Hellenism. It was strong and in it, there was a grave return to the Bible and to doing the will of God from the heart. The superiority of Puritanism over Catholicism was moral, as the result of its greater sincerity and greater earnestness. Arnold says that the attitude of mind of Puritanism towards the Bible in no respect differs from the attitude of mind of catholism towards the church.

The 16th century stood Hellenism face to face with Hebraism. Hebraism was renewed and purged, but Hellenism of Renaissance lost its moral character. One thing must be viewed that Hellenism is of Indo-European growth and Hebraism is of Semitic growth. Those who belonged to Indo-European stock showed their natural affinity to Hellenism. The English Puritanism restored the conscience and moral sense of Hebraism to the English in 16th century. It saved the nation from moral unresponsiveness and lethargic rule of conduct which came with Renaissance in the 16th century. It was a reaction of Hebraism against Hellenism. If Hellenism was defeated by Hebraism, it showed Hellenism was imperfect.

The defeat of Hellenism by early Christianity and the defeat of Hellenism by Puritanism was the result of Renaissance stress on the progress of humanism and science. It inclined man to knowing himself and the world, to seeing the things as they are and to the spontaneity of consciousness. Despite it, the main inclination of the English nation was towards strictness of conscience.

In conclusion, it must be added that the rule of life should be based on the theory of Hellenism and Hebraism because the final aim of both is man’s perfection or salvation.


Source by Ali Asghar Joyo