“The Best that Has Been Thought and Known . . .” - September 3, 2012

The quote is from Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy, where he defined culture as the study of perfection, as doing away with classes, “to make the best that has been thought and known in the world current everywhere . . .”

It behooves us, occasionally, to think of what this “best that has been thought and known” really is and how it is to be promulgated in order that more people may know of it. These two tasks, knowing what is best and knowing how to advance it, are by no means self-evident, especially in a society boasting of its nondiscrimination, its egalitarianism, its “fairness,” and its concern for rights.

Does the best include the novels of Stephen King, the movies of George Lucas, the Beatles, the winners of American Idol, The New York Times, and Oprah? Surely some or all of these could be seen as the best within a given niche, but “the best that has been thought or known”? No way.

Yet, the very idea is that some forms on the one hand and some content on the other are by nature better than others is anathema to a large segment of our society, including most definitely a lot of smart college professors, some of whom earn a living promoting pop culture with as much alacrity as would be the case were it slop culture.

T.S. Eliot’s The Criterion never had more than 1,500 subscribers in all the years it was printed. Can such a small number warrant a designation as among the best that has been thought and known? On the other hand, the largest-circulation magazines in the world, The Watchtower and Awake, at 42 and 41 million subscribers respectively, are published monthly in innumerable languages by the Jehovah Witnesses, almost twice that of the two magazines by runner-up AARP. Something tells me that Matthew Arnold, in speaking of the study of perfection, would have sided with Eliot here.

But what makes me a better judge or, less important, a more authoritative one than, say, another, who might delight with or find important meaning in life from The Watchtower or AARP The Magazine? In a democracy, are we not stuck with the Dodo’s answer that “everybody has won, and all must have prizes”? If what we mean by the best that has been thought and known is something that requires a consensus, we are going to be in trouble. It is very unlikely that we shall ever get that consensus. Perhaps the very most we can hope for is that some Matthew Arnolds of today expound the best as they see it, irrespective of the number of adherents. There will be differences, of course, and arguments, but if the disagreements are public, men and women of good faith may find a basis, through logic or emotion, through discernment or taste, to find in others an answer that exalts their intellectual or spiritual well-being.

The second task is no easier than the first; knowing how to advance that best that has been thought and known may prove difficult in the cacophony of our modern communication commotion, though certain answers to the first task may lead to answers to the second. One may find solace in one’s selection of J.S. Bach or Snoop Dog as the best that has been thought or known . . . but such solace will be found in different venues.

In a democracy, there are gatekeepers to culture, whatever the definition of “culture.” Among them, on the fringes, no doubt, are publishers. What they guard may be various in content and even in direction. A university press at a research university may have a different model of what they wish to guard than an independent publisher. After all, they have responsibilities to the university in question, whereas a company like St. Augustine’s Press is not set within a given culture (pardon the pun) of another’s making. What I have long thought is that our mission must be to truth and to our authors’ honest visions (even as we know that it is not always easy to discern or to adhere to the truth). If the two were ever to be at odds, one must adhere to the truth, for it seems to me that the truth is the first and minimal essential element of the best that has been thought and known.