Opening the way for a reexamination of Matthew Arnold's unique contributions to ethical criticism, James Walter Caufield emphasizes the central role of philosophical pessimism in Arnold's master tropes of "culture" and "conduct." Caufield uses Arnold's ethics as a lens through which to view key literary and cultural movements of the past 150 years, demonstrating that Arnoldian conduct is grounded in a Victorian ethic of "renouncement," a form of altruism that wholly informs both Arnold's poetry and prose and sets him apart from the many nineteenth-century public moralists. Arnold's thought is situated within a cultural and philosophical context that shows the continuing relevance of "renouncement" to much contemporary ethical reflection, from the political kenosis of Giorgio Agamben and the pensiero debole of Gianni Vattimo, to the ethical criticism of Wayne C. Booth and Martha Nussbaum. In refocusing attention on Arnold's place within the broad history of critical and social thought, Caufield returns the poet and critic to his proper place as a founding father of modern cultural criticism.
'Caufield opens the way for a re-examination of Arnold's contributions to literary criticism. His emphasis on the philosophy of pessimism and the key concepts of "conduct" and "renouncement" in Arnold's work helps the reader to better understand important issues related to intuition, subjectivity, "human nature," and moral judgment. I am pleased to see a new appreciation for Arnold's religious essays, largely ignored by critics today.' Clinton Machann, Texas A&M University, USA 'Caufield has certainly done his homework, ranging widely in Arnold’s poetry and prose (including the still somewhat neglected religious prose) and extending his scrutiny not only to Arnold’s Victorian reviewers and subsequent scholarship on him but also to Arnoldianism in twentieth- and early twenty-first century cultural politics... Overcoming Matthew Arnold shows very real merit. The author is thorough, his thesis is practicable and useful, and he sometimes exhibits touches of humor.' NBOL-19 ’...this important re-assessment, which does justice to the neglected, but nonetheless imperative aspect of Arnold’s ethical thought will doubtless open new paths for a critical re-examination of his works.’ Rivista di Stui Vittoriani ’There is admirable acuity in the revisionary details, and many readers of subsequent literature should benefit from reading this text on major critics such as T. S. Eliot, and the opposition between culture and politics, as well as its thinking about Arnold...ambitious, wide-ranging and illuminating...’ Review of English Studies