Decorated initial I

n his chapter on fiction, Dallas turns aside to disagree with Matthew Arnold’s contention that the period in which they both live and write is essentially an age of criticism rather than an age of creativity. He proposes that it is essential “to ascertain the direction of the ethical current in our time — the master current which determines the movement of art, as of life and of all literature” (247). To do so, say Dallas, “we have first of all to come to terms with Mr. Matthew Arnold, who has pronounced a very decided opinion upon the subject. Mr. Arnold holds that the main movement of European thought just now is, what it has been for years past, a critical movement. The age is nothing if not critical: criticism is what Europe most desires; and criticism is the very last thing' for which we should at present care to consult English literature.” Rejecting the idea that their own country plays little part in the general movement of thought, “or in which England acts only as a drag,” (248), Dallas somewhat condescendingly remarks, “One is rather surprised to find in Mr. Arnold the glibness which professes to bottle in one little word the spirit of an age” but admits he has “some excuse for supposing that he has bottled the present age in the three syllables of criticism.”

Dallas, who is far more of a philosopher and expert on history of philosophy that the author of Culture and Anarchy, begins by asking ”what is meant by a critical philosophy” and “if there is anything in it peculiar to our time.” He begins with Kant.

Kant it was who gave the phrase authority. He called his first great work a Critique; it was a critique of pure reason. That is to say, Emmanuel Kant, when he began to think, found himself in the midst of problems which seemed to be insoluble; at least, they suggested the previous question. Is human reason in any way capable of dealing with them? Therefore, before entering on any argument in metaphysics, he undertook to criticise reason. This critical inquiry into the competence of reason is called a critical philosophy; and hence one may run away with the notion that a critical philosophy is peculiar to our times. The name is new, but the thing is old. [248-49]

The problem with such a claim, Dallas points out, is that “all the great thinking great thinking movements since the revival of letters are critical — they criticise either the powers or the methods of reason.” For example, “Des Cartes gave us no system of thought that survives; his great work is a criticism on the method of thought,’ and the same is true of Bacon. Locke, the next “great name in philosophy” asks the question “Is the human understanding equal to the task of philosophy?” and “Hume pursued the criticism of Locke to its consequences, and arrived at a desolating scepticism as to the capacity of human reason.’ He therefore points out “that if the thinking of our time be critical, it is not so in any sense which distinguishes it from the other great thinking movements of the last few centuries” (249).

Proposing his own definition of “the characteristic movement of our time” (249-50), he quotes Tennyson’s saying that "‘the individual withers, and the world is more and more.’ But I am not sure whether the essence of this thought might not be expressed in the very opposite terms: the individual prospers, and the world is less and less. The great point to be seized is that there is gradually being wrought a change in the relation of the individual to the mass Whether we regard that change as a growth or as a withering will depend very much on what we think of the individual (250-51). If we are most concerned (like, say, Thomas Carlyle) with the singular hero, the outstanding individual who supposedly changes history pretty much by himself, then the modern age appears a decline, a withering. Therefore, a

cry is gone forth that we are in lack of heroes. Great deeds are achieved as of yore; but they are not accredited to one man so much as they used to be; his comrades come in for their share of the glory; and the world at large, recognising his ability, adopting his ideas, seconding his eflforts, is more and more in our esteem. Yet if the hero as an individual is of less account than he used to be, and so may be said to wither, the individual in a much wider sense may be said to prosper. The little men and the private men and all the incidents of privacy are coming into repute. We dwell far more than we used to do on the private side of human life. We have learned to feel that there is as much greatness in the family as in the state, in love as in strife, in the shedding of ink as in the shedding of blood, in finessing the pips at whist as in counting the chances of endless division lists. [251]

According to Carlyle, Archbishop Hare, and others, the problem, the supposed dimunition, is solely “because we have given ourselves up to the the grovelling pursuit of money-making. What can we expect from a trading age? What from any nation of shopkeepers? The golden age has come back upon the earth; but it is not the golden prime of the poets; it has turned to dross” (II, 252). In other words, the age has become Victorian — and age of commerce and capitalism.

As his own descriptions of the modern age above make clear, Dallas — unlike Carlyle, Ruskin, and Arnold —  does not find this change a cause for lamentation. He celebrates it, and to convince his reader he turns to the history of Venice, finding very different lessons there than had Ruskin.

Links to Related Material


Dallas, Eneas Sweetland . The Gay Science. 2 vols. London: Chapman and Hall, 1866. A HathiTrust online version of a copy in the Harvard University Library. Web. 30 April 2022.

Last modified 3 May 2022