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“One vast and fearful struggle”: Thomas Arnold and the Social Progress of Nations.


I am currently working on a research project on the life and work of Thomas Arnold (1795-1842). A central figure in early nineteenth-century British life, Arnold was a leading Liberal Anglican theologian, headmaster of Rugby School (1828-41), and Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford (1841-2). Despite Arnold’s significance, scholarly interest has not been extensive and modern biographers such as Michael McCrum and Terence Copley have focused primarily on his role at Rugby and influence on English education.

At the moment I am interested in perhaps the most neglected sphere of Arnold’s activities – his work as a historian: author of an unfinished History of Rome (3 volumes, 1838-42);translator of Thucydides’ The History of the Peloponnesian War (3 volumes, 1845); and Introductory Lectures on Modern History (1845). In particular I am concerned to trace out in detail Arnold’s philosophy of history, which was influenced both by Giovanni Battista Vico and the German school of critical analysis headed by Bathold Georg Niebuhr. Combining the spirit of analysis with the moral and romantic influence of Coleridge and Wordsworth, Arnold elaborated a vision of the universal process by which nations rose and fell as they progressed, like human beings, through a state of childhood, manhood and old-age. In this analysis, the political history of ancient Greece and Rome provided important precedents for contemporary Europe.

Having elucidated Arnold’s interpretation of the past, I hope to demonstrate that this understanding can cast light on his anxieties concerning the “Condition of England Question”. Deeply concerned with the poverty of the labouring population, Arnold observed the alienation between the rich and poor and the inability of the established Church, marred by schism, to provide a unifying social bond. As England passed through the crises of the Swing Riots, the passage of the Great Reform Bill, and the Chartist agitations, Arnold prophesied the coming of a civil war which would plunge society back into a state of barbaric infancy.

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