The Sea of Faith: Reflections on Mathew Arnold’s “Dover Beach”

Glen T. Martin

14 June 2007

            Dover Beach (1867) expresses in many ways the crux of Matthew Arnold’s thoughtful and penetrating world view, derived from a depth of philosophical reflection and seriousness that sets Arnold apart from many of his 19th century contemporaries.  In many ways Arnold’s philosophical quest involved consistently and honestly deriving the implications of the scientific and religious paradigms of the 19th century, prior to what I have called the 20th century “Copernican Revolution in Religion” (2005a) and the complementary paradigm shift in science that also took place during the 20th century.  Today, in the early 21st century, we are in a position to reassess Arnold’s near despairing conclusions without compromising his impeccable philosophical integrity and honesty.

             In particular, I want to comment on the following two stanzas from the poem:

The Sea of Faith

Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore

Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.

But now I only hear

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,

Retreating, to the breath

Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear

And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true

To one another! for the world, which seems

To lie before us like a land of dreams,

So various, so beautiful, so new,

Hath really joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

While ignorant armies clash by night.

            Arnold is not merely expressing nostalgia for a lost Medieval era, nostalgia for what Max Weber terms “enchantment” within a “sea of faith” that appeared to conform exactly with the structure of physical reality.  Human beings were seen as at the center of a divine drama of fall, redemption, and salvation, just as they were understood as existing physically at the very center of the universe with the sun, moon, and even the stars moving in perfect circles around their primary and privileged position within the cosmos.  For Arnold, the loss of the sea of faith is the loss of this harmony between the depths of the human spirit with all that this entails and the structure of physical reality. 

            The depths of the human spirit cry out for joy, love, light, certitude, peace, and help for pain.  The satisfaction of these basic human spiritual aspirations was at least possible during the age of faith when there was an astonishing confluence between these aspirations and the evident physical structure of the universe: human beings at the center and obviously of concern and at the center of attention of the divine foundations of existence.  Truth was one, and its ultimate trademark (coherence) was satisfied. But science proceeded to overthrow the Medieval conception of our human place within the physical universe, and every advance in science placed us farther from any purported center and farther from a universe lovingly crafted to support the fulfillment of human spiritual needs.

            St. Thomas Aquinas, for example, had argued in the 13th century that God had placed within all human beings an entelechy or drive for self-fulfillment.  And God had provided the means within everyday practical existence to realize the happiness and fulfillment through the realization of the basic virtues of wisdom, temperance, courage, and justice.  These virtues were supplemented by the theological virtues having to do with man’s supernatural end (such as faith) that were also realizable in a practical way within this life.  God had not only structured the universe and human nature to make the realization of these ends possible, He had also sent Christ and the Church to allow people to participate in the joy and fulfillment of their supernatural end.

            The folds of the “bright girdle” lay around earth’s shore, wrapping all the continents of earth in a hope and a possibility capable of uplifting the human spirit and providing satisfaction to these deepest aspirations of our being.  But step by step, science began to debunk the Medieval conception of the cosmos.  Step by step, we are wrenched from the center of an enchanted and magical world that could be perceived as really “so various, so beautiful, so new” because it was God’s world within which God was immanent and within which human beings were physically and spiritually central.  Step by step the universe was reconceived under the model of a machine, a set of mechanical processes following impersonal laws oblivious to human needs and aspirations.  Step by step God was pushed out of the everyday operations of the universe into the role of an initial creator who now existed, if at all, in the remote time of the beginning as creator of a process that now operated autonomously and imperviously to the human creatures suffering and dying within its mechanism.  Step by step the ideas of a “natural” human constitution allowing for happiness and fulfillment within the framework of a universal Church directed toward man’s supernatural end were called into question.

            However, it is not nostalgia for a church and an earlier age that is the primary animation for the melancholy perception of the long withdrawing roar of the sea of faith.  For Anold, what is lacking is not a specific world order, one now dying and displaced by the rise of a science revealing the vast edges drear of an impersonal, mechanical universe.   Rather, it is the longing for a universe that satisfied the basic human spiritual needs for joy, love, light, certitude, peace, and help for pain.  Such a universe once existed, but only in a particular medieval form.  Arnold’s quest is more universal and more philosophical that this.  It longs for a universe in which the spiritual needs of humankind are expressed in the structure and nature of reality.

            By the time of Dover Beach, written in1867, human beings had been progressively devalued in the scheme of things, and their cosmos had been converted to an impersonal mechanism ostensibly grounded in itself to the point where Arnold perceived that human faith was withdrawing like the long, night tide at Dover Beach, emitting its melancholy roar to the breath of a night wind that was a manifestation of the heartless impersonal mechanism that science had apparently revealed as the truth of our universe and our planetary home.  The night-wind now gusted over “the vast edges drear and naked shingles of the world.”  Just physical processes – atoms, molecules, chemical and biological functions following mechanical, impersonal laws of physics – these are now the naked shingles of a world that provides no place for hope to satisfy the most fundamental aspirations of the human spirit.

            What remains of this shattered world of meaning and faith is only the possibility of personal love between individual human beings.  The real possibility of an honest love of God seems gone.  Universal meaning at the heart of the cosmos seems gone.  Peace, certitude, or help for the immense suffering that has always afflicted human existence seem gone forever.  The world still retains its surface beauty: it appears to us as “so various, so beautiful, so new.”  But science apparently has revealed that these are only surface appearances covering the reality of naked shingles of an impersonal mechanical order of things.  “Let us be true to one another” as individuals, Arnold cries, since the immense movements of society, the clash of civilizations, man’s inhumanity to man, the wars, striving, and vast movements of an industrial civilization – without aim, purpose, or possibility of redemption – indicate that cosmic meaning is in shreds and all that remains are the possibility of personal relationships within the darkness of human existence on the remoteness of a forlorn and insignificant planet earth.

            The welter of philosophies and ideas surging around human consciousness – from the Hobbesian mechanistic devaluation of human beings themselves, to the utilitarian reduction of reason as a mere means for the satisfaction of irrational and arbitrary goals, to the Machiavellian manipulation and domination of human beings in the service of naked power and lust, to the capitalist dogma of unlimited accumulation of wealth at the expense of nature and other human beings, to the blind, striving metaphysical will of Schopenhauerian philosophy – human existence now appears “as on a darkling plain, swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, where ignorant armies clash by night.”

            The magnificently honest search for meaning that constituted Matthew Arnold’s life and poetic output runs aground on the Newtonian scientific paradigm, which appears to exclude, in principle, the immanence of God in the processes of the universe or the mystic’s intuition of the sacred wholeness of existence.  However, the revolutions in thought of the 20th century, both in terms of our understanding of religion and in terms of our understanding of the nature and structure of the universe, have restored the possibility of the “bright girdle of faith” furled round earth’s shore.  Arnold’s universal philosophical quest for meaning within a sea of faith is again fulfilled, not by an outmoded Medieval world view but through the breakthroughs to deeper levels of reality that characterized the 20th century revolutions in science.

            Both quantum mechanics and Einsteinian physics have demonstrated the indissoluble wholeness of the universe, that very wholeness experientially encountered and testified to by mystics of all ages and all religions.  Contemporary scholarship regarding religion has broken the literalism that tied nearly all the great religions to metaphysical world views deriving from a different culture, time, and place.  Emergent evolutionism and the advent of the Anthropic Principle have restored the idea of the immanence of God within the creative evolution of the universe and the conception of ultimate purposes to the processes of nature transcending mere human purposes.  Reason, like the Logos of the Stoics, again becomes reflected in the macro-features of the cosmos and is no longer a mere utility to be used by creatures whose petty irrational desires and wants stand outside of it.

            “Ah, love, let us be true to one another!” is still valid, of course, just as it has been throughout the ages, for reasons not limited to the “ignorant armies” that have always clashed by night.  We can be true to one another, not because we face a meaningless universe whose “naked shingles” send a shudder of Sartrean nausea through creatures longing for meaning and purpose, but because love and loyalty between human beings reflects the wholeness, interdependency, and community of the universe itself.  Particularity – this particular human being – is inseparable from universality: this human being would not be who he or she is but for participation in the relational framework of human life, the environment, the evolutionary process (receding into prehistory and immense geologic ages), and the whole of the cosmos.

            Arnold observes that the world “hath neither joy, nor love, nor light,” and this is certainly as generally true in 2007 as it was 140 years ago.  “Light” is the light of reason, meaning, purpose, and understanding, opposing the darkness of the “ignorant armies” that class everywhere on Earth today as then.  The intellectual revolutions of the 20th century have not yet penetrated into human awareness.  They have not yet restored the bright girdle of faith and direct awareness of the immanence of the sacred within existence.  Instead, the darkness has infected religion itself in the form of fundamentalist forms of Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, and Islam who idolatrously worship their own incestuous claims to absolute truth in the form of varieties of outmoded religious metaphysical world views implying, with demonic certainty, their rights to power, domination, violence, and destruction at the expense of others.

            The darkness of our times is clearly sufficient reason to exclaim “Ah, love, let us be true to one another!”  The suffering on planet Earth has reached titanic proportions.  But being true to one another is no longer a sufficient moral response. We must not turn away into our private personal relationships in response to a horrific world order. We are responsible to represent the light, the strength of reason, understanding, and purpose within the cosmos.  We are responsible to convert the world back to the sea of faith, a faith not now grounded in the mysteries of the Church but in the depths of a world order revealed by the scientific paradigm shift of the 20th century.  In his Phenomenology of Spirit (1831), Hegel expresses this new understanding of morality and faith in a way that expresses something of the transformation that was later to come:  “morality is only consciousness of the absolute purpose as the purpose in opposition to all other purposes.  Thus, morality is the activity of this pure purpose….”   (p. 439)   Even before the scientific breakthroughs confirming his intuition of the indivisible wholeness of existence, Hegel understood the significance of evolutionary processes within the universe: evolution consisted in the progressive emergence of the divine purpose, its progressive realization on ever-higher levels, and human reason and faith were capable of understanding and participating in this self-realization.

            Being true to one another is part of the absolute purpose, for the universe is a community of interdependency and interrelationships: unity-in-diversity.  But beyond the personal level we must be true and faithful and committed to the larger sacred wholes in which we participate and that are the source and foundations of our individual being.  Our thinking, writing, speech, and action must communicate the “light” that Matthew Arnold found missing in the cosmos: today restored for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear the intellectual revolutions of the past century.  We must be true in our personal relationships to family and friends.  But we also must be true to all other human beings, to nature, and to our sacred cosmos.  Being thus true to one another, and to God (understood in a non-idolatrous manner), will restore forever the bright girdle of the sea of faith round the shores of our sacred planet Earth.