Thomas Arnold, Christian Manliness and the Problem of Boyhood

Article English OPEN
Ellis, H. (2014)
  • Publisher: Taylor & Francis

Thomas Arnold is a well-known character in Victorian Studies. His life and work are usually discussed in relation to his role as Headmaster of Rugby School and the development of the English public school system. His importance in the history of Victorian manliness has, by contrast, been somewhat obscured. When scholars do comment on his highly influential idea of Christian manliness, they tend to assume it was an overtly gendered ideal, opposed to a well-developed notion of effeminacy. A closer study of Arnold's thought and writings, as well as the reflections of his contemporaries and pupils, reveals rather that his understanding of manliness was structured primarily around an opposition between moral maturity on the one hand and immoral boyishness on the other. As this article argues, one of Arnold's chief concerns at Rugby was to ‘anticipate’ or ‘hasten’ the onset of moral manhood in his pupils. Moreover, his discussion of manliness in his role as Headmaster was closely connected to his work as a historian – another neglected aspect of Arnold's career. Inspired, above all, by the Italian philosopher Giovanni Battista Vico, Arnold's historical writing is punctuated by the Vichian concept that nations, like individuals, pass through distinct stages of maturity, from infancy, through childhood, manhood, age and decrepitude. A close reading of Arnold's school sermons and other works on the peculiar dangers of boyhood suggests clearly that his historical writing inspired the notions of moral manliness and vicious boyhood that underpinned much of his educational thought.
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