Thomas Arnold

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Thomas Arnold

Thomas Arnold (13 June 179512 June 1842) was a schoolmaster and historian, head of Rugby School from 1828 to 1841. His son was the poet Matthew Arnold; he was also an ancestor of Aldous Huxley.


  • My highest ambition, and what I hope to do as far as I can, is to make my history the very reverse of Gibbon in this respect,—that whereas the whole spirit of his work, from its low morality, is hostile to religion, without speaking directly against it, so my greatest desire would be, in my History, by its high morals and its general tone, to be of use to the cause, without actually bringing it forward.
    • Statement (1826) on his History of Rome, quoted in A. P. Stanley, The Life and Correspondence and Thomas Arnold (1910), p. 192
  • With regard to reforms at Rugby, give me credit, I must beg of you, for a most sincere desire to make it a place of Christian education. At the same time, my object will be, if possible, to form Christian men, for Christian boys I can scarcely hope to make.
    • Letter to Rev. John Tucker accepting his appointment as headmaster of Rugby (2 March 1828), quoted in Arthur Penrhyn Stanley, The Life and Correspondence of Thomas Arnold, Volume I (1845), p. 61
  • If one might wish for impossibilities, I might then wish that my children might be well versed in physical science, but in due subordination to the fulness and freshness of their knowledge on moral subjects. ... [R]ather than have it the principal thing in my son's mind, I would gladly have him think that the sun went round the earth, and that the stars were so many spangles set in the bright blue firmament. Surely the one thing needful for a Christian and an Englishman to study is Christian and moral and political philosophy.
    • Letter to Dr. Greenhill (9 May 1836), quoted in Arthur Penrhyn Stanley, The Life and Correspondence of Thomas Arnold, Volume I (1845), p. 281
  • I do not often venture to talk to you about public affairs, but surely you will agree with me in deprecating this war with China, which really seems to me so wicked as to be a national sin of the greatest possible magnitude, and it distresses me very deeply. Cannot any thing be done by petition or otherwise to awaken men's minds to the dreadful guilt we are incurring? I really do not remember, in any history, of a war undertaken with such combined injustice and baseness. Ordinary wars of conquest are to me far less wicked, than to go to war in order to maintain smuggling, and that smuggling consisting in the introduction of a demoralizing drug, which the government of China wishes to keep out, and which we, for the lucre of gain, want to introduce by force; and in this quarrel are going to burn and slay in the pride of our supposed superiority.
    • Letter to W. W. Hull (13 March 1840), quoted in Arthur Penrhyn Stanley, The Life and Correspondence of Thomas Arnold, Volume I (1845), p. 376


  • Real knowledge, like every thing else of the highest value, is not to be obtained easily. It must be worked for, — studied for, — thought for, — and, more than all, it must be prayed for.
    • Quotes reported in Josiah Hotchkiss Gilbert, Dictionary of Burning Words of Brilliant Writers (1895). p. 364.
  • As of rioting, the old Roman way of dealing with that is always the right one; flog the rank and file, and fling the ring-leaders from the Tarpeian rock.
    • Quoted by Matthew Arnold, Cornhill Magazine, August 1868
  • The distinction between Christianity and all other systems of religion consists largely in this, that in these other, men are found seeking after God, while Christianity is God seeking after man.
    • Reported in Josiah Hotchkiss Gilbert, Dictionary of Burning Words of Brilliant Writers (1895), p. 133.

Quotes about Thomas Arnold

  • Over the evolution of the public school Dr Thomas Arnold, Headmaster of Rugby from 1827 until his death in 1841, exercised a decisive influence. Arnold himself expressed in his own stormy personality all the moral obsessions and emotional fervour of early Victorian evangelicalism. Arnold's Rugby was the most important and influential of the schools that served as prototypes for the numerous new public schools that opened between 1840 and 1900 to cater for the swelling middle classes. Arnold more than any other individual gave late Victorian English education both its concern with moral conduct and its distinctive mark of romanticism. Religion for Arnold, as for the rest of his generation, meant "...what the Gospel teaches us to mean by it, it is nothing less than a system directing and influencing our conduct, principles and feelings..."
    It followed that the first purpose of education was to inculcate Christian morality. "It is not necessary", he wrote, "that this should be a school of three hundred, or one hundred, or fifty boys; but it is necessary that it should be a school of Christian gentlemen."
    Christian morality was thus very much more important than, for example, scientific knowledge... Arnold went so far as to resign from the governing body of the new London University because religion was not to be a compulsory examination subject: "... An University that conceived of education as not involving in it principles of moral truths would be an evil."
  • Arnold's own interpretation of the human past was no less immaculately ideal – a counterpart of the Middle Ages as seen in the vision of the Pre-Raphaelites. While he was writing a history of Rome, he could refer to the Romans as a people "whose distinguishing quality was their love of institutions and order, and their reverence for law". It was an unbalanced conclusion to draw from a history replete with violence and disorder. Arnold's treatment of historical personages is less a consideration of a man's ability than a judgement of moral character. Marius was "the lowest of democrats", Sulla "the most sincere of aristocrats". This is to foreshadow a common British trait in the twentieth century. It was indeed Arnold's purpose in writing his history of Rome to demolish Gibbon, and all the hated scepticism, cynicism and worldliness of the eighteenth century... Arnold was equally a prototype of a common later British attitude to world affairs. He strikes a very modern note over the Opium War with China in 1840 in a letter to a friend.
  • I [found], on going to the university, that...the tone of young men...was universally irreligious. A religious undergraduate was very rare, very much laughed at when he appeared; and I think I may confidently say, hardly to be found among public-school men... A most singular and striking change has come over our public schools—a change too great for any person to appreciate adequately, who has not known them in both these times. This change is undoubtedly part of a general improvement of our generation in respect of piety and reverence, but I am sure that to Dr. Arnold's personal earnest simplicity of purpose, strength of character, power of influence, and piety...the carrying of this improvement into our schools is mainly attributable. He was the first. It soon began to be a matter of observation to us in the university that his pupils brought quite a different character with them to Oxford than that which we knew elsewhere. I do not speak of opinions; but his pupils were thoughtful, manly minded, conscious of duty and obligation.
    • George Moberly, letter written when he was headmaster of Winchester College (1835-1866), quoted in Arthur Penrhyn Stanley, The Life and Correspondence of Thomas Arnold, D.D. [1844] (1846), p. 126
  • In the mid-nineteenth century the [public] schools underwent extensive reforms, championed by Dr Thomas Arnold, headmaster of Rugby, who expanded their curriculum to include mathematics, modern languages and history, and who placed organised sport and evangelical Christianity at the centre of their social ethos. Thereafter, the public schools provided a model for secondary education in England, and one that was loved and resented in equal measure.
  • His testimonials were few in number, and most of them couched in general language, but all speaking strongly of his qualifications. Amongst them was a letter from Dr. Hawkins, now Provost of Oriel, in which it was predicted that, if Mr. Arnold were elected to the head-mastership of Rugby, he would change the face of education all through the public schools of England.
  • [H]e was quite incapable of enjoying any book or poem if he disapproved of the author's principles or even if he thought that the author was half-hearted in his support of righteousness. Molière gave him no pleasure and he was troubled by Shakespeare's apparent inability to create good men.
    • Arnold Whitridge, Dr. Arnold of Rugby (1928), p. 42
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