Arnold's essay, "The Function of Criticism at the Present Time" was published in his first collection of critical writings, Essays in Criticism, in 1865. Prior to the publication of these essays, Arnold had just completed some lectures on the translation of Homer--works which bear, in a less developed form, some of Arnold's ideas on the need for new, intelligent criticism in England.
"The Function of Criticism at the Present Time" thus seems a bit of a turning point in Arnold's career; by the time Arnold began writing Culture and Anarchy, he had turned away from his career as a poet to focus on social and theological writings. The project which Arnold began with this essay--to make the reading, middle-class public of England understand the need for a critical spirit in order to provide society with fresh, intelligent ideas--would occupy him fully and it is for this new direction which Arnold takes that would make Arnold interesting to generations after him.
The central argument of the essay responds to what Arnold felt to be the prevailing attitude that the constructive, creative capacity was much more important than the critical faculty. Arnold's expanded definition of criticism, however--"the endeavour, in all branches of knowledge, theology, philosophy, history, art, science, to see the object as in itself it really is"--renders criticism a necessary prerequisite for truly valuable creation. Specifically, criticism is what generates "fresh" and "intelligent" ideas during a specific time and place in history, and Arnold claim that since literature works with current ideas (literature is "synthesis and exposition"), great works can only be generated in a climate of great ideas. Thus, Arnold argues that criticism prepares the way for creation.
Arnold pegs the work of the romantic poets after the French Revolution and in the earlier part of the century as creative, but without the quality of ideas necessary for truly great work. This is because, Arnold explains, the French Revolution devolved into an obsession with the political and practical, "quitting the intellectual sphere and rushing furiously into the political sphere." While Arnold praises the intellectual quality of the initial ideas, particularly Burke's, coming out of this "epoch of concentration," Arnold disparages the devolution of these ideas too manically into the political and practical.
In the present time, Arnold argues, criticism must maintain a position of "disinterestedness," keeping aloof from "the practical view of things" in order to "know the best that is known and thought in the world, and in its turn making this known, to create a current of true and fresh ideas." Its logic runs counter to that of self-satisfaction (what Arnold felt to be the problematic attitude of middle-class reformers) and thus leads men to desire greater perfection.
Arnold concedes, finally, that the work of the critic is "slow and obscure" and doesn't quite give an answer as to how the critic can make his work known to the so-called "practical" men. Arnold holds that the critic will be misunderstood, and English society is likely to be on the side of the likes of Bishop Colenso and Miss Cobbe, who offer "constructive" suggestions for living. Nevertheless, Arnold seems deeply hopeful that the recent commentary on the youth of today having less "zeal" means that they are in fact thinking more, and cultivating a more disinterested, critical life and in doing so, coming up with fresh, intelligent ideas.
One of the most interesting aspects of Arnold's ideas on criticism for me is his direct association between the need for criticism and what he perceived to be an increasingly complex, modern, world. As abstract as many of Arnold's phrases seem, and given the absence of any sense of specific historicity in terms like "epoch of concentration" or "epoch of expansion," somehow, Arnold yet maintains that he means criticism for the present time, which, as it turns out, means "modernity." In his own words, "the life and world being in modern times very complex things," it becomes necessary that an intellectual elite (transcending above all "practical" things--later, in Culture and Anarchy, "ordinary selves"--including class status, but problematically so as Hadley points out in her critique of Victorian liberalism) maintain clarity through determining what is true and what is socially constructed.
The emphasis in this essay on "modernity" in all its hefty, complex associations with industrialization, capitalism, secularization, institutional organization, and relatedly, the destruction of the so-called "individual" makes it a particularly interesting one to look at if one is to offer students of Victorian literature a framework for understanding the major clash between humanity and "modernity" perceived by so many. Arnold's sweeping generalizations of the French Revolution and romanticism in this essay also offers an easy way into pointing out two rather different waves of historical anxiety: the first related to the violence of establishing new political orders, the second related to the mechanical complacency of the middle-class individual in the face of improved living conditions and general acceptance of "liberal" ideas.