Ethical criticism has steadily lost status and influence since the time of Matthew Arnold. Structuralism and deconstruction have removed the experience of literature from critical consideration and turned criticism and literature into products of the mind, empty of spiritual qualities or ultimate meaning. Matthew Arnold's experiential approach to literary criticism represents the zenith of an ethical criticism. Arnold believed literature to be a new, secular religion which had the power to establish order in the universe and lead men towards perfection. Arnold's humanism allows him to posit a perfectible human nature and a temporal society in which complete order is possible. Literature and literary criticism are the vehicles by which this order is brought about. Ethical criticism is severely, albeit unintentionally, weakened by T. S. Eliot. Eliot rejects the possibility of literature functioning as a secular religion and insists instead on an orthodox Christianity that the modern world has rejected. Eliot's philosophical roots in F.H. Bradley's Absolute Idealism join with his orthodox religious outlook to form a belief in a limited human nature and a temporal order that can never be known. Literature changes from an ethical force, able to effect great change in the individual and society, to a chronicle of modern anxiety. The thesis looks at the idea of order, both individual and corporate, in the writings of Matthew Arnold and T. s. Eliot and explores the implications of Arnold and Eliot's perspectives for ethical criticism. The introduction defines the concept of ethical criticism and establishes the contemporary critical situation. Chapters two and three respectively examine Arnold's cultural and literary order; chapters four and five respectively examine Eliot's cultural and literary order. The conclusion looks at a contemporary critic's call for a return to an ethical criticism, and speculates on the possibility of such a return.
Bibliography: p. 109-113.