The Concept of “Touchstones” by Matthew Arnold

Matthew Arnold, a renowned English poet and cultural critic of the 19th century, introduced the idea of “Touchstones” in his literary works. In this article, we will delve deep into the meaning and significance of “Touchstones” and explore how they relate to Arnold’s views on culture, society, and personal development. Join us on this journey as we unravel the essence of “Touchstones” and its enduring relevance in today’s world.

What Are “Touchstones”?

“Touchstones” are benchmarks or criteria that help us assess the value and quality of things in various aspects of life. They serve as reference points against which we measure our experiences, beliefs, and ideals. Just as a touchstone was historically used to test the purity of gold or silver by rubbing the metal against it, metaphorical touchstones help us evaluate the worth and authenticity of different aspects of our lives.

The Origin of the Term “Touchstones”

The term “Touchstones” was borrowed from the world of metallurgy, where a touchstone referred to a piece of black siliceous stone used to determine the purity of precious metals. By rubbing the metal against the touchstone and observing the color of the streak left behind, the purity and quality of the metal could be determined. Matthew Arnold ingeniously adapted this concept and applied it to the realms of culture, literature, and personal values.

The Importance of “Touchstones” in Personal Development

“Touchstones” play a vital role in our personal development and help shape our character and beliefs. They act as guiding principles that enable us to navigate the complexities of life, make decisions, and form our own unique identities. By reflecting on and reevaluating our touchstones, we gain a deeper understanding of ourselves and the world around us.

The Role of “Touchstones” in Culture and Society

In addition to individual development, “Touchstones” also hold significance in the broader context of culture and society. They serve as cultural reference points that shape our collective values, traditions, and shared ideals. “Touchstones” provide a sense of continuity, enabling us to preserve and transmit cultural heritage from one generation to the next.

The Influence of Matthew Arnold’s Works

Matthew Arnold’s literary works were instrumental in popularizing the concept of “Touchstones” and exploring their application in various domains. His essays and poems, such as “Culture and Anarchy” and “Dover Beach,” present profound insights into the significance of touchstones in personal and societal development. Let’s dive deeper into Arnold’s thoughts and examine their impact on our understanding of touchstones.

“Culture and Anarchy”: Unveiling the Power of “Touchstones”

Arnold’s influential work, “Culture and Anarchy,” emphasizes the role of touchstones in achieving a harmonious and enlightened society. He argues that touchstones derived from the best that has been thought and said in the world serve as beacons of moral and intellectual guidance. These touchstones, when embraced collectively, enable individuals and society to transcend narrowness and achieve true culture.

“The touchstones of culture are, of course, the best that has been thought and said in the world.” – Matthew Arnold

Arnold proposes that touchstones should be rooted in reason, enlightened by knowledge, and elevated by beauty. By embodying these touchstones in our lives, he believes we can overcome the prevailing chaos, fragmentation, and materialism of modern society.

“Dover Beach”: A Poetic Exploration of “Touchstones”

In his iconic poem “Dover Beach,” Matthew Arnold captures the essence of touchstones in the context of love, faith, and the human condition. The poem’s central theme revolves around the erosion of traditional touchstones, leading to a sense of despair and existential crisis.

Arnold portrays the receding tide as a metaphor for the loss of faith and the decline of traditional touchstones in an increasingly secular world. He laments the absence of steadfast touchstones that once provided solace and certainty in the face of uncertainty and darkness. Despite the somber tone, Arnold hints at the possibility of finding new touchstones amidst the chaos, offering a glimmer of hope.

“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 neither 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, Where ignorant armies clash by night.”

Arnold’s poetic exploration of touchstones in “Dover Beach” resonates with individuals navigating the complexities of existence, urging them to seek and cherish the touchstones that provide meaning and stability.

FAQs about the Concept of “Touchstones” by Matthew Arnold

1. What is the relevance of Matthew Arnold’s concept of touchstones in modern society? Matthew Arnold’s concept of touchstones remains relevant in modern society as it encourages individuals to reflect on their values, embrace intellectual enlightenment, and seek cultural richness. By applying touchstones in personal and societal contexts, we can aspire to a more harmonious and purposeful existence.

2. How can individuals identify their own touchstones? Identifying personal touchstones involves introspection and self-discovery. It requires contemplating one’s core values, beliefs, and sources of inspiration. Exploring diverse perspectives, engaging with art, literature, and philosophy, and seeking experiences that resonate deeply can aid in uncovering personal touchstones.

3. Can touchstones evolve over time? Yes, touchstones can evolve as individuals grow, learn, and encounter new experiences. What may have once served as a touchstone in youth might be reassessed and refined with maturity. It is essential to continually reevaluate touchstones to ensure they align with one’s evolving values and aspirations.

4. How can touchstones contribute to personal growth? Touchstones contribute to personal growth by providing a framework for self-reflection, decision-making, and goal-setting. They offer a sense of direction and enable individuals to navigate life’s challenges with clarity and purpose. Embracing touchstones fosters self-awareness and facilitates personal development.

5. Are touchstones universal or subjective? While some touchstones may have universal appeal, the significance of touchstones can also be subjective, varying from person to person and culture to culture. What holds value and meaning for one individual might not resonate with another. It is crucial to respect diverse touchstones and understand their cultural contexts.

6. Can touchstones bring about societal change? Yes, touchstones have the potential to bring about societal change. When shared touchstones align with collective values, they can inspire unity, foster empathy, and drive social transformation. By embodying touchstones such as justice, compassion, and equity, individuals can contribute to positive shifts in society.


In conclusion, Matthew Arnold’s concept of “Touchstones” offers a valuable framework for assessing the worth and authenticity of various aspects of our lives. These touchstones serve as benchmarks that guide personal development, shape cultural values, and foster social cohesion. By embracing touchstones derived from reason, knowledge, and beauty, we can aspire to a more enlightened and harmonious existence. As we navigate the complexities of the modern world, let us remember the enduring relevance