arlyle's "Signs of the Times" is a masterful piece of literary persuasion, with arguments both well thought out and well written. Carlyle takes readers on a logical journey, slowly winning them over to his point of view. He starts with a section on prophecy, and the dangers of focusing too much on the future. He laments the fact that both individual men and nations have fallen prey to "such frenzies and panics" (62) and gives some quick examples of how easily people succumb to mass hysteria (the French Revolution, the Salem Witch Trials, etc). After showing how dangerous it is to ignore the present, he proposes that readers "were wise indeed, could we discern truly the signs of our own time; and by knowledge of its wants and advantages, wisely adjust our own position to it." (63) Although Carlyle's intent is to convert readers to his point of view, he does this in an unobtrusive manner. He presents his arguments as though he is a lawyer, making a case in front of qualified jurors who are perfectly capable of coming to the "right" conclusion - his conclusion. Throughout the piece he addresses readers as "we." When he says, "These and the like facts are so familiar, the truths which they preach so obvious, and have in all past times been so universally believed and acted on, that we should almost feel ashamed for repeating them," he appeals to his readers as a remnant of sensibility and reason. (76) He points out social flaws without pointing fingers accusingly; rather, he takes a mildly reproachful tone, implying that as educated, rational beings, "we" should recognize the problem and do our best to solve it.
Carlyle painstakingly presents example after example to prove his main points : that "Men are grown mechanical in head and in heart, as well as in hand" (67) and that "though Mechanism, wisely contrived, has done much for man in a social and moral point of view, we cannot be persuaded that it has ever been the chief source of his worth or happiness" (73). He expounds his theories through close examinations of the sciences, politics and government, philosophy, religion and literature. His analysis of each category is ordered and fair; he presents opposing views before debunking them. When contrasting the science of Dynamics with Mechanism, Carlyle briefly defines each school of thought before telling the reader exactly why he has chosen to back the former. He asks a series of rhetorical questions ("Shall we say, for example, that Science and Art are indebted principally to the founders of Schools and Universities?... Were Painting and Sculpture created by forethought, brought into the world by institutions for that end?") (73), then refutes them decisively. He says, "No; Science and Art have, from first to last, been the free gift of Nature." (73) By this time, the reader is convinced. Without aggressively ridiculing the opposition to his views (in this case, men whose "true Diety is Mechanism") he manages to discredit their logic while at the same time bring the reader through his own thought process. (77)
Carlyle ends his essay brilliantly, with a challenge to readers to take action and not lose hope. After detailing the flaws in society, he presents an optimistic outlook, saying, "The wisdom, the heroic worth of our forefathers, which we have lost, we can recover." (83) He shares his ultimate vision: "that Mechanism is not always to be our hard taskmaster, but one day to be our pliant, all-ministering servant; that a new and brighter spiritual era is slowly evolving itself for all men." (84) Although he cautions readers that they must fight to realize this vision, that "on these things our present course forbids us to enter," he stresses the fact that change is possible. (84) In his last line, Carlyle reinforces his belief in the individual versus the collective machine. He ends with a personal assignment for each of his readers, giving them something that they can manage: "Therein let us have hope and sure faith. To reform a world, to reform a nation, no wise man will undertake; and all but foolish men know, that the only solid, though a far slower reformation, is what each begins and perfects on himself." (85)
1. Is all the space that Carlyle devotes to prophecy really necessary? Could his arguments be just as effective, and the introduction flow just as well into the body of his essay, if he shortened or omitted this section?
2. Do Carlyle's religious beliefs add to, detract or interfere with his arguments? Is he assuming the reader to be religious as well? Is the function of his passage on religion compromised or negated if the reader does not subscribe to any religion?
Last modified 20 February 2002