In “Signs of the Times,” Thomas Carlyle performs a “serious inspection” on “this age of ours” which he names “the Mechanical Age.” Carlyle proposes that to “discern truly the signs of our own time” and understand the present, looking to the past or future is not the most “wise” of methods. So instead he makes a series of observations that depict the present effects of new technology. He is primarily concerned that all strata and fields, from commoners to the elite, factory workers to academics, rely too much upon machines and mechanical approaches to social and political matters. He argues that the human nature of man — the whimsical, faithful, messy, meditative, etc. — is being lost to the machine. Carlyle writes that as man continues to become increasingly dependent on machinery and mechanized thought, the diameter of the means-to-an-end circle stretches wider and wider as the voids in the circumference require ever constant filling in. This passage depicts the more emotional aspect to Carlyle’s writing. The language also directly criticizes “Mechanism.”
Mechanism, like some glass bell, encircles and imprisons us; if the soul looks forth on a fair heavenly country which it cannot reach, and pines, and in its scanty atmosphere is ready to [116/117] perish, Ñ yet the bell is but of glass, 'one bold stroke to break the bell in pieces, and thou art delivered!' Not the invisible world is wanting, for it dwells in man's soul, and this last is still here. Are the solemn temples, in which the Divinity was once visibly revealed among us, crumbling away? We can repair them, we can rebuild them. The wisdom, the heroic worth of our forefathers, which we have lost, we can recover. That admiration of old nobleness, which now so often shows itself as a faint dilettantism, will one day become a generous emulation, and man may again be all that he has been, and more than he has been. Nor are these the mere daydreams of fancy; they are clear possibilities; nay, in this time they are even assuming the character of hopes. Indications we do see in other countries and in our own, signs infinitely cheering to us, 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 man. But on these things our present course forbids us to enter.
Here Carlyle asks for those trapped in the “glass bell” to literally shatter the hold machines have on society. It is important to note that Carlyle does not completely write off machines as entirely bad. He is obviously cognizant of the many positive additions machines and mechanism as a whole has brought to society. (“Doubtless this age also is advancing.”) What Carlyle demands is that the power relation between man and the machine be returned to an anthropocentric model where machines are not the “hard taskmaster,” but rather a “pliant, all-administering servant.”
1. Here Carlyle writes a social commentary in a similar vein to Montaigne. Each has an argument, and each makes their point. However the form and tone that the two writers employ are very different. In what ways do the genres used achieve different results? Could Carlyle have used satire in his piece and created the same effect?
2. How does Carlyle’s use of Christian figures and bible references add to his writing? Does it make it more approachable? Or does it create distance?
3. By tempering his argument that machines do have a place in society, albeit below man, does Carlyle take a more moderate stance that undermines the potency of his original position?
Can readers take “Signs of the Times” as primary source material? How do social sentiments manifest themselves in literature?
Last modified 23 February 2011