Carlyle's advice to readers that individuals must first work to improve themselves parallels a theme of Samuel Johnson's Adventurer No. 84: Individuals harm themselves the most from attempting to deceive others and work to acquire physical goods.

These dark features, we are aware, belong more or less to other ages, as well as to ours. This faith in Mechanism, in the all-importance of physical things, is in every age the common refuge of Weakness and blind Discontent; of all who believe, as many will ever do, that man's true good lies without him, not within. We are aware also, that, as applied to ourselves in all their aggravation, they form but half a picture ; that in the whole picture there are bright lights as well as gloomy shadows. If we here dwell chiefly on the latter, let us not be blamed: it is in general more profitable to reckon up our defects than to boast of our attainments.

Carlyle urges readers to view their society as being shallow. He is concerned that people of his time are more concerned with the Mechanical concepts of life rather than Natural and eternal ideas. Because of such materialistic attitudes, people act similarly to the characters occupying Johnson's stagecoach by using religion, politics, and education to advance in society. Carlyle communicates this point using several voices: a social critic's, a teacher's, and a prophet. In the following passage, readers gain a clear sense of Carlyle's guarded optimism for the growth of society,

To define the limits of these two departments of man's activity, which work into one another, and by means of one another, so intricately and inseparably, were by its nature an impossible attempt. Their relative importance, even to the wisest mind, will vary in different times, according to the special wants and dispositions of those times. Meanwhile, it seems clear enough that only in the right coordination of the two, and the vigorous forwarding of both, does our true line of action lie. Undue cultivation of the inward or Dynamical province leads to idle, visionary, impracticable courses, and, especially in rude eras, to Superstition and Fanaticism, with their long train of baleful and well-known evils. Undue cultivation of the outward, again, though less immediately prejudicial, and even for the time productive of many palpable benefits, must, in the long-run, by destroying Moral Force, which is the parent of all other Force, prove not less certainly, and perhaps still more hopelessly, pernicious. This, we take it, is the grand characteristic of our age. By our skill in Mechanism, it has come to pass, that in the management of external things we excel all other ages; while in whatever respects the pure moral nature, in true dignity of soul and character, we are perhaps inferior to most civilised ages.


1. Is Carlyle using this passage to argue for a moderate stance of using both technology and internal reflection/thought?

2. Why does Carlyle choose to criticize the Dynamic when he has been praising it for most of his essay?

3. Is Carlyle's use of abstract concepts instead of concrete examples helpful to his argument?

4. Is Carlyle concerned for all of society or for only a particular set of people?

Victorian Web Overview Thomas Carlyle Leading Questions

Last modified 21 September 2003