Carlyle's language comes off as brusque — even confrontational at times — in part because his vocabulary is so morally loaded. Every paragraph appears to present an impassioned judgment, even where the reader is uncertain about Carlyle's actual feelings on his subject. In "Signs of the Times," for example, the reader expects that if Carlyle's opening is critical of the Mechanical Age, then, as the essay develops, the author should wax nostalgic upon bygone days. Carlyle surprises by applying his often bitter language of judgment to the past as well as the present.
No Queen Christina, in these times, needs to send for her Descartes; no King Frederick for his Voltaire, and painfully nourish him with pensions and flattery: any sovereign of taste, who wishes to enlighten his people, has only to impose a new tax, and with the proceeds establish Philosophic Institutes. Hence the Royal and Imperial Societies, the Bibliotheques, Glyptotheques, Technotheques, which front us in all capital cities; like so many well-finished hives, to which it is expected the stray agencies of Wisdom will swarm of their own accord, and hive and make honey. [pp. 3-4]
1. When a commentator writes abusively on both sides of an issue, he may do damage to his character. Does he also risk the loss of credibility?
2. Might Carlyle consider his diction to be less judgmental than it seems to the modern reader? Was he simply being playful with language?
3. One passage where he notably suspends his pejorative language is his discussion of the origin of Christianity. Though the essay is full of nasty comments about the Church, he rhapsodizes about Christianity itself: "It arose in the mythic deeps of man's soul; and was spread abroad by preaching of the word, by simple, altogether natural and individual efforts; and flew, like hallowed fire, from heart to heart, till all were purified and illuminated by it; and its heavenly light shone, as it still shines, and (as sun or star) will ever shine, through the whole dark destinies of man" (p. 6). First, how can Carlyle imagine that the missionary system was any less mechanical than the modern institutions at which he sneers in his essay? Second, are there any other subjects from which Carlyle withholds the possibility of scorn?
Last modified 7 March 2005