In "Hudson's Statue," Thomas Carlyle charges his audience, the British public, with worshiping false idols, evoking the biblical imagery of the golden calf. In "Signs of the Times," Carlyle's indictment is significantly different, targeting the contemporary methods of worship as opposed to the objects of worship. Written in 1829, on the wings of Britain's Industrial Revolution, "Signs of the Times" points to the growing influence of mechanization on the way people approach religion, education, art, and all other aspects of daily life. In the following passage, Carlyle discusses how machinery has purged the human consciousness of faith and spirituality.

In fact, if we look deeper, we shall find that this faith in Mechanism has now struck its roots down into man's most intimate, primary sources of conviction; and is thence sending up, over his whole life and activity, innumerable stems, — fruitbearing and poison-bearing. The truth is, men have lost their belief in the Invisible, and believe, and hope, and work only in the Visible; or, to speak it in other words: This is not a Religious age. Only the material, the immediately practical, not the divine and spiritual, is important to us. The infinite, absolute character of Virtue has passed into a finite, conditional one; it is no longer a worship of the Beautiful and Good; but a calculation of the Profitable. Worship, indeed, in any sense, is not recognised among us, or is mechanically explained into Fear of pain, or Hope of pleasure. Our true Deity is Mechanism. It has subdued external Nature for us, and we think it will do all other things. We are Giants in physical power: in a deeper than metaphorical sense, we are Titans, that strive, by heaping mountain on mountain, to conquer Heaven also. [paragraph 31]

In this paragraph, Carlyle's final image of conquering heaven through machinery brings to mind the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, in which descendants of Noah tried to build a stone tower to reach heaven. As punishment for this materialistic folly, God created language barriers between the builders, sending their world into chaos. It is from this type of self-destructive fate that Carlyle hopes to caution his readers.

Questions for Discussion

1. By suggesting Tower of Babel imagery, Carlyle paints a foreboding picture of modernity. How can Carlyle aim such biting social criticism at the reader while also keeping him interested in and open to the ideas of the piece?

2. What syntactical devices does Carlyle use to create rhythm in this paragraph? In his pieces for The Rambler and The Adventurer, Samuel Johnson tailored his prose for the purpose of being read aloud. Does Carlyle's prose seem tailored in the same manner?

3. This paragraph shows Carlyle's anti-establishment bent. What socio-economic group or groups was he trying to reach with such a commentary? How do we, as ultra-mechanized 21st-century university students, deal with Carlyle's indictments on the decay of individualism and originality?


Text of "Signs of the Times."

Victorian Web Overview Thomas Carlyle Leading Questions

Last modified 16 March 2005