In "Signs of the Times," Thomas Carlyle describes a trend toward the logical and unfeeling. Though Carlyle, in parts of his essay, enumerates the seemingly positive aspects of this newly developed mechanical tendencies in society — they make life far more efficient — he bemoans the fact that they now only consider that which can be explained rationally. In the following passage Carlyle conveys a tremendous feeling of loss. People no longer value wonder and spirituality. Religion itself has in many ways been traded in for more mechanistic interpretations of the world. Carlyle looks at his society with a critical, but unoffending eye. He rather implies that his society is losing something important and should try very hard not to let it go entirely.
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. ... "Cause and effect" is almost the only category under which we look at, and work with, all Nature. Our first question with regard to any object is not, What is it? but, How is it? We are no longer instinctively driven to apprehend, and lay to heart, what is Good and Lovely, but rather to inquire, as onlookers, how it is produced, whence it comes, whither it goes. Our favourite Philosophers have no love and no hatred; they stand among us not to do, nor to create anything, but as a sort of Logic mills, to grind out the true causes and effects of all that is done and created. To the eye of a Smith, a Hume or a Constant, all is well that works quietly. An Order of Ignatius Loyola, a Presbyterianism of John Knox, a Wickliffe or a Henry the Eighth, are simply so many mechanical phenomena, caused or causing. [p.9]
Carlyle bemoans the demise of the emotive and strongly suggests that not everything can or should be explained in a logical manner.
1. Reading this passage reveals to the reader that this new popular way of thinking troubles Carlyle. His tone, however, does not seem overtly reproachful. How does Carlyle's language convert or convince the reader to accept his side of the argument? How are we made to feel sympathetic to the situation he describes?
2. Like Joan Didion's account of the Old and New Governor's Mansions, Carlyle seems to have located an instance of society's moral decline in its explicit preference for philosophers who act as "logic mills." How does his use of specific examples of historical thinkers function in his argument?
3. Throughout the passage Carlyle makes references, with statements such as "men have lost their belief" and "it is no longer..." to a time in the past which was supposedly superior to the current state. Since Carlyle begins the essay stressing the fact that people should live happily in the present moment, can such references of an ideal past be considered hypocritical in light of this initial argument? Or, are references to the past (which may not have even existed) a way of establishing authority and credibility? What are other ways in which Carlyle obtains authority and credibility?
4. Carlyle's passage in part focuses on religion. How do statements concerning "faith", "deity", "belief", and it no longer being an age of Religion enhance his argument? Might they distance the reader in any way?
5. What effect does Carlyle's repeated use of rhetorical questions have on this passage?
Last modified 7 March 2005