One of the most striking features of Thomas Carlyle's "Signs of the Times" is its sudden, but not incohesive, turn in thought. Though the first few paragraphs address the problems of vaticination-- that is, of becoming preoccupied with what will happen in the future at the expense of the present-- the remainder of the essay focuses on the mechanization and rapid industrialization of life in England at the time. Now, as I have indicated, this shift in subject matter seems understandable enough; Carlyle is stressing the importance of analyzing what is actually occurring, not what might-- and Mechanism (as he refers to it) is the most prevalent issue at the time of his writing.
Still, there are moments in the mechanism section that would appear to directly contradict those claims with which he opens the piece, hence undermining the efficacy of both arguments. For example, on the sixth page (I am referring here to the Internet pagination), Carlyle praises the French Revolution: "The Revolution itself had something higher in it than cheap bread and a Habeas-corpus act. Here too was an Idea; a Dynamic; not a Mechanic force." And on page five, the author lauds the Crusaders, whose goal was similarly non-monetary: "It was the boundless Invisible world that was laid bare in the imaginations of those men; and in its burning light, the visible shrunk as a scroll." Carlyle goes on to state that "only the passionate voice of one man" was needed here, and not the "long train of modern machinery."
Which all seems to make sense. The problem, then, is in reconciling these claims with the ones that open the essay, regarding prophecy, or vaticination. If Carlyle is so weary of those who live not for today but for tomorrow, who seek to convert others to their point of view and thus effect historical change — even though they might not have the proof to legitimate such a change — then how can he possibly lavish such adulation on the Crusaders, or the French Revolutionaries?
Or perhaps the better question is the opposite: If Carlyle can praise the Crusaders, etc., for their lack of Mechanistic impulse, then how can he so fervently decry vaticination?
His problems with uncertain prophecies or forecasts seem exactly in line with Mechanism itself — the first part of his essay is pragmatic in the exact same ways he will later lament; he seems only to want to deal with issues he can see, feel, hear — those to which he has immediate physical access. Is this as significant a problem as I've made it out to be? Is it perhaps purposeful? If not, to what extent does it undermine his credibility? Should we believe what he says regarding either issue — vaticination or mechanism?
Last modified 21 September 2003