In his essay “Signs of the Times,” Thomas Carlyle laments the influence of machinery on nineteenth-century English society. Labeling the time the “Mechanical Age,” Carlyle observes that the mechanical characteristics associated with the industrial revolution have infiltrated all aspects of modern culture. He claims that the qualities of machinery have extended to the realms of politics, education, and even religion, developments he finds problematic. He describes: “Men are grown mechanical in head and in heart, as well as in hand . . . Their whole efforts, attachments, opinions, turn on mechanism, and are of a mechanical character.” Carlyle finds this change frightening, and implicitly prophesizes the stagnation of progress as we have known it. He explains his reasoning with “an infinitely higher instance, that of the Christian Religion,”
which, under every theory of it, in the believing or unbelieving mind, must ever be regarded as the crowning glory, or rather the life and soul, of our whole modern culture: How did Christianity arise and spread abroad among men? Was it by institutions, and establishments and well-arranged systems? Not so; on the contrary, in all past and existing institutions for those ends, its divine spirit has invariably been found to languish and decay. It arose in the mystic deeps of man’s soul; and was spread abroad by the 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. Here again was no Mechanism; man’s highest attainment was accomplish, Dynamically, not Mechanically. Nay, we will venture to say, that no high attainment, not even any far-extending movement among men, was ever accomplished otherwise. Strange as it may see if we read History with any degree of thoughtfulness, we shall find that checks and balances of Profit and Loss have never been the grand agents with men. That they have never been roused into deep, thorough, all-pervading efforts by any computable prospect of Profit and Loss, for any visible, finite object; but always for some invisible and infinite one. The Crusades took their rise in Religion; their visible object was, commercially speaking, worth nothing. 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. Not mechanical, nor produced by mechanical means, was this vast movement. No dining at Freemasons’ Tavern, with the other long train of modern machinery; no cunning reconciliation of “vested interests,” was required here: only the passionate voice of one man, the rapt soul looking through the eyes of one man and rugged, steel-clad Europe trembled beneath his words, and followed him whither he listed. In later ages it was still the same. The Reformation had an invisible, mystic, and ideal aim; the result was indeed to be embodied in external things; but its spirit; its worth, was internal, invisible, infinite. Our English Revolution too originated in Religion. Men did battle, in those old days, not for something higher in it than cheap bread and a Habeas-corpus act. Here too was an Idea; a Dynamic, not a Mechanic force. It was a struggle, through a blind and at last an insane one, for the infinite, divine nature of Right, of Freedom, of Country.
Here, Carlyle relies on historical examples to reveal that humans are motivated to a greater extent by spontaneous emotion and passion than by calculations of benefits and losses. He advocates for the pure feeling and spirit that formed the basis of the French and English Revolutions, wary of the loss of humanity resulting from the Industrial Revolution.
1. What effect does Carlyle’s style of question and answer have on the reader? Does the choice of asking questions he clearly knows the answer to and then answering them establish Carlyle’s credibility, or merely insult the intelligence of the reader? How does this approach compare with the satirical techniques of Swift?
2. Does Carlyle’s use of historical examples contradict his criticism in his introduction of the essay of men who concern themselves more with the past and future than with the present? Does the passage above discuss strictly present conditions, or does it contain an implicit prophecy for the future?
3. What similarities exist between Carlyle’s voice and role as a narrator and that of Johnson? Should we also consider Carlyle a wisdom speaker? Why or why not?
In his essay “Hudson’s Statue,” Carlyle writes:
We can flourish very well without minding Nature and her ordinances; perhaps Nature and the Almighty — what are they? A Phantasm of the brain of Priests, and of some chimerical persons that write Books? — “Hold!” shriek the others wildly”: “You incendiary infidels; — you should be quiet infidels, and believe! Haven’t we a Church? Don’t we keep a Church, this long while; best-behaved of Churches, which meddles with nobody, assiduously grinding its organs, reading its liturgies, homiletics, and excellent old moral horn-books, so patiently as Church never did? Can’t we doff our hat to it; even look in upon it occasionally, on a wet Sunday; and so, at the trifling charge of a few millions annually, serve both God and the Devil?” Fools, you should be quiet infidels, and believe!
How can we understand this passage in conjunction with Carlyle’s statement in “Signs of the Times” that one must regard Christianity as the crowning glory and life and soul of our modern culture? Do these two passages contradict one another? Can we decipher Carlyle’s true voice in these essays?
Last modified 23 February 2011