In his essay "Signs of the Times," Thomas Carlyle offers his criticisms of modernity and registers the emotional loss he feels in the age of mechanism. The essay, published in 1829, came amidst the flourishing of the Industrial Revolution in England, which transformed the entire country and its people. Although Carlyle acknowledges some positive effects that result from society’s focus on mechanical power, namely increased efficiency, he decries the singularity of mechanical thought in society. It has, he contends, pushed out a more natural mode of thought, which he terms dynamism, which is responsible for the most superior aspects of human society, including acts of heroism and Christianity itself.
After examining the effects of society’s focus on mechanism, Carlyle builds up to the revelation of the concept of dynamism and piques reader interest with a shift in tone, a shift seen in the following passage:
To us who live in the midst of all this, and see continually the faith, hope and, practice of every one founded on Mechanism of one kind or other, it is apt to seem quite natural, and as if it could never have been otherwise. Nevertheless, if we recollect or reflect a little, we shall find both that it has been, and might again be otherwise. The domain of Mechanism, meaning thereby political, ecclesiastical or other outward establishments, — was once considered as embracing, and we are persuaded can at any time embrace, but a limited portion of man's interests, and by no means the highest portion.
To speak a little pedantically, there is a science of Dynamics in man's fortunes and nature, as well as of Mechanics. There is a science which treats of, and practically addresses, the primary, unmodified forces and energies of man, the mysterious springs of Love, and Fear, and Wonder, of Enthusiasm, Poetry, Religion, all which have a truly vital and infinite character; as well as a science which practically addresses the finite, modified developments of these, when they take the shape of immediate "motives," as hope of reward, or as fear of punishment.
In the end, Carlyle contends, we must nurture both dynamism and mechanism, for “only in the right coordination of the two, and the vigorous forwarding of both, does our true line of action lie.”
How does Carlyle develop his argument? How does he use evidence? His style differs sharply from Samuel Johnson’s, who used virtually no specific details as evidence. Do we find one style more effective than the other?
This essay is replete with references to religious and historical figures and events. How should we read their inclusion? Do they build Carlyle’s credibility? Or do they sometimes distract from the force of the argument?
What is the relationship between Carlyle and his audience? Is his moralistic tone alienating?
The sage writer typically establishes distance between himself and his reader. Does Carlyle break this expectation with his use of “us” and “we” in the first paragraph of this passage? How should we read his abrupt shift from a more familiar to a more distant tone?
Last modified 23 February 2011