Creating a distinction between our “dynamic” and “mechanical” selves, Carlyle addresses the universal forces of mankind, the “Love,” “Fear,” Wonder,” and “Enthusiasm” that are genuine representations of being human, and have the potential for infinitely profound growth. After outlining these pervasive human “energies,” Carlyle argues that the purity of these emotions has become tainted by the conception of an illegitimate human society — one measured on a mechanical model of “Profit and Loss,” overshadowing its Dynamic features.
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.
Now it is certain, that in former times the wise men, the enlightened lovers of their kind, who appeared generally as Moralists, Poets or Priests, did, without neglecting the Mechanical province, deal chiefly with the Dynamical; applying themselves chiefly to regulate, increase and purify the inward primary powers of man; and fancying that herein lay the main difficulty, and the best service they could undertake. But a wide difference is manifest in our age. For the, who now appear as Political Philosophers, deal exclusively with the Mechanical province; and occupying themselves in counting-up and estimating men's motives, strive by curious checking and balancing, and other adjustments of Profit and Loss, to guide them to their true advantage: while, unfortunately, those same "motives" are so innumerable, and so variable in every individual, that no really useful conclusion can ever be drawn from their enumeration. But though Mechanism, wisely contrived, has done much for man in a social and moral point of view, we cannot be persuaded that it has ever been the chief source of his worth or happiness. Consider the great elements of human enjoyment, the attainments and possessions that exalt man's life to its present height, and see what part of these he owes to institutions, to Mechanism of any kind; and what to the instinctive, unbounded force, which Nature herself lent him, and still continues to him.”
By uniting our predeceasing “Moralists,” “Poets,” and “Priests” with the abstract concept of “Nature,” Carlyle juxtaposes our current mechanical age with an inwardly pure, illimitable time in which men found a way to combine the mechanical with their boundless dynamic forces the way “Nature” intended. This integrity, contrasted with the dehumanizing aspects of capitalism, suggests that the current “Signs of the Times” are causing us to lose our Nature-given humanity forcing us into mechanized versions of ourselves.
1. Carlyle uses very broad terms with his notions of the “Dynamic,” the “Mechanic, and “Nature.” Is this a way to unite all of humanity — connecting with each reader individually — or is it a way to avoid a contentious argument against certain political regimes?
2. What is achieved by the numerous capitalizations of common nouns?
3. Carlyle includes an immense amount of historical detail — real events, people, time periods — but still bases arguments on generalized concepts. Does this place “Signs of the Times” closer to Wolfe’s “Realism,” or Johnson’s?
4. Does the following have Marxist undertones? “Political Philosophers deal exclusively with the Mechanical province; and occupying themselves in counting-up and estimating men's motives, strive by curious checking and balancing, and other adjustments of Profit and Loss, to guide them to their true advantage.” What opinions would Carlyle have on Socialist society?
Last modified 23 February 2011