In "Signs of the Times," Thomas Carlyle elaborates on what he refers to as the Mechanics and Dynamics of man and society at large. He carefully outlines the importance of Mechanics in a world in which, "nothing follows its spontaneous course, nothing is left to be accomplished by old natural methods." After discussing the seemingly beneficial aspects of Mechanics in everyday life, Carlyle introduces the reader to the concept of Dynamics, which he labels as the chief source of man's worth and happiness.
In the following passage, Carlyle steps away from his broad descriptions of these two distinct forces and illustrates how aspects of Dynamics, such as the "infinite, absolute character of Virtue," are obliterated by the impact of Mechanics:
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. It has subdued external Nature for us, and we think it will do all other things. We are Giants in physical power: in a deeper than metaphorical sense, we are Titans, that strive, by heaping mountain on mountain, to conquer Heaven also.
Does Carlyle contradict himself as his argument progresses? Can Mechanics and Dynamics subsist simultaneously according to his view of the modern man? Should they? What is the significance of Carlyle's structural organization of this argument?
Does Carlyle's use of description enrich or muddle his message? Take, for example the following passage:
'He, who has been born, has been a First Man'; has had lying before his young eyes, and as yet unhardened into scientific shapes, a world as plastic, infinite, divine, as lay before the eyes of Adam himself. if Mechanism, like some glass bell, encircles and imprisons us; if the soul looks forth on a fair heavenly country which it cannot reach, and pines, and in its scanty atmosphere is ready to [116/117] perish, — yet the bell is but of glass, 'one bold stroke to break the bell in pieces, and thou art delivered!' Not the invisible world is wanting, for it dwells in man's soul, and this last is still here. Are the solemn temples, in which the Divinity was once visibly revealed among us, crumbling away?
In this passage, Carlyle seems to shift his tone, suggesting the repressive effects of Mechanism by using the analogy of a "glass ball," which "encircles and imprisons us." What is the significance of this shift in tone? Do such analogies and biblical references confront the reader in a particularly significant way? Also what is the impact of Carlyle's use of rhetorical question here?
Last modified 24 September 2003