The Magazine

THE PARADOX OF THOMAS CARLYLE

How to Read a Provocateur and Why We Should;

Feb 24, 1997, Vol. 2, No. 23 • By GERTRUDE HIMMELFARB
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The year 1850 is generally thought of as the turning point in his life and career, marking the emergence of an even more reactionary Carlyle who was even more dramatically out of tune with his times. It was then that his Latter-Day Pamphlets were published, the first of which was the " Occasional Discourse on the Nigger Question." The essay had originally appeared in Fraser's as "The Negro Question"; Carlyle changed the title to be more provocative. He had always opposed the anti-slavery movement on the grounds that it distracted attention from the condition of the working classes at home. The repeal of the Corn Laws, he argued, was more important than the abolition of slavery in the colonies. But in this essay, written long after slavery had been abolished, his diatribe against the "rosepink sentimentalism" of "nigger philanthropists" was calculated to give maximum offense.


Carlyle insisted that he was not defending slavery, which he declared to be a "contradiction of the laws of the universe." The issue, as he saw it, was much larger than that. It was the soul-destroying "dismal science" of political economy, which "finds the secret of this universe in 'supply and demand,' and reduces the duty of human governors to that of letting men alone. " What all people required -- slaves, serfs, and workers alike -- was the right to work and the right to be ruled. And no act of Parliament could provide them with these elementary rights.


There was little in this essay that was not in Carlyle's earlier writings. But it was put so harshly here that Mill was moved to write a sharp (although anonymous) reply in Fraser's, which effectively broke off their friendship. Carlyle's response was to go on the offensive against other liberal "sentimentalisms," as he saw them. In subsequent pamphlets, he criticized the movement against capital punishment and satirized the "model prisons" that treated criminals better than paupers, proposed putting beggars and the unemployed to work in compulsory "regiments," deplored petty statesmen and mocked parliament as a "talking shop," and reviled not only Catholicism but all organized religions that were prone to "Jesuitism," the sin of cant.


The Latter-Day Pamphlets were not as well received by reviewers as the earlier writings. Yet they sold well, as did most of his later work, which was no less provocative. His last essay, "Shooting Niagara," written immediately after the Reform Act of 1867 enfranchised most of the working classes, described an England in a state of social and spiritual anarchy, betrayed by its natural aristocracies: the "speculative" aristocracy (literary and artistic) that was wasting itself on trivia, and the "practical" or "industrial" aristocracy that was mired in the "cheap and nasty." Reprinted as a pamphlet, it sold 7,000 copies within weeks. At the same time a new edition of his collected works was being issued. By now his writings earned him a substantial income, so that he found, much to his surprise, that he was no longer the impoverished writer he had always thought himself. (He had also received a handsome bequest from Lord Ashburton.)


So far from becoming a pariah as a result of these "infamous" writings, as some later biographers would call them, Carlyle counted among his friends and admirers Emerson, Ruskin, Tennyson, Dickens, Thackeray, Macaulay, Browning, Henry Adams, and a host of others. He was elected to the Athenaeum and, later, to the honorary position of rector of Edinburgh University, succeeding Gladstone. (The unsuccessful candidate was Disraeli.) Turning down other invitations from royalty, he reluctantly agreed to an audience with the Queen, taking the occasion, she noted in her journal, to declaim upon "the utter degeneration of everything." He refused the offer of a knighthood from Disraeli (that "superlative Hebrew conjuror"), but accepted a doctorate from Harvard. When he died, in February 1881, the Dean of Westminster tried to persuade his niece, who had lived with him, to have him interred in Westminster Abbey with the other eminences of England. But she would not go against his expressed wish, which was to be buried in the small Scottish town where he had been born.


"No man else," Walt Whitman said in his eulogy, "will bequeath to the future more significant hints of our stormy era, its fierce paradoxes, its din, and its struggling parturition periods, than Carlyle." The Dean of Westminster, in his sermon in the Abbey, endorsed the title of "prophet" that was often bestowed on Carlyle -- a prophet, he said, for an "untoward generation," resisting the modern tendency of "exalting popular opinion and popular movements as oracles to be valued above the judgment of the few, above the judgment of the wise, the strong, and the good."


Some of the obituaries, like many later commentators, rebuked Carlyle for being overly critical of the existing institutions of society and insufficiently constructive in proposing alternative ones. But this is to misunderstand the function of the prophet, which is precisely to criticize rather than to construct. Indeed, it can be dangerous, as Trilling intimated, to apply the exhortations of the prophet to the practical sphere, where they may well prove to be "maleficent."


This is why Carlyle, like all prophets, had many admirers but few disciples. The Victorians, or at least the most eminent of them, did not make the mistake of confusing the prophetic mode with the practical. They could appreciate the spiritual force of Carlyle's teachings -- his criticisms of the "pig-philosophy" of utilitarianism, the "mammonism" of materialism, the " sansculottism" of democracy, the "cash-nexus" of laissez-faire, and all the other "soul-murdering Mud-Gods" that governed their lives -- while retaining the safe and familiar institutions and practices that were, if not entirely beneficent, at least not maleficent.


The economist and social critic Harriet Martineau, herself a firm advocate of laissez-faire, arranged a lecture series for Carlyle in which he attacked that doctrine, among other things. He was an "original," she explained, a messenger come with tidings from "the Infinite Unknown," the "primal reality of things." After the publication of his most provocative pamphlets, George Eliot paid tribute to him: "There is hardly a superior or active mind of his generation that has not been modified by Carlyle's writings; there has hardly been an English book written for the last ten or twelve years that would not have been different if Carlyle had not lived."


Carlyle was the conscience of an age that was conscience-ridden and guilt- stricken, not only about its vices but about its virtues as well. Matthew Arnold, in the passage that gives the title to Simon Heffer's new biography, confided to his friend:


These are damned times -- everything is against one -- the height to which knowledge is come, the spread of luxury, our physical enervation, the absence of great natures, the unavoidable contact with millions of small ones, newspapers, cities, light profligate friends, moral desperadoes like Carlyle, our own selves, and the sickening consciousness of our difficulties.


But then, he continued, as if to caution against such moral desperadoes: " For God's sake let us neither be fanatics nor yet chaff blown by the wind but let us be 'virtuous as the man of practical wisdom would define it.'" (The quotation from Aristotle was, of course, in Greek in Arnold's letter.)


A hostile commentator might interpret this kind of self-criticism as moral posturing, a typical bit of Victorian hypocrisy. Heffer happily does not. He takes seriously the title, Moral Desperado, addressing the moral as well as the desperate aspect of his hero. This is both the merit of the book and its inevitable shortcoming. If Carlyle is, in his life and mind, a biographer's delight -- passionate, contentious, melodramatic -- he is also a biographer's despair. How does one convey, in the cold, rational format of the conventional biography, proceeding in an orderly fashion from month to month, year to year, the inner turmoil that is rarely reflected in external events? And how does one avoid the discordance between commentary and quotation -- between the lucid prose of the biographer and the eccentric, chaotic, often manic style in which Carlyle's ideas were embodied, and which was so appropriate to those ideas? (Henry James, himself not the most crystalline of writers, said of Carlyle's style that "it is not defensible but it is victorious.")


Yet for all of that, any biography of Carlyle, and especially one as judicious as Heffer's, is to be welcomed. For if we have even better reason today than his contemporaries did to be wary of the practical consequences of his reactionary ideas (about slavery, most notably), we also have good reason to be wary of the consequences of some of the more liberal ideas of our own time. Even so seemingly benign an idea as welfare, we now realize, can have maleficent effects -- and not only in the practical realm of economics, but in the spiritual and moral ones of family, work, and individual responsibility.


Carlyle is assuredly not our prophet. But he does remind us of the need for prophets who will keep in the forefront of our imaginations those "elements that for the fulness of spiritual perfection are wanted."




Gertrude Himmelfarb's most recent book is The De- Moralization of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values (Knopf).