Sad it is, indeed, that the most eloquent voice of Thomas Carlyle, one of the most influential thinkers of the Victorian era, falls now for the most part on deaf ears. His was a voice that was heard and responded to by such great minds as George Elliot, Charles Dickens, and John Stuart Mill. But it is seldom heard any more; it is becoming silent along with so many others as we hustle to grab the latest best-seller — if we read at all — or worry that we might miss the latest word from the author lately interviewed by Oprah Winfrey. The voices of the past are fast becoming silent as reading and the reading of great minds become lost in time. We live in a digital age, an age in which the printed word becomes increasingly difficult to read by those raised on moving pictures and interactive social media. Technology to Knight’s pawn: Checkmate!
But Carlyle at the top of his art could put words together like few others, at times echoing the sounds of William Shakespeare as he warned his world about the dangers of such things as laissez-faire capitalism, rapacious and never satisfied, or the dangers of a democracy that was sweeping over Europe following the grand experiment in the United States — an experiment that is yet to be judged. He echoed Plato’s concerns about the effectiveness of small-minded folks with no care whatever for the common good suddenly coming to power, and he worried about the unbridled greed of his fellow men; after a careful study of the documents surrounding the French Revolution he worried about folks with empty bellies and loaded weapons turned loose on their fellows without the restraints of law and order.
But we know better. We are satisfied, well fed, and not about to panic over the thought of what folks with small minds and automatic weapons might do to one another — or to the rest of us. We ignore history that might provide us with lessons to be learned because we pride ourselves on the fact that this is a new age and the rules have all been re-written. And yet, how much we might learn from a mind that could provide us with the following words to describe the sorts of men who rose to the top in the chaos surrounding the beginnings of the French Revolution, men who might become Prime Minister in the new government established by the rabble who came into power on waves of hunger and deep discontent:
“Loménie-Brienne, who had all his life ‘felt a kind of predestination for highest offices,’ has now obtained them. He presides over the finances; he shall have the title of Prime Minister itself, and the effort of his long life be realized. Unhappy only that it took such talent and industry to gain the place; that to qualify for it hardly any talent or industry was left disposable!”
Like so much of Carlyle’s writing, this sort of sudden understated, even sarcastic, insight strikes a responsive chord as we look around at today’s politicians and realize that they, too, have spent whatever little talent they may have on becoming elected and once in office are discovered to be totally inept and without the slightest aptitude for leadership and governance. And yet, like today, these are the voices that shout the loudest!
After the French King Louis XVI, weak and incompetent, is removed from Versailles and sent under guard to Paris where he can be watched carefully, Carlyle uses a simile to describe for us the general deterioration of the man and the mystique that surrounded royalty:
“The victim having once got his stroke-of-grace, the catastrophe can be considered as almost come. There is small interest now in watching his long low moans: notable only are his sharper agonies, and what convulsive struggles he may make to cast the torture off from him; and then finally the last departure of life itself, and how he lies extinct and ended, either wrapt like Caesar in decorous mantle-folds, or unseemly sunk together, like one that had not the force even to die. . . . .Was French Royalty, when wrenched forth from its tapestries in that fashion on the sixth of October, 1789, such a victim?”
The pathos and foreshadowing of what is to come for the King in this passage is deeply unsettling — as a story about that terrible event should be. So much is contained in this brief paragraph, suggesting the carnage that has already taken place and the carnage yet to come as the pathetic King now wanders aimlessly, under guard, in the confines of his Paris gardens. To be sure, Carlyle has sympathies for the fallen King as we may not, but he is also aware that a contagion has crept into the bowels of the people of France; they have paid a huge price to gain a slice of power that so few throughout history have been able to wield without succumbing to the temptations and mistakes it opens to them. Carlyle sees this as he does so much of what surrounds the events of that terrible revolution — so much more bloody and terrifying than the American Revolution that may have given it impetus. As he notes almost in passing, at the height of that Revolution those who speak the loudest
“. . .have wedded their delusions: fire nor steel, nor any sharpness of Experience, shall ever sever the bond; till death do us part! On such may the Heavens have mercy; for the Earth, with her rigorous Necessity, will have none.”
So it is with folks and their delusions. We know about them! In any event, all this is lost on those who ignore history and who also ignore words written by the great minds that have molded our own — whether we admit it or not. Great minds are great teachers and we close our eyes and ears to them at our own detriment. Sad it is. Almost as sad as seeing the King confined and pacing like a caged animal while the people of France, giddy with unfamiliar power, decide what to do with him next.