Reactionary Nutter?

I have come late in life to Thomas Carlyle to whom I have been referred many times and had yet to meet. I look forward to the adventure — forewarned that he is a Romantic, Tory reactionary who was far too enamored of authority and not nearly progressive enough for folks like his contemporary John Stuart Mill. At the same time, we are told, he was a seminal thinker and generally regarded as one of the most brilliant minds of the nineteenth century — regarded by Charles Dickens as “the man who knows everything.”

Growing up poor himself, Carlyle had a deep and genuine concern for the “luckless poor,” though at the same time he fought vigorously against the notion that all men should be allowed to vote (a fight many in America might join today given recent political events). He felt the mass of men required an education before granted the vote and spoke out in favor of universal education. His main targets during his early years were mechanism, materialism, and utilitarianism: the tendency to reduce all of our experience to quantities that could be measured and weighed. [How much is that painting worth?  I know I like it and they say it’s worth millions. Is this action the right one? Will it lead to greater good for greater numbers of people in the long run?]. Those who are familiar with “analytics” in sports will recognize the tendency today to reduce, say, the management of a baseball team to calculations that predict outcomes — and eliminate anything that smacks of “intuition,” including experienced managers!

In any event, this “impressionistic historian” wrote what many regard as the definitive history of the French Revolution — which he considered the harbinger of things to come. He worried that if the poor were not cared for (hence his authoritarianism) England would suffer the same sort of violence France had recently undergone. He also wrote many seminal works in social criticism, some of them a bit hysterical, warning his contemporaries of the dangers of the coming age of industrialism and mechanism. He waxed poetic when he noted:

“I, for my share, declare the world to be no machine! I say that it does not go by wheel-and-pinion ‘motives,’ self-interests, checks, balances; that there is something other in it than the clank of spinning-jennys, and parliamentary majorities; and, on the whole, that it is not a machine at all! — The old Norse Heathen had a truer notion of God’s world than these poor Machine Skeptics: the old Heathen Norse were sincere men. But for these poor skeptics there was no sincerity, no truth. Half-truth and hear-say was called truth.”

Folks like Anthony Trollope joined him in his concerns about England’s breakneck journey into the unknown future. George Eliot also took him seriously and at times pined for slower times when

“reforming intellect takes a nap, while imagination does a little Toryism by the sly, reveling in regret that dear, old, brown, crumbling, picturesque inefficiency is everywhere giving place to spick-and-span new-painted, new-varnished efficiency, which will yield endless diagrams, plans, elevations, and sections, but alas! no picture.”

This is not to say that Carlyle didn’t realize the tremendous advantages of mechanization and industrialism to the coming age and the blessings of modern science. As he said in Signs of the Times:

“What wonderful accessions have thus been made, and are still making, to the physical power of mankind; how much better fed, clothed, lodged, and, in all outward aspects, accommodated men now are, or might be, by a given quantity of labour, is a grateful reflection which forces itself on every one.”

So what’s the problem? The problem is, as Carlyle saw it, the danger to the human soul, the loss of a sense of mystery and wonder, the “noble and the divine.”

“Not the external and physical alone is now managed by machinery, but the internal and spiritual also. . . . . Men are grown mechanical in head and heart, as well as in hand. They have lost faith in individual endeavour, and in natural force of any kind. Not for internal perfection, but for external combinations and arrangements, for institutions, constitutions, or for Mechanism of one sort or another, do they hope and struggle. Their whole efforts, attachments, opinions turn on mechanisms and are of a mechanical character.”

The question, according to Thomas Carlyle, is who is to be master: the machines or those who operate them? And while the reference to machines may be somewhat dated — the target of the barbs of Cervantes a hundred years or so before Carlyle — the question today might be in reference to the electronic toys that so fascinate and captivate us and threaten to steal our collective soul. Who is to be master? That is the question.

Carlyle was a Calvinist and his pessimism was born of a fixed idea of the inevitability of events and the inability of human beings to determine their own fate. But, at the same time, he fought hard to waken his fellow Englishmen to the dawning of a New Age of machines and calculation, of the tendency to level down and reduce everything to what can be measured and weighed, the loss of “the mysterious springs of Love, and Fear, and Wonder, of Enthusiasm, Poetry, Religion, all of which have a truly vital and infinite character.” His determinism did not lead him to quietism. On the contrary, he grew hoarse warning his contemporaries of the dangers they were about to face and the need to draw back, proceed with caution, and look around them as they walked through a door that might well lead them into utter darkness.

I look forward to reading more of  what this enigmatic man had to say. He may not have known everything, as Dickens insisted. But he was alive to what was happening around him and something of a prophet — and in any event a very wise man.

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