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.


Hard Times

I am not a Charles Dickens scholar and really not much of a fan to be honest. I have read a number of his novels, but I find them a bit too didactic to be true art though I realize that novelists are free to do with their writing whatever they choose. At the same time I realize they are well worth reading, despite the fact that so many of his characters are caricatures, overdrawn and designed to produce a smile or a frown. Clearly, he was determined to draw attention to the poor and downtrodden of his times and their proximity to criminality which is always a temptation, especially for the poor. Moreover, his popularity and his influence are well documented. If popularity were the measure of the true worth of a novel, Dickens’ name would be at or near the top of the list. But I do not think popularity counts for much when it comes to aesthetic value. Still, as I say, his novels show signs of true artistic impulses, his writing is masterful, and his novels always provide us with something to think about.

In Hard Times, for example, Dickens targets utilitarianism, just aborning in his day and in his view a threat to the human spirit. Utilitarianism was the brain-child of Jeremy Bentham and it involved a careful calculation of alternatives in order to determine in a given case which is the best (i.e., most pleasurable) course of action, the “felicity calculus” as he called it. In a word, one could calculate the amount of pleasure involved in alternative courses of actions to determine which was the better choice. It’s all about human pleasure and calculation. And it was the calculating part that bothered Dickens — by which he meant all sorts of mechanization and regulation, the determination to measure everything and the eradication of all spontaneity and imagination. Dickens was a true romantic.

Folks like Dickens, and Fyodor Dostoevsky, have always had a problem with reason and the notion that one should incorporate reason into the normal comings and goings of the ordinary human. By way of satirizing this notion, for example, Dickens has Gradgrind hold forth at the start of Hard Times:

“Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts; nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!”

Mr. Gradgrind (note the name) the schoolmaster is all about “facts” and his determination to make reasoning machines out of his pupils — as Dickens sees it. And this view of education became an accepted truth about traditional ways of educating young children. It gave birth to such things as the Summerhill experiment in England in which children were allowed to have free reign over their own education. This eventually morphed into progressive education, an education, following Dickens’ lead — and the full-blown attack by Rousseau earlier on — that paid less attention to the subject matter (Facts) than it did to the children who were being taught the subject matter: education became child-oriented. And we have inherited this view of the proper way to educate children, for better or worse, emphasizing self-esteem and giving birth to our age of entitlement.

I have held forth on this topic many times, and I will not bore my readers by dragging out old axes I love to grind. But suffice it to say that, assuredly, the child matters — but so does the subject matter. In addition, facts (especially in our day of “alternative facts”) and reasoning skills are essential to help young people gain possession of their own minds, so they can free themselves from stupidity, narrowness of vision, and blatant prejudice. We need to teach the child when she is young and as she grows older we need to teach the child the subject matter. When she reaches college we need to teach the subject matter. Facts, perhaps, but necessary ingredients in any well-rounded education. I share Dickens’ aversion to utilitarianism and the trend toward reducing quality to quantity, but his reaction is a bit extreme.

In a word, we need Romantics to remind us of the pitfalls of a too narrow indoctrination which we try to pass off as the only way to teach and learn. But we also need to rescue the notion of discipline and rigor from the dust-heap where they have been thrown by the zealots who see only one way to do things. It’s a question of balance, in the end, reason and heart. We need not choose between them. I suspect Dickens knew this: he was trying to make a point.