Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Why, the four-footed worker has already got all that this two-handed one is clamouring for! - Carlyle's terrible ideas

I had this idea that I was going to make some sort of argument about Thomas Carlyle's Past and Present. It's too late; I'm too tired. So instead I'll just describe Carlyle's arguments, as I understand them.

The aristocracy should be our rulers. But the current aristocracy is completely useless. What people do, what they produce, is central to Carlyle's vision of the world. The aristocracy produces fox tails, which they nail to their stable doors. Carlyle does not see this as useful.

Maybe the new Captains of Industry will be able to fill the role of the aristocracy. Get moving, says Carlyle.

The rule of the people, democracy as such, is a joke, a phase England will pass through before the return of true heroic leadership.

Heroic leadership = Oliver Cromwell. Or the Norse chief who was eventually deified as Odin. Or the poet Robert Burns. Ha ha! No, Carlyle is kind of serious about that.

Everyone adores Gurth, the lovable serf in Walter Scott's Ivanhoe, who has a brass collar affixed around his neck as a symbol of his servitude. Doesn't his life basically seem pretty nice? Most people would be better off as serfs. Or, if they're Africans, slaves.

Enough of this. I've made Carlyle sound sufficiently horrible. If I'm unfair, it's because I have some idea of how Carlyle's ideas evolve, and I may be reading his later authoritarianism into Past and Present. Or knowing his later ideas may help me see how they were already present. Let's look at Scott's Gurth again:

"Gurth, a mere swineherd, born thrall of Cedric the Saxon, tended pigs in the wood, and did get some parings of the pork. Why, the four-footed worker has already got all that this two-handed one is clamouring for! How often must I remind you? There is not a horse in England, able and willing to work, but has due food and lodging; and goes about sleek-coated, satisfied in heart." (Ch. 3)

Here's a more humanist idea side by side with a rather different kind. People ought to be treated at least as well as pigs and horses. Possibly better.

Carlyle is very hard to place in his politics. Past and Present was influential with radicals - Marx and Engels, for example - and with more mainstream reformers. Some of his ideas seem fascistic, while others are more classically liberal.

I think he's a greater artist - writer, rhetorician - than a thinker, but I read him for both reasons. His prose is fascinating; his ideas are challenging. Tomorrow, let's see if I can bring Dickens back into this.


  1. Not having read Carlyle I can't say for certain, but even though Emerson was good friends with him, they still had many disagreements. No doubt Emerson found Carlyle's belief that the aristocracy should be in charge distasteful.

  2. Emerson was his own man, certainly, but I think their ideas also grew apart over time. Carlyle's vigorous defence of slavery circa 1850 may have been almost a breaking point, although in his journals Emerson still finds nice things to say about Carlyle.

    Now that I think of it, Emerson had a lot of really complicated friendships.