Thomas Carlyle – Signs of the Times (1829)

Can be read as prototypical critique of the acceptance of utilitarian values (anticipating both Ruskin’s Unto this Last and Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy). Focuses on the fact of transition: “All men are aware that the present is a crisis of this sort; and why it has become so…Those things that seemed fixed (like the church) and immovable; deep as the foundations of the world and lo, in a moment they have vanished, and their place knows them no more” (62)! Carlyle is intent, however, on giving a program for action, which entails a robust Understanding of the Present as the convergence of Past and Future:

The poorest Day that passes over us is te conflux of two Eternities; it is made up of currents that issue from the remotest Past, and flow onwards into the remotest Future. We were wise indeed, could we discern truly the signs of our time; and by knowledge of its wants and advantages, wisely adjust our own position in it. Let us, instead of gazing idly into the obscure distance, look calmly around us,  for a little, on the perplexed scene where we stand. Perhaps, on a more serious inspection, something of its perplexity will disappear, some of its distinctive characters and deeper tendencies more clearly reveal themselves; whereby our own relations to it, our own true aims and endeavors in it, may also becomes clear. (64)

He makes the argument that the “Soul-Politic” is being ignored while the “Body-Politic” is “more than ever worshipped” (71). This is the result of a focus on the mechanical rather than dynamical aspects of life. The dynamical refers to those spontaneous, unsolicited gifts of nature: art and science. the point here is that the logic of “Profit and Loss” has no place in the realm of art, since it is completely unable to either produce or regulate its movements. Via art and science, so does “man, in every age, vindicate, consciously or unconsciously, his celestial birthright” (75). Carlyle argues for a proper balance of the dynamic and the mechanic, and locates the process of this balancing act in the individual perfection of the self. That’s the conclusion: but he gets there by way astronomical predictions. (85)


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