Signs of the Times

Thomas CarlyleThomas Carlyle’s (1795-1881) review essay, “Signs of the Times,” first appeared in the Edinburgh Review in 1829. Rather than reviewing the books listed—namely, William Alexander MacKinnon’s On the Rise, Progress, and Present State of Public Opinion (1829), Edward Iriving’s The Last Days: A Discourse on the Evil Character of These Our Times (1829), and the anonymous Anticipation; or, an Hundred Years Hence (1829)—Carlyle takes the opportunity to deliver some rather interesting cultural commentary.

He begins by criticizing the contemporary histrionics of “danger” and “crisis.” It is obvious, he says, that the present faces a crisis. This crisis has called forth a plethora of vaticinations, both from the religious and irreligious. “The one announce” he writes, “that the last of the seals is to be opened, positively, in the year 1860; and the other assure us, that ‘the greatest happiness principle’ is to make a heaven of earth, in a still shorter time” (441). But rather than getting into a frenzy, Carlyle calls for a calmer, more serious inspection and reading of “the signs of our own time.”

In brief, Carlyle characterized his age not as a “Heroical, Devotional, Philosophical, or Moral Age, but, above all others, the Mechanical Age” (442).

It is the Age of Machinery, in every outward and inward sense of that word; the age which, with its whole undivided might, forwards, teaches and practises the great art of adapting means to ends. Nothing is now done directly, or by hand; all is by rule and calculated contrivance. For the simplest operation, some helps and accompaniments, some cunning abbreviating process is in readiness. Our old modes of exertion are all discredited, and thrown aside. On every hand, the living artisan is driven from his workshop, to make room for a speedier, inanimate one. The shuttle drops from the fingers of the weaver, and falls into iron fingers that ply it faster. The sailor furls his sail, and lays down his oar; and bids a strong, unwearied servant, on vaporous wings, bear him through the waters. Men have crossed oceans by steam; the Birmingham Fire-king has visited the fabulous East; and the genius of the Cape were there any Camoens now to sing it, has again been alarmed, and with far stranger thunders than Gama’s. There is no end to machinery. Even the horse is stripped of his harness, and finds a fleet fire-horse invoked in his stead. Nay, we have an artist that hatches chickens by steam; the very brood-hen is to be superseded! For all earthly, and for some unearthly purposes, we have machines and mechanic furtherances; for mincing our cabbages; for casting us into magnetic sleep. We remove mountains, and make seas our smooth highways; nothing can resist us. We war with rude Nature; and, by our resistless engines, come off always victorious, and loaded with spoils (ibid).

Thanks to industry and technology, mankind is better fed, clothed, lodged, and accommodated than in any time in history. At the same time, the Mechanical Age has dramatically altered social systems. The rise of the periodical press is partly one consequence of the Mechanical Age. We have machines for education. We also have religious machines. Indeed “every little sect among us, Unitarians, Utilitarians, Anabaptists, Phrenologists, must each have its periodical, its monthly or quarterly magazine—hanging out, like its windmill, into the popularis aura, to grind meal for the society” (443).

Society then, as now, revolved around new technologies. Another consequence of the Mechanical Age is the building of institutions and societies. “No Queen Christina,” Carlyle observes, “needs to send for her Descartes; no King Frederick for his Voltaire.” We now have recourse to Royal and Imperial Societies and Institutions, Bible Societies, Religious Tract Societies, and, soon after Carlyle published this essay, the British Association for the Advancement of Science. “Men are [now] grown mechanical in head and in heart, as well as in hand” (444). Our whole manner of existence has fundamentally and dramatically changed.

The Mechanical philosophy, as Carlyle understood it, has altered the state of science. Metaphysical and Moral Sciences are now in disrepute. Instead, “the science of the age,” he says, “is physical, chemical, physiological, and, in all shapes, mechanical” (445).

Mechanical principles have become so pervasive that they have also affected politics. Society is now seen as a machine and “mere political arrangements” have also been mechanized. “It is no longer the moral, religious, spiritual condition of the people that is our concern, but their physical, practical, economical conditions, as regulated by public laws” (448). This “body-politic” has now become an idol of worship.

But while the domain of Mechanism was once considered embracing, it is by no means the most important. Carlyle makes a distinction between man’s dynamical and mechanical nature. In the dynamical springs the mystery of love, fear, wonder, enthusiasm, poetry, religion, “all which” he says, “have a truly vital and infinite character” (449). In this sense, according to Carlyle, our mechanical side can never led us to happiness. Moreover, both “Science and Art have, from first to last, been the free gift of Nature; an unsolicited, unexpected gift—often even a fatal one” (ibid.).

Because both grow spontaneously, it is dangerous to institutionalize either science or art. Christianity, for example, the “crowning glory, or rather the life and soul, of our whole modern culture,” has increasingly declined and decayed under the burden of institutionalization (450). Was it by institutions and establishments, Carlyle asks, that Christianity first arose and spread among men?

Not so; on the contrary, in all past and existing institutions for those ends, its divine spirit has invariably been found to languish and decay. [Rather] It arose in the mystic deeps of man’s soul; and was spread abroad by the ‘preaching of the ‘word,’ by simple, altogether natural and individual efforts; and flew, like hallowed fire, from heart to heart, till all were purified and illuminated by it; and its heavenly light shone, as it still shines, and as sun or star will ever shine, through the whole dark destinies of man (ibid).

This tacit, anti-Catholic rhetoric is made even clearer when Carlyle maintains that “the Reformation had an invisible, mystic, and ideal aim: the result was indeed to be embodied in external things; but its spirit, its worth, was internal, invisible, infinite” (ibid).

Although man has both a mechanical and a dynamical nature, he is undoubtedly “not a creature and product of Mechanism.” Rather, he is “its creator and producer.” This observation should be obvious, but Carlyle claims that many in the Mechanical Age have forgotten this all-important distinction. However, we must not deny the dynamical nor the mechanical aspects of human nature. Indeed, both, says Carlyle, need to be cultivated.

Undue cultivation of the inward or Dynamical province leads to idle, visionary, impracticable courses, and, especially in rude eras, to Superstition and Fanaticism, with their long train of baleful and well-known evils. Undue cultivation of the outward, again, though less immediately prejudicial, and even for the time productive of many palpable benefits, must, in the long-run, by destroying Moral Force, which is the parent of all other Force, prove not less certainly, and perhaps still more hopelessly, pernicious (452).

It is this, unbalanced understanding of the dynamical and mechanical that characterizes the Mechanical Age. The truth, writes Carlyle, is that “men have lost their belief in the Invisible, and believe, and hope, and work only in the Visible” (ibid). God, in short, has become the machine.

With the mechanization of God, religion has dramatically changed. Indeed, it has been lost.

Religion in most countries, more or less in every country, is no longer what it was, and should be, — a thousand-voiced psalm from the heart of Man to his invisible Father, the fountain of all Goodness, Beauty, Truth, and revealed in every revelation of these; but for the most part, a wise prudential feeling grounded on mere calculation; a matter, as all others now are, of Expediency and Utility; whereby some smaller quantum of earthly enjoyment may be exchanged for a far larger quantum of celestial enjoyment. Thus Religion too is Profit, a working for wages; not Reverence, but vulgar Hope or Fear (455).

With religion, literature and morality have also lost its way, says Carlyle. Poetry has lost its beauty. It has been replaced with brute strength. Self-denial, the parent of all virtue, has given way to instant self-gratification. “Virtue is Pleasure, is Profit; no celestial, but an earthly thing” (456). In the end, “we worship and follow after Power”; we shun truth and seek ambition, honor, and popularity (457).

In a powerful conclusion, Carlyle writes:

Thus, while civil liberty is more and more secured to us, our moral liberty is all but lost. Practically considered, our creed is Fatalism; and, free in hand and foot, we are shackled in heart and soul with far straiter than feudal chains. Truly may we say, with the Philosopher, “the deep meaning of the Laws of Mechanism lies heavy on us”; and in the closet, in the Marketplace, in the temple, by the social hearth, encumbers the whole movements of our mind, and over our noblest faculties is spreading a nightmare sleep (ibid.)

But Carlyle remains optimistic. Technology is not the problem. It is how we use it. Indeed, it is still possible to recover the wisdom of our forefathers. Although “the time is sick and out of joint,” these two hostile influences in man, the dynamical and the mechanical, the old and the new, have always existed. What we need is balance and “constant intercommunion.” What we need is another “majestic reformation,” another “majestic Luther.” But in order to reform a nation, we must, says Carlyle, begin with ourselves (459).


2 Comments on “Signs of the Times”

  1. Pingback: Visions of Science: Thomas Carlyle | jamescungureanu

  2. James: I stumbled on your essay tonight. In my Carlyle studies I’m currently on “Signs of the Times”. I had to skim your review of it tonight and will have to fully review it another, less-hectic day. I’ll for sure be back.

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