June 22, 2010

Signs of the Times

Happy men are full of the present, for its bounty suffices them; and wise men also, for its duties engage them. Our grand business undoubtedly is, not to see what lies dimly at a distance, but to do what lies clearly at hand. (Thomas Carlyle, Signs of the Times, 1829).

Never a more eloquent carpe diem was yet uttered, and yet, in the same breath as the exhortation to get up and do, Carlyle bade us to stop awhile and reflect; a look, if you will, before the proverbial leap:

We were wise indeed, could we discern truly the signs of our own 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 endeavours in it, may also become clearer.
What Carlyle found on closer inspection was a mechanised world that had buried all traces of the finer points of character, the magic of genius, the mystery of faith, and the dynamism of humanity, swapping it all instead for a balance sheet of pleasure and pain, some scientific instruments, bank statements, and an unedifying tendency to want to know how things were before anybody had asked what they were. A surfeit of facts buzzed around the institutions of late-Georgian England, at the expense of imagination. It was only to get worse. Carlyle thought that all the steam being blown off would ultimately reduce the noise of the fanatics to a whimper. In this estimation, history sits as grim judge.

We, therefore, are the inheritors of the mechanised world, and through its ever more efficient operations we have grown lazy and fat, greedy and insatiable. Carlyle’s judgement on his own times rings true for ours, but the sentence carries the added weight of offences oft repeated:

The infinite, absolute character of Virtue has passed into a finite, conditional one; it is no longer a worship of the Beautiful and Good; but a calculation of the Profitable.
What then, is to be done? Well, tarnished as we are by failings similar to those of our forebears, we would be foolish to look, as they did, to governments, institutions, and charities (now all subsumed under the title of ‘the internet’) for our solutions. These, so saith Carlyle, are merely the accursed machines. I can think of nothing better than Carlyle’s original solution, a project close to my own heart:

To reform a world, to reform a nation, no wise man will undertake; and all but foolish men know, that the only solid, though a far slower reformation, is what each begins and perfects on himself.


  1. Well written. "Charity begins at home" comes to mind. Perhaps, not the true meaning of the proverb, but it still works as a nice summation.

  2. Excellent, excellent. Please know that I remain your apostle in this endeavor to perfect myself. I am not familiar with Mr. Carlyle's writings. Where do you suggest that I start? Perhaps I should read Sartor Resartus. Could you also recommend a biography about Thomas Carlyle?


  3. Here's two more cents.

    And he alone of the politicians appears to me to begin correctly. For it is correct to take care of the young first, so that they will be the best possible, just as a good farmer properly takes care of the young plants first, and after this of the others as well. (Euthyphro, 2c-d)

  4. Thanks to you all, as always.

    Turling, even Bentham, father of Utilitarianism, thought that the self was the issue of first importance, for without a happy self, all bets were off.

    Hilton, I would point you in the direction of Carlyle's 'On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History' (1841). I confess I haven't read Sartor Resartus. There appears to be a biography - Simon Heffer's 'Moral Desperado' (1995), but I know not if it is worthy.

    Kravien, your two additional cents are worthy indeed. Presumably, the caretaker must himself be of the right constitution if the young are to be nurtured well. There's a bit of the chicken and egg here, but we must begin nevertheless.

  5. I discovered today that there is a biography of Carlyle written by Fred Kaplan. Unfortunately, it is out of print.


  6. Ah, good show. Get it online from abebooks.com for as little as $1.

  7. I have revisited this post for the wonderfully inspirational nature of it. I could use a bit more in preparation for the approaching procedure.

    I am curious as to your position regarding forgiveness, Mr. VB. I still have an appetite for vengeance.

    Happy holidays to you, sir.

  8. That, my dear Hilton, is a good idea. I shall think on it.

  9. Sorry, I forgot to mention this article of interest:http://artofmanliness.com/2010/10/10/is-forgiveness-manly/

    Thanks for considering this.


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