“Carlyle was not a conservative,” wrote Simon Heffer in his excellent biography of Thomas Carlyle, Moral Desperado (1995). “What he saw of the socio-political system in the mid-nineteenth century he despised, and saw no point in conserving.” That is true, but the fact that Heffer had to say it suggests the existence of other reasonable interpretations: one wouldn’t say, for example, that Nietzsche wasn’t a conservative. Richard Reeves, by contrast, in his recent and highly competent biography of John Stuart Mill, repeatedly and without explanation calls Carlyle a “conservative,” presumably for no other reason than that Carlyle’s views diverged sharply from those of the “liberal” Mill. Indeed, the question of whether Carlyle was a conservative, a liberal, a proto-socialist, a nationalist reactionary, or something else again—that is, the question of how to define Carlyle’s political disposition in some relevant way—has troubled his interpreters for many years.

Carlyle (1795–1881) was one of the two or three most influential writers of the nineteenth century. Writers as varied and philosophically irreconcilable as Ruskin, Mill, Dickens, Arnold, and Emerson all attested to the power Carlyle had, in one way or another, exercised over their thinking. Yet now he’s hardly read at all. A few dedicated souls at Edinburgh University continue to produce the Collected Letters of Thomas and Jane Welsh Carlyle, an invaluable work of scholarship, and Carlyle’s first book, the strange and convoluted satire Sartor Resartus (1834), is still taught in postgraduate English courses. But his best works are in print only intermittently, and, in my experience, even intelligent and well-read people have only the vaguest notion of who he was. Carlyle’s absence from today’s intellectual landscape is probably inevitable: his labyrinthine, emotionally turgid prose strikes many readers as incomprehensible, and his tirades against democracy put him—to use the modern cliché—on the wrong side of history. This absence is unfortunate. Even though Carlyle offered no realistic solutions, his diagnosis of what ails modern politics is as relevant in 2009 as it ever was.

Carlyle was born in Ecclefechan in Dumfriesshire, the son of affectionate but austere Seceder Presbyterians. The bluntness and severity of that upbringing pervaded everything he said and wrote. An extremely precocious child, he entered Edinburgh University overprepared at age fourteen. After a brief time as a ministerial student—he ceased to be a Christian in his early twenties—he began trying to make his way in literary Edinburgh. By 1815, the Scottish Enlightenment (the term was not yet in use) had made Edinburgh famous all over Europe. The Whig, democratic-leaning Edinburgh Review dominated British high culture; a poor review from the Edinburgh could destroy a book and sink a reputation.

The hope of democracy . . . sounded hollow to him.

This was the Age of Reform, when British intellectual life was astir with notions of an ever-widening “public sphere” (as Jürgen Habermas would later call it) in which, through the open exchange of ideas, seemingly intractable social and political problems could be dealt with in the light of reason and, over time, solved. The first Reform Bill, which extended the franchise and changed the makeup of electoral constituencies, passed Parliament in 1832, in large part owing to the advocacy of Edinburgh Whigs. None of this impressed Carlyle. The hope of democracy, the promise that through the “diffusion of knowledge” an educated populace could make its own wise decisions, sounded hollow to him. Already crotchety by his late twenties, he simply could not get along in the fashionable intellectual circles of Edinburgh. Soon he moved with his new wife Jane to a country farm well outside the city—a ghastly wilderness retreat, really—and, in 1834, he left Scotland for London in order, as he wrote to his brother, to “preach nothing but the sound word.”

By the mid-1830s, Carlyle’s brilliant essays on literature and politics had begun to attract attention. J. S. Mill and Ralph Waldo Emerson made his acquaintance. With the 1837 publication of The French Revolution— a remarkable work combining judicious scholarship with a breathless narrative style —he became a minor intellectual celebrity. His friends urged him to lecture, which he did to great effect, most famously in a series of talks later collected under the title On Heroes, Hero-worship, and the Heroic in History (1841). In London he found an audience, but for the most part it did not include the political elite whom he wished to influence. Thus, there is a quality in his writing of preaching to those without ears to hear, the fiery anger of a rejected prophet—thus, too, the famously difficult prose, called “Carlylese” in his own day, by turns exhilarating and unmanageable.

With Past and Present Carlyle reached the height of his powers. First published in 1843, it was reviewed by Emerson and Friedrich Engels; Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol as a direct response to it. Its point of departure is the “condition of England” question: whether and how the country could deal with its destitute and, in many cases, starving working-class subjects. Carlyle begins to answer it by recourse to an obscure edition of a twelfth-century English monk’s diary. Jocelin de Brakelond’s account of an abbot’s forthright and manly use of power to restore the monastery of St. Edmunds illustrates, in Carlyle’s hortatory retelling, precisely the converse of how the British state was being led in the 1840s—by cowardly politicians endlessly spewing the convoluted jargon of compromise and half-measures.

Following this example, Carlyle moves to his own prognostications about whether it was still possible for Britain to produce, as it had once produced in the person of Oliver Cromwell, the sort of man who would bring direction and purpose to contemporary chaos by sheer will and energy. Such a leader would find a way to put the nation’s “lower orders” to work—“work” being, for Carlyle, man’s only certain path to truth, and at last to God himself. Already one begins to sense two competing themes in Carlyle’s work: on the one hand, a powerful and prescient indictment of the modern obsession with easy political “solutions”; on the other, an equally powerful yearning to put an end to all the useless chatter through the peremptory initiative of an autocrat.

The qualities of moral vacuity and political aimlessness in elected leaders drew from Carlyle some of his most acerbic writing. In Past and Present he invents his own characters for the purpose, among them Sir Jabesh Windbag, a “leader” led by voters as a bungling sea captain is led by the wind.

Windbag, weak in the faith of a God, which he believes only at Church on Sundays, if even then; strong only in the faith that Paragraphs and Plausibilities bring votes; that Force of Public Opinion, as he calls it, is the primal Necessity of Things, and highest God we have:—Windbag … has a problem set before him which may be ranged in the impossible class. He is a Columbus minded to sail the indistinct country of NOWHERE, to the indistinct country of WITHERWARD, by the friendship of those same waste-tumbling Water-Alps and howling waltz of All the Winds; not by conquest of them and in spite of them, but by friendship of them, when once they have made up their mind!

This exaltation of strength in political leaders seems, at first, to advance some form of statism. Accordingly a number of writers—notably Philip Rosenberg in his tendentious but influential study The Seventh Hero (1974)—have supposed Carlyle was advocating a proto-socialist or redistributionist ethic. It must be admitted, in fairness to Rosenberg and a variety of socialists who for generations have quoted amenable passages in Carlyle, that some of his writing seems to embrace a kind of Marxian historical determinism. Indeed, reading some passages from Past and Present in isolation from others, one could be forgiven for thinking Carlyle was advocating communist revolution.

Carlyle, moreover, inveighed unceasingly in his writings against what sounds, at any rate, like capitalism. He argues, in a typical passage of Past and Present, “that ‘enlightened Egotism,’ never so luminous, is not the rule by which man’s life can be led. That ‘Laissez-faire,’ ‘Supply-and-demand,’ ‘Cash-payment for the sole nexus,’ and so forth, were not, are not and will never be, a practicable Law of Union for a Society of Men.” But to suppose from such passages that he was fulminating against capitalism, or by implication promoting socialism, is to miss his point altogether. Time and again in Past and Present, Carlyle ridicules “Free Trade” and those who wished to repeal protective tariffs known as the Corn Laws: yet he supported the repeal of the Corn Laws, and when they were abolished in 1846, he rejoiced.

What Carlyle hated was not the free market, and certainly not free trade, but materialism, the “Mammon Gospel” as he called it: the belief that man’s highest end was to achieve material wealth—a belief encompassing Marxist materialism quite as much as the laissez faire variety. The idea, as he put it, that Britain’s “National Existence [depended] on selling manufactured cotton at a farthing an ell cheaper than any other People” suggested a grotesque misunderstanding of the statesman’s charge. Although Carlyle favored any new legislation that would give the poor greater access to work and cheap food, he felt the nation’s governing and landowning elite skirted their duty by confining their attention to physical needs; in his view the purpose of political leadership, as well as of industrial leadership—what he called the “Working Aristocracy”—was to address men’s souls. The job of the true leader, the Hero, was to lead by wisdom and virtue: if he did that, people would follow and would themselves find a way to put clothing on the backs of the poor.

It was the heroic man’s responsibility to know how; that is what made him heroic.

How? He never says, exactly. It was the heroic man’s responsibility to know how; that is what made him heroic. “Editors,” he writes near the end of Past and Present (referring to himself), “are not here, foremost of all, to say How … an Editor’s stipulated work is to apprise thee that it must be done. The ‘way to do it,’—is to try it, knowing that thou shalt die if it be not done.” Carlyle’s proposals, to the extent one can deduce proposals from his writings, alternated between the impractical and the nebulous. He is most often remembered today for On Heroes, the only of Carlyle’s political books to remain consistently in print. That is unfortunate, not because On Heroes isn’t worth reading, but because his conception of hero-worship, while almost totally irrelevant to any realistic thinking about politics in the present, obscures his penetrating—and deeply conservative—critique of modern commercial and democratic culture.

Carlyle saw that, in parliamentary democracies, Cant (he always capitalized it) tended to congeal into elite consensus which in turn led political leaders to believe they understood problems they did not. It was not because of any inchoate socialist mentality that he so angrily denounced “Laissez-faire,” “Competition,” “Supply-and-demand,” and “Free Trade”—phrases he almost always put in quotation marks, as if to suggest that it was the facile use of these terms and not their substance to which he objected. He was condemning, not capitalism, or indeed anything having to do with political or economic arrangements, but, rather, the moral laziness of expecting phrases to do the work of explanation and leadership. He supported the abolition of the Corn Laws even as he reviled elected politicians who waved aside the problems bound up with mass unemployment with highfalutin’ abstractions and misapprehended ideologies. Empty phrases, once hardened into consensus—“Paragraphs and Plausibilities”—inevitably resulted in the illusory legislative quick fixes and institutional tinkering to which we in Western democracies have become so accustomed.

Fixated as he was on the strong man of heroism, Carlyle had little use for democracy. He believed a democracy was as good or as hopeless as its citizens, and that, as a political system, it was no better than any other. By the 1850s, he had given up on it altogether (after Past and Present he went on to write admiring books on Cromwell and Frederick the Great of Prussia). Yet it is important to understand that in the 1830s and 1840s, to say nothing of latter-nineteenth-century radicalism, electoral reform was presented by its proponents as though humane governance itself were impossible apart from universal suffrage and the abrogation of sinecures. However necessary and right the Reform Bills were, they were destined to disappoint. Tinkering with the electoral system, then as now (think of campaign finance reform), never meets the expectations by which it is animated.

For Carlyle, the urge to democratize represented yet another instance of trying to redress fundamentally human problems by means of institutional reshuffling. And although he was clearly wrong about the merits of democracy he was right to ridicule the belief, or rather the presupposition, that the solution to every problem lay in governmental restructuring—new laws, the reform or abolition of old laws, increased funding, more programs, better management of existing ones, expansion of the franchise, more new laws.

As early as 1829, in an essay grandly titled “Signs of the Times” (to my mind among the best essays in English literature), he defined an error he called “Mechanism.” “Our first question with regard to any object is not, What is it? But, How is it? We are no longer instinctively driven to apprehend, and lay to heart, what is Good and Lovely, but rather to inquire, as onlookers, how it is produced, whence it comes, whither it goes.” In politics, this meant interminable national debates about electoral reform; in religion, an interest in building churches but not in God; in literature, the belief that poetry itself would dwindle and perish without institutional patronage (or “funding for the arts,” as we would now say). Mechanism values process over substance, means over ends, technical know-how over wisdom.

In Past and Present, Mechanism becomes “the Morrison’s Pill”: a purely political remedy to a problem rooted in the human will. James Morison (Carlyle misspelled it) was a quack doctor whose pills claimed to cure every known disease. One of Morison’s advertisements quoted Mr. Henry Howe, who claimed to have been cured of scrofula after taking “from four to twenty-two pills each day.” For Carlyle, to put faith in the grand promises of political solutions takes a similar kind of desperate gullibility:

There is no religion; there is no God; man has lost his soul, and vainly seeks antiseptic salt. Vainly: in killing Kings, in passing Reform Bills, in French Revolutions, Manchester Insurrections, is found no remedy. The foul elephantine leprosy, alleviated for an hour, reappears in new force and desperateness next hour.

In western democracies, we rely entirely on our ability to meet challenges with educated analysis, neat logical solutions, and the purse. Michael Oakeshott called it “rationalism”: the tendency to value technical knowledge (book learning) at the expense of practical knowledge (experience). What Oakeshott called “technique,” Carlyle, echoing Burke, called “theory.”

In one of the most rhetorically vivid chapters of Past and Present, he portrays the “Man of Practice” outlasting the clever logical onslaughts of the “Man of Theory”:

How one loves to see the burly figure of him, this thick-skinned, seemingly opaque, perhaps sulky, almost stupid Man of Practice, pitted against some light adroit Man of Theory, all equipt with clear logic, and able anywhere to give you Why for Wherefore! The adroit Man of Theory, so light of movement, clear of utterance, with his bow full-bent and quiver full of arrow-arguments,—surely he will strike down the game, transfix everywhere the heart of the matter; triumph everywhere, as he proves that he shall and must do? To your astonishment, it turns out oftenest No. The cloudy-browed, thick-soled, opaque Practicality, with no logic-utterance, in silence mainly, with here and there a low grunt or growl, has in him what transcends all logic-utterance: a Congruity with the Unuttered!

“Thy very stupidity,” he concludes, addressing the Man of Practice, “is wiser than their wisdom.” Mill had not yet called the Conservatives “the stupidest party,” and, in any case, Carlyle cared little about party politics. What he wanted to convey, rather, was that the best and most cogent arguments still consist of only tiny fractions of the requisite knowledge; that the most intelligent governmental measures always bring unintended consequences; and that statesmen are usually best advised to act on instinct or conviction rather than the advice of the chattering classes.

“Thy very stupidity,” he concludes, addressing the Man of Practice, “is wiser than their wisdom.”

As Carlyle knew, however, the “light adroit Man of Theory” had already triumphed. Ideas and arguments—together with a generally suspicious attitude to tradition, habit, and religious conviction—had already become an integral part of western political culture. What was the alternative, after all? In his impatience with abstract “isms” and the windy rigmarole of political “debate,” Carlyle turned to hero-worship: hardly a serious answer, even in an era preoccupied with “sages” and “great men.” As Irving Kristol argued in a series of powerful essays about American politics, the nature of modern democracy is such that ideas and ideologies shape and direct our culture whether we like it or not. It takes ideas to win elections: either bad ideas, or worse ideas.

Thomas Carlyle was frequently in the wrong. In his impatience with a country increasingly driven by ideologues and followed by weak politicians, he espoused ideas that laid him open to the charge of planting the seeds of fascism. The accusation is grossly unfair, of course, but it’s also easy to see that if Carlyle had curbed some of his rhetorical excesses such accusations would never have been made in the fist place. His anti-Semitism, too, though far from uncommon among his contemporaries, hasn’t helped his reputation; nor does his defense of slavery in the still readable but at times rancorous writings of the 1850s and 1860s (his position on slavery, though unpardonable, was mainly rhetorical—he felt that anti-slavery campaigners hankered after foreign causes at the expense of more urgent domestic ones). Even so, his books deserve to be read. Carlyle’s loathing of the deadening effects of elite consensus and his revolt against the modern propensity to treat all human ills as products of a faulty social arrangement, remind us why he was once thought to be a prophet. Simon Heffer is certainly right: Carlyle was no conservative. But conservatives, above all, ought to give him some thought.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 28 Number 6, on page 16
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