The University of Toronto at Scarborough

ENGB02Y: English Literature: Historical Survey (Spring Term)

Instructor: Melba Cuddy-Keane

Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881)

Notes on his Life and Beliefs:

- a Scot, studied at the University of Edinburgh
- raised as a Presbyterian and first intended to be a minister; early training in the Church is evident in his evangelical style and Old Testament language
- his study of sceptical philosophers and writers, and of German Romanticists led to his eventual abandoning of the Christian faith
- he developed, however, his own religious and spiritual faith, based on the presence of the divine spirit within each individual, manifested in energy; a philosophy that can be described as "vitalism" (compare D.H. Lawrence)
- he opposed the increasingly scientific, analytic, and logical bias in society and instead endorsed the value of the irrational, unconscious and emotional, or in other words, the "soul"
- his belief in the divine within attracted and influenced many writers, in particular the American Transcendentalists (Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman)
- he attacked the growing materialism of the Victorian age and the increasingly economic cast to life; his sympathy with the industrial poor and his attack on the middle-class influenced the Victorian novels of social consciousness
- he came to believe that the only way to address the devastating problem of poverty was to create a class of strong devoted leaders, who would function as wise fathers
- he thus turned increasingly away from a democratic model to a kind social feudalism, moving from hero-worship to wise paternalism, and perhaps eventually to a theory of benevolent dictatorship

"Captains of Industry," from Past and Present

Past and Present was written as a direct response to the economic crisis of the 1840s: closure of factories, loss of jobs, the growth of slums in the industrial centres, the starving poor. Carlyle compared the "leaders" of the present--those at the top of the social hierarchy only interested in amassing fortunes--with an ideal from the medieval past: the Abbot Samson who, as a wise father, devoted himself selflessly to his the monasteries under his charge and brought about social improvements in them.


There is an odd conjunction here between the passionate evangelical style and the topic: the role of business managers in society. However, the style is absolutely part of Carlyle's meaning: Carlyle believes that the only way to get the middle-class to actually do something about the plight of the poor is to arouse their feelings of love for their fellow human beings and to inspire them to selfless commitment in their role as leaders.

What we have here is a mix of religious and secular realms. Carlyle's goal is to lead his readers to a "conversion experience." He wants to stir them to an emotional and spiritual revelation, a "change of heart," in order to stimulate them to take up the cause of social reform.

Read the paragraph on his style at the bottom of page 914. Then read the selection "Captains of Industry," and look for these features:

- diction (words) that echo a minister's call to sinners, beseeching them to be saved through Christ (what is Carlyle attempting to "save" his "sinners" from?)
- repetitions that give emotional power to his plea
- alliterations that give emphasis to the emotion through sound
- short bursts of emotions and energy
- evocation images
- any other features that help to convey emotion and energy

Carlyle's Ideas

What are the evils that Carlyle identifies in his society? Why does he turn to the leaders of industry rather than to the Government to address these evils? What kind of ties does he suggest form the basis of a society? How does he explain the nature of these ties?

Note the phrase in the second paragraph: "Competition, at railway speed." This is still years before Darwin's Origin of Species; but this phrase lets us see that there were already concerns in the society that Darwin's theories were only going to aggravate. (One of Darwin's theories concerned the "survival of the fittest.") Also, notice the reference to the railway. Railways only came into being in England in the 1830s; but they were beginning to affect ways of thinking, much in the way that space travel has done in the 20th Century.

Another Victorian quality in this passage is its attitude toward work. What does Carlyle think about work? Is this what you think about work?

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