Carlyle the Wise

By Swaim, Barton | New Criterion, February 2010 | Go to article overview

Carlyle the Wise


Swaim, Barton, New Criterion


"Carlyle was not a conservative," wrote Simon Heifer 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 Heifer 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 cliche--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.

This was the Age of Reform, when British intellectual life was astir with notions of an ever-widening "public sphere" (as Jurgen 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.

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