Carlyle at His Zenith (1848-53)

By David Alec Wilson | Go to book overview

XIII
MODEL PRISONS (1850)

THE second Pamphlet in March was on Model Prisons and can be put into a nutshell. The criminals were being put to school and petted like naughty children instead of being punished. In a matter-of-fact way Carlyle exposed the absurdity of treating them better than honest workers, and his exposure has been so convincing that it takes an effort now to realise how very bold and original he was at the time of writing. The cant of religion in the thing was what he derided most, abhorring it as he did every kind of confusion between right and wrong.--

'Justice, Justice: woe betides us everywhere when, for this reason or for that, we fail to do justice! No beneficence, benevolence, or other virtuous contribution will make good the want. There is but one thing needed for the world; but that one is indispensable. Justice, Justice, in the name of Heaven; give us Justice, and we live; give us only counterfeits of it, or succedanea for it, and we die!

'O this universal syllabub of philanthropic twaddle! My friend, it is very sad, now when Christianity is as good as extinct in all hearts, to meet this ghastly Phantasm of Christianity parading through almost all. The worst, it is written, comes from corruption of the best.'

Carlyle did not shrink from coming into frank collision with the sentimental slush then popular about the wickedness of revenge, which he plainly justified as 'the natural hatred of scoundrels, and the ineradicable tendency to pay them what they have merited: this is intrinsically a correct, and even a divine feeling, in the mind of every man. Only the excess of it is diabolic; the essence is manlike, and even godlike,--a monition sent to poor man by the Maker himself. . . . This same sacred glow of divine wrath,' he insists, is 'the foundation of all Criminal Law, and except upon a basis of even such rigour, inexorable as Destiny and Doom, there is no true pity possible. The pity possible

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