Past and Present "Captains Of Industry"

Thomas Carlyle

"Captains Of Industry"

Context: Carlyle was something of a romanticist about the past. Like others in the Victorian period, both in England and in the United States, he looked to the past to see only what was good; he therefore believed it to be superior to his own age and exaggerated its glories. But he also acquired the truth which the great historian always learns: by studying the past we can learn, if we will, how to avoid the mistakes of the generations of mankind who have preceded us. In this particular essay Carlyle looks at nineteenth century industrialists in Great Britain and finds them wanting, seeing them merely as men who are busy gathering up thousand-pound notes as American Indians were alleged to gather scalps, as trophies giving visible evidence of prowess over one's enemies and fellowmen. But Carlyle expresses hope that the pursuit of money, Mammonism, as he calls it, will not always be the end for which the leaders of industry strive. He hopes for the improvement, he says, to come from the industrialists themselves. Government, he says, can help, but government cannot do it all, if for no other reason than that the government merely reflects the people. The remedies, he says, must be found "by those who stand practically in the middle of it; by those who themselves work and preside over work"–in short, by the men he calls captains of industry. Carlyle issues a ringing challenge to these men:

. . . Captains of Industry are the true Fighters, henceforth recognizable as the only true ones: Fighters against Chaos, Necessity and the Devils and Jotuns; and lead on Mankind in that great, and alone true, and universal warfare; the stars in their courses fighting for them, and all Heaven and all Earth saying audibly, Well done! Let the Captains of Industry retire into their own hearts, and ask solemnly, If there is nothing but vulturous hunger for fine wines, valet reputation and gilt carriages, discoverable there? Of hearts made by the Almighty God I will not believe such a thing. . . .