"You Might Prove Anything By Figures"

(Magill's Quotations in Context)

Context: Chartism was a labor movement which began in the 1830's and reached its high point during the following decade. Its basic ideal was to demand and establish a Charter which would guarantee certain rights to labor and laboring classes. It later became the two movements which followed it, co-operatives and tradeunionism; a number of badly-needed reforms were brought about through its efforts. Chartist agitation was resisted strongly at first by the British government, and by 1839 it was said that a Reform Ministry had abolished Chartism altogether. Carlyle knew that this assumption was false. He was aware that the motivation behind the movement had not been dealt with; as he points out in this essay, "Chartism means the bitter discontent grown fierce and mad, the wrong condition therefore or the wrong disposition, of the Working Classes of England. It is a new name for a thing which has had many names, which will yet have many." If it be madness, he continues, then the nation must bring sanity to it, not try to crush it. In order to accomplish this end, the causes of the discontent must be found and measured. "We have heard it asked, Why Parliament throws no light on this question of the Working Classes, and the condition or disposition they are in? . . . A Reformed Parliament, one would think, should inquire into popular discontents before they get the length of pikes and torches!" Parliament, he feels, has done nothing at all; the matter can no longer "be left to the Collective Folly of the Nation." Obviously, there is something these laboring classes are trying to say, and a clear interpretation of it must be made. "Certain researches and considerations of ours on the matter, since no one else will undertake it, are now to be made public." He admits that the researchers have yielded him little, and proceeds to explain why:

A witty statesman said, you might prove anything by figures. We have looked into various statistic works, Statistic-Society Reports, Poor-Law Reports, Reports and Pamphlets not a few, with a sedulous eye to this question of the Working Classes and their general condition in England; we grieve to say, with as good as no result whatever. . . . Tables are like cobwebs, like the sieve of the Danaides; beautifully reticulated, orderly to look upon, but which will hold no conclusion. Tables are abstractions, and the object a most concrete one. . . . Statistics is a science which ought to be honourable, the basis of many most important sciences; but it is not to be carried on by steam. . . . Vain to send the purblind and blind to the shore of a Pactolus never so golden: these find only gravel; the seer and finder alone picks up gold grains there. And now the purblind offering you, with asservation and protrusive importunity, his basket of gravel as gold, what steps are to be taken with him?–Statistics, one may hope, will improve gradually, and become good for something. Meanwhile, it is to be feared the crabbed satirist was partly right, as things go: "A judicious man," says he, "looks at Statistics, not to get knowledge, but to save himself from having ignorance foisted on him." With what serene conclusiveness a member of some Useful-Knowledge Society stops your mouth with a figure of arithmetic! To him it seems he has there extracted the elixir of the matter, on which now nothing more can be said. It is needful that you look into his said extracted elixir; and ascertain, alas, too probably, not without a sigh, that it is wash and vapidity, good only for the gutters.