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Past and Present Summary

Past and Present by Thomas Carlyle is a piece of prose that focuses on the downfall of society because of economic policies and industrialization. In it, Carlyle discusses poverty and greed in modern England, and how the wealthy are regarded as idols to look up to when in reality they are tearing the people apart with their greed.

The book starts with a frank yet flowery discussion in the first section, titled Proem, of the state of England's society. Carlyle speaks of the hundreds of thousands of skilled workers who are unemployed, injured from unsafe work conditions, or barely scraping by because they cannot earn an honest living. When he speaks in the first section of the business owners, he says that their greed is their downfall, like Midas, who was little the better for all the gold he created. Their wealth will do them no good in the end, and it will only harm those around them.

In the second section, Carlyle offers up a hero, or someone to look up to. He tells the story of Abbott Samson, a simple, uninspiring monk from medieval times. Samson is tasked with taking charge of an Abbey, which, upon observation, is in squalor, with a leaking roof and uncaring tenants—he mentions physical and metaphorical rain coming in, meaning the alcoholism and carelessness of the monks who live there. Through nothing but care, attentiveness, and hard work, he reforms the Abbey and makes it a haven, instilling motivation in the other tenants. Carlyle explains that it would do England well to take an attitude of diligence and hard work instead of exploitation and greed.

He follows the story of Samson up with reflection on the political and economic agendas of 19th century England, where the taxes and restrictions have crushed the working class. The wealthy can use these taxes and restrictions to their benefit to exploit them further and get even wealthier. In addition, the political laws give the wealthy an out in that they comply with the law and need not show compassion, because they pay what the law prescribes and nothing more. Unfortunately, what the law prescribes is far too low a sum for the workers to subside on.

Carlyle's work is a reflection and lamentation on the society at large. He discusses God's love and how the people of the day need to have a similar compassion for those around them, as well as the laws and regulations that have worked their way into society like the weeds in the Abbey, choking out the possibility of success for the impoverished working class.

Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

In Past and Present, Thomas Carlyle brings to the task of social commentary the same searching, tenacious, and idiosyncratic analysis that characterized his Sartor Resartus (1835). In the earlier work, Carlyle explores his crisis of faith; in Past and Present, however, he analyzes the problems of newly industrialized England both by invoking historical events and by dissecting contemporary issues. Carlyle offers his assessment in four books: “Proem,” “The Ancient Monk,” “The Modern Worker,” and “Horoscope.” While his method may at first appear haphazard, Carlyle weaves striking examples, blistering caricatures, and shrewd political analyses into a memorable pattern, closing with a stern warning about England’s future.

Born into a family of resolute Scottish Calvinists, Carlyle was never shy about offering opinions, advice, criticism, and even insults in his essays. While he no longer accepted the tenets of the faith, Carlyle never shed its didactic approach. For this reason, some Victorian critics considered his style indecorous, even grotesque. Readers, however, will find his unpredictability and exaggeration surprisingly modern. Carlyle also inherited from his family an abiding respect for and insistence upon work. Throughout Past and Present he demands constructive efforts from all persons “each in their degree” and lambastes the idle gentry, whom he calls “enchanted dilettantes.”

Despite his admiration for the worker and emphasis on solid, practical...

(The entire section is 2,282 words.)