Summary

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 accomplishment, Carlyle remained scornful of the prevailing Victorian doctrine of utilitarianism. Expounded by Victorian optimists, including Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, utilitarianism sought to achieve “the greatest happiness of the greatest number.” Its method required assessing every act, belief, or idea for its usefulness or “utility.” Like the utilitarians, Carlyle had little use for existing religious and social institutions; however, he found their emphasis upon happiness infantile and their confidence in utility exaggerated and mechanistic. To Carlyle, the utilitarians wasted energy in endlessly classifying and codifying human efforts. By contrast, he claimed that, given the appropriate conditions, a genuine “Aristocracy of Talent” would arise to lead society. Such “heroes” deserved to be worshiped; they possessed a vital energy capable of reinventing and ordering society. Later generations have deemed such views authoritarian, even fascistic, but Carlyle’s defense of his position in Past and Present defies easy labeling.

In “Proem,” Carlyle introduces most of the major themes of his work as well as his characteristic rhetorical strategies. In Carlyle’s opinion, England in 1843 was burdened by a huge surplus of wealth and activity, improperly managed and frivolously expended. Able workingmen languished “enchanted” in poorhouses or were daily exploited by profiteering and callous employers. Early in the discussion, Carlyle takes a stand on one of the most controversial economic issues of his day: the infamous Corn Laws (repealed in 1846). These tariffs on imported grains were established to eliminate foreign competition and to keep the price of English farm products high; they also effectively robbed working people of their daily bread. Carlyle defends an early popular movement against the Corn Laws, the Manchester Insurrection of 1819, arguing that the agitators “put their huge inarticulate question, ’What do you mean to do with us?’ in a manner audible to every reflective soul in this kingdom.” Those who labor deserve to be responsibly and actively governed, rather than enduring the laissez-faire neglect of the political system. To achieve this organic, vital government, Carlyle urges his readers to “put away all Flunkyism, Baseness, Unveracity from us.” Only a heroic nation of “faithful, discerning souls” will be capable of electing a heroic government, of discerning the Aristocracy of Talent crucial to England’s future.

Also in “Proem,” Carlyle creates the first of his imaginary characters, who appear periodically in the work to serve as “straw men,” ludicrous proponents of the arguments he despises. Bobus Higgins, for example, typifies the fatuous, greedy middle classes, incapable both of self-rule and of choosing worthy leadership. In the following book, “The Ancient Monk,” Carlyle turns to an actual historical figure to dramatize the diminished stature of profit-minded Victorians....

(The entire section is 1848 words.)