Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 389
Past and Present is a 1834 medieval history novel written by Scottish philosopher, writer, historian, and mathematician Thomas Carlyle. It is, essentially, about nineteenth-century industrial England, and the clash between medieval and contemporary culture. However, it touches upon several other socio-economic themes as well, such as: faith, religion, spirituality, working ethics, organized labor, aristocracy, and the structure of the modern society.
Carlyle apparently drew inspiration from Chronicles of the Abbey of Saint Edmund's Bury by Jocelyn de Brakelond, and Tomlin's Monastic and Social Life in the Twelfth Century in the Chronicle of Jocelyn de Brakelond (1844), both of which include the English monk Samson of Tottington in their narrative.
Past and Present consists of four parts: “Book I: Proem,” “Book II: The Ancient Monk,” “Book III: The Modern Worker,” and “Book IV: Horoscope.”
In the first part, “Book I: Proem,” Carlyle discusses his opinions about the condition of the working class in England, during the Industrial Revolution. He dubs his analysis the “Condition of England question.” He argues how, despite England’s stable economy, the people form the lower and middle social classes are unable to get jobs; thus, they are forced to live in poverty. He suggests that the higher social class and the elite should lead the country, and provide help and mentorship for the workers and the unemployed.
In “Book II: The Ancient Monk,” Carlyle chronicles the life of Samson of Tottington—a twelfth-century monk who later became Abbot of Bury St. Edmunds; and presents him as a deeply spiritual, semi-educated and inexperienced man, who, despite his background, manages to become a much better leader than the Englishmen.
In “Book III: The Modern Worker,” he compares the medieval work ethic with the work ethic of the modern society.
Finally, in “Book IV: Horoscope,” Carlyle proposes his solution to the leadership problem, and the socio-economic problems of the English society in general, suggesting that the Church and the bourgeoisie should unite and lead the working class into a better future.
While some of Carlyle’s contemporaries might’ve agreed with his theories, the book is probably not a good choice for the modern reader. According to some critics, what Carlyle wrote could be described as ‘exaggerated socialism,’ however, many would agree with his opinion that greed and money are a bad and, at the same time, a powerful motivator.