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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Idleness is worst, Idleness alone is without hope: work earnestly at anything, you will by degrees learn to work at almost all things. There is endless hope in work, were it even work at making money.

In this 1843 book, Carlyle critiques what he perceives as the nineteenth century's obsessive emphasis on making money at the expense of all else. He sees it as threatening the very fabric of society. However, he distinguishes between money-making greed and work, for finding work—having a purpose, an occupation, and a goal—is life-giving. Even a job solely for the purpose of making money is better than doing nothing, he says, an attack on the wealthy, non-working aristocrats who he called "enchanted" [meaning stupefied or glazed] as well as the "enchanted" unemployed poor.

Our life is not a mutual helpfulness; but rather, cloaked under due laws-of-war, named "fair competition" and so forth, it is a mutual hostility. We have profoundly forgotten everywhere that Cash-payment is not the sole relation of human beings; we think, nothing doubting, that it absolves and liquidates all engagements of man. "My starving workers?" answers the rich mill-owner: "Did not I hire them fairly in the market?"

Carlyle's writing style is vehement and outraged, and he ridicules straw men he has set up solely for the purpose of demolishing their arguments. Here he scorns those who think only about moneymaking, arguing that relations between humans should involve mutual care and obligation. His rich mill owner is a Scrooge-like figure (interestingly written in the same year as A Christmas Carol, though Carlyle wrote his before Dickens's work appeared) who narrowly defines his responsibility to his workers as no more than paying them their starvation wages. Carlyle derides the mill owner's willful blindness to his workers' suffering.

Money is miraculous. What miraculous facilities has it yielded, will it yield us; but also what never-imagined confusions, obscurations has it brought in; down almost to total extinction of the moral-sense in large masses of mankind! "Protection of property," of what is "mine," means with most men protection of money,—the thing which, had I a thousand padlocks over it, is least of all mine; is, in a manner, scarcely worth calling mine!

Carlyle speaks with bitter irony when he calls money "miraculous." In fact, he says the exclusive pursuit of money and profit has almost killed off humankind's moral sensibilities. He implicitly alludes to a medieval notion that property does not belong to an individual but to God, who merely loans it out for the short span of a person's life. Carlyle, who frames his attack on nineteenth-century greed with the story of a twelfth-century abbot, implicitly critiques the Enlightenment reformulation (particularly by Hobbes and Locke) of obligations between people defined as the protection of property rights. He questions whether the belief in "mine" is "written on God's eternal Heavens at all, on the inner Heart of Man at all . . ."

Trades' Strikes, Trades' Unions, Chartisms; mutiny, squalor, rage and desperate revolt, growing ever more desperate, will go on their way. As dark misery settles down on us, and our refuges of lies fall in pieces one after one, the hearts of men, now at last serious, will turn to refuges of truth. The eternal stars shine out again, so soon as it is dark enough.

Carlyle unabashedly predicts revolution if the political and economic systems in England don't reform themselves, but he also holds out hope that once the situation becomes grim enough, truth—which he calls "the eternal stars"—will reemerge. We get a glimpse of his idea of a better social arrangement in the story of a Quaker factory owner he calls "Friend Prudence," who treats his workers well by offering them cultural amenities that attend to their souls and is rewarded with loyalty.

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