Sartor Resartus "Know What Thou Canst Work At"

Thomas Carlyle

"Know What Thou Canst Work At"

(Magill's Quotations in Context)

Context: Sartor Resartus, the tailor retailored, is supposedly the life and works of a German scholar, entirely fictional, named Teufelsdröckh. As part of the fiction, Carlyle supposedly edited the contents of six paper sacks, the German's writings, which came into his hands. The quotation above is from the chapter entitled "The Everlasting No," Carlyle's term for a bitter and sweeping rejection of European society and its conventions, to be contrasted with Carlyle's idea of The Everlasting Yea, which is a call to the life of the soul. Carlyle, as the editor for his fictional savant, says that Teufelsdröckh is as great when uttering his nay-saying as at any other point, even so far as this: ". . . perhaps at no era of his life was he more decisively the Servant of God, than even now when doubting his God's existence." While wandering, filled with weariness of the world, Teufelsdröckh suffered. He doubted even the great maxim of Western philosophy, from the lips of Socrates, and echoed by Plato, to "Know thyself." Knocking about the world, viewing the emptiness and hypocrisy of materialism, Teufelsdröckh cannot accept the idealistic philosopher's view. He must change it; he must out of it force some workable command for action, inasmuch as he finds the old command too much to ask of humankind:

. . . "The painfullest feeling," writes he, "is that your own Feebleness (Unkraft); ever, as the English Milton says, to be weak is the true misery. And yet of your Strength there is and can be no clear feeling, save by what you have prospered in, by what you have done. Between vague wavering Capability and fixed indubitable Performance, what a difference! A certain inarticulate Self-consciousness dwells dimly in us; which only our Works can render articulate and decisively discernible. Our Works are the mirror wherein the spirit first sees its natural lineaments. Hence, too, the folly of that impossible Precept, Know Thyself; till it be translated into this partially possible one, Know what thou canst work at."