Since I’ve been on a Carlyle kick lately, and have acclimated to his style, I made it through Latter Day Pamphlets rapidly. There’s no particular theme to this collection of essays — it’s more of a running commentary on issues contemporary to the author.
Foseti has already written capably on the book, and you may want to start with his review for context.
This will be a selection of quotes plus my commentary, intended to encourage people to go and read the book themselves.
Here’s Carlyle on chronic kinglessness and the resultant rule via manipulation of public opinion:
And everywhere the people, or the populace, take their own government upon themselves; and open “kinglessness,” what we call anarchy,—how happy if it be anarchy plus a street-constable!—is everywhere the order of the day. Such was the history, from Baltic to Mediterranean, in Italy, France, Prussia, Austria, from end to end of Europe, in those March days of 1848. Since the destruction of the old Roman Empire by inroad of the Northern Barbarians, I have known nothing similar. And so, then, there remained no King in Europe; no King except the Public Haranguer, haranguing on barrel-head, in leading article; or getting himself aggregated into a National Parliament to harangue.
Here’s Carlyle prefiguring the baby boomers:
In times when men love wisdom, the old man will ever be venerable, and be venerated, and reckoned noble: in times that love something else than wisdom, and indeed have little or no wisdom, and see little or none to love, the old man will cease to be venerated; and looking more closely, also, you will find that in fact he has ceased to be venerable, and has begun to be contemptible; a foolish boy still, a boy without the graces, generosities and opulent strength of young boys. In these days, what of lordship or leadership is still to be done, the youth must do it, not the mature or aged man; the mature man, hardened into sceptical egoism, knows no monition but that of his own frigid cautious, avarices, mean timidities; and can lead no-whither towards an object that even seems noble.
Carlyle on some of the issues with the voluntary principle, which is an issue that many current and former libertarians are likely to struggle with:
But henceforth, be it known, we have changed all that, by favor of Heaven: “the voluntary principle” has come up, which will itself do the business for us; and now let a new Sacrament, that of Divorce, which we call emancipation, and spout of on our platforms, be universally the order of the day!—Have men considered whither all this is tending, and what it certainly enough betokens? Cut every human relation which has anywhere grown uneasy sheer asunder; reduce whatsoever was compulsory to voluntary, whatsoever was permanent among us to the condition of nomadic:—in other words, loosen by assiduous wedges in every joint, the whole fabric of social existence, stone from stone: till at last, all now being loose enough, it can, as we already see in most countries, be overset by sudden outburst of revolutionary rage; and, lying as mere mountains of anarchic rubbish, solicit you to sing Fraternity, &c., over it, and to rejoice in the new remarkable era of human progress we have arrived at.
Social coordination can become difficult when it becomes impossible to form and maintain permanent relations of any kind. The forerunner of revolutionary violence is a breakdown in other peaceable relations that make the phenomenon of society possible.
The author on the superior quality of British workers:
For it is the glory of England that she has a turn for fidelity in practical work; that sham-workers, though very numerous, are rarer than elsewhere; that a man who undertakes work for you will still, in various provinces of our affairs, do it, instead of merely seeming to do it.
We ought to perhaps consider that the poor productivity seen in many foreign countries may not be entirely due to bad policies, but that bad policies might come with an inferior human stock with inferior morals poorly suited to production.
Carlyle does not much believe in reformatory justice, and defends the principle of just revenge:
“Revenge,” my friends! revenge, and the natural hatred of scoundrels, and the ineradicable tendency to revancher oneself upon them, and pay them what they have merited: this is forevermore intrinsically a correct, and even a divine feeling in the mind of every man. Only the excess of it is diabolic; the essence I say is manlike, and even godlike,—a monition sent to poor man by the Maker himself. Thou, poor reader, in spite of all this melancholy twaddle, and blotting out of Heaven’s sunlight by mountains of horsehair and officiality, hast still a human heart. If, in returning to thy poor peaceable dwelling-place, after an honest hard day’s work, thou wert to find, for example, a brutal scoundrel who for lucre or other object of his, had slaughtered the life that was dearest to thee; thy true wife, for example, thy true old mother, swimming in her blood; the human scoundrel, or two-legged wolf, standing over such a tragedy: I hope a man would have so much divine rage in his heart as to snatch the nearest weapon, and put a conclusion upon said human wolf, for one!
This made me think of the pop-art phenomenon of the action movie. Most men feel, at least in the base of their brain, that revenge is a legitimate form of justice. Even if at a higher level, in public speech, most people affirm enlightenment conceptions of a ‘justice system’ which sentences criminals not to punish but to reform, in practice, at the emotional and aesthetic levels, none of that translates. When a script-writer wants to fill movie theaters, they tell a story about a man getting bloody revenge to set the world to rights.
Carlyle is not a great believer in the correlation between the rhetorical excellence of a man and his greatness in other pursuits:
No grand Doer in this world can be a copious speaker about his doings. William the Silent spoke himself best in a country liberated; Oliver Cromwell did not shine in rhetoric; Goethe, when he had but a book in view, found that he must say nothing even of that, if it was to succeed with him.
So it is that we all ought be skeptical of glib and prolific bloggers, also.
Foseti seemed to read this in light of this extended post by Moldbug explaining his perspective as to why Carlyle is so important. I read that particular Moldbug post some time ago, and did not re-read it in advance of going over this, so what I focused on in my reading was not quite the same.
Carlyle is only difficult to understand from a more contemporary perspective. When read keeping in mind that he would have been writing to an audience largely familiar with classical works and much more familiar with the long record of Christian theology, it’s just a lot easier to see his perspective as right and normal and the more left-wing perspective as odd and un-rooted.
One perspective has deep roots, and the other is more of a hydroponic type of perspective; a plant in one of those indoor farms with no soil and carefully applied nutrient fluid, sunned by a heat-lamp.
What’s harder for modern readers to grasp, and perhaps for me, is the difference between a more historically rooted perspective and one that attributes great weight to concepts like individualism and rights.
As 21st century people, we collectively believe in these notions of individualism and of abstract rights, in a way that suffuses our culture in such a way that it’s the water in our fish bowl. Carlyle is writing at a time that’s still transitioning to this world of equality-fraternity with its sacrament of divorce, so it was possible to conceive of and see both visions of humanity in the present.
Even Americans of 1850 would have taken the motto ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ rather differently than Americans of 2014. Each word in that motto meant something different then relative to what it means today.