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Signs of the Times (1828)
Thomas Carlyle
It is no very good symptom either of nations or individuals, that they deal much
in vaticination. Happy men are full of the present, for its bounty suffices
them; and wise men also, for its duties engage them. Our grand business
undoubtedly is, not to see what lies dimly at a distance, but to do what lies
clearly at hand.
Know'st thou Yesterday, its aim and reason;
Work'st thou well Today, for worthy things?
Calmly wait the Morrow's hidden season,
Need'st not fear what hap soe'er it brings.
But man's "large discourse of reason" will look "before and after"; and,
impatient of the "ignorant present time," will indulge in anticipation far more
than profits him. Seldom can the unhappy be persuaded that the evil of the day
is sufficient for it; and the ambitious will not be content with present
splendour, but paints yet more glorious triumphs, on the cloud-curtain of the
The case, however, is still worse with nations. For here the prophets are not
one, but many; and each incites and confirms the other; so that the fatidical
fury spreads wider and wider, till at last even Saul must join in it. For there
is still a real magic in the action and reaction of minds on one another. The
casual deliration of a few becomes, by this mysterious reverberation, the frenzy
of many; men lose the use, not only of their understandings, but of their bodily
senses; while the most obdurate unbelieving hearts melt, like the rest, in the
furnace where all are cast as victims and as fuel. It is grievous to think, that
this noble omnipotence of Sympathy has been so rarely the Aaron's-rod of Truth
and Virtue, and so often the Enchanter's-rod of Wickedness and Folly! No
solitary miscreant, scarcely any solitary maniac, would venture on such actions
and imaginations, as large communities of sane men have, in such circumstances,
entertained as sound wisdom. Witness long scenes of the French Revolution, in
these late times! Levity is no protection against such visitations, nor the
utmost earnestness of character. The New-England Puritan burns witches, wrestles
for months with the horrors of Satan's invisible world, and all ghastly
phantasms, the daily and hourly precursors of the Last Day; then suddenly
bethinks him that he is frantic, weeps bitterly, prays contritely, and the
history of that gloomy season lies behind him like a frightful dream.
Old England too has had her share of such frenzies and panics; though happily,
like other old maladies, they have grown milder of late: and since the days of
Titus Oates have mostly passed without loss of men's lives; or indeed without
much other loss than that of reason, for the time, in the sufferers. In this
mitigated form, however, the distemper is of pretty regular recurrence; and may
be reckoned on at intervals, like other natural visitations; so that reasonable
men deal with it, as the Londoners do with their fogs, — go cautiously out
into the groping crowd, and patiently carry lanterns at noon; knowing, by a
wellgrounded faith, that the sun is still in existence, and will one day
reappear. How often have we heard, for the last fifty years, 3 that the country
was wrecked, and fast sinking; whereas, up to this date, the country is entire
and afloat. The "State in Danger" is a condition of things, which we have
witnessed a hundred times; and as for the Church, it has seldom been out of
"danger" since we can remember it.
All men are aware that the present is a crisis of this sort; and why it has
become so. The repeal of the Test Acts, and then of the Catholic disabilities,
has struck many of their admirers with an indescribable astonishment. Those
things seemed fixed and immovable; deep as the foundations of the world; and lo,
in a moment they have vanished, and their place knows them no more! Our worthy
friends mistook the slumbering Leviathan for an island; often as they had been
assured, that Intolerance was, and could be nothing but a Monster; and so,
mooring under the lee, they had anchored comfortably in his scaly rind, thinking
to take good cheer; as for some space they did. But now their Leviathan has
suddenly dived under; and they can no longer be fastened in the stream of time;
but must drift forward on it, even like the rest of the world: no very appalling
fate, we think, could they but understand it; which, however, they will not yet,
for a season. Their little island is gone; sunk deep amid confused eddies; and
what is left worth caring for in the universe? What is it to them that the great
continents of the earth are still standing; and the polestar and all our
loadstars ' in the heavens, still shining and eternal? Their cherished little
haven is gone, and they will not be comforted And therefore, day after day, in
all manner of periodical or perennial publications, the most lugubrious
predictions are sent forth. The King has virtually abdicated; the Church is a
widow, without jointure; public principle is gone; private honesty is going;
society, in short, is fast falling in pieces; and a time of unmixed evil is come
on us.
At such a period, it was to be expected that the rage of prophecy should be more
than usually excited. Accordingly, the Millennarians have come forth on the
right hand, and the Millites on the left. The Fifth-monarchy men prophesy from
the Bible, and the Utilitarians from Bentham. The one announces that the last of
the seals is to be opened, positively, in the year 1860; and the other assures
us that "the greatest-happiness principle" is to make a heaven of earth, in a
still shorter time. We know these symptoms too well, to think it necessary or
safe to interfere with them. Time and the hours will bring relief to all
parties. The grand encourager of Delphic or other noises is the Echo. Left to
themselves, they will the sooner dissipate, and die away in space.
Meanwhile, we too admit that the present is an important time; as all present
time necessarily is. The poorest Day that passes over us is the conflux. of two
Eternities; it is made up of currents that issue from the remotest Past, and
flow onwards into the remotest Future. We were wise indeed, could we discern
truly the signs of our own time; and by knowledge of its wants and advantages,
wisely adjust our own position in it. Let us, instead of gazing idly into the
obscure distance, look calmly around us, for a little, on the perplexed scene
where we stand. Perhaps, on a more serious inspection, something of its
perplexity will disappear, some of its distinctive characters and deeper
tendencies more clearly reveal themselves; whereby our own relations to it, our
own true aims and endeavours in it, may also become clearer.
Were we required to characterise this age of ours by any single epithet, we
should be tempted to call it, not an Heroical, Devotional, Philosophical, or
Moral Age, but, above all others, the Mechanical Age. It is the Age of
Machinery, in every outward and inward sense of that word; the age which, with
its whole undivided might, forwards, teaches and practises the great art of
adapting means to ends. Nothing is now done directly, or by hand; all is by rule
and calculated contrivance. For the simplest operation, some helps and
accompaniments, some cunning abbreviating process is in readiness. Our old modes
of exertion are all discredited, and thrown aside. On every hand, the living
artisan is driven from his workshop, to make room for a speedier, inanimate one.
The shuttle drops from the fingers of the weaver, and falls into iron fingers
that ply it faster. The sailor furls his sail, and lays down his oar; and bids a
strong, unwearied servant, on vaporous wings, bear him through the waters. Men
have crossed oceans by steam; the Birmingham Fire-king has visited the fabulous
East; and the genius of the Cape were there any Camoens now to sing it, has
again been alarmed, and with far stranger thunders than Gamas. There is no end
to machinery. Even the horse is stripped of his harness, and finds a fleet fire-
horse invoked in his stead. Nay, we have an artist that hatches chickens by
steam; the very brood-hen is to be superseded! For all earthly, and for some
unearthly purposes, we have machines and mechanic furtherances; for mincing our
cabbages; for casting us into magnetic sleep. We remove mountains, and make seas
our smooth highways; nothing can resist us. We war with rude Nature; and, by our
resistless engines, come off always victorious, and loaded with spoils.
What wonderful accessions have thus been made, and are still making, to the
physical power of mankind; how much better fed, clothed, lodged and, in all
outward respects, accommodated men now are, or might be, by a given quantity of
labour, is a grateful reflection which forces itself on every one. What changes,
too, this addition of power is introducing into the Social System; how wealth
has more and more increased, and at the same time gathered itself more and more
into masses, strangely altering the old relations, and increasing the distance
between the rich and the poor, will be a question for Political Economists, and
a much more complex and important one than any they have yet engaged with.
But leaving these matters for the present, let us observe how the mechanical
genius of our time has diffused itself into quite other provinces. Not the
external and physical alone is now managed by machinery, but the internal and
spiritual also. Here too nothing follows its spontaneous course, nothing is left
to be accomplished by old natural methods. Everything has its cunningly devised
implements, its preestablished apparatus; it is not done by hand, but by
machinery. Thus we have machines for Education: Lancastrian machines;
Hamiltonian machines; monitors, maps and emblems. Instruction, that mysterious
communing of Wisdom with Ignorance, is no longer an indefinable tentative
process, requiring a study of individual aptitudes, and a perpetual variation of
means and methods, to attain the same end; but a secure, universal,
straightforward business, to be conducted in the gross, by proper mechanism,
with such intellect as comes to hand. Then, we have Religious machines, of all
imaginable varieties; the Bible-Society, professing a far higher and heavenly
structure, is found, on inquiry, to be altogether an earthly contrivance:
supported by collection of moneys, by fomenting of vanities, by puffing,
intrigue and chicane; a machine for converting the Heathen. It is the same in
all other departments. Has any man, or any society of men, a truth to speak, a
piece of spiritual work to do; they can nowise proceed at once and with the mere
natural organs, but must first call a public meeting, appoint committees, issue
prospectuses, eat a public dinner; in a word, construct or borrow machinery,
wherewith to speak it and do it. Without machinery, they were hopeless,
helpless; a colony of Hindoo weavers squatting in the heart of Lancashire. Mark,
too, how every machine must have its moving power, in some of the great currents
of society; every little sect among us, Unitarians, Utilitarians, Anabaptists,
Phrenologists, must have its Periodical, its monthly or quarterly Magazine;-- 
hanging out, like its windmill, into the popularis aura, to grind meal for the
With individuals, in like manner, natural strength avails little. No individual
now hopes to accomplish the poorest enterprise single-handed and without
mechanical aids; he must make interest with some existing corporation, and till
his field with their oxen. In these days, more emphatically than ever, "to live,
signifies to unite with a party, or to make one." Philosophy, Science, Art,
Literature, all depend on machinery. No Newton, by silent meditation, now
discovers the system of the world from the falling of an apple; but some quite
other than Newton stands in his Museum, his Scientific Institution, and behind
whole batteries of retorts, digesters, and galvanic piles imperatively
"interrogates Nature," who however, shows no haste to answer. In defect of
Raphaels, and Angelos, and Mozarts, we have Royal Academies of Painting,
Sculpture, Music; whereby the languishing spirits of Art may be strengthened, as
by the more generous diet of a Public Kitchen. Literature, too, has its
Paternoster-row mechanism, its Trade-dinners, its Editorial conclaves, and huge
subterranean, puffing bellows; so that books are not only printed, but, in a
great measure, written and sold, by machinery. National culture, spiritual
benefit of all sorts, is under the same management. No Queen Christina, in these
times, needs to send for her Descartes; no King Frederick for his Voltaire, and
painfully nourish him with pensions and flattery: any sovereign of taste, who
wishes to enlighten his people, has only to impose a new tax, and with the
proceeds establish Philosophic Institutes. Hence the Royal and Imperial
Societies, the Bibliothèques, Glyptothèques, Technothèques, which front us in
all capital cities; like so many well-finished hives, to which it is expected
the stray agencies of Wisdom will swarm of their own accord, and hive and make
honey. In like manner, among ourselves, when it is thought that religion is
declining, we have only to vote half-amillion's worth of bricks and mortar, and
build new churches. In Ireland it seems they have gone still farther, having
actually established a "Penny-a-week Purgatory-Society"! Thus does the Genius of
Mechanism stand by to help us in all difficulties and emergencies, and with his
iron back bears all our burdens.
These things, which we state lightly enough here, are yet of deep import, and
indicate a mighty change in our whole manner of existence. For the same habit
regulates not our modes of action alone, but our modes of thought and feeling.
Men are grown mechanical in head and in heart, as well as in hand. They have
lost faith in individual endeavour, and in natural force, of any kind. Not for
internal perfection, but for external combinations and arrangements, for
institutions, constitutions, for Mechanism of one sort or other, do they hope
and struggle. Their whole efforts, attachments, opinions, turn on mechanism, and
are of a mechanical character.
We may trace this tendency in all the great manifestations of our time; in its
intellectual aspect, the studies it most favours and its manner of conducting
them; in its practical aspects, its politics, arts, religion, morals; in the
whole sources, and throughout the whole currents, of its spiritual, no less than
its material activity.
Consider, for example, the state of Science generally, in Europe, at this
period. It is admitted, on all sides, that the Metaphysical and Moral Sciences
are falling into decay, while the Physical are engrossing, every day, more
respect and attention. In most of the European nations there is now no such
thing as a Science of Mind; only more or less advancement in the general
science, or the special sciences, of matter. The French were the first to desert
Metaphysics; and though they have lately affected to revive their school, it has
yet no signs of vitality. The land of Malebranche, Pascal, Descartes Fenelon,
has now only its Cousins and Villemains; while, in the department of Physics, it
reckons far other names. Among ourselves, the Philosophy of Mind, after a
rickety infancy, which never reached the vigour of manhood, fell suddenly into
decay, languished and finally died out, with its last amiable cultivator,
Professor Stewart. In no nation but Germany has any decisive effort been made in
psychological science; not to speak of any decisive result. The science of the.
age, in short, is physical, chemical, physiological; in all shapes mechanical.
Our favourite Mathematics, the highly prized exponent of all these other
sciences, has also become more and more mechanical. Excellence in what is called
its higher departments depends less on natural genius than on acquired
expertness in wielding its machinery. Without undervaluing the wonderful results
which a Lagrange or Laplace educes by means of it, we may remark, that their
calculus, differential and integral, is little else than a more cunningly-
constructed arithmetical mill; where the factors, being put in, are, as it were,
ground into the true product, under cover, and without other effort on our part
than steady turning of the handle. We have more Mathematics than ever; but less
Mathesis. Archimedes and Plato could not have read the Mécanique Céleste; but
neither would the whole French Institute see aught in that saying, "God
geometrises!" but a sentimental rodomontade.
Nay, our whole Metaphysics itself, from Locke's time downward, has been
physical; not a spiritual philosophy, but a material one. The singular
estimation in which his Essay was so long held as a scientific work (an
estimation grounded, indeed, on the estimable character of the man) will one day
be thought a curious indication of the spirit of these times. His whole doctrine
is mechanical, in its aim and origin, in its method and its results. it is not a
philosophy of the mind: it is a mere discussion concerning the origin of our
consciousness, or ideas, or whatever else they are called; a genetic history of
what we see in the mind. The grand secrets of Necessity and Freewill, of the
Mind's vital or non-vital dependence on Matter, of our mysterious relations to
Time and Space, to God, to the Universe, are not, in the faintest degree touched
on in these inquiries; and seem not to have the smallest connexion with them.
The last class of our Scotch Metaphysicians had a dim notion that much of this
was wrong; but they knew not how to right it. The school of Reid had also from
the first taken a mechanical course, not seeing any other. The singular
conclusions at which Hume, setting out from their admitted premises, was
arriving, brought this school into being; they let loose Instinct, as an
undiscriminating ban-dog, to guard them against these conclusions; — they
tugged lustily at the logical chain by which Hume was so coldly towing them and
the world into bottomless abysses of Atheism and Fatalism. But the chain somehow
snapped between them; and the issue has been that nobody now cares about either,
any more than about Hartley's, Darwin's, or Priestley's contemporaneous doings
in England. Hartley's vibrations and vibratiuncles, one would think, were
material and mechanical enough; but our Continental neighbours have gone still
farther. One of their philosophers has lately discovered, that "as the liver
secretes bile, so does the brain secrete thought"; which astonishing discovery
Dr. Cabanis, more lately still, in his Rapports du Physique et du Morale de
l'Homme, has pushed into its miemnutest developments. The metaphysical
philosophy of this last inquirer is certainly no shadowy or unsubstantial one.
He fairly lays open our moral structure with his dissecting-knives and real
metal probes; and exhibits it to the inspection of mankind, by Leuwenhoek
microscopes, and inflation with the anatomical blowpipe. Thought, he is inclined
to hold, is still secreted by the brain; but then Poetry and Religion (and it is
really worth knowing) are "a product of the smaller intestines!" We have the
greatest admiration for this learned doctor: with what scientific stoicism he
walks through the land of wonders, unwondering; like a wise man through some
huge, gaudy, imposing Vauxhall, whose fire-works, cascades and symphonies, the
vulgar may enjoy and believe in, — but where he finds nothing real but the
saltpetre, pasteboard and catgut. His book may be regarded as the ultimatum of
mechanical metaphysics in our time; a remarkable realisation of what in Martinus
Scriblerus was still only an idea, that "as the jack had a meat-roasting
quality, so had the body a thinking quality," upon the strength of which the
Nurembergers were to build a wood-and-leather man, "who should reason as well as
most country parsons." Vaucanson did indeed make a wooden duck, that seemed to
eat and digest; but that bold scheme of the Nurembergers remained for a more
modern virtuoso.
This condition of the two great departments of knowledge — the outward,
cultivated exclusively on mechanical principles; the inward, finally abandoned,
because, cultivated on such principles, it is found to yield no result, —
sufficiently indicates the intellectual bias of our time, its all-pervading
disposition towards that line of inquiry. In fact, an inward persuasion has long
been diffusing itself, and now and then even comes to utterance, That, except
the external, there are no true sciences; that to the inward world (if there be
any) our only conceivable road is through the Outward; that, in short, what
cannot be investigated and understood mechanically, cannot be investigated and
understood at all. We advert the more particularly to these intellectual
propensities, as to prominent symptoms of our age, because Opinion is at all
times doubly related to Action, first as cause, then as effect; and the
speculative tendency of any age will therefore give us, on the whole, the best
indications of its practical tendency.
Nowhere, for example, is the deep, almost exclusive faith we have in Mechanism
more visible than in the Politics of this time. Civil government does by its
nature include much that is mechanical, and must be treated accordingly. We term
it indeed, in ordinary language, the Machine of Society, and talk of it as the
grand working wheel from which all private machines must derive, or to which
they must adapt, their movements. Considered merely as a metaphor, all this is
well enough; but here, as in so many other cases, the "foam hardens itself into
a shell," and the shadow we have wantonly evoked stands terrible before us and
will not depart at our bidding. Government includes much also that is not
mechanical, and cannot be treated mechanically; of which latter truth, as
appears to us, the political speculations and exertions of our time are taking
less and less cognisance.
Nay, in the very outset, we might note the mighty interest taken in mere
political arrangements, as itself the sign of a mechanical age. The whole
discontent of Europe takes this direction. The deep, strong cry of all civilised
nations, — a cry which, every one now sees, must and will be answered, is:
Give us a reform of Government! A good structure of legislation, a proper check
upon the executive, a wise arrangement of the judiciary, is all that is wanting
for human happiness. The Philosopher of this age is not a Socrates, a Plato, a
Hooker, or Taylor, who inculcates on men the necessity and infinite worth of
moral goodness, the great truth that our happiness depends on the mind which is
within us, and not on the circumstances which are without us; but a Smith, a De
Lolme, a Bentham, who chiefly inculcates the reverse of this, — that our
happiness depends entirely on external circumstances; nay, that the strength and
dignity of the mind within us is itself the creature and- consequence of these.
Were the laws, the government, in good order, all were well with us; the rest
would care for itself! Dissentients from this opinion, expressed or implied, are
now rarely to be met with; widely and angrily as men differ in its application,
the principle is admitted by all.
Equally mechanical, and of equal simplicity, are the methods proposed by both
parties for completing or securing this all-sufficient perfection of
arrangement. It is no longer the moral, religious, spiritual condition of the
people that is our concern, but their physical, practical, economical condition,
as regulated by public laws. Thus is the Body-politic more than ever worshipped
and tendered; but the Soul-politic less than ever. Love of country, in any high
or generous sense, in any other than an almost animal sense, or mere habit, has
little importance attached to it in such reforms, or in the opposition shown
them. Men are to be guided only by their self-interests. Good government is a
good balancing of these; and, except a keen eye and appetite for self-interest,
requires no virtue in any quarter. To both parties it is emphatically a machine:
to the discontented, a "taxing-machine "; to the contented, a "machine for
securing property." Its duties and its faults are not those of a father, but of
an active parish-constable.
Thus it is by the mere condition of the machine, by preserving it untouched, or
else by reconstructing it, and oiling it anew, that man's salvation as a social
being is to be ensured and indefinitely promoted. Contrive the fabric of law
aright, and without farther effort on your part, that divine spirit of Freedom,
which all hearts venerate and long for, will of herself come to inhabit it; and
under her healing wings every noxious influence will wither, every good and
salutary one more and more expand. Nay, so devoted are we to this principle, and
at the same time so curiously mechanical, that a new trade, specially grounded
on it, has arisen among us, under the name of "Codification," or codemaking in
the abstract; whereby any people, for a reasonable consideration, may be
accommodated with a patent code; — more easily than curious individuals with
patent breeches, for the people does not need to be measured first.
To us who live in the midst of all this, and see continually the faith, hope
and, practice of every one founded on Mechanism of one kind or other, it is apt
to seem quite natural, and as if it could never have been otherwise.
Nevertheless, if we recollect or reflect a little, we shall find both that it
has been, and might again be otherwise. The domain of Mechanism, meaning thereby
political, ecclesiastical or other outward establishments, — was once
considered as embracing, and we are persuaded can at any time embrace, but a
limited portion of man's interests, and by no means the highest portion.
To speak a little pedantically, there is a science of Dynamics in man's fortunes
and nature, as well as of Mechanics. There is a science which treats of, and
practically addresses, the primary, unmodified forces and energies of man, the
mysterious springs of Love, and Fear, and Wonder, of Enthusiasm, Poetry,
Religion, all which have a truly vital and infinite character; as well as a
science which practically addresses the finite, modified developments of these,
when they take the shape of immediate "motives," as hope of reward, or as fear
of punishment.
Now it is certain, that in former times the wise men, the enlightened lovers of
their kind, who appeared generally as Moralists, Poets or Priests, did, without
neglecting the Mechanical province, deal chiefly with the Dynamical; applying
themselves chiefly to regulate, increase and purify the inward primary powers of
man; and fancying that herein lay the main difficulty, and the best service they
could undertake. But a wide difference is manifest in our age. For the, who now
appear as Political Philosophers, deal exclusively with the Mechanical province;
and occupying themselves in counting-up and estimating men's motives, strive by
curious checking and balancing, and other adjustments of Profit and Loss, to
guide them to their true advantage: while, unfortunately, those same "motives"
are so innumerable, and so variable in every individual, that no really useful
conclusion can ever be drawn from their enumeration. But though Mechanism,
wisely contrived, has done much for man in a social and moral point of view, we
cannot be persuaded that it has ever been the chief source of his worth or
happiness. Consider the great elements of human enjoyment, the attainments and
possessions that exalt man's life to its present height, and see what part of
these he owes to institutions, to Mechanism of any kind; and what to the
instinctive, unbounded force, which Nature herself lent him, and still continues
to him. Shall we say, for example, that Science and Art are indebted principally
to the founders of Schools and Universities? Did not Science originate rather,
and gain advancement, in the obscure closets of the Roger Bacons, Keplers,
Newtons; in the workshops of the Fausts and the Watts; wherever, and in what
guise soever Nature, from the first times downwards, had sent a gifted spirit
upon the earth? Again, were Homer and Shakspeare members of any beneficed guild,
or made Poets by means of it? Were Painting and Sculpture created by
forethought, brought into the world by institutions for that end? No; Science
and Art have, from first to last, been the free gift of Nature; an unsolicited,
unexpected gift; often even a fatal one. These things rose up, as it were, by
spontaneous growth, in the free soil and sunshine of Nature. They were not
planted or grafted, nor even greatly multiplied or improved by the culture or
manuring of institutions. Generally speaking, they have derived only partial
help from these; often enough have suffered damage. They made constitutions for
themselves. They originated in the Dynamical nature of man, not in his
Mechanical nature.
Or, to take an infinitely higher instance, that of the Christian Religion,
which, under every theory of it, in the believing or unbelieving mind, must ever
be regarded as the crowning glory, or rather the life and soul, of our whole
modern culture: How did Christianity arise and spread abroad among men? Was it
by institutions, and establishments and well-arranged systems of mechanism? Not
so; on the contrary, in all past and existing institutions for those ends, its
divine spirit has invariably been found to languish and decay. It arose in the
mystic deeps of man's soul; and was spread abroad by the preaching of the word,"
by simple, altogether natural and individual efforts; and flew, like hallowed
fire, from heart to heart, till all were purified and illuminated by it; and its
heavenly light shone, as it still shines, and (as sun or star) will ever shine,
through the whole dark destinies of man. Here again was no Mechanism; man's
highest attainment was accomplish, Dynamically, not Mechanically. Nay, we will
venture to say, that no high attainment, not even any far-extending movement
among men, was ever accomplished otherwise. Strange as it may see if we read
History with any degree thoughtfulness, we shall find that checks and balances
of Profit and Loss have never been the grand agents with men. that they have
never been roused into deep, thorough, all-pervading efforts by any computable
prospect of Profit and Loss, for any visible, finite object; but always for some
invisible and infinite one. The Crusades took their rise in Religion; their
visible object was, commercially speaking, worth nothing. It was the boundless
Invisible world that was laid bare in the imaginations of those men; and in its
burning light, the visible shrunk as a scroll. Not mechanical, nor produced by
mechanical means, was this vast movement. No dining at Freemasons' Tavern, with
the other long train of modern machinery; no cunning reconciliation of "vested
interests," was required here: only the passionate voice of one man, the rapt
soul looking through the eyes of one man; and rugged, steel-clad Europe trembled
beneath his words, and followed him whither he listed. In later ages it was
still the same. The Reformation had an invisible, mystic and ideal aim; the
result was indeed to be embodied in external things; but its spirit, its worth,
was internal, invisible, infinite. Our English Revolution too originated in
Religion. Men did battle, in those old days, not for Purse-sake, but for
Conscience-sake. Nay, in our own days, it is no way different. The French
Revolution itself had something higher in it than cheap bread and a Habeas-
corpus act. Here too was an Idea; a Dynamic, not a Mechanic force. It was a
struggle, though a blind and at last an insane one, for the infinite, divine
nature of Right, of Freedom, of Country.
Thus does man, in every age, vindicate, consciously or unconsciously, his
celestial birthright. Thus does Nature hold on her wondrous, unquestionable
course; and all our systems and theories are but so many froth-eddies or
sandbanks, which from time to time she casts up, and washes away. When we can
drain the Ocean into mill-ponds, and bottle-up the Force of Gravity, to be sold
by retail, in gas jars; then may we hope to comprehend the infinitudes of man's
soul under formulas of Profit and Loss; and rule over this too, as over a patent
engine, by checks, and valves, and balances.
Nay, even with regard to Government itself, can it be necessary to remind any
one that Freedom, without which indeed all spiritual life is impossible, depends
on infinitely more complex influences than either the extension or the
curtailment of the "democratic interest"? Who is there that, "taking the high
priori road," shall point out what these influences are; what deep, subtle,
inextricably entangled influences they have been and may be? For man is not the
creature and product of Mechanism; but, in a far truer sense, its creator and
producer: it is the noble People that makes the noble Government; rather than
conversely. On the whole, Institutions are much; but they are not all. The
freest and highest spirits of the world have often been found under strange
outward circumstances: Saint Paul and his brother Apostles were politically
slaves; Epictetus was personally one. Again, forget the influences of Chivalry
and Religion, and ask: What countries produced Columbus and Las Casas? Or,
descending from virtue and heroism to mere energy and spiritual talent: Cortes,
Pizarro, Alba, Ximenes? The Spaniards of the sixteenth century were indisputably
the noblest nation of Europe: yet they had the Inquisition and Philip II. They
have the same government at this day; and are the lowest nation. The Dutch too
have retained their old constitution; but no Siege of Leyden, no William the
Silent, not even an Egmont or DeWitt any longer appears among them. With
ourselves also, where much has changed, effect has nowise followed cause as it
should have done — two centuries ago, the Commons Speaker addressed Queen
Elizabeth on bended knees, happy that the virago's foot did not even smite him;
yet the people were then governed, not by a Castlereagh, but by a Burghley; they
had their Shakspeare and Philip Sidney, where we have our Sheridan Knowles and
Beau Brummel.
These and the like facts are so familiar, the truths which they preach so
obvious, and have in all past times been so universally believed and acted on,
that we should almost feel ashamed for repeating them; were it not that, on
every hand, the memory of them seems to have passed away, or at best died into a
faint tradition, of no value as a practical principle. To judge by the loud
clamour of our Constitution-builders, Statists, Economists, directors, creators,
reformers of Public Societies; in a word, all manner of Mechanists, from the
Cartwright up to the Code-maker; and by the nearly total silence of all
Preachers and Teachers who should give a voice to Poetry, Religion and Morality,
we might fancy either that man's Dynamical nature was, to all spiritual intents,
extinct, or else so perfected that nothing more was to be made of it by the old
means; and henceforth only in his Mechanical contrivances did any hope exist for
To define the limits of these two departments of man's activity, which work into
one another, and by means of one another, so intricately and inseparably, were
by its nature an impossible attempt. Their relative importance, even to the
wisest mind, will vary in different times, according to the special wants and
dispositions of those times. Meanwhile, it seems clear enough that only in the
right coordination of the two, and the vigorous forwarding of both, does our
true line of action lie. Undue cultivation of the inward or Dynamical province
leads to idle, visionary, impracticable courses, and, especially in rude eras,
to Superstition and Fanaticism, with their long train of baleful and well-known
evils. Undue cultivation of the outward, again, though less immediately
prejudicial, and even for the time productive of many palpable benefits, must,
in the long-run, by destroying Moral Force, which is the parent of all other
Force, prove not less certainly, and perhaps still more hopelessly, pernicious.
This, we take it, is the grand characteristic of our age. By our skill in
Mechanism, it has come to pass, that in the management of external things we
excel all other ages; while in whatever respects the pure moral nature, in true
dignity of soul and character, we are perhaps inferior to most civilised ages.
In fact, if we look deeper, we shall find that this faith in Mechanism has now
struck its roots down into man's most intimate, primary sources of conviction;
and is thence sending up, over his whole life and activity, innumerable stems,
fruitbearing and poison-bearing. The truth is, men have lost their belief in
the Invisible, and believe, and hope, and work only in the Visible; or, to speak
it in other words: This is not a Religious age. Only the material, the
immediately practical, not the divine and spiritual, is important to us. The
infinite, absolute character of Virtue has passed into a finite, conditional
one; it is no longer a worship of the Beautiful and Good; but a calculation of
the Profitable. Worship, indeed, in any sense, is not recognised among us, or is
mechanically explained into Fear of pain, or Hope of pleasure. Our true Deity is
Mechanism. It has subdued external Nature for us, and we think it will do all
other things. We are Giants in physical power: in a deeper than metaphorical
sense, we are Titans, that strive, by heaping mountain on mountain, to conquer
Heaven also.
The strong Mechanical character, so visible in the spiritual pursuits and
methods of this age, may be traced much farther into the condition and
prevailing disposition of our spiritual nature itself. Consider, for example,
the general fashion of Intellect in this era. Intellect, the power man has of
knowing and believing, is now nearly synonymous with Logic, or the mere power of
arranging and communicating. Its implement is not Meditation, but Argument.
"Cause and effect" is almost the only category under which we look at, and work
with, all Nature. Our first question with regard to any object is not, What is
it? but, How is it? We are no longer instinctively driven to apprehend, and lay
to heart, what is Good and Lovely, but rather to inquire, as onlookers, how it
is produced, whence it comes, whither it goes. Our favourite Philosophers have
no love and no hatred; they stand among us not to do, nor to create anything,
but as a sort of Logic mills, to grind out the true causes and effects of all
that is done and created. To the eye of a Smith, a Hume or a Constant, all is
well that works quietly. An Order of Ignatius Loyola, a Presbyterianism of John
Knox, a Wickliffe or a Henry the Eighth, are simply so many mechanical
phenomena, caused or causing.
The Euphuist of our day differs much from his pleasant predecessors. An
intellectual dapperling of these times boasts chiefly of his irresistible
perspicacity, his "dwelling in the daylight of truth," and so forth; which, on
examination, turns out to be a dwelling in the rush-light of "closet logic," and
a deep unconsciousness that there is any other light to dwell in or any other
objects to survey with it. Wonder, indeed, is, on all hands, dying out: it is
the sign of uncultivation to wonder. Speak to any small man of a high, majestic
Reformation, of a high majestic Luther; and forthwith he sets about "accounting"
for it; how the "circumstances of the time" called for such a character, and
found him, we suppose, standing girt and road-ready, to do its errand; how the
"circumstances of the time" created, fashioned, floated him quietly along into
the result; how, in short, this small man, had he been there, could have per
formed the like himself! For it is the "force of circumstances" that does
everything; the force of one man can do nothing. Now all this is grounded on
little more than a metaphor. We figure Society as a "Machine," and that mind is
opposed to mind, as body is to body; whereby two, or at most ten, little minds
must be stronger than one great mind. Notable absurdity! For the plain truth,
very plain, we think is, that minds are opposed to minds in quite a different
way; and one man that has a higher Wisdom, a hitherto unknown spiritual Truth in
him, is stronger, not than ten men that have it not, or than ten thousand, but
than all men that have it not; and stands among them with a quite ethereal,
angelic power, as with a sword out of Heaven's own armory, sky-tempered, which
no buckler, and no tower of brass, will finally withstand.
But to us, in these times, such considerations rarely occur. We enjoy, we see
nothing by direct vision; but only by reflection, and in anatomical
dismemberment. Like Sir Hudibras, for every Why ice must have a Wherefore. We
have our little theory on all human and divine things. Poetry, the workings of
genius itself, which in all times, with one or another meaning, has been called
Inspiration, and held to be mysterious and inscrutable, is no longer without its
scientific exposition. The building of the lofty rhyme is like any other masonry
or bricklaying: we have theories of its rise, height, decline and fall'-which
latter, it would seem, is now near, among all people. Of our "Theories of
Taste," as they are called, wherein the deep, infinite, unspeakable Love of
Wisdom and Beauty, which dwells in all men, is "explained," made mechanically
visible, from "Association" and the like, why should we say anything? Hume; has
written us a "Natural History of Religion"; in which one Natural History all the
rest are included. Strangely too does the general feeling coincide with Hume's
in this wonderful problem; for whether his "Natural History" be the right one or
not, that Religion must have a Natural History, all of us, cleric and laic, seem
to be agreed. He indeed regards it as a Disease, we again as Health; so far
there is a difference; but in our first principle we are at one.
To what extent theological Unbelief, we mean intellectual dissent from the
Church, in its view of Holy Writ, prevails at this day, would be a highly
important, were it not, under any circumstances, an almost impossible inquiry.
But the Unbelief, which is of a still more fundamental character, every man may
see prevailing, with scarcely any but the faintest contradiction, all around
him; even in the Pulpit itself. Religion in most countries, more or less in
every country, is no longer what it was, and should be, — a thousand-voiced
psalm from the heart of Man to his invisible Father, the fountain of all
Goodness, Beauty, Truth, and revealed in every revelation of these; but for the
most part, a wise prudential feeling grounded on mere calculation; a matter, as
all others now are, of Expediency and Utility; whereby some smaller quantum of
earthly enjoyment may be exchanged for a far larger quantum of celestial
enjoyment. Thus Religion too is Profit, a working for wages; not Reverence, but
vulgar Hope or Fear. Many, we know, very many we hope, are still religious in a
far different sense; were it not so, our case were too desperate: but to witness
that such is the temper of the times, we take any calm observant man, who agrees
or disagrees in our feeling on the matter, and ask him whether our view of it is
not in general well-founded.
Literature, too, if we consider it, gives similar testimony. At no former era
has Literature, the printed communication of Thought, been of such importance,
as it is now. We often hear that the Church is in danger; and truly so it is,
— in a danger it seems not to know of: for, with its tithes in the most
perfect safety, its functions are becoming more and more superseded. The true
Church of England, at this moment, lies in the Editors of its Newspapers. These
preach to the people daily, weekly; admonishing kings themselves; advising peace
or war, with an authority which only the first Reformers, and a long-past class
of Popes, were possessed of; inflicting moral censure; imparting moral
encouragement, consolation, edification; in all ways diligently "administering
the Discipline of the Church." It may be said too, that in private disposition
the new Preachers somewhat resemble the Mendicant Friars of old times: outwardly
full of holy zeal; inwardly not without stratagem, and hunger for terrestrial
things. But omitting this class, and the boundless host of watery personages who
pipe, as they are able, on so many scrannel straws, let us look at the higher
regions of Literature, where, if any where, the pure melodies of Poesy and
Wisdom should be heard. Of natural talent there is no deficiency: one or two
richly-endowed individuals even give us a superiority in this respect. But what
is the song they sing? Is it a tone of the Memnon Statue, breathing music as the
light first touches it? A "liquid wisdom," disclosing to our sense the deep,
infinite harmonies of Nature and man's soul? Alas, no! It is not a matin or
vesper hymn to the Spirit of Beauty, but a fierce clashing of cymbals, and
shouting of multitudes, as children pass through the fire to Moloch Poetry
itself has no eye for the Invisible. Beauty is no longer the god it worships,
but some brute image of Strength; which we may call an idol, for true Strength
is one and the same with Beauty, and its worship also is a hymn. The meek,
silent Light can mould, create and purify all Nature; but the loud Whirlwind,
the sign and product of Disunion, of Weakness, passes on, and is forgotten. How
widely this veneration for the physically Strongest has spread itself through
Literature, any one may judge who reads either criticism or poem. We praise a
work, not as "true," but as "strong"; our highest praise is that it has
"affected" us, has "terrified" us. All this, it has been well observed, is the
"maximum of the Barbarous," the symptom, not of vigorous refinement, but of
luxurious corruption. It speaks much, too, for men's indestructible love of
truth, that nothing of this kind will abide with them; that even the talent of a
Byron cannot permanently seduce us into idol worship; that he too, with all his
wild siren charming, already begins to be disregarded and forgotten.
Again, with respect to our Moral condition: here also he who runs may read that
the same physical, mechanical influences are everywhere busy. For the "superior
morality," of which we hear so much, we too would desire to be thankful: at the
same time, it were but blindness to deny that this "superior morality" is
properly rather an "inferior criminality," produced not by greater love of
Virtue, but by greater perfection of Police; and of that far subtler and
stronger Police, called Public Opinion. This last watches over us with its Argus
eyes more keenly than ever; but the "inward eye" seems heavy with sleep. Of any
belief in invisible, divine things, we find as few traces in our Morality as
elsewhere. It is by tangible, material considerations that we are guided, not by
inward and spiritual. Self-denial, the parent of all virtue, in any true sense
of that word, has perhaps seldom been rarer: so rare is it, that the most, even
in their abstract speculations, regard its existence as a chimera. Virtue is
Pleasure, is Profit; no celestial, but an earthly thing. Virtuous men,
Philanthropists, Martyrs are happy accidents; their "taste" lies the right way!
In all senses, we worship and follow after Power; which may be called a physical
pursuit. No man now loves Truth, as Truth must be loved, with an infinite love;
but only with a finite love, as it were par amours. Nay, properly speaking, he
does not believe and know it, but only "think' it, and that "there is every
probability!" He preaches it aloud, and rushes courageously forth with it,-if
there is a multitude huzzaing at his back; yet ever keeps looking over his
shoulder, and the instant the huzzaing languishes, he too stops short. In fact,
what morality we have takes the shape of Ambition, or "Honour": beyond money and
money's worth, our only rational blessedness is Popularity. It were but a fool's
trick to die for conscience. Only for "character," by duel, or in case of
extremity, by suicide, is the wise man bound to die. By arguing on the "force of
circumstances," we have argued away all force from ourselves; and stand leashed
together, uniform in dress and movement, like the rowers of some boundless
galley. This and that may be right and true; but we must not do it. Wonderful
"Force of Public Opinion"! We must act and walk in all points as it prescribes;
follow the traffic it bids us, realise the sum of money, the degree of
"influence" it expects of us, or we shall be lightly esteemed; certain mouthfuls
of articulate wind will be blown at us, and this what mortal courage can front?
Thus, while civil liberty is more and more secured to us, our moral liberty is
all but lost. Practically considered, our creed is Fatalism; and, free in hand
and foot, we are shackled in heart and soul with far straiter than feudal
chains. Truly may we say, with the Philosopher, "the deep meaning of the Laws of
Mechanism lies heavy on us"; and in the closet, in the Marketplace, in the
temple, by the social hearth, encumbers the whole movements of our mind, and
over our noblest faculties is spreading a nightmare sleep.
These dark features, we are aware, belong more or less to other ages, as well as
to ours. This faith in Mechanism, in the all-importance of physical things, is
in every age the common refuge of Weakness and blind Discontent; of all who
believe, as many will ever do, that man's true good lies without him, not
within. We are aware also, that, as applied to ourselves in all their
aggravation, they form but half a picture ; that in the whole picture there are
bright lights as well as gloomy shadows. If we here dwell chiefly on the latter,
let us not be blamed: it is in general more profitable to reckon up our defects
than to boast of our attainments.
Neither, with all these evils more or less clearly before us, have we at any
time despaired of the fortunes of society. Despair, or even despondency, in that
respect, appears to us, in all cases, a groundless feeling. We have a faith in
the imperishable dignity of man; in the high vocation to which, throughout this
his earthly history, he has been appointed. However it may be with individual
nations, whatever melancholic speculators may assert, it seems a well-
ascertained fact, that in all times, reckoning even from those of the Heraclides
and Pelasgi, the happiness and greatness of mankind at large have been
continually progressive. Doubtless this age also is advancing. Its very unrest,
its ceaseless activity, its discontent contains matter of promise. Knowledge,
education are opening the eyes of the humblest; are increasing the number of
thinking minds without limit. This is as it should be; for not in turning back,
not in resisting, but only in resolutely struggling forward, does our life
Nay, after all, our spiritual maladies are but of Opinion; we are but fettered
by chains of our own forging, and which ourselves also can rend asunder. This
deep, paralysed subjection to physical objects comes not from Nature, but from
our own unwise mode of viewing Nature. Neither can we understand that man wants,
at this hour, any faculty of heart, soul or body, that ever belonged to him.
'He, who has been born, has been a First Man'; has had lying before his young
eyes, and as yet unhardened into scientific shapes, a world as plastic,
infinite, divine, as lay before the eyes of Adam himself. if Mechanism, like
some glass bell, encircles and imprisons us; if the soul looks forth on a fair
heavenly country which it cannot reach, and pines, and in its scanty atmosphere
is ready to perish, — yet the bell is but of glass, 'one bold stroke to break
the bell in pieces, and thou art delivered!' Not the invisible world is wanting,
for it dwells in man's soul, and this last is still here. Are the solemn
temples, in which the Divinity was once visibly revealed among us, crumbling
away? We can repair them, we can rebuild them. The wisdom, the heroic worth of
our forefathers, which we have lost, we can recover. That admiration of old
nobleness, which now so often shows itself as a faint dilettantism, will one day
become a generous emulation, and man may again be all that he has been, and more
than he has been. Nor are these the mere daydreams of fancy; they are clear
possibilities; nay, in this time they are even assuming the character of hopes.
Indications we do see in other countries and in our own, signs infinitely
cheering to us, that Mechanism is not always to be our hard taskmaster, but one
day to be our pliant, all-ministering servant; that a new and brighter spiritual
era is slowly evolving itself for all man. But on these things our present
course forbids us to enter.
Meanwhile, that great outward changes are in progress can be doubtful to no one.
The time is sick and out of joint. Many things have reached their height; and it
is a wise adage that tells us, "the darkest hour is nearest the dawn." Wherever
we can gather indication of the public thought, whether from printed books' as
in France or Germany, or from Carbonari rebellions and other political tumults,
as in Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Greece, the voice it utters is the same. The
thinking minds of all nations call for change. There is a deep-lying struggle in
the whole fabric of society; a boundless grinding collision of the New with the
Old. The French Revolution, as is now visible enough, was not the parent of this
mighty movement, but its offspring. Those two hostile influences, which always
exist in human things, and on the constant intercommunion of which depends their
health and safety, had lain in separate masses, accumulating through
generations, and France was the scene of their fiercest explosion; but the final
issue was not unfolded in that country: nay, it is not yet anywhere unfolded.
Political freedom is hitherto the object of these efforts; but they will not and
cannot stop there. It is towards a higher freedom than mere freedom from
oppression by his fellow-mortal, that man dimly aims. Of this higher, heavenly
freedom, which is "man's reasonable service," all his noble institutions, his
faithful endeavours and loftiest attainments, are but the body, and more and
more approximated emblem.
On the whole, as this wondrous planet, Earth, is journeying with its fellows
through infinite Space, so are the wondrous destinies embarked on it journeying
through infinite Time, under a higher guidance than ours. For the present, as
our astronomy informs us, its path lies towards Hercules, the constellation of
Physical Power: but that is not our most pressing concern. Go where it will, the
deep HEAVEN will be around it. Therein let us have hope and sure faith. To
reform a world, to reform a nation, no wise man will undertake; and all but
foolish men know, that the only solid, though a far slower reformation, is what
each begins and perfects on himself.
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