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Produced by Ron Burkey


by Thomas Carlyle

But as yet struggles the twelfth hour of the Night. Birds
of darkness are on the wing; spectres uproar; the dead walk;
the living dream. Thou, Eternal Providence, wilt make the
Day dawn! - JEAN PAUL.

Then said his Lordship, "Well. God mend all!" - "Nay, by
God, Donald, we must help him to mend it!" said the other. -
RUSHWORTH (_Sir David Ramsay and Lord Rea, in 1630_).







NO. I. THE PRESENT TIME. [February 1, 1850.]

The Present Time, youngest-born of Eternity, child and heir of all the
Past Times with their good and evil, and parent of all the Future, is
ever a "New Era" to the thinking man; and comes with new questions and
significance, however commonplace it look: to know _it_, and what it
bids us do, is ever the sum of knowledge for all of us. This new Day,
sent us out of Heaven, this also has its heavenly omens; - amid the
bustling trivialities and loud empty noises, its silent monitions, which
if we cannot read and obey, it will not be well with us! No; - nor is
there any sin more fearfully avenged on men and Nations than that same,
which indeed includes and presupposes all manner of sins: the sin which
our old pious fathers called "judicial blindness;" - which we, with our
light habits, may still call misinterpretation of the Time that now
is; disloyalty to its real meanings and monitions, stupid disregard of
these, stupid adherence active or passive to the counterfeits and mere
current semblances of these. This is true of all times and days.

But in the days that are now passing over us, even fools are arrested
to ask the meaning of them; few of the generations of men have seen
more impressive days. Days of endless calamity, disruption, dislocation,
confusion worse confounded: if they are not days of endless hope too,
then they are days of utter despair. For it is not a small hope that
will suffice, the ruin being clearly, either in action or in prospect,
universal. There must be a new world, if there is to be any world at
all! That human things in our Europe can ever return to the old sorry
routine, and proceed with any steadiness or continuance there; this
small hope is not now a tenable one. These days of universal death
must be days of universal new-birth, if the ruin is not to be total and
final! It is a Time to make the dullest man consider; and ask himself,
Whence _he_ came? Whither he is bound? - A veritable "New Era," to the
foolish as well as to the wise.

Not long ago, the world saw, with thoughtless joy which might have been
very thoughtful joy, a real miracle not heretofore considered possible
or conceivable in the world, - a Reforming Pope. A simple pious creature,
a good country-priest, invested unexpectedly with the tiara, takes up
the New Testament, declares that this henceforth shall be his rule
of governing. No more finesse, chicanery, hypocrisy, or false or foul
dealing of any kind: God's truth shall be spoken, God's justice shall be
done, on the throne called of St. Peter: an honest Pope, Papa, or Father
of Christendom, shall preside there. And such a throne of St. Peter;
and such a Christendom, for an honest Papa to preside in! The European
populations everywhere hailed the omen; with shouting and rejoicing
leading articles and tar-barrels; thinking people listened with
astonishment, - not with sorrow if they were faithful or wise; with awe
rather as at the heralding of death, and with a joy as of victory beyond
death! Something pious, grand and as if awful in that joy, revealing
once more the Presence of a Divine Justice in this world. For, to such
men it was very clear how this poor devoted Pope would prosper, with his
New Testament in his band. An alarming business, that of governing
in the throne of St. Peter by the rule of veracity! By the rule of
veracity, the so-called throne of St. Peter was openly declared, above
three hundred years, ago, to be a falsity, a huge mistake, a pestilent
dead carcass, which this Sun was weary of. More than three hundred years
ago, the throne of St. Peter received peremptory judicial notice to
quit; authentic order, registered in Heaven's chancery and since legible
in the hearts of all brave men, to take itself away, - to begone, and
let us have no more to do with _it_ and its delusions and impious
deliriums; - and it has been sitting every day since, it may depend upon
it, at its own peril withal, and will have to pay exact damages yet for
every day it has so sat. Law of veracity? What this Popedom had to do
by the law of veracity, was to give up its own foul galvanic life, an
offence to gods and men; honestly to die, and get itself buried.

Far from this was the thing the poor Pope undertook in regard to
it; - and yet, on the whole, it was essentially this too. "Reforming
Pope?" said one of our acquaintance, often in those weeks, "Was there
ever such a miracle? About to break up that huge imposthume too, by
'curing' it? Turgot and Necker were nothing to this. God is great; and
when a scandal is to end, brings some devoted man to take charge of
it in hope, not in despair!" - But cannot he reform? asked many simple
persons; - to whom our friend in grim banter would reply: "Reform a
Popedom, - hardly. A wretched old kettle, ruined from top to bottom, and
consisting mainly now of foul _grime_ and _rust_: stop the holes of it,
as your antecessors have been doing, with temporary putty, it may hang
together yet a while; begin to hammer at it, solder at it, to what you
call mend and rectify it, - it will fall to sherds, as sure as rust is
rust; go all into nameless dissolution, - and the fat in the fire will be
a thing worth looking at, poor Pope!" - So accordingly it has proved. The
poor Pope, amid felicitations and tar-barrels of various kinds, went on
joyfully for a season: but he had awakened, he as no other man could
do, the sleeping elements; mothers of the whirlwinds, conflagrations,
earthquakes. Questions not very soluble at present, were even sages
and heroes set to solve them, began everywhere with new emphasis to be
asked. Questions which all official men wished, and almost hoped,
to postpone till Doomsday. Doomsday itself _had_ come; that was the
terrible truth!

For, sure enough, if once the law of veracity be acknowledged as the
rule for human things, there will not anywhere be want of work for the
reformer; in very few places do human things adhere quite closely to
that law! Here was the Papa of Christendom proclaiming that such was
actually the case; - whereupon all over Christendom such results as we
have seen. The Sicilians, I think, were the first notable body that set
about applying this new strange rule sanctioned by the general Father;
they said to themselves, We do not by the law of veracity belong to
Naples and these Neapolitan Officials; we will, by favor of Heaven and
the Pope, be free of these. Fighting ensued; insurrection, fiercely
maintained in the Sicilian Cities; with much bloodshed, much tumult and
loud noise, vociferation extending through all newspapers and countries.
The effect of this, carried abroad by newspapers and rumor, was great
in all places; greatest perhaps in Paris, which for sixty years past has
been the City of Insurrections. The French People had plumed themselves
on being, whatever else they were not, at least the chosen "soldiers of
liberty," who took the lead of all creatures in that pursuit, at least;
and had become, as their orators, editors and litterateurs diligently
taught them, a People whose bayonets were sacred, a kind of Messiah
People, saving a blind world in its own despite, and earning for
themselves a terrestrial and even celestial glory very considerable
indeed. And here were the wretched down-trodden populations of Sicily
risen to rival them, and threatening to take the trade out of their

No doubt of it, this hearing continually of the very Pope's glory as
a Reformer, of the very Sicilians fighting divinely for liberty
behind barricades, - must have bitterly aggravated the feeling of every
Frenchman, as he looked around him, at home, on a Louis-Philippism
which had become the scorn of all the world. "_Ichabod_; is the glory
departing from us? Under the sun is nothing baser, by all accounts and
evidences, than the system of repression and corruption, of shameless
dishonesty and unbelief in anything but human baseness, that we now live
under. The Italians, the very Pope, have become apostles of liberty, and
France is - what is France!" - We know what France suddenly became in the
end of February next; and by a clear enough genealogy, we can trace a
considerable share in that event to the good simple Pope with the New
Testament in his hand. An outbreak, or at least a radical change and
even inversion of affairs hardly to be achieved without an outbreak,
everybody felt was inevitable in France: but it had been universally
expected that France would as usual take the initiative in that matter;
and had there been no reforming Pope, no insurrectionary Sicily, France
had certainly not broken out then and so, but only afterwards and
otherwise. The French explosion, not anticipated by the cunningest men
there on the spot scrutinizing it, burst up unlimited, complete, defying
computation or control.

Close following which, as if by sympathetic subterranean electricities,
all Europe exploded, boundless, uncontrollable; and we had the year
1848, one of the most singular, disastrous, amazing, and, on the whole,
humiliating years the European world ever saw. Not since the irruption
of the Northern Barbarians has there been the like. Everywhere
immeasurable Democracy rose monstrous, loud, blatant, inarticulate
as the voice of Chaos. Everywhere the Official holy-of-holies was
scandalously laid bare to dogs and the profane: - Enter, all the world,
see what kind of Official holy it is. Kings everywhere, and reigning
persons, stared in sudden horror, the voice of the whole world bellowing
in their ear, "Begone, ye imbecile hypocrites, histrios not heroes! Off
with you, off!" and, what was peculiar and notable in this year for the
first time, the Kings all made haste to go, as if exclaiming, "We _are_
poor histrios, we sure enough; - did you want heroes? Don't kill us;
we couldn't help it!" Not one of them turned round, and stood upon his
Kingship, as upon a right he could afford to die for, or to risk
his skin upon; by no manner of means. That, I say, is the alarming
peculiarity at present. Democracy, on this new occasion, finds all Kings
conscious that they are but Play-actors. The miserable mortals, enacting
their High Life Below Stairs, with faith only that this Universe may
perhaps be all a phantasm and hypocrisis, - the truculent Constable of
the Destinies suddenly enters: "Scandalous Phantasms, what do _you_
here? Are 'solemnly constituted Impostors' the proper Kings of men?
Did you think the Life of Man was a grimacing dance of apes? To be led
always by the squeak of your paltry fiddle? Ye miserable, this Universe
is not an upholstery Puppet-play, but a terrible God's Fact; and you,
I think, - had not you better begone!" They fled precipitately, some
of them with what we may call an exquisite ignominy, - in terror of the
treadmill or worse. 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. And
for about four months all France, and to a great degree all Europe,
rough-ridden by every species of delirium, except happily the murderous
for most part, was a weltering mob, presided over by M. de Lamartine, at
the Hotel-de-Ville; a most eloquent fair-spoken literary gentleman,
whom thoughtless persons took for a prophet, priest and heaven-sent
evangelist, and whom a wise Yankee friend of mine discerned to be
properly "the first stump-orator in the world, standing too on
the highest stump, - for the time." A sorrowful spectacle to men of
reflection, during the time he lasted, that poor M. de Lamartine; with
nothing in him but melodious wind and _soft sawder_, which he and others
took for something divine and not diabolic! Sad enough; the eloquent
latest impersonation of Chaos-come-again; able to talk for itself, and
declare persuasively that it is Cosmos! However, you have but to wait a
little, in such cases; all balloons do and must give up their gas in the
pressure of things, and are collapsed in a sufficiently wretched manner
before long.

And so in City after City, street-barricades are piled, and truculent,
more or less murderous insurrection begins; populace after populace
rises, King after King capitulates or absconds; and from end to end of
Europe Democracy has blazed up explosive, much higher, more irresistible
and less resisted than ever before; testifying too sadly on what
a bottomless volcano, or universal powder-mine of most inflammable
mutinous chaotic elements, separated from us by a thin earth-rind,
Society with all its arrangements and acquirements everywhere, in the
present epoch, rests! The kind of persons who excite or give signal to
such revolutions - students, young men of letters, advocates,
editors, hot inexperienced enthusiasts, or fierce and justly bankrupt
desperadoes, acting everywhere on the discontent of the millions
and blowing it into flame, - might give rise to reflections as to
the character of our epoch. Never till now did young men, and almost
children, take such a command in human affairs. A changed time since
the word _Senior_ (Seigneur, or _Elder_) was first devised to signify
"lord," or superior; - as in all languages of men we find it to have
been! Not an honorable document this either, as to the spiritual
condition of our epoch. 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. But to return.

This mad state of matters will of course before long allay itself, as
it has everywhere begun to do; the ordinary necessities of men's daily
existence cannot comport with it, and these, whatever else is
cast aside, will have their way. Some remounting - very temporary
remounting - of the old machine, under new colors and altered forms, will
probably ensue soon in most countries: the old histrionic Kings will
be admitted back under conditions, under "Constitutions," with national
Parliaments, or the like fashionable adjuncts; and everywhere the old
daily life will try to begin again. But there is now no hope that
such arrangements can be permanent; that they can be other than poor
temporary makeshifts, which, if they try to fancy and make themselves
permanent, will be displaced by new explosions recurring more speedily
than last time. In such baleful oscillation, afloat as amid raging
bottomless eddies and conflicting sea-currents, not steadfast as
on fixed foundations, must European Society continue swaying, now
disastrously tumbling, then painfully readjusting itself, at ever
shorter intervals, - till once the _new_ rock-basis does come to light,
and the weltering deluges of mutiny, and of need to mutiny, abate again!

For universal _Democracy_, whatever we may think of it, has declared
itself as an inevitable fact of the days in which we live; and he
who has any chance to instruct, or lead, in his days, must begin by
admitting that: new street-barricades, and new anarchies, still more
scandalous if still less sanguinary, must return and again return, till
governing persons everywhere know and admit that. Democracy, it may be
said everywhere, is here: - for sixty years now, ever since the grand or
_First_ French Revolution, that fact has been terribly announced to all
the world; in message after message, some of them very terrible indeed;
and now at last all the world ought really to believe it. That the world
does believe it; that even Kings now as good as believe it, and know,
or with just terror surmise, that they are but temporary phantasm
Play-actors, and that Democracy is the grand, alarming, imminent and
indisputable Reality: this, among the scandalous phases we witnessed
in the last two years, is a phasis full of hope: a sign that we are
advancing closer and closer to the very Problem itself, which it will
behoove us to solve or die; that all fighting and campaigning and
coalitioning in regard to the _existence_ of the Problem, is hopeless
and superfluous henceforth. The gods have appointed it so; no Pitt, nor
body of Pitts or mortal creatures can appoint it otherwise. Democracy,
sure enough, is here; one knows not how long it will keep hidden
underground even in Russia; - and here in England, though we object to it
resolutely in the form of street-barricades and insurrectionary pikes,
and decidedly will not open doors to it on those terms, the tramp of
its million feet is on all streets and thoroughfares, the sound of its
bewildered thousand-fold voice is in all writings and speakings, in all
thinkings and modes and activities of men: the soul that does not now,
with hope or terror, discern it, is not the one we address on this

What is Democracy; this huge inevitable Product of the Destinies, which
is everywhere the portion of our Europe in these latter days? There
lies the question for us. Whence comes it, this universal big black
Democracy; whither tends it; what is the meaning of it? A meaning it
must have, or it would not be here. If we can find the right meaning of
it, we may, wisely submitting or wisely resisting and controlling, still
hope to live in the midst of it; if we cannot find the right meaning,
if we find only the wrong or no meaning in it, to live will not be
possible! - The whole social wisdom of the Present Time is summoned, in
the name of the Giver of Wisdom, to make clear to itself, and lay deeply
to heart with an eye to strenuous valiant practice and effort, what
the meaning of this universal revolt of the European Populations, which
calls itself Democracy, and decides to continue permanent, may be.

Certainly it is a drama full of action, event fast following event; in
which curiosity finds endless scope, and there are interests at stake,
enough to rivet the attention of all men, simple and wise. Whereat the
idle multitude lift up their voices, gratulating, celebrating sky-high;
in rhyme and prose announcement, more than plentiful, that _now_ the
New Era, and long-expected Year One of Perfect Human Felicity has
come. Glorious and immortal people, sublime French citizens, heroic
barricades; triumph of civil and religious liberty - O Heaven! one of the
inevitablest private miseries, to an earnest man in such circumstances,
is this multitudinous efflux of oratory and psalmody, from the universal
foolish human throat; drowning for the moment all reflection whatsoever,
except the sorrowful one that you are fallen in an evil, heavy-laden,
long-eared age, and must resignedly bear your part in the same. The
front wall of your wretched old crazy dwelling, long denounced by you
to no purpose, having at last fairly folded itself over, and fallen
prostrate into the street, the floors, as may happen, will still hang
on by the mere beam-ends, and coherency of old carpentry, though in a
sloping direction, and depend there till certain poor rusty nails
and worm-eaten dovetailings give way: - but is it cheering, in such
circumstances, that the whole household burst forth into celebrating
the new joys of light and ventilation, liberty and picturesqueness of
position, and thank God that now they have got a house to their mind? My
dear household, cease singing and psalmodying; lay aside your fiddles,
take out your work-implements, if you have any; for I can say with
confidence the laws of gravitation are still active, and rusty nails,
worm-eaten dovetailings, and secret coherency of old carpentry, are not
the best basis for a household! - In the lanes of Irish cities, I
have heard say, the wretched people are sometimes found living, and
perilously boiling their potatoes, on such swing-floors and inclined
planes hanging on by the joist-ends; but I did not hear that they sang
very much in celebration of such lodging. No, they slid gently about,
sat near the back wall, and perilously boiled their potatoes, in silence
for most part! -

High shouts of exultation, in every dialect, by every vehicle of speech
and writing, rise from far and near over this last avatar of Democracy
in 1848: and yet, to wise minds, the first aspect it presents seems
rather to be one of boundless misery and sorrow. What can be more
miserable than this universal hunting out of the high dignitaries,
solemn functionaries, and potent, grave and reverend signiors of
the world; this stormful rising-up of the inarticulate dumb masses
everywhere, against those who pretended to be speaking for them and
guiding them? These guides, then, were mere blind men only pretending
to see? These rulers were not ruling at all; they had merely got on the
attributes and clothes of rulers, and were surreptitiously drawing
the wages, while the work remained undone? The Kings were Sham-Kings,
play-acting as at Drury Lane; - and what were the people withal that took
them for real?

It is probably the hugest disclosure of _falsity_ in human things that
was ever at one time made. These reverend Dignitaries that sat amid
their far-shining symbols and long-sounding long-admitted professions,
were mere Impostors, then? Not a true thing they were doing, but a
false thing. The story they told men was a cunningly devised fable; the
gospels they preached to them were not an account of man's real position
in this world, but an incoherent fabrication, of dead ghosts and unborn
shadows, of traditions, cants, indolences, cowardices, - a falsity
of falsities, which at last _ceases_ to stick together. Wilfully and
against their will, these high units of mankind were cheats, then; and
the low millions who believed in them were dupes, - a kind of _inverse_
cheats, too, or they would not have believed in them so long. A
universal _Bankruptcy of Imposture_; that may be the brief definition
of it. Imposture everywhere declared once more to be contrary to Nature;
nobody will change its word into an act any farther: - fallen insolvent;
unable to keep its head up by these false pretences, or make its pot
boil any more for the present! A more scandalous phenomenon, wide as
Europe, never afflicted the face of the sun. Bankruptcy everywhere; foul
ignominy, and the abomination of desolation, in all high places: odious
to look upon, as the carnage of a battle-field on the morrow morning; - a
massacre not of the innocents; we cannot call it a massacre of the
innocents; but a universal tumbling of Impostors and of Impostures into
the street! -

Such a spectacle, can we call it joyful? There is a joy in it, to the
wise man too; yes, but a joy full of awe, and as it were sadder than
any sorrow, - like the vision of immortality, unattainable except through
death and the grave! And yet who would not, in his heart of hearts, feel
piously thankful that Imposture has fallen bankrupt? By all means let it
fall bankrupt; in the name of God let it do so, with whatever misery to
itself and to all of us. Imposture, be it known then, - known it must
and shall be, - is hateful, unendurable to God and man. Let it understand

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Online LibraryThomas CarlyleLatter-Day Pamphlets → online text (page 1 of 18)