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of his own spirit.^ There is, indeed, a whole heaven betwixt
the serenity, balance, and bright composure of the one, and the
vehemence, passion, masterful wrath, of the other ; and the
vast, incessant, exact inquisitiveness of Goethe finds nothing
corresponding to it in Mr. Carlyle's multitudinous contempt
and indifference, sometimes express and sometimes only very
significantly implied, for forms of intellectual activity that do
not happen to be personally congenial. But each is a god,
though the one sits ever on Olympus, while the other is as one
fronl Tartarus. There is in each, besides all else, a certain
remarkable directness of glance, an intrepid and penetrating
quality of vision, which defies analysis. Occasional turgidity
of phrase and unidiomatic handling of language do not conceal
the simplicity of the process by which Mr. Carlyle pierces
through obstruc^n down to the abstrusest depths. And the

(1) Positive. No English lexicoa as yet seems to justify the use of this word
in one of the senses of the French positif, as when a historian, for inbtance,
sxjettks of the es2yrit positif of Bonaparte. We have no word, I helieve, that
exactly corresponds, so perhaps positive with that significance will hecomo accli-
matised. A distinct and separate idea of this particular characteristic is icdis-


important fact is tliat tliis abstruseness is not verbal, any more
tlian it is the abstruseness of fog and cloud. Ilis epithet, or
image, or trope, shoots like a sunbeam on to the matter,
throwing a transfigurating light, even where it fails to pierce
to its central core.

Eager for a firm foothold, yet wholly revolted by the too
narrow and unelevated positivity of the eighteenth century ;
eager also for some recognition of the wide realm of the
unknowable, yet wholly imsatisfied by the transcendentalism of
the English and Scotch philosophic reactions ; he found in
Goethe that trulj^ free and adequate positivity which accepts all
things as parts of a natural or historic order, and while insisting
on the recog'nition of the actual conditions of this order as
indisj)ensable, and condemning attempted evasions of such
recognition as futile and childish, yet opens an ample bosom for
all forms of beauty in art and for all nobleness in moral aspira-
tion. That Mr. Carlyle has reached this high ground we do
not say. Temperament has kept him down from it. But it is
after this that he has striven. The tumid nothingness of pure
transcendentalism he has always abhorred. Some of Mr. Car-
lyle's favourite phrases have disguised from his readers the
intensely practical turn of his whole mind. His constant
presentation of the Eternities, the Immensities, and the like,
has veiled his almost narrow adherence to plain record without
moral comment, and his often cynical respect for the dangerous,
yet, when rightly qualified and guided, the solid formula that
What is, is. The Eternities and Immensities are only a kind
of awful background. The highest souls are held to be deeply
conscious of these vast unspeakable presences, yet even with
them they are only inspiring accessories ; the true interest lies
in the practical attitude of such men towards the actual and
palpable circumstances that surround them. This spirituality,


whose place in Mr, Carlyle's teaching lias been so extremely
mis-stated, sinks wholly out of sight in connection with such
heroes as the coarse and materialist Bonaparte, of whom, how-
ever, tlie hero-worshipper in earlier pieces speaks with some
laudable misffivins:, and the not less coarse and materialist
Frederick, about whom no misgiving is permitted to the loyal
disciple. The admiration for military methods, on condition
that they are successful, for Mr. Carlyle, like Providence, is
always on the side of big and victorious battalions, is the last
outcome of a devotion to vigorous action and practical effect,
which no verbal garniture of a transcendental kind can hinder
us from perceiving to be more purely materialist and unfeign-
edly brutal than anything which sprung from the reviled
thought of the eighteenth century.

It is instructive to remark that another of the most illustrious
enemies of that century and all its works, Joseph de Maistre,
had the same admiration for the effectiveness of war, and the
same extreme interest and concern in the men and things of
war. He, too, declares that 'the loftiest and most generous
sentiments are probably to be found in the soldier ; ' and that
war, if terrible, is divine and splendid and fascinating, the
manifestation of a sublime law of the universe. "VYe must, how-
ever, do De Maistre the justice to point out, first, that he gave
a measure of his strange interest in Surgery and Judgment, as
Mr. Carlyle calls it, to the public executioner, a division of the
honours of social surgery which is no more than fair ; while, in
the second place, he redeems the brutality of the military sur-
gical idea after a fashion, by an extraordinary mysticism, which
led him to see in war a divine, inscrutable force, determining
success in a manner absolutely defying all the speculations of
human reason.^ The biographer of Frederick apparently finds

(1) SoirUs ch Saint TctLrshourg. "ieme Entrctien.


no inscrutable force at all, but only will, tenacity', and powder
kej)t dry. There is a vast difference between tbis and the
absolutism of the mystic.

* Nature,' he says in one place, * keeps silently a most exact
Savings-bank, and official register correct to the most evanescent
item, Debtor and Creditor, in respect to one and all of us ;
silently marks down, Creditor by such and such an unseen act
of veracity and heroism ; Debtor to such a loud blustery
blunder, twenty-seven million strong or one unit strong, and to
all acts and words and thoughts executed in consequence of
that — Debtor, Debtor, Debtor, day after day, rigorously as
Fate (for this is Fate that is writing) ; and at the end of the
account you will have it all to pay, my friend.'^

That is to say, there is a law of recompense for communities
of men, and as nations sow, even thus they reap. But what is
Mr. Carlyle's account of the precise nature and operation of this
law ? What is the original distinction between an act of
veracity and a blunder ? "Why was the blow struck by the
Directory on the Eighteenth Fructidor a blunder, and that
struck by Bonaparte on the Eighteenth Brumaire a veraeitj^ P
What principle of registration is that which makes Nature
debtor to Frederick the Second for the seizure of Silesia, and
Bonaparte debtor to Nature for ' tramj^ling on the world, hold-
ing it tyrannously down ' ? It is very well to tell us that
' Injustice pays itself with frightful compound interest,' but
there are reasons for suspecting that Mr. Carlyle's definition of
t]je just and the unjust are such as to reduce this and all his
other sentences of like purport to the level of mere truism and
repetition. If you secretly or openly hold that to be just and
veracious which is successful, then it needs no further demoii-
stration that penalties of ultimate failure are exacted for injus-
(1) Lalier-Daj/ Pamphlets. No. r. p. 247.


tice, because it Is precisely the failure that constitutes the

This is the kernel of all that is most retrograde in Mr.
Carlyle's teaching. He identifies the physical with the moral
order, confounds faithful conformity to the material conditions of
success, with loyal adherence to virtuous rule and principle, and
then appeals to material triumph as the sanction of nature and
the ratification of high heaven. Admiring with profoundest
admiration the spectacle of an inflexible will, when armed with
a long-headed insight into means and quantities and forces as
its instrument, and yet deeply revering the abstract ideal of
justice ; dazzled by the methods and the products of iron reso-
lution, yet imbued with traditional affection for virtue ; he has
seen no better way of conciliating both inclinations than by
insisting that they point in the same direction, and that virtue
and success, justice and victory, merit and triumph, are in the
long run all one and the same thing. The most fatal of
confusions. Compliance with material law and condition
ensures material victory, and compliance with moral condition
ensures moral triumph, but then moral triumph is as often as
not physical martyrdom. Superior military virtues must un-
questionably win the verdict of Fate, Nature, Fact, and Veracity,
on the battle-field, but what then ? Has Fate no other verdicts
to record than these ? and at the moment while she writes Nature
doAvn debtor to the conqueror, may she not also have written
her down his implacable creditor for the moral cost of his
conquest ?

The anarchy and confusion of Poland were an outrage upon
political conditions, which brought her to dependence and ruin.
The manner of the partition was an outrage on moral conditions,
for which each of the nations that profited by it paid in the law-
lessness of Bonaparte. The preliminaries of Leoben, again, and



Campo-Formio were the key to Waterloo and St. Ilelena. ]5ut
Mr. Carlyle stops short at the triumpli of compliance with the
conditions of material victory. lie is content to know that
Frederick made himself master of Silesia, without considering
that the day of Jena loomed in front. It sufSces to say that
the whiff of grapeshot on the thirteenth Vendemiaire brought
Sansculottism to order and an end, without measuring what
permanent elements of disorder were ineradicably implanted by
resort to the military arm. Only the failures arc used to point
the great historical moral, and if Bonaparte had died in the
Tuileries in all honour and glory, he would have ranked with
Frederick or Francia as a wholly true man. Mr. Carlyle would
then no more have declared the execution of Palm ' a palpable,
tyrannous, murderous injustice,' than he declares it of the execu-
tion of Katte or Schlubhut. The fall of the traitor to fact, of
the French monarchy, of the windbags of the first Ecpublic, of
Charles I., is improved for our edification, but then the other
lesson, the failure of heroes like Cromwell, remains isolated and
incoherent, with no place in a morally regulated universe. If
the strength of Prussia now proves that Frederick had a right to
seize Silesia, and relieves us from inquiring further whether he
had any such right or not, why then should not the royalist
assume, from the fact of the restoration, and the consequent
obliteration of Cromwell's work, that the Protector was a
usurper and a phantasm captain ?

Apart from its irreconcilableness with many of his most
emphatic judgments, Mr. Carlyle's doctrine about Nature's
registration of the penalties of injustice is intrinsically an
anachronism. It is worse than the Catholic reaction, because
while De Maistre only wanted Europe to return to the system
of the twelfth century, Mr. Carlyle's theory of history takes us
back to times pre-historic, when might and right were the same


tliinj^. It is decidedly natural that man in a state of nature
(should take and keep as much as his skill and physical strength
enable him to do. But society and its benefits are all so much
ground won from nature and her state. The more natural a
method of acquisition, the less likely is it to be social. The
essence of morality is the subjugation of nature in obedience
to social needs. To use Kant's admirable description, concert
pathologically extorted by the mere necessities of situation, is
exalted into a moral union. ^ It is exactly in this progressive
substitution of one for the other that advancement consists, that
Progress of the Species at which, in certain of its forms,
Mr. Carlyle has so many jibes.

That, surely, is the true test of veracity and heroism in
conduct. Does your hero's achievement go in the pathological
or the moral direction ? Tend to spread faith in that cunning,
violence, force, which were once primitive and natural conditions
of life, and which will still by natural law work to their own
proper triumphs in so far as these conditions survive, and
within such, limits, and in such sense, as they permit ; or, on
the contrary, does it tend to heighten respect for civic law, for
pledged word, for the habit of self-surrender to the public good,
and for all those other ideas and sentiments and usages which
have been painfully gained from the sterile sands of egotism
and selfishness, and to which we are indebted for all the untold
boons conferred by the social union on man ?

Viewed from this point, the manner of the achievement is
as important as its immediate product, a consideration which it
is one of Mr. Carlyle's most marked peculiarities to take into
small account. Detesting Jesuitism from the bottom of his soul,
he has been too willing to accept its fundamental maxim, that the
end justifies the means. lie has taken the end for the ratifica-

(1) See ante, p. 88.


tion or proscription of the means, and stamped it as the verdict
of Fate and Fact on the transaction and its doer. A safer
position is this, that the means prepare the end, and the end is
what the means have made it. Ilere is the limit of the true
law of the relations between man and fate. Justice and injus-
tice in the law, let us abstain from inquiring after.

There are two sets of relations which have still to be
regulated in some degree by the primitive and pathological
principle of repression and main force. The first of these
concern that unfortunate body of criminal and vicious persons,
whose unsocial propensities are constantly straining and endan-
gering the bonds of the social union. They exist in the midst
of the most highly civilised communities, with all the predatory
or violent habits of barbarous tribes. They are the active and
unconquered remnant of the natural state, and it is as unscien-
tific as the experience of some unwise philanthropy has shown
it to be inefiective, to deal with them exactly as if they occupied
the same moral and social level as the best of their generation.
We are amply justified in employing towards them, wherever
their ofiences endanger order, the same methods of coercion
which originally made society possible. No tenable theory
about free will or necessity, no theory of praise and blame that
will bear positive tests, lays us under any obligation to spare
either the comfort or the life of a man who indulges in certain
anti-social kinds of conduct. Mr. Carlyle has done much to
wear this just and austere view into the minds of his generation,
and in so far he has performed an excellent service.

The second set of relations fti which the pathological ele-
ment still so largely predominates are those between nations.
Separate and independent communities are still in a state of
nature. The tie between them is only the imperfect, loose, and
non-moral tie of self-interest and material power. Many pub-



Heists and sentimental politicians are ever striving to conceal
ttis displeasing fact from themselves and others, and evading
the lesson of the outbreaks that now and again convulse the
civilised world. Mr. Carlyle's history of the rise and progress
of the power of the Prussian monarchy is the great illustration
of the hold which he has got of the conception of the inter-
national state as a state of nature ; and here again, in so far as
he has helped to teach us to study the past by historic methods,
he has undoubtedly done laudable work.

Yet have we not to confess that there is another side to this
kind of truth, in both these fields ? We may finally pronounce
on a given way of thinking, only after we have discerned its
goal. Not knowing this, we cannot accurately know its true
tendency and direction. Now, every recognition of the patho-
logical necessity should imply a progress and effort towards its
conversion into moral relationship. The difierence between a
reactionary and a tridy progressive thinker or group of ideas
is not that the one assumes virtuousness and morality as having
been the conscious condition of international dealings, while
the other asserts that such dealings were the lawful consequence
of self-interest and the contest of material forces ; nor is it
that the one insists on viewing international transactions
from the same moral point which woidd be the right one, if
independent communities actually formed one stable and settled
family, while the other declines to view their morality at all.
The vital difierence is, that while the reactionary writer rigor-
ously confines his faith within the region of facts accomplished,
the other anticipates a time when the endeavour of the best
minds in the civilised world, co-operating with every favouring
external circumstance that arises, shall have in the international
circle raised moral considerations to an ever higher and higher
pre-eminence, and in internal conditions shall have left in the


chances and training of the individual, ever less and less
excuse or grounds for a predisposition to anti-social and barbaric
moods. This hopefulness, in some shape or other, is an indis-
pensable mark of the most valuable thought. To stop at the
soldier and the gibbet, and such order as they can furnish, is to
close the eyes to the entire problem of the future, and we may
be sure that what omits the future is no adequate nor stable
solution of the present.

Mr. Carlyle's influence, however, was at its height before
this idolatry of the soldier became a paramount article in his
creed ; and it is devoutly to be hoped that not many of those
whom he first taught to seize before all things fact and reality,
will follow him into this torrid air, where only forces and never
principles are facts, and where nothing is reality but the violent
triumph of arbitrarily imposed will. There was once a better
side to it all, when the injunction to seek and cling to fact was
a valuable warning not to waste energy and hope in seeking
lights which it is not given to man ever to find, with a solemn
assurance added that in frank and untrembling recognition of
circumstance the spirit of man may find a priceless, ever- fruitful
contentment. The prolonged and thousand- times repeated
glorification of Unconsciousness, Silence, Renunciation, all
comes to this : We are to leave the region of things unknow-
able, and hold fast to the duty that lies nearest. Here is the
Everlasting Yea. In action only can we have certainty.

The reticences of men are often only less full of meaning
than their most pregnant speech ; and Mr. Carlyle's unbroken
silence upon the modern validity and truth of religious creeds
says much. The fact that he should have taken no distinct
side in the great debate as to revelation, salvation, inspiration,
and the other theological issues that agitate and divide a com-

Q 2


mmiity where theology is now mostly verbal, has been the
subject of some comment, and has had the effect of adding one
rather peculiar side to the many varieties of his influence.
Many in the dogmatic stage have been content to think that as
he was not avowedly against them, he might be with them, and
sacred persons have been known to draw their most strenuous
inspirations from the chief denouncer of phantasms and exploded
formulas. Only once, when speaking of Sterling's undertaking
the clerical burden, does he burst out into unmistakable descrip-
tion of the old Jew stars that have now gone out, and wrath
against those who would persuade us that these stars are still
aflame and the only ones.^ That this reserve has been wise in
its day, and has most usefully widened the tide and scope of
the teacher's popularity, one need not dispute. There are
conditions when indirect solvents are most powerful, as there
are others, which these have done much to prepare, when no
lover of truth will stoop to declarations other than direct. Mr.
Carlyle has assailed the dogmatic temper in religion, and this
is work that goes deeper than to assail dogmas.

Not even Comte himself has harder words for metaphysics
than Mr. Carlyle. * The disease of Metaphysics ' is perennial.
Questions of Death and Immortality, Origin of Evil, Freedom
and Necessity, are ever appearing and attempting to shape
something of the universe. ' And ever unsuccessfully : for
what theorem of the Infinite can the Finite render complete ?
.... Metaphysical Speculation as it begins in No or Nothing-
ness, so it must needs end in Nothingness ; circulates and must
circulate in endless vortices; creating, swallowing — itself.'^

(1) Life of Sterling. Pt. I. c. xv.

(2) Characteristics, Misc. Ess., iii. pp. 356-8. Eousseau in the same way makes
the Savoyard Vicar declare that 'jamais le jargon de la m. taphysique n'a fait
decouvi'ir uue seule verite, at il a rempli la philosophic d'absurdites dont on a
honte, sitot qu'on les depouille de leurs grands mots.' — Einile, liv. iv.


Again, on the other side, he sets his face just as firmly against
the excessive pretensions and unwarranted certitudes of the
physicist. * The course of Nature's phases on this our little
fraction of a Planet is partially known to us : but who knows
what deeper courses these depend on ; what infinitely larger
Cycle (of causes) our little Epicycle revolves on ? To the
Minnow every cranny and pebble, and quality and accident
may have become familiar ; but does the Minnow understand
the Ocean tides and periodic Currents, the Trade-winds, and
Monsoons, and Moon's Eclipses, by all which the condition of
its little Creek is regulated, and may, from time to time (toi-
miraculously enough), be quite overset and reversed? Such a
minnow is Man ; his Creek this Planet Earth ; his Ocean the
immeasurable All ; his Monsoons and periodic Currents the
mysterious course of Providence through ^ons of ^ons.' ^ The
inalterable relativity of human knowledge has never been more
forcibly illustrated ; and the two passages together fix the limits
of that knowledge with a sagacity truly philosophic. Between
the vagaries of mystics and the vagaries of physicists lies the
narrow land of rational certainty, relative, conditional, experi-
mental, from which we view the vast realm that stretches out
unknown before us, and perhaps for ever imknowable ; inspiring
men with an elevated awe, and environing the interests and
duties of their little lives with a strange sublimity. ' We
emerge from the Inane ; haste stormfuUy across the astonished

Earth ; then plunge again into the Inane But whence ?

O Heaven, whither ? Sense knows not ; Faith knows not ;
only that it is through Mystery to Mystery.'^

Natural Supernaturalism, the title of one of the cardinal
chapters in Mr. Carlyle's cardinal book, is perhaps as good a

(1) Sartor Resartus. Bk. iii. ch. 8, p. 249.

(2) Ibid., p. 257.


name as another for this two-faced yet integral philosophy,
which teaches us to behold with cheerful serenity the great gulf
which is fixed round our faculty and existence on every side,
while it fills us with that supreme sense of countless unseen
possibilities, and of the hidden, undefined movements of shadow
and light over the spirit, without which the soul of man falls
into hard and desolate sterility. In youth, perhaps, it is the
latter aspect of Mr. Carlyle's teaching which first touches
people, because youth is the time of indefinite aspiration ; and
it is easier, besides, to surrender ourselves passively to these
vague emotional impressions, than to apply actively and con-
tentedly to the duty that lies nearest, and to the securing of
* that infinitesimallest product ' on which the teacher is ever
insisting. It is the Supernaturalism which stirs men first,
until larger fulness of years and wider experience of life draw
them to a wise and not inglorious acquiescence in Naturalism.
This last is the mood which Mr. Carlyle never wearies of
extolling and enjoining under the name of Belief; and the
absence of it, the inability to enter into it, is that Unbelief
which he so bitterly vituperates, or, in another phrase, that
Discontent, which he charges with holding the soul in such
desperate and paralysing bondage.

Indeed, what is it that Mr. Carlyle urges upon us but the
search for that Mental Freedom, which under one name or
another has been the goal and ideal of all highest minds that
have reflected on the true constitution of human happiness ?
His often enjoined Silence is the first condition of this supreme
kind of liberty, for what is silence but the absence of a self-

Online LibraryJohn MorleyCritical miscellanies → online text (page 18 of 29)