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tormenting assertiveness, the freedom from excessive suscepti-
bility under the speech of others, one's removal from the
choking sandy wilderness of wasted words ? Belief is the mood
which emancipates us from the paralysing dubieties of distraught



CARLYLB. 231

souls, and leaves us full possession of ourselves by furnishing
an unshaken and inexpugnable base for action and thought,
and subordinating passion to conviction. Labour, again, perhaps
the cardinal article in the creed, is at once the price of moral
independence, and the first condition of that fulness and
accuracy of knowledge, without which we are not free, but the
bounden slaves of prejudice, unreality, darkness, and error. Even
Renunciation of self is in truth only the casting out of those
disturbing and masterful qualities which oppress and hinder the
free, natural play of the worthier parts of character. In renun-
ciation we thus restore to self its own diviner mind.

Yet we are never bidden either to strive or hope for a freedom
that is unbounded. Circumstance has fixed limits that no efibrt
can transcend. Novalis complained in bitter words, as we
know, of the mechanical, prosaic, utilitarian, cold-hearted
character of Wilhelm Meister, constituting it an embodiment
of * artistic Atheism,' while English critics as loudly found fault
with its author for being a mystic. Exactly the same discre-
pancy is possible in respect of Mr. Carlyle's own writings. In
one sense he may be called mystic and transcendental, in
another baldly mechanical and even cold-hearted, just as Novalis
found Goethe to be in Meister. The latter impression is inevit-
able in all who, like Goethe and like Mr. Carlyle, make a lofty
acquiescence in the positive course of circumstance a prime con-
dition at once of wise endeavour and of genuine happiness.
The splendid fire and unmeasured vehemence of Mr. Carlyle's
manner partially veil the depth of this acquiescence, which is
really not so far removed from fatalism. The torrent of his
eloquence, bright and rushing as it is, flows between rigid banks
and over hard rocks. Devotion to the heroic does not prevent
the assumption of a tone towards the great mass of the unhcroic,
which implies that they are no more than two-legged mill



233 CARLTLE.

horses, ever treading a fixed and unalterable round. lie prac-
tically denies other consolation to mortals than such as they
may be able to get from the final and conclusive Kismet of the
oriental. It is fate. Man is the creature of his destiny. As
for our supposed claims on the heavenly powers, What right,
he asks, hadst thou even to be ? Fatalism of this stamp is the
natural and unavoidable issue of a born positivity of spirit,
uninformed by scientific meditation. It exists in its coarsest
and most childish kind in adventurous freebooters of the type
of Napoleon, and in a noble and not egotistic kind in Oliver
Cromwell's pious interpretation of the order of events by the
good will and providence of God.

Two conspicuous qualities of Carlylean doctrine flow from
this fatalism, or poetised utilitarianism, or illumined positivity.
One of them is a tolerably constant contempt for excessive
nicety in moral distinctions, and an aversion to the monotonous
attitude of praise and blame. In a country overrun and cor-
roded to the heart, as Great Britain is, with cant and a foul
mechanical hypocrisy, this temper ought to have had its uses
in giving a much-needed robustness to public judgment. One
might suppose, from the tone of opinion among us, not only
that the difierence between right and wrong marks the most
important aspect of conduct, which would be true ; but that
it marks the only aspect of it that exists, or that is worth
considering, which is :most profoundly false. Nowhere has
Puritanism done us more harm than in thus leading us to take
all breadth, and colour, and diversity, and fine discrimination,
out of our judgments of men, reducing them to thin, narrow,
and superficial pronouncements upon the letter of their morality,
or the precise conformity of their opinions to accepted standards
of truth, religious or other. Among other evils which it has
inflicted, this inabiKty to conceive of conduct except as either



CARLYLE. 233

riglit or wrong, and, correspondingly in tlie intellectual order,
of teaching except as either true or false, is at the bottom of that
fatal spirit oi parti-pris which has led to the rooting of so much
injustice, disorder, immobility, and darkness in English intelli-
gence. No excess of morality, we may be sure, has followed
this excessive adoption of the exclusively moral standard.
' Quand il n'y a plus de principcs dans h occur' says De Senan-
court, ' on est Men scrupukux sur les apparences publ/'ques et sur
les devoirs d' opinion.' We have simply got for our pains a most
unlovely leanness of judgment, and ever since the days when
this temper set in until now, when a wholesome rebellion is
afoot, it has steadily and powerfully tended to straiten character,
to make action mechanical, and to impoverish art. As if there
were nothing admirable in a man save unbroken obedience to
the letter of the moral law, and that letter read in our own
casual and local interpretation ; and as if we had no faculties
of sympathy, no sense for the beauty of character, no feeling
for broad force and full-pulsing vitality.

To study manners and conduct and men's moral nature in
such a way, is as direct an error as it would be to overlook in
the study of his body everything except its vertebral column
and the bony framework. The body is more than a mere
anatomy. A character is much else besides being virtuous
or vicious. In many of the characters in which some of the
finest and most singular qualities of humanity would seem to
have reached their furthest height, their morality was the side
least worth discussing. The same may be said of the specific
rightness or wrongness of opinion in the intellectual order.
Let us condemn error or immorality, when the scope of our
criticism calls for this particular function, but why rush to
praise or blame, to eulogy or reprobation, when we should do
better simply to explore and enjoy? Moral imperfection is



234 CARLTLB.

ever a grievous curtailment of life, but many exquisite flowers
of character, many gracious and potent things, may still thrive
in the most disordered scene.

The vast waste which this limitation of prospect entails is
the most grievous rejection of moral treasure, if it be true that
nothing enriches the nature like wide sympathy and many-
coloured appreciativeness. To a man like Macaulay, for example,
criticism was only a tribimal before which men were brought
to be decisively tried by one or two inflexible tests, and then
sent to join the sheep on the one hand, or the goats on the other.
His pages are the record of sentences passed, not the presenta-
tion of human characters in all their fulness and colour ; and
the consequence is that even now and so soon, in spite of all
their rhetorical brilliance, their hold on men has grown slack.
Contrast the dim depths into which his essay on Johnson is
receding, with the vitality as of a fine dramatic creation which
exists in Mr. Carlyle's essay on the same man. Mr. Carlyle
knows as well as Macaulay how blind and stupid a creed was
English Toryism a century ago, but he seizes and reproduces
the character of his man, and this was much more than a
matter of a creed. So with Burns. He was drunken and un-
chaste and thriftless, and Mr. Carlyle holds all these vices as
deeply in reprobation as if he had written ten thousand sermons
against them ; but he leaves the fulmination to the hack
moralist of the pulpit or the press, with whom words are cheap,
easily gotten, and readily thrown forth. To him it seems better
worth while, having made sure of some sterling sincerity and
rare genuineness of vision and singular human quality, to
dwell on, and do justice to that, than to accimiulate common-
places as to the viciousness of vice. Here we may perhaps find
the explanation of the remarkable fact that though Mr. Carlyle
has written about a large number of men of all varieties of



CARLTLE.



235



opinion and temperament, and written with empliasis and point
and strong feeling, yet there is hardly one of these judgments,
however much we may dissent from it, which we could fairly
put a finger upon as indecently absurd or futile. Of how many
writers of thirty volumes can we say the same ?

That this broad and poetic temper of criticism has special
dangers, and needs to have special safeguards, is but too true.
Even, however, if we find that it has its excesses, we may for-
give much to the merits of a reaction against a system which
has raised monstrous floods of sour cant round about us, and
hardened the hearts and parched the sympathies of men by
blasts from theological deserts. There is a point of view so
lofty and so peculiar that from it we are able to discern in men
and women something more than and apart from creed, and
profession, and formulated principle ; which indeed directs and
colours this creed and principle as decisively as it is in its turn
acted on by them, and this is their character or humanity. The
least important thing about Johnson is that he was a Tory. ; and
about Burns, that he drank too much and was incontinent ; and
if we see in modern literature an increasing tendency to mount
to this higher point of view, this humaner prospect, there is no
living writer to whom we owe more for it than Mr. Carlyle.
The same principle which revealed the valour and godliness of
Puritanism, has proved its most efficacious solvent, for it places
character on the pedestal where Puritanism places dogma.

The second of the qualities which seem to flow from Mr.
Carlyle's fatalism, and one much less useful among such a
people as the English, is a deficiency of sympathy with
masses of men. It would be easy enough to find places where
he talks of the dumb millions in terms of fine and sincere
humanity, and his feeling for the common pathos of the human



236 CARLYLE.

lot, as lie encounters it in individual lives, is as earnest and
as simple, as it is invariably lovely and toucting in its
expression. But detached passages cannot counterbalance the
eflfect of a whole compact body of teaching. The multitude
stands between Destiny on the one side, and the Hero on the
other ; a sport to the first, and as potter's clay to the second.
' Dogs, loould ye then live for ever ? ' Frederick cried to a troop who
hesitated to attack a battery vomiting forth death and destruc-
tion. This is a measure of Mr. Carlyle's own valuation of the
store we ought to set on the lives of the most. We know in
what coarse outcome such an estimate of the dignity of other
life than the life heroic has practically issued ; in what bar-
barous vindication of barbarous law-breaking in Jamaica, in
what inhuman softness for slavery, in what contemptuous and
angry words for ' Beales and his 50,000 Roughs,' contrasted
with gentle words for our precious aristocracy, with ' the
politest and gracefuUest kind of woman * to wife. Here is the
end of the Eternal Verities, when one lets them btdk so big in
his eyes as to shut out that perishable speck, the human race.

* They seem to have seen, these brave old Northmen,' he
says in one place, * what Meditation has taught all men in all
ages, that this world is after all but a show — a phenomenon or
.appearance, no real thing. All deep souls see into that.' ^ Yes ;
but deep souls dealing with the practical questions of society,
do well to thrust the vision as far from them as they can, and
to suppose that this world is no show, and haj)piness and misery
not mere appearances, but the keenest realities that we can
know. The difference between virtue and vice, between wisdom
and folly, is only phenomenal, yet there is difference enough.
' What shadoics we are, and what shadows we pursue j' Burke cried
in the presence of an affecting incident. Yet the consciousness

(1) Sero* Worship, p. 43.



CARLYLE. 237

of tliis made liim none the less careful, minute, patient, sys-
tematic, in examining a policy, or criticising a tax. Mr. Carlyle,
on the contrary, falls back on the same reflection for comfort in
the face of political confusions and difficulties and details, which
he has not the moral patience to encounter scientifically. Un-
able to dream of swift renovation and wisdom among men, he
ponders on the unreality of life, and hardens his heart against
generations that will not know the things that pertain rmto
their peace. He answers to one lifting up some moderate voice
of protest in favour of the masses of mankind, as his Prussian
hero did, * Ah, you do not know that damned race.'

There is no passage which Mr. Carlyle so often quotes as

the sublime —

"We are such stuff
As dreams are made on ; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

If the ever present impression of this awful, most moving, yet
most soothing thought, be a law of spiritual breadth and height,
there is still a peril in it. Such an impression may inform the
soul with a devout mingled sense of grandeur and nothingness,
or it may blacken into cynicism and antinomian living for self
and the day. It may be a solemn and holy refrain, sounding
far off but clear in the dusty course of work and duty ; or it may
be the comforting chorus of a diabolic drama of selfishness and
violence. As a reaction against religious theories, which make
. humanity over-abound in self-consequence, and fill individuals
with the strutting importance of creatures with private souls
to save or lose, even such cynicism as Byron's was wholesome
and nearly forgivable. Nevertheless, the most important ques-
tion that we can ask of any great teacher, as of the walk and
conversation of any commonest person, remains this, how far
has he strengthened and raised the conscious and harmonious



238 CARLYLE.

dignity of humanity ; how stirred in men and women, many or
few, deeper and more active sense of the worth and obligation
and innumerable possibilities, not of their own little lives, one
or another, but of life collectively ; how heightened the self-
respect of the race ? There is no need to plant oneself in a
fool's paradise, with no eye for the weakness of men, the futility
of their hopes, the irony of their fate, the dominion of the
satyr and the tiger in their hearts. Laughter has a fore-place
in life. All this we may see and show that we see, and yet so
throw it behind the weightier facts of nobleness and sacrifice,
of the boundless gifts which fraternal union has given, and has
the power of giving, as to kindle in every breast, not callous
to exalted impressions, the glow of sympathetic endeavour, and
of serene exultation in the bond that makes * precious the soul
of man to man.'

This renewal of moral energy by spiritual contact with the
mass of men, and by meditation on the destinies of mankind,
is the very reverse of Mr. Carlyle's method. With him, it is
good to leave the mass, and fall down before the individual, and
be saved by him. The victorious hero is the true Paraclete.
* Nothing so lifts a man from all his mean imprisonments, were
it but for moments, as true admiration.' And this is really the
kernel of the Carlylean doctrine. The whole human race toils
and moils, straining and energizing, doing and sufiering things
multitudinous and unspeakable under the sun, in order that
like the aloe -tree it may once in a hundred years produce a
flower. It is this hero that age offers to age, and the wisest
worship him. Time and nature once and again distil from out
of the lees and froth of common humanity some wondrous
character, of a potent and reviving property hardly short of
miraculous. This the man who knows his own good cherishes
in his inmost soul as a sacred thing, an elixir of moral life.



.CARLYLE. 239

The Great Man is * the light which enlightens, which has
enlightened the darkness of the world ; a flowing light foun-
tain, in whose radiance all souls feel that it is well with them.'
This is only another form of the anthropomorphic conceptions
of deity. The divinity of the ordinary hierophant is clothed
in the minds of the worshippers with the highest human
qualities they happen to be capable of conceiving, and this is
the self-acting machinery by which worship refreshes and
recruits what is best in man. Mr. Carlyle has another way.
He carries the process a step further, giving back to the great
man what had been taken for beings greater than any man,
and summoning us to trim the lamp of endeavour at the shrine
of heroic chiefs of mankind. In that house there are many
mansions, the boisterous sanctuary of a vagabond polytheism.
But each altar is individual and apart, and the reaction of this
isolation upon the egotistic instincts of the worshipper has been
only too evident. It is good for us to build temples to great
names which recall special transfigurations of himianity ; but it
is better still, it gives a firmer nerve to purpose and adds a finer
holiness to the ethical sense, to carry ever with us the unmarked,
yet living tradition of the voiceless, unconscious efibrt of
unnumbered millions of souls, flitting lightly away like showers
of thin leaves, yet ever augmenting the elements of perfectness
in man, and exalting the eternal contest.

Mr. Carlyle has indeed written that generation stands indis-
solubly woven with generation ; * how we inherit, not Life only,
but all the garniture and form of Life, and work and speak, and
even think and feel, as our fathers and primeval grandfathers
from the beginning have given it to us ; ' how ' mankind is a
living, indivisible whole.^ Even this, however, with the
' literal communion of saints,' which follows in connection with

(1) Organic Filaments in the Sartor, Bk. iii. c. 7.



240 CARLYLE.

it, is only a detaclied suggestion, not incorporated witli tlie
body of tlie writer's doctrine. It does not neutralise the general
lack of faith in the cultivable virtue of masses of men, nor the
universal tone of humoristic cynicism with which all but a
little band, the supposed salt of the earth, are treated. Man is
for Mr. Carlyle, as for the Calvinistic theologian, a fallen and
depraved being, without much hope, except for a few of the
elect. The best thing that can happen to the poor creature is,
that he should be thoroughly well drilled. In other words,
society does not really progress in its bulk ; and the methods
which were conditions of the original formation and growth of
the social union, remain indispensable until the sound of the last
trump. Was there not a profound and far-reaching truth wrapped
up in Goethe's simple yet really inexhaustible monition, that if
we would improve a man, it were well to let him believe that we
already think him that which we would have him to be. The
law that noblesse oblige has imwritten bearings in dealing with
all men ; all masses of men are susceptible of an appeal from
that point : for this Mr, Carlyle seems to make no allow-
ance.

Every modification of society is one of the slow growths of
time, and to hurry impatiently after them by swift ways of
military discipline and peremptory law-making, is only to clasp
the near and superficial good. It is easy to make a solitude
and call it peace, to plant an iron heel and call it order. But
read Mr. Carlyle' s essay on Dr. Francia, and then ponder the
history of Paraguay for these later years, and the accounts of
its condition in the newspapers of to-day. * Nay, it may be,'
we learn from that remarkable piece, ' that the benefit of him
is not even yet exhausted, even yet entirely become visible.
"Who knows but, in unborn centuries, Paragueno men will look
back to their lean iron Francia, as men do in such cases to the



CARLYLE. 241

one veracious person, and institute considerations ? ' ^ Who
knows, indeed, if only it prove tliat their lean iron Francia, in
his passion for order and authority, did not stamp out the very
life of the nation ? Where organic growths are concerned,
patience is the sovereign law ; and where the organism is a
society of men, the vital principle is a sense in one shape or
another of the dignity of humanity. The recognition of this
tests the distinction between the truly heroic ruler of the stamp
of Cromwell, and the arbitrary enthusiast for external order,
like Frederick. Yet in more than one place Mr. Carlyle
accepts the fundamental principle of democracy. * It is curious
to consider now,' he says once, ' with what fierce, deep-breathed
doggedness the poor English Nation, drawn by their instincts,
held fast upon it [the Spanish War of Walpole's time, in
Jenkins's Ear Question], and would take no denial of it, as
if they had surmised and seen. For the instincts of simple,
guileless persons (liable to be counted stupid by the unwary)
Jenkins's are sometimes of prophetic nature, and spring from
the deep places of this universe ! ' ^ If the writer of this had
only thought it out to the end, and applied the conclusions thereof
to history and politics, what a difference it would have made.

No criticism upon either Mr. Carlyle or any other modern
historian, possessed of speculative quality, would be in any
sense complete, which should leave out of sight his \iew of the
manner and significance of the break-up of the old European
structure. The historian is pretty sure to be guided in his
estimate of the forces which have contributed to dissolution in
the past, by the kind of anticipation which he entertains of the
probable course of reconstruction. Like Comte, in his ideas of
temporal reconstruction, Mr. Carlyle goes back to something

(1) Misc. Ess., vi. 124. (2) Frederick, iv. 390.

E



242 CARLYLE.

like the forms of feudalism for the model of the industrial
organisation of the future ; but in the spiritual order he is as
far removed as possible from any semblance of that revival of
the old ecclesiastical forms without the old theological ideas,
which is the corner-stone of Comte's edifice. To the question
whether mankind gained or lost by the French Revolution,
Mr. Carlyle nowhere gives a clear answer ; indeed, on this
subject more even than any other, he clings closely to his
favourite method of simple presentation, streaked with dramatic
irony. No writer shows himself more alive to the enormous
moment to all Europe of that transaction ; but we hear no word
from him on the question whether we have more reason to bless
or curse an event that interrupted, either subsequently to
retard or to accelerate, the transformation of the West from a
state of war, of many degrees of social subordination, of religious
privilege, of aristocratic administration, into a state of peaceful
industry, of equal international rights, of social equality, of
free and equal tolerance of creeds. That this process was
going on prior to 1789 is undeniable. Are we really nearer to
the permanent establishment of the new order, for what was
done between 1789 and 1793 ? or were men thrown off the
right track of improvement, by a movement which turned
exclusively on abstract rights, which dealt with men's ideas
and habits as if they were instantaneously pliable before the
aspirations of any government, and which by its violent and
inconsiderate methods drove aU those who should only have
been friends of order into being the enemies of progress as
well? There are many able and honest and republican men
who in their hearts suspect that the latter of the two alter-
natives is the more correct description of what has happened.
Mr. Carlyle is as one who does not hear the question. He
draws its general moral lesson from the French Revolution,



CARLYLE. 243

and with clangorous note warns all whom it concerns, from
king to churl, that imposture must come to an end. But for
the precise amount and kind of dissolution which the West
owes to it, for the political meaning of it, as distinguished from
its moral or its dramatic significance, we seek in vain, finding
no word on the subject, nor even evidence of conciousness that
such word is needed.

The truth is that with Mr. Carlyle the Revolution begins,
not in 1789, but in 1741 ; not with the Fall of the Bastille, but
with the Battle of Mollwitz. This earliest of Frederick's victories
was the first sign ' that indeed a new hour had struck on the
Time Horologe, that a new Epoch had arisen. Slumberous
Europe, rotting amid its blind pedantries, its lazy hypocrisies,
conscious and unconscious : this man is capable of shaking it a
little out of its stupid refuges of lies, and ignominious wrap-



Online LibraryJohn MorleyCritical miscellanies → online text (page 19 of 29)