Thomas Carlyle’s “Latter-Day Pamphlets”

Alexander Adams

Alexander Adams

Alexander Adams is an artist, critic and poet, based in the UK. He writes art criticism for The Critic, Standpoint, Apollo, Burlington Magazine, Print Quarterly, Printmaking Today, The Jackdaw and other publications. He publishes articles on censorship and free speech, as well as book reviews, on Spiked-Online.

Thomas Carlyle, Latter-Day Pamphlets, vol. XX, Chapman & Hall, 1850/1898

This is a brief review of one book by Scottish historian, biographer and journalist Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881). Latter-Day Pamphlets (1850) is a collection of journalism and political pamphlets from 1850. It is dominated by Carlyle’s negative responses to 1848, the year of revolutions. “One of the most singular, disastrous, amazing, and, on the whole, humiliating years the European world ever saw.” This is a review of the unabridged reprint of 1898.

“The Present Time”

In “The Present Time”, Carlyle surveys the state of Europe in 1850. He blames the reforming Pope for providing tacit endorsement for revolutionary initiatives of 1848 – or at least not attempting to divert the situation beforehand. “Everywhere immeasurable Democracy rose monstrous, loud, blatant, inarticulate as the voice of Chaos.” Carlyle bemoans the insistent imposition of democracy regardless of the wishes of the populations of Europe. He compares the futility of voting to the institution of democracy in a ship upon a dangerous journey, which is prey to indomitable forces beyond the control of sailors and officers. Democracy on a ship creates a phantasm captain, when the lives of the men and success of the mission depends on a real captain, writes Carlyle.

Democracy is a false idol. “That the grand panacea for social woes is what we call ‘enfranchisement,’ ‘emancipation’; or, translated into practical language, the cutting asunder of human relations, wherever they are found grievous […]” Carlyle sees the axiom of democracy as a root for undermining social stability and standards. “Cut every human relation which has anywhere grown uneasy sheer asunder; reduce whatsoever was compulsory to voluntary, whatsoever was permanent among us to the condition of nomadic:- in other words, loosen by assiduous wedges in every joint, the whole fabric of social existence, stone from stone; till at last, all now being loose enough, it can, as we already see in most countries, be overset by sudden outburst of revolutionary rage; and, lying as mere mountains of anarchic rubbish, solicit you to sing Fraternity etc. over it, and to rejoice in the new remarkable era of human progress we have arrived at.” As a traditionalist, Carlyle believed that destruction of existing social structures in the name of progress would have dire consequences for the future. He concludes the article on the topic of the indigent Irish, for whom he has little sympathy.

“Model Prisons”

In “Model Prisons”, Carlyle recounts a visit to a new prison of the scientific type – clean, efficient, well appointed. Carlyle is impressed by the results but doubts the reforming spirit that animates the creation of these new model prisons. He casts aspersions on prison reform, calling reformers egotists, who bribe by offering “cheap bread to the cotton-spinner, voting to those that have no vote, and the like”. He sees sin and indiscipline as the cause of crime, not inequity. “Fraternity, in other countries, has gone on, till it found itself unexpectedly manipulating guillotines by its chosen Robespierres, and become a fraternity like Cain’s. Much to its amazement!” Carlyle sees the vaguely worded causes of fraternity and equality as liable to corruption and (when given leave by secular reformist leaders) the humanitarian as the greatest executioner of fellow man in the name of fraternity. Only the objective laws of God resist manipulation, in Carlyle’s view. His evidence is the course of the French Revolution, with its frenzy of high-minded scientifically-facilitated butchery.

Carlyle tackles the basis of the prison-reform platform. “Not the least disgusting feature of this Gospel according to the Platform is its reference to religion, and even to the Christian Religion, as an authority and mandate for what it does. Christian religion? Does the Christian or any religion prescribe love of scoundrels then? […] This is the rotten carcass of Christianity; this malodorous phosphorescence of post-mortem sentimentalism.”

In his introduction, H.D. Thrall faults the collected texts as weak in argumentation – “[…] as journalism they are ineffective they are too long, too discursive, too unpractical. They deal at once too much in generalities and too little […]” “Model Prisons” is a prime example which tends to confirm Thrall’s reservations. Carlyle turns some fine phrases but his argument is not sharp. Despite the force of the resistance and its potential correctness, this essay is not an adept performance. Emotion and righteousness get the better of its author. This essay is a contemporary response to Howard’s prison-reform movement and is evidence of opposition to that – a views that is generally lacking from school history coursebooks.

“Downing Street”

In “Downing Street”, Carlyle takes aim at the Colonies Office – its inefficiency and cost. “[…] [Great Britain] has in fact certain cottons, hardwares and such-like to sell in foreign parts, and certain wines, Portugal oranges, Baltic tar and other products to buy; and does need, I suppose, some kind of Consul, or accredited agent, accessible to British voyagers, here and there, in the chief cities of the Continent […]” He ponders on the nature of officialdom and big government. “What these strange Entities in Downing Street intrinsically are; who made them, why they were made; how they do their function; and what their function, so huge in appearance, may in net-result amount to, – is probably known to no mortal. The official mind passes by in dark wonder; not pretending to know. The official mind must not blab; – the official mind, restricted to its own square foot of territory in the vast labyrinth, is probably itself dark, and unable to blab. We see the outcome; the mechanism we do not see.”

He states that the vices of government are inefficiency and inappropriateness of its work. “These are the two vices that beset Government Offices; both of them originating in insufficient Intellect, – that sad insufficiency from which, directly or indirectly, all evil whatsoever springs! And these two vices act and react, so that where one is, the other is sure to be; and each encouraging the growth of the other, both (if some cleaning of the Augias stable have not intervened for a long while) will be found in frightful development. You cannot have your work well done, if the work be not of the right kind, if it be not work prescribed by the law of Nature as well as by the rules of the office. Laziness, which lies in wait round all human labour-offices, will in that case infallibly leak in, and vitiate the doing of the work.” Carlyle foresees doom in the mounting institutional and personal failures of government departments. “A class of mortals under which as administrators, kings, priests, diplomatists, etc., the interests of mankind in every European country have sunk overloaded, as under universal nightmare, near to extinction; and indeed are at this moment convulsively writhing, decided either to throw off the unblessed superincumbent nightmare, or roll themselves and it to the Abyss.”

Carlyle damns the government as led by those with no vision and commanded by lieutenants who are stupid. Carlyle vacillates between siting the faults of the government in its form and in its officers. Stupidity and “want of wisdom” are the disease that infects government. He suggests the cure would be individuals of greater human intellect. The contradicts Carlyle’s contention that democracy appoints a phantasm captain in place of a real captain. Carlyle does suggest that any secretaries should be competent and not necessarily elected. He imperfectly advocates the great man as the appropriate figure for the role of absolute leader. The argument (regardless of merit) is not clearly set out.

“The New Downing Street”

This is an extension of the previous essay, presenting a manifesto for revitalisation of government by proposing a new Downing Street. It takes up the point that officials at every level lack sufficient quality; democracy impedes the recruitment and promotion of men of ability and intellect; this is a common blight across Europe. England, newly acquired of an empire, needs to summon kings to lead it or it will fall into decay. “No person or populace, with never such ballot-boxes, can select such man for you; only the man of worth can recognise worth in men; – to the commonplace man of no or of little worth, you, unless you wish to be misled, need not apply on such an occasion.”

It begins as a better essay than the previous one, (in part) because it builds upon the incomplete foundations of the previous essay. Compared to the previous essay, this dwells more on positive changes that could be made – albeit general in character. Carlyle sets out his new Downing Street as a counter to “needless expenditures of money, immeasurable ditto of hypocrisy and grimace; embassies, protocols, worlds of extinct traditions, empty pedantries, foul cobwebs […]” The author mingles reform with wholesale change, leaving the reader somewhat unmoored, unclear about what remains of the familiar system and what is cut from whole cloth.

Carlyle lapses by recommending the creation of an education ministry. Surely, knowing the weaknesses of government and the weaknesses that government spreads, giving such an institution say in the education of children could only lead to spreading of mediocrity, complacency and the inculcation of supplication to secular authority. He touches on foreign wars, pauperism and literature, trailing off into random reflections.  

“Stump-Orator”

Carlyle discusses oratory as an art. Speech is divine and “like the kindling of a Heaven’s light” but if the speaker is not ennobled by righteousness, it is better for him to remain silent.  Silence is a necessary accompaniment for great speech. Great speech can be mimicked by persuasive ignoble speech; such deception makes ignoble speech deplorable because it imitates the best of man’s efforts. In Carlyle’s time, there has been a lack of excellent public speech. Carlyle takes a poor view of the political orator of his day. “A mouthpiece of Chaos to poor benighted mortals that lend ear to him as to a voice from Cosmos, this excellent stump-orator fills me with amazement. Not empty these musical wind-utterances of his; they are big with prophecy; they announce, too audibly to me, that the end of many things is drawing nigh!”

Carlyle charts the debasement of oratory to a too liberal imparting of the art to people who use it for debased purposes. Speech – like a currency – has been debased because the speakers cannot back their words with virtue or truth. “Alas, alas, said banknote is then a forged one; passing freely current in the market; but bringing damages to the receiver, to the payer, and to all the world, which are in sad truth infallible, and of amount incalculable. […] The foolish traders in the market pass it freely, nothing doubting, and rejoice in the dextrous execution of the piece: and so it circulates from hand to hand, and from class to class; gravitating ever downwards towards the practical class; till at last it reaches some poor working hand, who can pass it no further, but must take it to the bank to get bread with it, and there the answer is, “Unhappy caitiff, this note is forged.””

Democracy has damaged the efficiency of the offices of state because those who rise in power are the best talkers, not necessarily those best at the work. This also leads to distortion of speech and debasing of oratory because it is done for reasons of status and advancement. This is the most persuasive and carefully argued of the pamphlets.

“Parliaments”

In this essay Carlyle sees the advent of anarchy through parliamentary means. Actual anarchy “cannot be distant, now when virtual disguised Anarchy, long-continued and waxing daily, has got to such a height;” the only way of avoiding this is complete change in governance. Only a king can enact the wishes and needs of the people. Carlyle discerns that Parliament is no longer adviser to the King but actually sovereign. “[…] our British Parliament does not shine as Sovereign Ruler of the British Nation; that it was excellent only as Adviser of the Sovereign Ruler; and has not, somehow or other, the art of getting work done; but produces talk merely, not of the most instructive sort for most part, and in vortexes of talk is not unlike to submerge itself and the whole of us, if help come not!”

Carlyle posits a law of parliamentary democracies that incorporate a mass media. “That a Parliament, especially a Parliament with Newspaper Reporters firmly established in it, is an entity which by its very nature cannot do work, but can do talk only, – which at times may be needed, and at other times again may be very needless.” In all areas of important business, Carlyle advises “[…] That every man shut his mouth, and do not open it again till his thinking and contriving faculty have elaborated something worth articulating.” This is the very opposite of how parliaments – conscious of the reception of its words on the general public through the media – function. Carlyle’s sees that ruin comes when – aside from making money – the nation takes nothing seriously and thereby degenerates. “[…] the Nation […] is no longer an earnest Nation, but a light, sceptical, epicurean one, which for a century has gone along smirking, grimacing, cutting jokes about all things, and has not been bent with dreadful earnestness on anything at all, except on making money each member of it for himself […]”

He notes that only two parliaments succeeded: the National Convention during the French Revolution, and the Long Parliament of the English Civil War. Yet, once again, Carlyle sees only folly in relying on the wisdom of crowds. “Your Lordship, there are fools, cowards, knaves, and gluttonous traitors true only to their own appetite, in immense majority, in every rank of life; and there is nothing frightfuler than to see these voting and deciding!” He argues against the freeing of slaves because then how can enfranchisement be denied to freed slaves, and, by so doing, is not the vote of the ignoble man as weighty as the vote of the noble man? By counting all men equal and submitting to their collective decisions, nations are brought to folly – brought as low as the appetites and vices of their electorate.

“Hudson’s Statue”

With the renewed proposal to erect a statue to Cromwell, Carlyle considers public statuary. As one might expect, he finds the statuary of his own age wanting. “Poor English Public, they really are exceedingly bewildered with Statues at present. They would fain do honour to somebody, if they did but know whom or how. Unfortunately they know neither whom nor how; they are, at present, the farthest in the world from knowing! They have raised a set of the ugliest Statues, and to the most extraordinary persons, ever seen under the sun before.” Carlyle satirises the folly of idle foolish men combining their twenty-pound notes and burning them to summon a brazen idol to a great Somebody, not caring who this Somebody is nor what he might have down to deserve a statue – especially in an age that had not yet marked the life of one of Carlyle’s Great Men, Oliver Cromwell.

George Hudson (1800-1871), the railway magnate who was (shortly before Carlyle’s essay was written) revealed to have engaged in fraud. Carlyle sees Hudson as the typical wealthy Somebody that the English raise statues to, oblivious to his conduct. He was elected an MP after this scandal and thereby gained immunity from being imprisoned for debt. When he lost his seat, he had to flee the country to avoid prison. He only returned once imprisonment of debtors was abolished. As it happens, no statue to him was erected but his contributions were marked in street names. Carlyle uses topical satire to reinforce his points about the decline in moral and civic standards of his day. Lively but overlong.

“Jesuitism”

“Jesuitism” is a reflection on the cult of Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) and the Jesuits, chief enforcers of the Counter Reformation. As a Protestant, Carlyle sees the beatification of, and praying to, Ignatius as being against (or in ignorance of) the will of God. Ignatius “has done more mischief in the Earth than any man born since.” He casts aspersions on Ignatius’s origins as a soldier, “distinguished, as I understand, by his fierce appetites chiefly, by his audacities and sensualities, and loud unreasonable decision, That this Universe, in spite of rumours to the contrary, was a Cookery-shop and Bordel, wherein garlic, jamaica-pepper, unfortunate-females and other spicery and garnishing awaited the bold human appetite, and the rest of it was mere rumour and moonshine […] That the Cookery-shop and Bordel was a magical delusion, a sleight-of-hand of Satan, to lead Ignatius, by garlic and finer temporal spiceries, to eternal Hell […] ” Carlyle characterises his subject’s abandonment to sensuality as a jumble of intemperate stuffs that inflame rather than satiate human desire. He calls Ignatius a “detestable Human Pig”.

Carlyle decries the work of the black-clad Jesuits, who continue Ignatius’s work to his day. He writes that falsity of speech leads to falsification of all things. The fine arts are condemned wholly as harbingers of falsehood. “The fact is, though men are not in the least aware of it, the Fine Arts, divorced entirely from Truth this long while, and wedded almost professedly to Falsehood, Fiction and suchlike, are got into what we must call an insane condition […]” He ties falsity in public life, religion, the arts and politics in this final pamphlet, combining his concerns in a single lament for the decline of morals.

Carlyle’s book covers democracy, prisons, bureaucratic overreach, the overweening state, public conduct, observing civic and moral standards – and see those subverted – all of which are vital issues today. In the grand denunciations of degradation, we can find prefigured our own concerns. However prolix and meandering Carlyle’s style can be in these pamphlets, his points have the emotional pathos of deeply held convictions and the moral seriousness of a man concerned about the fate of his nation. Many of his arguments still carry weight.

Latter-Day Pamphlets on the Gutenburg Project website

© 2021 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art