The Condition of England in 1843: Thomas Carlyle's Past and Present
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The Condition of England in 1843: Thomas Carlyle's Past and Present

This article provides an overview of Carlyle's teachings as contained in Past and Present, an important socio-political tract published in 1843. The reader will be introduced to Carlyle's ideas on faith, work and authority, and will learn of the context in which Carlyle's book was written, and how it was received in Victorian England.

Though not much read nowadays, Thomas Carlyle's social and political criticism of the 1840s was among the most influential writing of the time in England. 1843's Past and Present was his most extended reflection on worker discontent and the "Condition of England" - a term coined by Carlyle himself in Chartism (1839). Frederick Engels was a great admirer of the book, paying tribute to it in The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 and concluding that Carlyle had "sounded the social disorder more deeply than any other English bourgeois". Ralph Waldo Emerson was also impressed by Carlyle's powerfully rhetorical style, considering Past and Present to be an "Iliad of English woes".

Sir Jabesh, Bobus and the Cash-Nexus

Carlyle began by noting that the working-classes were unhappy: as evidenced by Chartism and other movements for voting and other rights for all. But his conclusions about the reasons for this were unusual: it was not because they had not enough to eat, or any material considerations. Instead, it was because they were not being provided with a leadership they could believe in. Carlyle called the country's leadership "the Idle Aristocracy", and personified them in the figure of Sir Jabesh Windbag, interested only in "consuming the rents of England, shooting the partridges of England [...] [and] dilettante-ing in Parliament and Quarter-Sessions for England". Meanwhile, the merchant classes were no better: Carlyle characterized them as Bobus Higgins, sausage manufacturer, for whom "Cash Payment has become the sole nexus of man to man". For Bobus, all that matters is money and the satisfaction of his own appetites.

The Aristocracy of Talent

Carlyle wanted to appease the working-classes, not by giving them the rights they asked for, but by providing a better style of leadership, the creation of an Aristocracy of Talent who would be motivated not by cash or base appetites, and who would avoid "quackery" and "cant" (two of Carlyle's favorite words). They would be directed by "God's eternal laws", which are never clearly defined by Carlyle, but are based more on stern justice than merciful benevolence. This strong and stern leadership is necessary because: "All men, if they work not as in a Great Taskmaster's eye, will work wrong". Therefore Carlyle's solution is strongly authoritarian, and is also rather vague.

Abbot Samson

He does provide a model of how society should be run, using recently-discovered papers by a monk from a 12th-century monastery in Bury St. Edmunds. The monastery was run along feudal lines under the stern but loving leadership of Abbot Samson, who hates everything "incoherent, pusillanimous, unveracious", and who lives by faith, work and self-control. Under Samson, all the men work earnestly, and are thus as happy as men can be.

Past and Present demonstrates, in parts, concern for the disadvantaged of society, but it ignores their stated desires, and mocks notions of democracy, which Carlyle calls "the buzz and frothy simmering foment of the general mind and no-mind". Instead, he offers a stern and pious authoritarianism. The latter was popular with the Victorians, but is perhaps the reason why Carlyle's writings have not aged well, and their influence declined quickly in the 20th century.  

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