Carlyle’s Political Influence by Edwin Lawrence Godkin

Story type: Essay

The numerous articles called forth by Carlyle’s “Reminiscences,” both in this country and in England, while varying greatly in the proportions in which they mix their praise and blame, leave no doubt that there has occurred a very strong revulsion of feeling about him, so strong in England that we are told that the subscriptions for a proposed memorial to him have almost if not entirely ceased. The censure which Carlyle’s friends are visiting on Mr. Froude for his indiscretion in printing the book, though deserved, has done but little to mitigate the severity of the judgment passed on the writer himself. In fact, we are inclined to believe that Mr. Froude’s want of judgment rather helps to deepen the surprise and disappointment with which the book has been received, as affording an additional proof of the feebleness of Carlyle’s own powers in estimating the people about him. That, after heaping contempt on so many of whom the world has been accustomed to think highly, he should have retained to the last his confidence in, and respect for, a person capable of dealing his fame such a deadly blow as Mr. Froude, not unnaturally increases the irritation with which the public has read his recollections of his friends and contemporaries. The “disillusion and disenchantment” worked by the book, in so far as it affects Carlyle’s fame as a prophet, is, of course, a misfortune, and a very serious one. What it was he preached when his preaching first startled the world, but very few now undertake to say, and these few by no means agree in their story. His influence, apparently, was not of the kind which reaches a man through articulate speech, but rather that which comes through the blast of a trumpet or the marching tune of a good band, and fills the heart with a feeling of capacity for high endeavor, though one cannot say in what particular field it is to be displayed. But though he founded no school and taught no system of morals, his eminence as a mere preacher was one of the very valuable possessions of the Anglo-Saxon world, as a sort of standing protest against the materialistic tendencies of the age; and this eminence rested a good deal on the popular conception of the elevation of his own character. This conception has undoubtedly, whether justly or unjustly, been greatly shaken, if not destroyed, by the revelation that invidious comparison between himself and others was almost a habit of his life; that, while preaching patient endurance, he did not himself endure patiently even the minor ills of existence; that, when looking at the fine equipages at Hyde Park Corner, he had to support himself by “sternly thinking”–“yes, and perhaps none of you could do what I am at;” that his mental attitude during the preparation of most of his books was that of a man not properly appreciated who was going to cast pearls before swine; or, in other words, the attitude of an ordinary literary man burdened with too much vanity for his powers, and more concerned about the effect his work was likely to have on his personal fortunes than on the mental or moral condition of the world. While full of contempt for sciolists and pretenders and newspapers, he wrote, and was ready to write, on the American war without any knowledge of the facts, and scorned Darwinism without ever bestowing a thought on it. Carlyle’s public were long ago conscious, as one of his critics has said, that he canted prodigiously about cant, and talked voluminously in praise of silence; but then it recognized that much repetition has always the air of cant, and that to persuade men to be silent, as well as to do anything else, one must talk a great deal. A prophet has to be diffuse and loud, and often shrill, and his disciples will always forgive any number of mistakes in method or manner as long as they believe that behind the preaching there is perfect simplicity and self-forgetfulness. That this belief has been weakened in many minds with regard to Carlyle by the “Reminiscences” there is no question, and the consequence of it is that the Anglo Saxon world has lost one of its best possessions; and it is a kind of possession which no apologies or explanations, and no proof of Mr. Froude’s indiscretion, can restore.

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There is, however, some compensation in the catastrophe. If there was nothing positive in Carlyle’s moral teachings, if nobody could extract from his earlier utterances anything more definite than advice to “be up and doing with a heart for every fate,” there was in the political teachings of his later works something very positive and definite, and something which he managed to surround with some of the diviner light of his first arraignments of modern civilization. There is, for instance, nothing in literature more ingenious than the way in which he presents Cromwell as the apostle of “truth” during the campaigns in Ireland after the death of the King. He lets slip no opportunity of setting forth the importance of those military operations as a means of bringing “truth” to the Irish, so much so that the reader at last begins to expect the revelation of some formula in which the Lord-General presented the truth to them. But long before the end is reached one finds that the only truth which Cromwell was spreading in Ireland was the simple one that anybody who resisted him in arms would probably be knocked on the head. This collocation of truth and superiority of physical force, and of falsehood and weakness, was, in fact, worked into all Carlyle’s writings of a political character, and did, through his writings, become a very positive political influence after the generation which was roused by the first blasts of his moral trumpet had grown old, or had passed away. To most men under fifty, in fact, Carlyle is more known as a very truculent political philosopher than as a moralist, and most of his later imitators–Mr. Froude for one–have imitated him rather in preparing the way of the Strong Man in government, and recommending the helpless and forlorn to strip for a salutary dozen on the bare back, than in preaching self-knowledge or the inner worship of the “veracities.”

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That the effect of this on English politics has been bad, and very bad, during the past thirty years few will deny. It beyond question has had an evil influence on English opinion both about Ireland and about India, and about the civil war in the United States. It had much to do with the production of that great scandal, the defence of Governor Eyre, by nearly the whole of London society. Nay, we think we are not far wrong in saying that it did much to prepare the way for that remarkable episode in English history, the late administration of Lord Beaconsfield, with its jingo fever; its lavish waste of blood and treasure; its ferocious assertion of the beauty of national selfishness; its contempt for all that portion of the population of Turkey which was weak and subject and unhappy. When one contrasts the spirit in which John Stuart Mill approached all such subjects in his day, his patient pursuit of the facts, his almost over-earnest efforts to get at the point of view of those who differed with him, his steady indifference to his own fame in dealing with all public questions, and then reads the contemptuous way in which Carlyle disposes of him in the “Reminiscences,” one gets, we were going to say, an almost painful sense of the contrast between the influence of the two men on their day and generation.

In so far as the “Reminiscences,” therefore, ruin Carlyle as a politician, their publication must be considered a gain for the English race. The particular political vice his influence fostered, that nobody who cannot thrash you in fight is worth listening to, is, it must be said, a vice peculiar to the English race. It is only in the Anglo-Saxon forum that a man of foreign birth and unfamiliar ways of thinking has to obtain a locus standi by making himself an object of physical terror. The story which has lately gone the rounds of the papers, of Carlyle’s discussion with some Irishman who got the better of him in an argument in support of the logical right of the Irish to manage their own affairs, in which he met his opponent in the last resort in half-humorous vehemence by informing him that he would cut his throat before he would let him have his independence, is not a bad expression of the spirit which has governed English policy in dealing with dependent communities. There is a certain wisdom and justice in exacting from every malcontent who asks for great changes in his condition some strong proof of his earnestness; but it is a test which has to be applied with great discretion, which nations that have made a great fortune with a strong right hand are not likely to apply with discretion, and which is apt to make weakness seem ridiculous as well as contemptible. The history of English politics for fifty years at least has been the history of the efforts of the nation to accustom itself to some other than the English standard of political respectability, to familiarize itself with the idea that pacific people, and poor people, and queer people had something to say for themselves, and were entitled to a place in the world. To the success of that effort it is safe to say that Mr. Carlyle’s political writings have been more or less of an obstacle, and that the destruction of his influence will contribute something to the solution of some of the more serious pending problems of English politics.

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