Review of "Latter-Day Pamphlets" by Thomas Carlyle

This is the second book in the Carlyle series that Mencius Moldbug recommended.  This review will focus on the work and then provide some thoughts on Mr Moldbug's view of Carlyle.  For a brief summary see here.

Wikipedia says that the purpose of the work is to denounce "the political, social, and religious imbecilities and injustices of the period."  This statement is true, but it misses the most interesting part.  For Carlyle the injustices and imbecilities arise because we are not following the laws of nature/God (as he generally puts it in the work) or because society is moving away from order (a more Moldbuggian way of putting it – if I may take the liberty of interpretation).

Incidentally, in reading this book, I was struck by how religiously-grounded Carlyle's arguments are.  You'll be able to see this in the excerpts below.  I would have been quite confused by the deeply-religious nature of the work, were it not for some helpful guidance:

Indeed, Carlyle is often described as not just a prophet, but a theologian [this book basically reads like an angry sermon]. And indeed there are 92 references to the word "God" in the keystone of his political work, the Latter-Day Pamphlets. You may not believe in God – I don't – but until you understand Carlyle's theology, you cannot understand his theory of government. Carlyle was raised a true Scottish Calvinist, an obsolete form of Christianity which actually believed in the concept of sin, and if you have some kind of irrational allergy to Christianity you will never be able to read his books. Sorry.

Order in Carlyle is obedience to the law of God in government, and enforcement of the law of God is the test of good government. And what is the law of God? Does it have anything to do with mixed fibers? It does not. It is no more than truth, justice and order – each of which reduces to the other. . . .

There is no such thing as too much truth, too much justice, or too much order; the ideal society is one in which all these qualities are seen to their maximum extent. In the society that is Cosmos, truth, justice and order all pertain.

So when we read "God" or "the laws of God" we should be thinking "order, truth and justice."  Carlyle condemns society for turning off the divine (orderly, just) path – hence soceity's inevitable decline.   I should point out that I am still struggling to understand Carlyle's religion.  He seems to have "lost his Christian faith" as Wikipedia puts it and yet seems to be deeply religious and in others.  He has reverence for many religious figures and appeals to a higher, broader universal religion that governs the world and society. 

Then his great man theory enters (see the previous link) – a theory which runs throughout the work.  The great men are the ones who can see through all the noise and understand these universal laws.  It is these men that must rule.  Many men will not understand the rules and these men must be ruled.  They need to be ruled – order, truth and justice demand it.

I would be remiss in not commenting on the defense of slavery in this book.  I'll let Moldbug explain and comment (from the same post):

It is only a short step from seeing the State as an enforcer of voluntary and binding obligations, to an enforcer of involuntary and arbitrary obligations. No society can possibly exist without uncontracted obligations.

For example, property and in particular real estate represent a class of obligations behind which there is no principle but historical accident. I am obliged not to trespass on your land. I did not agree not to trespass on your land, but I am obliged nonetheless. And why is it your land, rather than my land? Because it is.

Moreover, everyone is born into a web of involuntary obligations: the family. No one gets to pick their parents. Moreover, every family is part of a human society and thus accepts the obligations of that society. You do not need to go to Carlyle for an explanation of the relationship between slavery, family, and community, for you can find it in Aristotle. Indeed, the definition of family in most times and places has included slaves.

The relationship of master and slave is a natural human relationship: that of patron and client. Like true familial relationships, these essentially feudal structures are bidirectional. The client must obey and serve the patron; the patron must care for and protect the client. On one side of the relationship is always authority; on the other side, always dependency. Either side may violate its obligations, resulting in state intervention.

In the most ordered and flexible feudal societies, the relationship of patron and client becomes a true governance relationship. The patron is personally responsible for all offenses of the client against society – this is a core tenet of Roman law, applying both to slaves and children. In return, the patron holds the power of the magistrate over his clients. In the old days of the Roman Republic, a father could order the execution of his son on his own word alone. This is even a bit extreme for me, but it demonstrates the concept.

We see the most palatable relatives of hereditary slavery in the feudal European societies, where we have not slavery in the antique sense but serfdom, slavery adscripti glebae – peasants bound to the soil. The 20th-century historian will generally describe this system as if it were something like the Gulag, or possibly even Auschwitz, or maybe just the Angola Penitentiary, and everyone was just biding their time and waiting to be free. This is what it is to be an enemy of the past – you are doomed to walk through life, lying. Try to imagine yourself visiting 13th-century France and recommending the liberation of the serfs.

Thus we see the root of democracy's antipathy to slavery: its antipathy to feudalism. These structures are clearly in the same class. Is there a difference between being born bound to a person, and born bound to the land? There is, but not much of one. In both cases, you are born to obligations. You did not agree to these obligations, yet they are your inescapable burden. Had the luck of your fresh-minted soul been different, you might have been born to privilege instead. And good luck, Carlyle will tell you grimly, in abolishing luck.

But wait: when one is born a serf, bound to the land with obligations, one is bound not to a person but to a political entity. In the case of serfdom, assuming the extremity of personal restriction, this is a small political entity. This may be a problem if you are a restless fellow and like to get around, but seeing Europe was not the primary concern of most pre-industrial agricultural workers. Moreover, regardless of the size or nature of the entity to which you are born bound, allowing you to stretch your legs is no risk at all so long as that entity has the power to catch you and bring you back. Again, this is true for both serfs and slaves.

Suddenly we see the relationship between slavery and government. Serfdom and slavery can be described as microgovernment and nanogovernment respectively. In government proper, the normal human role of patron is filled by a giant, impersonal, and often accidentally sadistic bureaucracy, which is sovereign and self-securing. In serfdom, this role is filled by a noble house or other large family business, which in turn is a client of the State, and just as fixed to the land as its serfs. In slavery, mastership is exercised by a mobile individual whose slaves go with him.

(Democracy here appears as simply a mechanism for controlling subjects by deluding them into believing that they control the entire enterprise, a pretense which cannot be maintained in the context of serfdom or slavery. In this role it is certainly unnecessary, as physical enforcement technologies are quite sufficient. The mind-control state is obsolete.)

In all these relationships, the structure of obligation is the same. The subject, serf, or slave is obliged to obey the government, lord, or master, and work for the benefit of same. In return, the government, lord or master must care for and guide the subject, serf, or slave. We see these same relationship parameters emerging whether the relationship of domination originates as a hereditary obligation, or as a voluntary obligation, or in a state outside law such as the state of the newly captured prisoner (the traditional origin of slave status in most eras). This is a pretty good clue that this structure is one to which humans are biologically adapted. . . .

Probably the closest most Americans have come to idealizing slavery, without of course knowing it, is in the good press that large Japanese corporations once got for maintaining a policy of lifetime employment. Lifetime employment and slavery are, of course, practically synonyms, and indeed the same phenomena of reciprocal loyalty and dependency were said – repeatedly, in my memory, in the '90s on NPR – to emerge. Right down to the company uniform and song. This, too, is a Carlylean bond, although a rather weird one to the Western eye.

We thus observe slavery not as a perversion, but as a natural relationship, like gay marriage. (Gay marriage is unquestionably a natural relationship, although history – for whatever reason – seldom has a good outcome for societies in which large numbers of males are born gay. Whitman and Carlyle both have points to score on this issue.)

Of course, like gay marriage (or ordinary marriage), slavery is not without its abuses [Carlyle specifically likens emancipation to divorce]. When we think of the word "slavery," we think of these abuses. Thus, by defining the word as intrinsically abusive, like marriages in which one party beats the other, we can conveniently define away all the instances of slavery (or, for that matter, marriage) in which the relationship is functional.

Carlyle is in fact ready to be as indignant as anyone over these abuses. He reasons: since slavery is a natural human relationship, this bond will exist regardless of whether you abolish the word. And it does – if only in broken and surreptitious forms. However, if you are a genuine humanitarian and your interest is in abolishing the abuses, the best way to do so is to – abolish the abuses. So, for example, he proposes reforms such as stronger supervision of slaveowners, a standard price by which slaves can buy their freedom, etc, etc.

In this extreme example, we see the general pattern of Carlylean order. Again, order is about the bonds between members of society, which consist of obligations voluntary and involuntary, which are promises made and kept, and enforced by law where law is needed to enforce them. Especially critical to Carlyle is the hierarchical bond, the relationship of command, which is one critical form of social glue without which large organizations cannot function.

I'll leave it at that.  Well, I must add one caveat.  I'm still struggling with the idea that "order, justice and truth" can be directly substituted for "God" without the loss of something important – namely the source.  It's easy to define – and source – "justice" if you can reference God.  Without God, it becomes a bit more complicated.  From whence does justice come without God?  These bonds exist – they are.  Our form of government and efforts at "emancipation" cannot change the fundamental fact of their existence (there is no way to get to "ought").  Is biology enough to solidify this fundamental existence?

There's no real way to help you understand the work without letting you get immersed in the style.  So, some (somewhat) random highlights follow:

To prosper in this world, to gain felicity, victory and  improvement, either for a man or a nation, there is but one thing 'requisite, That the man or nation can discern what the true regulations of the Universe are in regard to him and his pursuit, and can faithfully and steadfastly follow these.  These will lead him to victory; whoever it may be that sets him in the way of these, — were it Russian Autocrat, Chartist Parliament, Grand Lama, Force of Public Opinion, Archbishop  of Canterbury, M'Croudy the Seraphic Doctor with his  Last-evangel of Political Economy, — sets him in the sure way to please the Author of this Universe, and is his friend of friends. And again, whoever does the contrary is, for a like reason, his enemy of enemies. This may be taken as fixed. . . .

How find it [the "true regulation of the Universe]? All the world answers me, “Count heads; ask Universal Suffrage, by the ballot-boxes, and that will tell.” Universal suffrage, ballot-boxes, count of heads? Well, — I perceive we have got into strange spiritual latitudes indeed. Within the last half century or so, either the Universe or else the heads of men must have altered very much. Half a century ago, and down from Father Adam's time till then, the Universe, wherever I could hear tell of it, was wont to be of somewhat  abstruse nature; by no means carrying its secret written on its face, legible to every passer-by; on the contrary, obstinately hiding its secret from all foolish, slavish, wicked,  insincere persons, and partially disclosing it to the wise and noble-minded alone, whose number was not the majority in my time! . . .

The Noble in the high place, the Ignoble in the low; that is, in all times and in all places, the Almighty Maker's Law.  To raise the Sham-Noblest, and solemnly consecrate him by whatever method, new-devised, or slavishly adhered to from old wont, this, little as we may regard it, is a practical blasphemy forevermore, and Nature will in no wise forget it.  Alas, there lies the origin, the fatal necessity, of modern Democracy everywhere. It is the Noblest, not the Sham-Noblest; it is God Almighty's Noble, not the Court-Tailor's Noble, nor the Able-Editor's Noble, that must, in some approximate degree, be raised to the supreme place; he and not a counterfeit, — under penalties! Penalties deep as death, and at length terrible as hell-on-earth, my constitutional friend! — Will the ballot-box raise the Noblest to the chief place; does any sane man deliberately believe such a thing? . . .

I say, it is the everlasting privilege of the foojish to be governed by the wise; to be guided in the right path by those who know it better than they. This is the first 'right of man;'  compared with which all other rights are as nothing,—mere superfluities, corollaries which will follow of their own accord out of this; if they be not contradictions to this, and less  than nothing! To the wise it is not a privilege; far other indeed. Doubtless, as bringing preservation to their country, it implies preservation of themselves withal; but intrinsically it is the harshest duty a wise man, if he be indeed wise, has laid to his hand. A duty which he would fain enough shirk . . .

That the few Wise will have, by one method or another, to take command of the innumerable Foolish; that they must be got to take it; — and that, in fact, since Wisdom, which means also Valor and heroic Nobleness, is alone strong in this world, and one wise man is stronger than all men unwise, they can be got. That they must take it; and having taken, must keep it, and do their God's-Message in it, and defend the same, at their life's peril, against all men and devils. This I do clearly believe to be the backbone of all Future Society, as it has been of all Past; and that without it, there is no Society possible in the world.

The second essay on prisons was my favorite, I read it after the car was stolen:

The scoundrel that will  hasten to the gallows, why not rather clear the way for him?  Better he reach his goal and outgate by the natural proclivity, than be so expensively dammed up and detained, poisoning every thing as he stagnates and meanders along, to arrive at last a hundred times fouler, and swollen a hundred times bigger! . . .

Does the Christian or any religion prescribe love of scoundrels, then? I hope it prescribes a healthy hatred of scoundrels; — otherwise what am I, in Heaven's name, to make of it? Me, for one, it will not serve as a religion on those strange terms. Just hatred of scoundrels, I say; fixed, irreconcilable, inexorable enmity to the enemies of God . . .

If  you love your thief or murderer, if Nature and eternal Fact  love him, then do as you are now doing. But if Nature and Fact do not love him ? If they have set inexorable penalties upon him and planted natural wrath against him in every god-created human heart, — then I advise you, cease, and change your hand. . . .

The one answer to him [the thief or murderer] is: "Caitiff, we hate thee; and discern for some six thousand years now, that we are called upon by the whole Universe to do it. Not with a diabolic but with a divine hatred. God himself, we have always understood, 'hates sin,' with a most authentic, celestial, and eternal hatred. A hatred, a hostility inexorable, unappeasable, which blasts the scoundrel, and all scoundrels ultimately, into black annihilation and disappearance from the sum of things. The path of it as the path of a flaming sword: he that has eyes may see it, walking inexorable, divinely beautiful and divinely terrible, through the chaotic gulf of human History, and everywhere burning, as with  unquenchable fire, the false and death-worthy from the true and life-worthy; making all Human History, and the Biography of every man, a God's Cosmos in place of a Devil's  Chaos. So is it, in the end; even so, to every man who is a  man, and not a mutinous beast, and has eyes to see. To  thee, caitiff, these things were and are quite incredible; to us  they are too awfully certain; we, — send thee back into the whole Universe, solemnly expel thee from our community; and will, in the name of God,not with joy and exultation, but with sorrow stern as thy own, hang thee on Wednesday next, and so end. . . .

'Revenge,' my friends! revenge, and the natural hatred  of scoundrels, and the ineradicable tendency to revancher oneself upon them, and pay them what they have merited:  this is forevermore intrinsically a correct, and even a divine feeling in the mind of every man. Only the excess of it is  diabolic; the essence I say is manlike, and even godlike . . .

More on the first theme:

For the Able Man, meet him where you may, is definable as the born enemy of Falsity and Anarchy, and the born soldier of Truth and Order; into what absurdest element soever you put him, he is there to make it a little less absurd, to fight  continually with it till it become a little sane and human again.

The next sections are about picking the best men and putting the best, a task which must, in turn, be performed by able men.

Just a random, interesting observation:

A man  of real dignity will not find it impossible to bear himself in a dignified manner; a man of real understanding and insight will get to know, as the fruit of his very first study, what the laws of his situation are, and will conform to these.

On Parliament:

Certain it always is, and if forgotten, it much requires to be brought to mind, that a Parliament acting in the character of a body to be consulted by the sovereign ruler, or executive King of a Nation, differs immensely from a Parliament which is itself to enact the sovereign ruler, and to be supreme over all things; not merely giving its advice, its remonstrance, dissent or assent, and leaving the ruler still to decide with that new illumination; but deciding of itself, and by its Yes or its No peremptorily ordering all things to be or not to be. These, I say, are two extremely different characters for a Parliament to enact; and they necessitate all manner of distinctions, of the most vital nature, in our idea of a Parliament; so that what applies with full force to a Parliament acting the former character, will not apply at all to one enacting the latter; nay what is of the highest benefit in the former kind of Parliament, may not only in the latter kind be of no benefit, but be even of the fatallest detriment, and bring destruction to the poor Parliament itself and to all that depends thereon. . . .

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. Consider in fact, a body of Six-hundred and fifty-eight miscellaneous persons set to consult about 'business,' with Twenty-seven millions, mostly fools, assiduously listening to them, and checking and criticizing them: — was there ever since the world began, will there ever be till the world end, any 'business' accomplished in these circumstances?


Slave or free is settled in Heaven for a man; acts of parliament attempting to settle it on earth for him sometimes make sad work of it. . . .

My friends, I grieve to remind you, but it is eternally the fact: Whom Heaven has made a slave, no parliament of men nor power that exists on Earth can render free. No; he is  chained by fetters which parliaments with their millions cannot reach. You can label him free; yes, and it is but labelling him a solecism,— bidding him be the parent of  solecisms wheresoever he goes. You can give him pumpkins, houses of ten pound rent, houses of ten-thousand pound: the bigger candle you light within the slave-image of him, it will but show his slave-features on the larger and more hideous scale. Heroism, manful wisdom, is not his; many things you can give him, but that thing never. Him the  Supreme Powers marked in the making of him, slave; appointed him, at his and our peril, not to command but to obey, in this world. Him you cannot enfranchise, not him; to  proclaim this man free is not a God's Gospel to other men; it is an alarming Devil's Gospel to himself and to us all. Devil's Gospel little feared in these days; but brewing for the whole of us its big oceans of destruction all the same. States are to be called happy and noble in so far-as they settle rightly who is slave and who free; unhappy, ignoble, and doomed to destruction. as they settle it wrong. . . .

The free man is he who is loyal to the Laws of this Universe; who in his heart sees and knows, across all contradictions, that injustice cannot befall him here; that  except by sloth and cowardly falsity evil is not possible here.  The first symptom of such a man is not that he resists and rebels, but that he obeys.


7 Responses to Review of "Latter-Day Pamphlets" by Thomas Carlyle

  1. Alrenous says:

    Hume never proved his is-ought distinction is universal. He simply noted many failures to bridge the is-ought gap. Warning: impending yes-but.Yes, MM said the same thing, but why must one immerse oneself in Carlyle to understand him? Can't we just have an author who speaks plainly? Actually, one of Christianity's highlights is a call to hate the sin but not the sinner. Of course, you will hate the sinner, and moreover the forces responsible are utterly superior to your own meagre means, and so it's just stupid not to bow to them. However, know, realize, that it is due to these forces, not because the sinner sins.

  2. […] The writings of Mencius Moldbug (and the works of Thomas Carlyle (e.g. here, here, here, here)) – Ultimately, many of the questions raised by Rothbard were answered by […]

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  5. […] Foseti has already written capably on the book, and you may want to start with his review for context. […]

  6. […] Foseti has already written capably on the book, and you may want to start with his review for context. […]

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