Review of “Characteristics” by Thomas Carlyle

You can find the book here.

In this work, Carlyle lays out a moral theory. In brief, his argument is that morality is like health. The healthy are unaware of their good health, while the sick are constantly aware of their lack of health. So to with morality. Those who are truly moral are unaware of their goodness, while the immoral are constant concerned with their morality or lack thereof.

In like manner, under milder phraseology, and with a meaning purposely much wider, a living thinker has taught us: “of the wrong we are always conscious, of the right never.” But if such is the law with regard to speculation and the intellectual power of man, much more is it with regard to conduct, and the power, manifested chiefly therein, which we name moral. “Let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth”: whisper not to thy own heart. How worthy is this action! For then it is already becoming worthless. The good man is he who works continually in well-doing; to whom well-doing is as his natural existence, awakening no astonishment, requiring no commentary; but there, like a thing of course, and as if it could not but be so. Self-contemplation, on the other hand, is infallibly the symptom of disease, be it or be it not the sign of cure.

. . .

To say that we have a clear conscience, is to utter a solecism; had we never sinned, we should have had no conscience. Were defeat unknown, neither would victory be celebrated by songs of triumph.

. . .

The healthy-moral nature loves goodness, and without wonder wholly lives in it: the unhealthy makes love to it, and would fain get to live in it; or, finding such courtship fruitless, turns round, and not without contempt abandons it.

And a bit on government:

Every society, every polity, has a spiritual principle; is the embodiment, tentative and more or less complete, of an idea: all its tendencies of endeavor, specialties of custom, its laws, politics, and whole procedure (as the glance of some Montesquieu, across innumerable superficial entanglements, can partly decipher), are prescribed by an idea, and flow naturally from it, as movements from the living source of motion. This idea, be it of devotion to a man or class of men, to a creed, to an institution, or even, as in more ancient times, to a piece of land, is ever a true loyalty; has in it something of a religious, paramount, quite infinite character; it is properly the soul of the state, its life; mysterious as other forms of life, and like these working secretly, and in a depth beyond that of consciousness.

. . .

Again, under another aspect, if utilitarianism, or radicalism, or the mechanical philosophy, or by whatever name it is called, has still its long task to do; nevertheless we can now see through it and beyond it: in the better heads, even among us English, it has become obsolete; as in other countries, it has been, in such heads, for some forty or even fifty years. What sound mind among the French, for example, now fancies that men can be governed by “Constitutions”; by the never so cunning mechanizing of self-interests, and all conceivable adjustments of checking and balancing; in a word, by the best possible solution of this quite insoluble and impossible problem, Given a world of knaves, to produce an honesty from their united action? Were not experiments enough of this kind tried before all Europe, and found wanting, when, in that doomsday of France, the infinite gulf of human passion shivered asunder the thin rinds of habit; and burst forth all-devouring, as in seas of nether tire? Which cunningly devised “Constitution,” constitutional, republican, democratic, sans-culottic, could bind that raging chasm together? Were they not all burnt up, like paper as they were, in its molten eddies; and still the fire-sea raged fiercer than before. It is not by mechanism, but by religion; not by self-interest, but by loyalty, that men are governed or governable. Remarkable it is, truly, how everywhere the eternal fact begins again to be recognized, that there is a Godlike in human affairs; that God not only made us and beholds us, but is in us and around us; that the age of miracles, as it ever was, now is. Such recognition we discern on all hands and in all countries: in each country after its own fashion.

I can’t resist quoting this; it may be one of my new favorites:

Well might the ancients make silence a god; for it is the element of all godhood, infinitude, or transcendental greatness; at once the source and the ocean, wherein all such begins and ends. . . . But indeed, in a far lower sense, the rudest mind has still some intimation of the greatness there is in mystery. If silence was made a god of by the ancients, he still continues a government-clerk among us moderns.

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2 Responses to Review of “Characteristics” by Thomas Carlyle

  1. [...] 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 Moldbug. I’d [...]

  2. [...] Actually, if three books are all that is required, then I’m already in. You may now refer to me as Deacon Foseti. [...]

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