Carlyle rages against the coming of the light

From his Latter-Day Pamphlets (1850):

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? 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: this, and not love for them, and incessant whitewashing, and dressing and cockering of them, must, if you look into it, be the backbone of any human religion whatsoever. Christian Religion! In what words can I address you, ye unfortunates, sunk in the slushy ooze till the worship of mud-serpents, and unutterable Pythons and poisonous slimy monstrosities, seems to you the worship of God? This is the rotten carcass of Christianity; this mal-odorous phosphorescence of post-mortem sentimentalism. O Heavens, from the Christianity of Oliver Cromwell, wrestling in grim fight with Satan and his incarnate Blackguardisms, Hypocrisies, Injustices, and legion of human and infernal angels, to that of eloquent Mr. Hesperus Fiddlestring denouncing capital punishments, and inculcating the benevolence on platforms, what a road have we travelled!

The historical conundrum is inconvenient indeed. Carlyle could not have guessed that Mr. Fiddlestring’s great-grandchildren would resolve this duel by turning off the light-saber, surrendering the title of Christianity for the humble office of universal truth. But surely he would have mocked and applauded the gambit.

(A typical but unfortunate casualty of the God wars is the word evangelical, which once meant Mr. Fiddlestring and now refers to his adversaries. Of course, if we could resurrect Hesperus Fiddlestring himself and set him back on his soapbox, his actual policy proposals would be well to the right of Strom Thurmond, and Carlyle with his penchant for the n-word is often literally unspeakable (did he have to put it in the title?); but the armies are the same, though field and flags have shifted.)

It is fascinating and frustrating to read Carlyle, because his diagnoses are often startlingly prescient and his remedies are almost invariably dangerous and ineffective. (This is a very familiar conservative syndrome.) Carlyle is often described as a predecessor of fascism, and I see no reason at all to discount the charge, although I should note that I also see no reason to treat fascism and communism differently.

I was reminded of Carlyle by frequent commenter TGGP, who linked to this well-written essay about the conflict between Carlyle and John Stuart Mill. Levy and Peart, whose theory of presentism is ironic to say the least – it is at least as bad to patronize the past as to condemn it – severely mischaracterize a passage from Charles Kingsley’s delicious Water-Babies (which I have to thank Conrad Roth for recommending), and in the usual modern style regard the dispute as thoroughly defunct, presumably courtesy of the Eighth Air Force. But they are excellent writers and they bring the affair to life quite vividly, and these peccadillos are trivial by the standards of today.

A useful, even essential, exercise when reading a writer like Carlyle, with whom any modern reader is certain to find numerous points of vigorous disagreement, is to try to construct arguments against his positions which deploy modern history as it happened and modern science as we know it, but are designed to convince Carlyle or his contemporaries. Assume that Carlyle trusts your claim to be a time traveler from 2007 and accepts your veracity, but has no other reason to agree with you. If even with the spectacular rhetorical munitions that 150 years of hindsight have armed you with, you can’t win the argument, it’s time to worry.

For example, in the matter of Governor Eyre, Peart and Levy see absolutely no reason to refer to the future history of Jamaica, or of colonialism in general, or of any of the many subsequent attempts to suppress revolutionary violence using military techniques more acceptable to Mr. Fiddlestring and his descendants, whose philanthropic zeal has hardly mellowed with time. Peart and Levy are economic historians, and the idea that they could have any opinion on the subject that might differ even slightly from their generation’s conventional wisdom, if it even did occur to them, would be thoroughly out of place in their work.

Carlyle has many flaws. But for all of them, he was a generalist, a species long extinct. A real aurochs. And if anyone in the 19th century forecast the corrupt and bloodthirsty empires of the People that would dominate the 20th, it was he.

Of course, many in the 20th tried to apply his remedies. Carlyle’s economics are nothing short of disastrous, and he is particularly fond of slave labor in almost any form imaginable, especially if there is some kind of paramilitary component. I’d like to think the Third Reich would have been much too democratic for him, but perhaps this is overly generous.

Carlyle’s error as I perceive it was that he took all the doctrines of his foes, whom he perceived correctly as fools, and simply reversed them. The tragedy of the Enlightenment period is this dissection into Whig and Tory, liberal and fascist, progressive and conservative, each with almost exactly half of what I in my humble hubris consider reality. Two heads are too much for one brain, and cotton wool doesn’t do well in the skull. Today our “little liber-al” or “little conserva-tive” is launched into life with a great black nest of fungal hyphae sitting right there next to the remaining hemisphere, forcing him to actually rotate his neck if he wants to see the real world to his right or left respectively, a tough maneuver even if practiced. Removing this bolus of pious delusion is difficult, replacing it with healthy tissue almost impossible.

For this, like Carlyle, I blame politics. Which means I blame democracy, because democracy without politics makes the Immaculate Conception look routine. But, again, it is important to separate this diagnosis from the many remedies that have been proposed for it – not least by Carlyle himself.

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