Thomas Carlyle by Fred Kaplan; Cor nell University Press; Ithaca.
Most people know nothing about metaphysics and wish to know less. The case is not that they do not actually govern their lives in harmony with a set of metaphysical principles, for that is simply not an option. As Aldous Huxley perceived: “It is impossible to live without a metaphysic. The choice that is given is not between some kind of meta physic and no metaphysic: it is always between good metaphysic and a bad metaphysic.” A moment’s reflection confirms the validity of Huxley’s perception. Because meaning is always binary, consisting of corporeal fact and inter pretative pattern, purposeful life always presupposes both the physical world of sensation and some metaworld of ideals.
However, though everyone has a philosophy, few think about it rigorously or philosophically. For centuries this has meant that millions of Westerners have accepted some form of Judeo-Christianity without subjecting it to much intellectual scrutiny. Doubtless many of these believers could justly be charged with mental laziness. But even the deepest of Jewish and Christian thinkers have concluded that the metaphysical premises of biblical faith are ultimately beyond the reach of the subtlest thought. Yahweh fashions an earth, then speaks to its inhabitants out of a burning bush, a whirlwind, or in a still small voice; the eternal Logos becomes flesh in Bethlehem these are simply sacred givens, manifestations of salvific grace, not the demonstrable discoveries of any rational analysis. Such a metaphysics requires the most adept scholars, just as much as the most unlettered fishermen, to adopt an epistemological humility, an openness to the revelation the Lord promised when He said to the Psalmist: “Be still and know that I am God.”
But the thinkers of the modem world have generally not been still, nor have they known God. Rationalists and skep tics of various schools have repudiated the givens of revelation and thus under mined Judeo-Christian logocentrism. As Huxley well understood, however, the destruction of one system of metaphys ics does not leave a vacuum, for it always requires the acceptance of some other and quite possibly worse system. Nowhere is this more evident than in the life of Thomas Carlyle, a man appropriately labelled by one of his critics as a pivotal exponent of “the idea of the modem.”
As a young man, Carlyle deeply sensed the need for some “system of metaphysics, not for talk, but for adoption and belief.” But after a study of Gibbon, D’Alembert, Hume, and Diderot convinced him that he could no longer accept the Presbyterian faith he learned as a child and after a survey of philosophy left him still unsatisfied, he rejected all extant metaphysics as an “inexpressibly unproductive” realm of “Air-Castles … cunningly built of Words.” The time had come, he announced, for creative writers to engage in a project of “Constructive Metaphysics” embodied in “a new Bible” of literature. Accordingly, he identified “the Guild of Authors” as “the true Church” and prophesied that “peace will never be till they are recognized as such.” During a lifetime in which he was widely hailed as a “prophet” and his works read as “scripture” by idealistic young people, Carlyle did receive some of the recognition as a quasi-priest that he sought. Indeed, Thomas Henry Huxley, grandfather of Aldous, wrote that from Carlyle he had learned that ”a deep sense of religion was compatible with the entire absence of theology.”
But what is religion without theology? Moreover, in what kind of “Church” can such a religion be practiced? Obviously, when Theos i.e.God, no longer provides the metaphysical basis for religious meaning, a new focus of worship must be found. Carlyle’s “Constructive Meta physics” offered a “new (or totally unconceived) species of divineness” that did “not come from Judea, from Olympus, Asgard, Mount Mecca, but is in man himself.” At first such a notion of internal human “divineness” may seem a comfortable one, easy to live with: no fear of displeasing a divine Judge; no tearful repentance for sin; no agonizing search for objectively true religious doctrine. But such a “divineness” turns out to be, as the course of Carlyle’s own life and works demonstrates, more merci less and exacting than any creed given by the sternest external Lawgiver. For if there is no One outside of man to condemn him for his sins, neither is there any One to help him with his problems, not the least of which are finding some meaning for life and establishing some order for society.
Like most other writers of his time and since, Carlyle considered himself above all “religious controversies about faith, works, grace, [and] prevenient grace,” but the internal logic of his Constructive Metaphysics forced him to preach one long uninterrupted sermon affirming the “divine” necessity of unrelenting human works to fill the metaphysical vacuum created by the rejection of divine grace. In an early letter to his brother he set himself against the Apostle Paul’s teach ing that salvation is “not of works lest we should boast” and expressed his hope “to go through so handsomely, without aid from any grinder or honer whatever, but purely by one’s own resources.” As Fred Kaplan shows in his meticulously researched biography, undoubtedly the standard for years to come, Carlyle did not “go through so handsomely”; his was a life of frantic anxiety, strife, bitterness, alienation, and despair. Unfortunately, in his repudiation of grace and his desire to live “purely by one’s resources,” he spoke for an emerging secular culture which is now likewise floundering in its efforts
to survive on its own human resources.
In this sense, Carlyle’s biography might be considered not as a new Bible but as a new Pilgrim’s Progress in which a secularized pilgrim determinedly seeks not salvation in the Celestial City but rather a rewarding career as an influential creative writer in Vanity Fair. And whereas the tenets of Bunyan’s faith permitted those who journeyed along the path previously “cast up by the patriarchs, prophets, Christ, and his apostles” to enjoy God’s grace in the company of angels and of other believers, Carlyle’s defiant gospel of Work doomed him to an unwanted solitude as he made his own uncharted path.
Emerson, Thoreau, and other American Transcendentalists fervently ad mired Carlyle, but unlike him they cheerfully accepted the fragmentation of society as a consequence of iconoclastic self-reliance. Literature might be the new Scripture, but in Thoreau’s vision every man was to use such sacred texts within a private temple erected to “the god he worships after a style purely his own.” Carlyle, however, wanted a new Church not of scattered sheep but of one united social fold. In the past, cohesive churches had been built by missionaries who could, either through reason or through spiritual manifestations, persuade converts that their doctrines and authority were of superhuman origin. Affording neither pentacostal wonders nor logical syllogisms, Carlyle’s anthropocentric faith in literature forced him either to accept his American admirers’ privatized understanding of religion or to look for some other mode of proselytizing.
In his early essays, Carlyle argued that creative writers who put their soul on display in “unconsciously autobiographic” works showed the world the true nature of the divine and therefore deserved reverential disciples. Accordingly, in his first major work, Sartor Resartus, he put his own contorted psyche on display in the guise of the eccentric German writer Diogenes Teufelsdröckh, whose Pen was a miraculous substitute for Aaron’s Rod. The miracle Carlyle most hoped to effect through this brash act of self-disclosure was that of winning a society of converts. Most early Victorians, however, proved even less intractable to the egotistic bearer of this new ecclesiastical rod than Korah was to Moses. Carlyle therefore imitated his prophetic prototype by dropping his rebellious contemporaries into an abyss—the abyss of The French Revolution. In order to put his disobedient readers into this historical pit, though, Carlyle, unlike Moses, had to leap in first, leaving behind the ahistorical literature of self-exposure.
As he hoped, Carlyle did win a wide audience with his impassioned and vivid portrayal of the Revolution as an elemental and inevitable conflagration, consuming the rotten “Shams and lnsupportabilities” of traditional religion. He devoutly hoped that the priesthood of Authors would be the ones to summon the Phoenix of a new communal faith forth from the ashes. Yet it was Napoleon, not any self-exhibiting creative writer, who finally emerged as the deity of the emergent new French society, while as hard as Carlyle tried to convert his own fame as an author into immediate religlous and social authority in Britain, he met with only frustration and disappointment. Consequently, after struggling unsuccessfully in On Heroes, Hero Worship, and the Heroic in History with the question of how to set up a social arrangement that gave authors contemporaneous socioreligious power, he finally bowed his knee to Cromwell, Napoleon, and Frederick the Great, a new trinity of gods who imposed their religious views by force.
That the verge in Carlyle’s new Church was ultimately neither Aaron’s Rod nor Teufelsdröckh’s Pen but Frederick’s Sword was inevitable given the original terms of Carlyle’s Constructive Metaphysics. So long as the Mount of Olives and Sinai tower above the contingent human self, religious authority and social order maybe predicated on something other than armed might. Once the mustard seed of Carlyle’s new faith had cast these mountains out of his metaworld and into the sea of subjective human divineness, mankind was left stranded on Matthew Arnold’s “darkling plain.” Carlyle tried to lift himself and his society above this plain of combative disorder to some more elevated order by tugging ferociously at his literary bootstraps, but all he ended up with after all his tugging was a totalitarian jackboot. A career that began with a nontheological affirmation of the human “Spirit” of religion and a strenuous attack upon militarism and duplicity concluded with shrill acclaim for an agnostic Prussian who imposed his private version of “all the Law and all the Prophets” upon Catholic Silesia through deceit and bloody aggression. Inevitably, Carlyle’s new credo, rooted in nothing but his own ego, collapsed into near-Nietzschean nihilism, with the righteousness of might an inescapable article of faith.
Hence, to call Carlyle’s movement from the wildly idiosyncratic satire of Sartor to the harsh authoritarianism of Frederick a shift of “growing conservatism,” as critics commonly do, is profoundly misleading. Though the conservative mind recognizes the need for authority in a humanely ordered society, it must also recognize the need for a credible philosophical justification for the decisions enforced by that authority. No judge, policeman, or military officer can conserve anything worthwhile in a world which lacks a stable, communally shared vision of another and better metaworld. But from its Alpha to its Omega Carlyle’s “new Bible” constituted an effort to abrogate, not to conserve, the metaphysical principles in the old Bible upon which Western civilization is predicated. Far from “conservative,” Carlyle’s “Constructive Metaphysics” was yet another of the perilously innovative modern philosophies which have boarded up what Malachi called “the windows of heaven,” even as they have unlocked the doors to government power to the darkest sons of earth. In the last moments of a life devoted to promulgating his own monstrous “religion without theology,” Adolf Hitler was moved to tears of devotion as Goebbels read to him from Carlyle’s Frederick the Great, a very popular work of scripture in nazi Germany.
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