Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Thomas Carlyle and the "Perennial Nobleness" of Work

Thomas Carlyle
The Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle[1] was not a fan of America, seeing it as "unrefined, even raw" and lacking in anything of greatness.[2] However, one exception to his disdain was that of "Joseph Smith's [unnamed] successor" (Brigham Young), who seemed to possess the qualities of  Carlyle's "Great Man,"[3] according to his "Draft Essay on the Mormons." Carlyle saw Young among great "men who had struggled with belief and, having resolved to some degree their personal spiritual conflicts, lived lives of usefulness, activity, and leadership."[4] Carlyle was particularly impressed by how this "Great Man" governed the Saints, largely because work was at the heart of Mormonism:

Mormons thrive because they work, are led by a "great man" who values work, and therefore experience success in their efforts. Carlyle's Calvinist upbringing saw these as natural connections...Ian Campbell reminds readers that in the Seceder Church of Ecclefechan where Carlyle's father attended, "work was put before the worshippers as the ultimate end of life." Carlyle sought some form of firm ethics without dogmatism that could be applied to practical problems and above all would imbue "a religious obligation to work." John M. Ulrich writes that Carlyle sought to renew society spiritually by calling for "a religious view of work." [Carlyle's] "Draft Essay on the Mormons" is a part of his attempt to show how work can sanctify society.[5]

In chapter 11 of his Past and Present, Carlyle describes the "perennial nobleness, and even sacredness, in Work." For him, "the latest Gospel in this world is, Know they work and do it." Work was the means of "knowing thyself." "A man perfects himself by working," he wrote, for work is a "purifying fire"; a "life-purpose":

Labour is Life: from the inmost heart of the Worker rises his god-given Force, the sacred celestial Life-essence breathed into him by Almighty God; from his inmost heart awakens him to all nobleness,--to all knowledge, 'self-knowledge' and much else, so soon as Work fitly begins. Knowledge? The knowledge that will hold good in working, cleave thou to that; for Nature herself accredits that, says Yea to that. Properly thou hast no other knowledge but what thou hast got by working: the rest is yet all a hypothesis of knowledge; a thing to be argued of in schools, a thing floating in the clouds, in endless logic-vortices, till we try it and fix it. 'Doubt, of whatever kind, can be ended by Action alone.' 

It is in the act of labor that "the whole soul of a man is composed into a kind of real harmony." For work "is of a religious nature...a brave nature; which it is the aim of all religion to be." In an 1842 letter, Carlyle wrote,

I wish all men knew and saw in very truth, as Emerson does, the everlasting worth, dignity, and blessedness of work...For myself, I feel daily more and more what a truth there is in the old saying of the monks, Laborare est orare [to work is to pray]. I find really that a man cannot make a pair of shoes rightly unless he do it in a devout manner...all work properly so called is an appeal from the Seen to the Unseen--a devout calling upon Higher Powers...[6]

That same year, he wrote another letter declaring that

there is but one man...who is worthy of respect in this world: he that can work at something. The old Monks had a proverb, "Laborare est orare, To work is to pray"; the meaning of which goes far deeper than they perhaps were aware of. He that works well and nobly, not as a slave for mere money-hire, but as a man withal and in the spirit of a man, he, if any, is in real communication with his Unseen Author, making a perpetual pious appeal to the Invisible Powers of this Universe,--which respond to him, if he is faithful. You cannot raise wheat, if you have no virtue, no heroism at all: how much less teach men, conquer men, teach or conquer yourself!

The Mormons ability to "endur[e] the extreme conditions and coloniz[e] desolate regions of the American West"[7] obviously appealed to Carlyle's views of work. His "Draft Essay on the Mormons" is "nearly devoid of theological examinations; instead, it emphasizes the practical results of the religion and expresses approbation for the Church's leadership and the kind of action-oriented belief and obedience it inspires in its members."[8] It seems that Mormons in Carlyle's mind were properly living "the gospel of work."


1. I've written elsewhere about Carlyle's racist reasons for calling economics the "dismal science."

2. Paul E. Kerry, “Thomas Carlyle’s Draft Essay on the Mormons,” Literature & Belief 25:1-2 (2005): 268.

3. Ibid.: 274.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.: 282.

6. Carlyle was quite extreme, calling for the termination of "Fox-hunting, Almacking, Corn-lawing, and a variety of other things" that didn't qualify as work. He also thought "that no man is ever paid for his real work, or should ever expect or demand angrily to be paid..."

7. Kerry, 2005: 282.

8. Ibid.: 284.

No comments:

Post a Comment