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Books | Carlyle's Victorian jeremiads valuable for today's culture

Issue: "Chistendon's Kosher Allies," Feb. 15, 1997

&quotA prophet is not without honor except in his own town&quot--perhaps in his own time as well. Thomas Carlyle was widely acknowledged as the Jeremiah of the Victorian age. He railed against the bold materialism, the bare rationalism, and the brazen skepticism of his time with an untempered fervor rivaling the seers of yore. And consequently, he was less than esteemed by his peers. But he has proved to more relevant than any of them, to our time and to all time.

He was born Dec. 4, 1795, in Scotland and was raised by his stonemason father in the stern providence of the Burgher Secession Church. Though young Carlyle fled to the intellectual environs of literary London at the earliest opportunity, he was never to escape the tug of those strong childhood influences: He was a resolute Scot, a hard-working commoner, and a convinced Calvinist. Furious episodes of rebellion punctuated his life and career, but he always returned, demonstrating his contention that what a man is ultimately determines what he does, not the other way around.

Carlyle read voraciously and omnivorously in the medieval classics, realizing before long that his emerging worldview--rooted in that profound heritage of near-forgotten Christendom--was utterly at odds with the prevailing Enlightenment view of his time. So he began to write, or rather to prophesy. In 1832 he wrote his brilliant commentary Sartor Resartus. Part novel, part autobiography, part history, and part social commentary, the book is one of the most original works of prose ever written in the English language.

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At first sight the book appears to be the bizarre account--recorded by an admiring but dubious editor--of a work by an outlandish German philosopher named &quotDiogenes Teufelsdrockh" (literally, Devil's Dung), who was &quotProfessor of Things in General at the University of Weissnichtwo" (literally, Don't Know Where), on &quotthe Philosophy of Clothes."

The whole story turns out to be an ingenious and amusing metaphor comparing and contrasting Pietism with Calvinism. The eccentricity of Teufelsdrockh is somehow symbolic of God's providential working in the lives of mundane and ordinary men to accomplish marvelous and extraordinary deeds, while his strange fixation on clothes is symbolic of this poor fallen world, which at once disguises and conceals, but also reveals and expresses the gracious workings of the Spirit of God behind the spirit of men.

Most scholars contend that Carlyle's thought did not reach full maturity until the appearance of his great historical and biographical works. But the philosophical grid for those later works was first established and best delineated in Sartor Resartus.

In the novel he argues that history is itself a kind of dim Gospel--the veiled revelation of a just providence working in the affairs of men. It is not a Gospel that can be read simplistically, of course, rather it is one that bids us all to &quotpause over the mysterious vestiges of Him, whose path is in the great deep of Time, whom history indeed reveals, but only in all of history, and in Eternity--not merely in swatches--will He clearly be revealed." Carlyle believed that we can see the ultimate reality of God's glory in the brute obscurity of recorded events, knowing that &quotMan's history is a perpetual Evangel--an inarticulate Bible--a loud-roaring loom of time, with all its French Revolutions and Jewish Revelations weaving the vesture thou seest Him by."

Carlyle deserves a wider audience in our own times--when a cogent Christian vision of space and time and history is perhaps more desperately needed than ever before.

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