Characteristics by Thomas Carlyle

by Paul Mathers

ImageIntrepid readers might suspect that I am not saying anything concrete by saying that I enjoyed reading Carlyle far more than I enjoyed Mill. If I were to say that I enjoyed it 100 times more, those who heard me talk about Mill might think that the amount I enjoyed Carlyle was still zero. This would be incorrect.

I found Carlyle to be an infinitely more engaging read. His passion is evident. He has the fire of a mystic in his rhetorical style.

Characteristics was an essay which originally appeared in The Edinburgh Review in 1831. It deals with an “illness” of society in his time, that of a hyper-active self-consciousness (that this remains one of Carlyle’s best known works is a testimony to the unfortunately also enduring quality of that societal illness).

He writes that the unconscious is a sign of health and consciousness is a sign of disease (a century before Jung even!) and then makes the case that human society, specifically politics, has a similar principle. In fact, he seems to view society as an organism, reminding me very much of the Collective Unconscious.

He also devotes a large portion to the dichotomy of the secular versus the religious in the (then) recent manifestations of Materialism and Spiritualism, respectively taught by Hope and Schlegel. He seems to suggest that both extremes having been so recently plumbed, it remains for a synthesis to emerge. Again, this could have been written this week. Although his synthesis would seem to suggest a “burning out” of skepticism and a renewal of faith. What sort of faith he would condone is not made clear by this essay.

I don’t have much more to say about the piece (it was a short piece) except to say that one of my initial reactions was astonishment that this man was such close friends with Mill. Their writing is so vastly different. I should think it’s a testimony to each of the men’s character that they could co-exist and, in fact, foster a friendship with such glaring differences.

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