Carlyle Publishes Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Thomas Carlyle’s polemic Past and Present came at a critical moment in the debate over the condition-of-England question that was raging at the time. His work influenced legislators, public opinion, and novelists such as Charles Dickens, effecting much-needed reforms and changes in public attitudes toward both social issues and politics.

Summary of Event

During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Great Britain’s Industrial Revolution revealed a host of social and economic problems. Industrial Revolution;social problems Industrial Revolution;Great Britain Although the wealth of the country appeared to be increasing, the amount of poverty, unsanitary living conditions, and conflict between the various classes of society were increasing as well. The period after the Napoleonic Wars had brought economic depression, as the wartime economy collapsed. Restrictive tariffs and the Corn Laws held basic food prices high, even when the economy began to recover. Political reform was slow as well, and it failed to benefit the working classes. In response, industrial unrest grew, focusing on a devastating series of strikes and finding expression in Chartism, Chartist movement the first organized working-class reform movement. Past and Present, which Thomas Carlyle published in 1843, set forth a radical analysis of causes and a challenge for the nation to move forward to true greatness. Carlyle, Thomas Past and Present (Carlyle) Historians;Thomas Carlyle[Carlyle] [kw]Carlyle Publishes Past and Present (1843) [kw]Publishes Past and Present, Carlyle (1843) [kw]Past and Present, Carlyle Publishes (1843) Carlyle, Thomas Past and Present (Carlyle) Historians;Thomas Carlyle[Carlyle] [g]Great Britain;1843: Carlyle Publishes Past and Present[2270] [c]Literature;1843: Carlyle Publishes Past and Present[2270] [c]Historiography;1843: Carlyle Publishes Past and Present[2270]

Thomas Carlyle.

(Library of Congress)

Past and Present analyzes the failures of Great Britain’s leadership and puts forward historic precedents of great leadership. Carlyle’s thrust was away from popular democratic reforms toward a moral meritocracy, which would ultimately become a new, and great, aristocracy. He attacked the aristocracy, the landed gentry, as dilettantes and also castigated the nation’s industrialists, the “millocracy,” labeling their values as Mammonism—a biblical reference to their serving Mammon, or riches, instead of God (Matt. 6:24). The dilettantes, Carlyle believed, enjoyed unearned wealth and shirked their responsibilities, making no attempt to lead the country. The millocracy, which worked hard, had no moral or spiritual values; they worshiped success, justifying the appalling working conditions in which their workers toiled by invoking what Carlyle regarded as the virtual nontheory of laissez-faire and supply and demand. For the millocracy, the cash nexus was the only meaningful social relationship. By contrast, Carlyle stressed the sacredness of work. He saw the Romans as great because they had achieved their greatness silently by their noble labor.

Carlyle saw clearly that many previous approaches to Britain’s economic and social problems were short-term and ultimately inadequate. He saw that neither the repeal of the Corn Laws, with the consequent move toward free trade, nor the broadening of the Reform Bill of 1832 Reform Act of 1832 to empower more people to vote, nor the adoption of the tenets of Chartism Chartist movement (such as universal suffrage and the guarantee of work), nor further reform of the Poor Laws Poor Law of 1834 (Great Britain) Great Britain;Poor Laws would be effective in solving the country’s malaise. What was needed was good government with great leaders who could truly lead. The problem, in Carlyle’s view, was ultimately moral, spiritual, and personal, and not political, economic, or institutional.

The immediate impetus for Past and Present was Carlyle’s visit to St. Ives in Huntingdonshire, England, where he was researching the life of Oliver Cromwell. There he saw one of the new workhouses Great Britain;workhouses created under the recently enacted New Poor Law: Able-bodied men, willing to work, resided in prison conditions; despite their willingness to work, there was no work to do. Charles Dickens Dickens, Charles [p]Dickens, Charles;on workhouses[Workhouses] had already satirized these workhouses in his novel Oliver Twist Oliver Twist (Dickens) (1837-1839). Carlyle, appalled, abandoned his work on Cromwell for two years to devote himself to a new polemic, the four-part extended essay that came to be Past and Present.

Carlyle had already written about some of his ideas in On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History (1841). Oliver Cromwell Cromwell, Oliver was one such heroic leader, arising in the conflict between forces of history to assume leadership and lead his country into the future. Similarly, William the Conqueror William the Conqueror had been such a leader of the forces of destiny, wresting England from the warring factions of the Saxon monarchy to a new and united Norman leadership.

In Past and Present, Carlyle’s hero is a twelfth century monk, Abbot Samson. Carlyle stresses the spirituality of work: “to work is to worship” was the monks’ motto. He shows in Samson the courage and single-mindedness that characterize great leaders in the face of considerable reaction, inertia, and hostility. Samson emerged at a time when the Church was weak, dominated by the aristocracy, and also corrupt from within. By sheer moral strength and a natural genius for governing, Samson had built a great cathedral and brought reform to monasticism and the public and spiritual life of the province. For Carlyle, Samson was a paragon of both the true priesthood and the true aristocracy.

Heavily influenced by German Romanticism Romanticism;German , Carlyle was the divine expressing itself in the forces of nature. He believed in a providential destiny that would eventually end present social abuses; he also believed that if justice were ignored and the need to reform was neglected, revolution would follow—as in the case of the French Revolution (1789) French Revolution (1789);histories of of the past generation. Hence, Carlyle held, it is much better to reform radically than allow revolution.

Carlyle also recognized the innate willingness of people to obey a heroic leadership. The present age required altruistic “Captains of Industry” who could lead morally and with the true welfare of their workers at heart. Carlyle had a sense of the inevitable positive progress of humankind, based on “true work” done by many unknown workers. This basic optimism would characterize much of the forward-looking Victorian age.


Thomas Carlyle became the voice of his generation and indeed of early Victorian England. Charles Dickens Dickens, Charles [p]Dickens, Charles;and Thomas Carlyle[Carlyle] , for example, dedicated his novel Hard Times Hard Times (Dickens) (1854) to him and incorporated many of Carlyle’s ideas into his own writing, which also was immensely influential in mid-Victorian Britain. The novelist-politician Benjamin Disraeli Disraeli, Benjamin , later to be prime minister, championed a reformed aristocracy in his novel Sybil: Or, The Two Nations Sybil (Disraeli) (1845). The art critic and historian John Ruskin Ruskin, John , another prophetic figure in mid- to late-Victorian England, adopted much of Carlyle’s distinctive rhetoric, as did Matthew Arnold, poet and education reformer.

Carlyle’s meritocratic and oligarchic ideas, though essentially undemocratic, were heeded: Reforms were carried out, thereby avoiding violent revolution. Better economic theories were propounded, by John Stuart Mill and others. A new work ethic placing duty above personal happiness—a hallmark of the Victorians—can be traced in large part to Carlyle’s Past and Present, though much of the necessary legislation took another century to implement fully.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Carlyle, Thomas. A Carlyle Reader: Selections from the Writings of Thomas Carlyle. Edited by G. B. Tennyson. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984. The best one-volume selection from Carlyle’s voluminous works. Representative texts from all periods and types of his writing, including his letters and journal.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Past and Present. 1843. Available through Project Gutenberg at Accessed January 19, 2006.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Heffer, Simon. Moral Desperado: A Life of Thomas Carlyle. London: Orion, 1996. One of the more interesting biographies of Carlyle.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Holloway, John. The Victorian Sage: Studies in Argument. London: Macmillan, 1953. Chapters 2 and 3 carry a full discussion of Carlyle as the prototype of the prophetic voice speaking on the condition-of-England question of Victorian Britain. His influence is traced on writers such as Arnold and Ruskin.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lee, Yoon Sun. Nationalism and Irony: Burke, Scott, Carlyle. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Lee takes the concept of Romantic nationalism and shows how the ironic treatment given it effectively undermines its inherent conservatism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Siegel, Jules Paul, ed. Thomas Carlyle. New York: Routledge, 1996. Part of the Critical Heritage series, this work discusses Carlyle’s criticism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Symons, Julian. Thomas Carlyle. Thirsk, England: House of Stratus, 2001. Another account of Carlyle’s work and life, emphasizing his eccentricity.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Trela, D. J., and Rodger L. Tarr, eds. The Critical Response to Thomas Carlyle’s Major Works. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997. Like the Critical Heritage series volume but with much more emphasis on Past and Present.

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Categories: History