The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

I. Carlyle

§ 11. Latter-Day Pamphlets

Seven years later, in 1850, Carlyle again essayed the rôle of political critic and prophet, namely in his Latter-Day Pamphlets. In these papers, he brought his doctrines to a still sharper focus on the actual problems of the day, and expressed them with a virulence and passionate exaggeration which left his earliest utterances far behind. The consequence was that many of his old friends—friends of many years’ standing like Mazzini and Mill—were estranged. Carlyle’s whole-hearted denunciation of philanthropy, in particular, appeared to that eminently philanthropic age as the utterances of a misanthrope and a barbarian. Possibly, he overshot the mark, although the Pamphlets contain little that he had not already said—in point of fact, Carlyle’s political creed turns round a very few cardinal ideas which are repeated again and again in different keys throughout his writings. So long as he had been content to enunciate these political theories as abstractions, they were accepted—no doubt with some demur, but still accepted—as the curious views of an interesting personality; it was when he brought them to bear on the concrete questions of the day that he caused real offence. Looking back on the storm that Latterday Pamphlets called forth, one cannot help thinking that this book was, in some way, a reflex of the great political upheaval of 1848, from which England had emerged much less scathed than the nations of the continent. Doubtless, Carlyle saw in the March revolution and its dire consequences in other lands a realisation of his forebodings. “It is long years,” he wrote to Emerson of that revolution, “since I felt any such deep-seated satisfaction at a public event, showing once again that the righteous Gods do yet live and reign.” He felt the surer that England would not escape the nemesis, that nemesis, indeed, might be all the more terrible in consequence of the delay of its coming.

As a political preacher and prophet, Carlyle was as one crying in the wilderness; his hand was against every man’s; he was disowned by all parties, and, apart from a certain confidence which, in earlier days, he had felt in peel, he was notoriously out of sympathy with the leaders of the two great political parties. He trampled ruthlessly on the toes of Victorian liberals, and flouted their most cherished ideas. Deep down in his heart, he remained the democratic Scottish peasant, who demanded, with Burns-like radicalism, that the innate nobility of manhood, whether in king or peasant, must be recognised; he claimed the right of nobly born souls to rise to be rulers of men. His own cure for all political ills was government by the ablest and best: but he denied vehemently the possibility of the ablest and best being discoverable by the vote of a majority; for such a purpose, reform bills and secret ballots were wholly unsuitable. No nation could be guided alright—any more than a ship could double cape Horn—by the votes of a majority. Exactly in what manner the best man, the hero, is to be discovered and endowed with power, is a problem Carlyle never reduces to practical terms or intelligible language; and methods similar to those whereby abbot Samson became the head of his monastery, if applied to the conditions of modern life, would—he must himself have admitted it—lead to anarchy, not stable government. Carlyle had rather a kind of mystic belief in the able man entering into his inheritance by virtue of a supernatural right; that the choice of the man who should rule over men lay not so much with the ruled themselves as with a higher Power; and that the right to govern was enforced by a divinely endowed might to compel the obedience of one’s fellow-men.

But the world, as Carlyle clearly saw, was not planned on so orderly a scheme as his faith implied. “Might” showed itself by no means always to be the same thing as “right”; and, in spite of his belief in the virtue of strength, none could be more denunciatory than Carlyle of the victorious usurper, if the usurper’s ends were not in accordance with Carlyle’s own interpretation of God’s purpose. Behind all his political writings, and his asseveration of the right of might, there thus lay a serious and irreconcilable schism. “The strong thing is the just thing,” he proclaimed with increasing vehemence; but he was forced to add that it might need centuries to show the identity of strength and justice. In truth, with all his belief in the strong man, Carlyle never came entirely out into the open; never expressed himself with the ruthless logical consistency of the individualistic thinkers of our own time; the doctrine of the Ubermensch was not yet ripe. On the other hand, in the modern democratic ideal of a state built up on mutually helpful citizenship, Carlyle had little faith.