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Past and Present: Thomas Carlyle, 1843

Book 3 Chapter 11: Labour

For there is a perennial nobleness, and even sacredness, in Work. Were he never so benighted, forgetful of his high calling, there is always hope in a man that actually and earnestly works: in Idleness alone is there perpetual despair. Work, never so Mammonish, mean is in communication with Nature; the real desire to get Work done will itself lead one more and more to truth, to Nature’s appointments and regulations, which are truth.

The latest Gospel in this world is, Know thy work and do it. ‘Know thyself:’ long enough has that poor ‘self’ of thine tormented thee; thou wilt never get to ‘know’ it, I believe! Think it not thy business, this of knowing thyself; thou art an unknowable individual: know what thou canst work at; and work at it, like a Hercules! That will be thy better plan.

It has been written, ‘an endless significance lies in Work;’ a man perfects himself by working. Foul jungles are cleared away, fair seedfields rise instead, and stately cities; and withal the man himself first ceases to be a jungle and foul unwholesome desert thereby. Consider how, even in the meanest sorts of Labour, the whole soul of a man is composed into a kind of real harmony, the instant he sets himself to work! Doubt, Desire, Sorrow, Remorse, Indignation, Despair itself, all these like hell-dogs lie beleaguering the soul of the poor dayworker, as of every man: but he bends himself with free valour against his task, and all these are stilled, all these shrink murmuring far off into their caves. The man is now a man. The blessed glow of Labour in him, is it not as purifying fire wherein all poison is burnt up, and of sour smoke itself there is made bright blessed flame!

Destiny, on the whole, has no other way of cultivating us. A formless chaos, once set it revolving, grows round and ever rounder; ranges itself, by mere force of gravity, into strata, spherical courses; is no longer a chaos but a round compacted World. What would become of the earth did she cease to revolve? In the poor old Earth, so long as she revolves, all inequalities, irregularities disperse themselves; all irregularities are incessantly becoming regular. Hast thou looked on the Potter’s wheel; - one of the venerablest objects; old as the prophet Ezekiel and far older? Rude lumps of clay, how they spin themselves up, by mere quick whirling, into beautiful circular dishes. And fancy the most assiduous Potter, but without his wheel; reduced to make dishes, or rather amorphous botches, by mere kneeding and baking! Even such a Potter were Destiny with a human soul that would rest and lie at ease, that would not work and spin! Of an idle unrevolving man, the kindest Destiny, like the most assiduous Potter without wheel, can bake and knead nothing other than a botch; - let her spend on him what expensive colouring, what gilding and enameling she will, he is but a botch. Not a dish; no, a bulging, kneaded, crooked, shambling, squint-cornered amorphous botch, - a mere enameled vessel of dishonour! Let the idle think of this.

Blessed is he who has found his work; let him ask no other blessedness. He has a work, a Life-purpose; he has found it, and will follow it! How as a free-flowing channel, dug and torn by noble force through the sour mud-swamp of one’s existence, like an ever deepening river there, it runs and flows; - draining off the sour festering water, gradually from the root of the remotest grass-blade; making instead of pestilential swamp a green fruitful meadow, with its clear-flowing stream. How blessed for the meadow itself, let the stream and its value be great or small! 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.’

And again hast thou valued Patience, Courage, Perseverance, Openness to light; readiness to own thyself mistaken, to do better next time? All these, all virtues, in wrestling with the dim brute powers of Fact, in ordering of thy fellows in such wrestle, there and elsewhere not at all, thou wilt continually learn. Set down a brave Sir Christopher [Wren] in the middle of black ruined Stoneheaps, of foolish unarchitectural Bishops, redtape Officials, idle Nell-Gwyn Defenders of the Faith; and see whether he will ever raise a Paul’s Cathedral out of all that, yea or no! Rough, rude, contradictory are all things and persons, from the mutinous masons and Irish hodmen, up to the idle Nell-Gwyn Defenders, to blustering redtape Officials, foolish unarchitectural Bishops. All these things and persons are there not for Christopher’s sake and his Cathedral’s; they are there for their own sake mainly! Christopher will have to conquer and constrain all these, - if he be able. All these are against him. Equitable Nature herself, who carries her mathematics and architectonics not on the face of her, but deep in the hidden heart of her, - Nature herself, is but partially for him; will be wholly against him, if he constrain her not! His very money, where is it to come from? The pious munificence of England lies far-scattered distant, unable to speak, and say “I am here;” - must be spoken to before it can speak. Pious munificence, and all help, is so silent, invisible, like the gods; impediment, contradictions manifold are so loud and near! O brave Sir Christopher, trust thou in those notwithstanding, and front all these; understand all these, by valiant patience, noble effort, insight, by man’s-strength, vanquish and compel all these, - and, on the whole, strike down victoriously the last topstone of that Paul’s Edifice; thy monument for certain centuries, the stamp ‘Great Man’ impressed very legibly on Portland-stone there! -

Yes, all manner of help, and pious response from Men or Nature, is always what we call silent; cannot speak or come to light, till it be seen, till it be spoken to. Every noble work is at first ‘impossible.’ In very truth, for every noble work the possibilities will lie diffused through Immensity; inarticulate, undiscoverable except to faith. Like Gideon thou shall spread out thy fleece at the door of thy tent; see whether under the wide arch of Heaven there be any bounteous moisture, or none. Thy heart and life-purpose shall be as a miraculous Gideon’s fleece spread out in silent appeal to Heaven; and from the kind Immensities, what from the poor unkind Localities and town and country Parishes there never could, blessed dew-moisture to suffice thee shall have fallen!

Work is of a religious nature: - work is of a brave nature; which it is the aim of all religion to be. ‘All work of man is as the swimmer’s: a waste ocean threatens to devour him; if he front it not bravely, it will keep its word. By incessant wise defiances of it, lusty rebuke and buffet of it, behold how it loyally supports him, bears him as its conqueror along. ‘It is so,’ says Goethe, ‘with all things that man undertakes in this world.’

Brave Sea-Captain, Norse Sea-King, - Columbus, my hero, royallest Sea-King of all! it is no friendly environment this of thine in the waste deep waters; around thee mutinous discouraged souls, behind thee disgrace and ruin, before thee the unpenetrated veil of Night. Brother, these wild Water-Mountains, bounding from their deep bases (ten miles deep, I am told), are not entirely there on thy behalf! Meseems they have other work than floating thee forward: - and the huge Winds, that sweep from Ursa Major to the Tropics and Equators, dancing their giant-waltz through the Kingdoms of Chaos and Immensity, they care little about filling rightly or filling wrongly the small shoulder-of-mutton sails in this cockle skiff of thine! Thou art not among articulate-speaking friends, my brother; thou art among immeasurable dumb monsters, tumbling, howling wide as the world here. Secret, far off, invisible to all hearts but thine, there lies a help in them: see how thou wilt get at that. Patiently thou wilt wait till the mad Southwester spend itself, saving thyself by dexterous science of defence, the while; valiantly, with swift decision, wilt thou strike in, when the favouring East, the Possible, springs up. Mutiny of men thou wilt sternly repress; weakness, despondency, thou wilt cheerily encourage: thou wilt swallow down complaint, unreason, weariness, weakness of others and thyself; - how much wilt thou swallow down! There shall be a depth of Silence in thee, deeper than this Sea, which is but ten miles deep: a Silence unsoundable; known to God only. Thou shalt be a Great Man. Yes, my World-Soldier, thou of the World Marine-Service, - thou wilt have to be greater than this tumultuous unmeasured world here round thee is: thou, in thy strong soul, as with wrestler’s arms, shalt embrace it, harness it down; and make it bear thee on, - to New Americas, or whither God wills!

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