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Past and Present: Thomas Carlyle, 1843

Book 3 Chapter 12: Reward

‘Religion,’ I said, for properly speaking all true Work is Religion; and whatsoever Religion is not work may go and dwell among the Brahmins, Antinomians, Spinning Dervishes, or where it will; with me it shall have no harbour. Admirable was that of the old Monks, ‘Laborare est Orare, Work is Worship.’

Older than all preached Gospels was this unpreached, inarticulate, but ineradicable, forever-enduring Gospel: Work, and therein have well-being. Man, Son of Earth and of Heaven, lies there not, in the innermost heart of thee, a spirit of active Method, a Force for work; - and burns like a painfully smouldering fire, giving thee no rest till thou unfold it, till thou write it down in beneficent Facts around thee! What is immethodic, waste, thou shalt make methodic, regulated, arable; obedient and productive to thee. Wheresoever thou findest Disorder, there is thy eternal enemy; attack him swiftly, subdue him, make Order of him, the subject not of Chaos, but of Intelligence, Divinity, and Thee! The thistle that grows in thy path, dig it out, that a blade of useful grass, a drop of nourishing milk, may grow there instead. The waste Cotton-shrub, gather its waste white down, spin it, weave it; that in place of idle litter, there may be folded webs, and the naked skin of man be covered.

But above all, when thou findest Ignorance, Stupidity, Brute-mindedness, - yes, there, with or without Church-tithes and shovel hat, with or without Talfourd-Mahon Copyrights, or were it with mere dungeons and gibbets and crosses, attack it, I say, smite it wisely, unweariedly, and rest not while thou livest and it lives, but smite, smite, in the name of God! The highest God, as I understand it, does audibly so command thee; still audibly, if thou have ears to hear. He, even He, with his unspoken voice, awfuller than any Sinai thunders or syllabled speech of Whirlwinds; for the SILENCE of deep Eternities, of Worlds from beyond the morning-stars, does it not speak to thee? The unborn Ages; the old Graves with their long-mouldering dust, the very tears that wetted it now all dry, - do not these speak to thee, what ear hath not heard? The deep Death-kingdoms, the stars in their never-resting courses, all Space and all Time, proclaims it to thee in continual silent admonition. Thou too, if ever man should, shalt work while it is called To-day. For the Night cometh wherein no man can work.

All true work is sacred; in all true Work, were it but true hand-labour, there is something of divineness. Labour, wide as the Earth, has its summit in Heaven. Sweat of the brow; and up from that to sweat of the brain, sweat of the heart, which includes all Kepler calculations, Newton meditations, all Sciences, all spoken Epics, all acted Heroisms, Martyrdoms, - up to that ‘Agony of bloody sweat,’ which all men have called divine! O brother, if this is not ‘worship,’ then I say, the more piety for worship; for this is the noblest thing yet discovered under God’s sky. Who art thou that complainest of thy life of toil? Complain not. Look up, my wearied brother; see thy fellow Workmen there, in God’s Eternity; surviving there, they alone surviving: sacred Band of the Immortals, celestial Body-guard of the Empire of Mankind. Even in the weak Human Memory they survive so long, as saints, as heroes, as gods; they alone surviving; peopling, they alone, the unmeasured solitudes of Time? To thee Heaven, though severe, is not unkind; Heaven is kind, - as a noble mother; as that Spartan mother, saying while she gave her son his shield, “With it, my son, or upon it!” Thou too shalt return home in honour, - to thy far distant home, in honour; doubt it not, - if in the battle thou keep thy shield! Thou, in the Eternities and deepest Death-kingdoms, art not an alien; thou everywhere art a denizen! Complain not; the very Spartans did not complain.

And who art thou that braggest of thy Life of Idleness; complacently shewest thy bright gilt equipages; sumptuous cushions; appliances for folding of the hands to mere sleep? Looking up, looking down, around, behind or before, discernest thou, if it be not in May fair alone, any idle hero, saint, god, or even devil? Not a vestige of one. In the Heavens, in the Earth, in the waters under the Earth, is none like unto thee. Thou art an original figure in this creation; a denizen in Mayfair alone, in this extraordinary Century or Half-century alone! One monster there is in the world: the idle man. What is his ‘religion?’ That Nature is a Phantasm, where cunning beggary or thievery may sometimes find good victual. That God is a lie; and that Man and his Life are a lie. Alas, alas, who of us is there that can say, I have worked? The faithfullest of us are unprofitable servants; the faithfullest of us know that best. The faithfullest of us may say, with sad and true old Samuel, “Much of my life has been trifled away!” But he that has, and except ‘on public occasions,’ professes to have, no function but that of going idle in a graceful or graceless manner, and of begetting sons to go idle; and to address Chief Spinners and Diggers, who at least are spinning and digging, “Ye scandalous persons who produce too much” - My Corn-Law friends, on what imaginary still richer Eldorados, and true iron-spikes with law of Gravitation, are ye rushing!

As to the Wages of work there might innumerable things be said; there will and must yet innumerable things be said and spoken, in St. Stephen’s and out of St. Stephen’s [parliament]; and gradually not a few things be ascertained and written, on Law-parchment, concerning this very matter: - ‘Fair day’s-wages for a fair day’s work’ is the most unrefusable demand! Money-wages ‘to the extent of keeping your worker alive that he may work more;’ these, unless you mean to dismiss him straightway out of this world, are indispensable alike to the noblest worker and to the least noble!

One thing only I will say here, in special reference to the former class, the noble and noblest; but throwing light on all the other classes and their arrangements of this difficult matter: The wages of every noble work do yet lie in Heaven or else Nowhere. Not in Bank-of-England bills, in Owen’s Labour-bank, or any the most improved establishment of banking and money-changing, needst thou, heroic soul, present thy account of earnings. Human banks, and labour banks know thee not; or know thee after generations and centuries have passed away, and thou art clean gone from ‘rewarding,’ - all manner of bank-drafts, shop-tills, and Downing-street Exchequers lying very invisible, so far from thee! Nay, at bottom, dost thou need any reward? Was it thy aim and life-purpose to be filled with good things for thy heroism, to have a life of pomp and ease, and be what men call ‘happy’ in this world, or in any other world? I answer for thee deliberately, No. The whole spiritual secret of the new epoch lies in this, that thou canst answer for thyself, with thy whole clearness of head and heart, deliberately, No!

My brother, the brave man has to give his life away. Give it, I advise thee; - thou dost not expect to sell thy Life in an adequate manner? What price, for example, would content thee? The just price of thy LIFE to thee, - why, God’s entire Creation to thyself, the whole Universe of Space, the whole Eternity of Time, and what they hold: that is the price which would content thee; that, and if thou wilt be candid, nothing short of that! It is thy all; and for it thou wouldst have all. Thou art an unreasonable mortal; - or rather thou art a poor infinite mortal, who, in thy narrow clay-prison here, seemest so unreasonable! Thou wilt never sell thy Life, or any part of thy Life, in a satisfactory manner. Give it, like a royal heart; let the price be Nothing: thou hast then in a certain sense, got all for it! The heroic man, - and is not every man, God be thanked, a potential hero? - has to do so, in all times and circumstances. In the most heroic age, as in the most unheroic, he will have to say, as Burns said proudly and humbly of his little Scottish Songs, little dew drops of celestial Melody in an age when so much was unmelodious: “By Heaven, they shall either be invaluable or of no value; I do not need your guineas for them!” It is an element which should and must enter deeply into all settlements of wages here below, They never will be ‘satisfactory’ otherwise; they cannot, O Mammon Gospel, they never can! Money for my little piece of work ‘to the extent that will allow me to keep working;’ yes, this, - unless you mean that I shall go my ways before the work is all taken out of me: but as to ‘wages’ - ! -

On the whole, we do entirely agree with those old Monks, Laborare est Orare; in a thousand senses, from one end of it to the other, true Work is Worship. He that works, whatsoever be his work, he bodies forth the form of Things Unseen; a small Poet every worker is. The idea, were it but of his poor Delf Platter, how much more of his Epic Poem, is as yet ‘seen,’ half-seen, only by himself; to all others it is a thing unseen, impossible; to Nature herself it is a thing unseen, a thing which never hitherto was; - very ‘impossible,’ for it is as yet a No-thing! The Unseen Powers had need to watch over such a man; he works in and for the Unseen. Alas, if he look to the Seen Powers only, he may as well quit the business; his No-thing will never rightly issue as a Thing, but as a Deceptivity, a Sham-thing, - which it had better not do!

Thy No-thing of an Intended Poem, O Poet who hast looked merely to reviewers, copy rights, booksellers, popularities, behold it has not yet become a thing, - for the truth is not in it! Though printed, hotpressed, reviewed, celebrated, sold to the twentieth edition: what is all that? The thing, in philosophical, uncommercial language, is still a No-thing, mostly semblance and deceptive of the right; - benign Oblivion incessantly gnawing at it, impatient till Chaos to which it belongs do reabsorb it! - He who takes not counsel of the Unseen and Silent, from him will never come real visibility and speech. Thou must descend to the Mothers, to the Manes, and Hercules-like long suffer and labour there, wouldst thou emerge with victory into the Sunlight. As in battle and the shock of war, - for is not this a battle? thou too shalt fear no pain or death, shalt love no ease of life; the voice of festive Lubberlands, the noise of Greedy Acheron shall alike lie silent under thy victorious feet. Thy work like Dante’s, shall ‘make thee lean for many years.’ The world and its wages, its criticisms, counsel, helps, impediments, shall be as a waste ocean flood; the chaos through which thou art to swim and sail. Not the waste waves and their weedy gulf-streams, shalt thou take for guidance: thy star alone, - Se tu segui tua stella! Thy star alone, now clear-beaming over Chaos, nay now by fits gone out, disastrously eclipsed: thus only shalt thou strive to follow. O, it is a business, as I fancy, that of weltering your way through Chaos and the murk of Hell! Green-eyed dragons watching you, three headed Cerberuses, - not without sympathy of their sort! “Eccovi l’uom ch’è stato all’ Inferno.” For in fine, as Poet Dryden says, you do walk hand in hand with sheer Madness, all the way, - who is by no means pleasant company! you look fixedly into Madness, and her undiscovered, boundless, bottomless Night-Empire; that you may extort new Wisdom out of it, as an Eurydice from Tartarus. The higher the Wisdom the closer was its neighbourhood and kindred with mere Insanity; literally so; - and thou wilt, with a speechless feeling, observe how highest Wisdom, struggling up into this world, has oftentimes carried such tinctures and adhesions of Insanity still cleaving to it hither!

All works, each in their degree, are a making of Madness sane; - truly enough a religious operation; which cannot be carried on without religion. You have not work otherwise; you have eye-service, greedy grasping of wages, swift and ever swifter manufacture of semblances to get hold of wages. Instead of better felt-hats to cover your head, you have bigger lath-and-plaster hats set travelling the streets on wheels. Instead of heavenly and earthly Guidance for the souls of men, you have ‘Black or White Surplice’ Controversies, stuffed hair-and-leather Popes; terrestrial Law-wards, Lords and Law-bringers, ‘organising Labour’ in these years, by passing Corn-Laws. With all which, alas, this distracted Earth is now full, - nigh to bursting. Semblances most smooth to the touch and eye; most accursed nevertheless to body and soul. Semblances, be they of Sham-woven cloth or of Dilettante Legislation, which are not real wool or substance, but Devils-dust accursed of God and Man! No man has worked, or can work, except religiously; not even the poor day-labourer, the weaver of your coat, the sewer of your shoes. All men, if they work not as in a Great Taskmaster’s eye, will work wrong, work unhappily for themselves and you.

Industrial Work, still under bondage to Mammon, the rational soul of it not yet awakened, is a tragic spectacle. Men in the rapidest motion and self-motion; restless, with convulsive energy, as if driven by Galvanism, as if possessed by a Devil; tearing asunder mountains, - to no purpose, for Mammonism is always Midas-eared! This is sad, on the face of it. Yet courage: the beneficent Destinies, kind in their sternness, are apprising us that this cannot continue. Labour is not a devil, even while encased in Mammonism; Labour is ever an imprisoned god, writhing unconsciously or consciously to escape out of Mammonism! Plugson of Undershot, like Taillefer of Normandy, wants victory; how much happier will even Plugson be to have a Chivalrous victory than a Chactaw one? The unredeemed ugliness is that of a slothful People. Shew me a People energetically busy; heaving, struggling, all shoulders at the wheel; their heart pulsing, every muscle swelling with man’s energy and will; - I shew you a People of whom great good is already predicable, to whom all manner of good is yet certain if their energy endure. By very working, they will learn; they have Antæus-like, their foot on Mother Fact: how can they but learn?

The vulgarest Plugson of a Master-worker, who can command workers and yet work out of them, is already a considerable man. Blessed and thrice-blessed symptoms I discern of Master-Workers who are not vulgar men; who are Nobles, and begin to feel that they must act as such: all speed to these, they are England’s hope at present! But in this Plugson himself, conscious of almost no nobleness whatever, how much is there! Not without man’s faculty, insight, courage, hard energy, is this rugged figure. His words none of the wisest; but his actings cannot be altogether foolish. Think, how were it, stoodst thou suddenly in his shoes! He has to command a thousand men. And not imaginary commanding; no, it is real, incessantly practical. The evil passions of so many men (with the Devil in them, as in all of us) he has to vanquish; by manifold force of speech and of silence, to repress or evade. What a force of silence, to say nothing of the others, is in Plugson! For these his thousand men he has to provide raw-material, machinery, arrangement, house room; and ever at the week’s end, wages by due sale. No Civil-List, or Goulburn-Baring Budget has he to fall back upon, for paying of his regiment; he has to pick his supplies from the confused face of the whole Earth and Contemporaneous History, by his own dexterity alone. There will be dry eyes if he fail to do it! - He exclaims, at present, ‘black in the face,’ near strangled with Dilettante Legislation: “Let me have elbow-room, throat-room, and I will not fail! No, I will spin yet, and conquer like a giant: what ‘sinews of war’ lie in me, untold resources towards the Conquest of this Planet, if instead of hanging me, you husband them, and help me!” - My indomitable friend, it is true; and thou shalt and must be helped.

This is not a man I would kill and strangle by Corn-Laws, even if I could! No, I would fling my Corn-Laws and Shot-belts to the Devil; and try to help this man. I would teach him by noble precept, and law-precept, by noble example most of all, that Mammonism was not the essence of his or of my station in God’s Universe; but the adsciticious excrescence of it; the gross terrene, godless embodiment of it; which would have to become, more or less, a godlike one! By noble real legislation, by true noble’s-work, by unwearied, valiant, and were it wage-less effort, in my Parliament and in my Parish, I would aid, constrain, encourage him to effect more or less this blessed change. I should know that it would have to be effected; that unless it were in some measure effected, he and I and all of us, I first and soonest of all, were doomed to perdition! - Effected it will be; unless it were a Demon that made this Universe; which I, for my own part, do at no moment, under no form, in the least believe.

May it please your Serene Highnesses, your Majesties, Lordships, and Law-wardships, the proper Epic of this world is not now ‘Arms and the Man,’ - how much less ‘shirt-frills and the Man:’ No, it is now ‘Tools and the Man:’ that henceforth to all time is now our Epic; - and you, first of all others, I think were wise to take note of that!

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