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Past and Present: Thomas Carlyle, 1843

Book 3 Chapter 6: Two Centuries

The Settlement effected by our ‘Healing Parliament’ in the Year of Grace 1660, though accomplished under universal acclamations from the four corners of the British Dominions, turns out to have been one of the mournfulest that ever took place in this land of ours. It called and thought itself a Settlement of brightest hope and fulfilment, bright as the blaze of universal tar-barrels and bonfires could make it: and we find it now, on looking back on it with the insight which trial has yielded, a Settlement as of despair. Considered well, it was a settlement to govern henceforth without God, with only some decent Pretence of God.

Governing by the Christian Law of God had been found a thing of battle, convulsion, confusion, an infinitely difficult thing: wherefore let us now abandon it, and govern only by so much of God’s Christian Law as - as may prove quiet and convenient for us. What is the end of Government? To guide men in the way wherein they should go; towards their true good in this life, the portal of infinite good in a life to come? To guide men in such way, and ourselves in such way, as the Maker of men, whose eye is upon us, will sanction at the Great Day? - Or alas, perhaps at bottom is there no Great Day, no sure outlook of any life to come; but only this poor life, and what of taxes, felicities, Nell-Gwyns and entertainments, we can manage to muster here? In that case, the end of Government will be, To suppress all noise and disturbance, whether of Puritan preaching, Cameronian psalm-singing, thieves’-riot, murder, arson, or what noise soever, and - be careful that supplies do not fail! A very notable conclusion, if we will think of it; and not without an abundance of fruits for us. Oliver Cromwell’s body hung on the Tyburn-gallows, as the type of Puritanism found futile, inexecutable, execrable, - yes, that gallows-tree has been a fingerpost into very strange country indeed. Let earnest Puritanism die; let decent Formalism, whatsoever cant it be or grow to, live! We have had a pleasant journey in that direction; and are - arriving at our inn? To support the Four Pleas of the Crown, and keep Taxes coming in: in very sad seriousness, has not this been, ever since, even in the best times, almost the one admitted end and aim of Government? Religion, Christian Church, Moral Duty; the fact that man had a soul at all; that in man’s life there was any eternal truth or justice at all, - has been as good as left quietly out of sight. Church indeed, - alas, the endless talk and struggle we have had of High-Church, Low-Church, Church-Extension, Church-in-Danger: we invite the Christian reader to think whether it has not been a too miserable screech-owl phantasm of talk and struggle, as for a ‘Church,’ - which one had rather not define at present!

But now in these godless two centuries, looking at England and her efforts and doings, if we ask, What of England’s doings the Law of Nature had accepted, Nature’s King had actually furthered and pronounced to have truth in them, - where is our answer? Neither the ‘Church’ of Hurd and Warburton, nor the Anti-church of Hume and Paine; not in any shape the Spiritualism of England: all this is already seen, or beginning to be seen, for what it is; a thing that Nature does not own. On the one side is dreary Cant, with a reminiscence of things noble and divine; on the other is but acrid Candour, with a prophecy of things brutal, infernal. Hurd and Warburton are sunk into the sere and yellow leaf; no considerable body of true-seeing men looks thitherward for healing: the Paine-and-Hume Atheistic theory, of ‘things well let alone,’ with Liberty, Equality and the like, is also in these days declaring itself naught, unable to keep the world from taking fire.

The theories and speculations of both these parties, and, we may say, of all intermediate parties and persons, prove to be things which the Eternal Veracity did not accept; things superficial, ephemeral, which already a near Posterity, finding them already dead and brown-leafed, is about to suppress and forget. The Spiritualism of England, for those godless years, is, as it were, all forgettable. Much has been written: but the perennial Scriptures of Mankind have had small accession: from all English Books, in rhyme or prose, in leather binding or in paper wrappage, how many verses have been added to these? Our most melodious Singers have sung as from the throat outwards: from the inner Heart of Man, from the great Heart of Nature, through no Pope or Phillips, has there come any tone. The Oracles have been dumb. In brief, the Spoken Word of England has not been true. The Spoken Word of England turns out to have been trivial; of short endurance; not valuable, not available as a Word, except for the passing day. It has been accordant with transitory Semblance; discordant with eternal Fact. It has been unfortunately not a Word, but a Cant; a helpless involuntary Cant, nay too often a cunning voluntary one: either way, a very mournful Cant; the Voice not of Nature and Fact, but of something other than these.

With all its miserable shortcomings, with its wars, controversies, with its trades-unions, famine-insurrections, - it is her Practical Material Work alone that England has to shew for herself! This, and hitherto almost nothing more; yet actually this. The grim inarticulate veracity of the English People, unable to speak its meaning in words, has turned itself silently on things; and the dark powers of Material Nature have answered: Yes, this at least is true, this is not false! So answers Nature. Waste desert-shrubs of the Tropical swamps have become Cotton-trees; and here, under my furtherance, are verily woven shirts, - hanging unsold, undistributed, but capable to be distributed, capable to cover the bare backs of my children of men. Mountains, old as the Creation, I have permitted to be bored through: bituminous fuel-stores, the wreck of forests that were green a million years ago, - I have opened them from my secret rock-chambers, and they are yours, ye English. Your huge fleets, steamships, do sail the sea: huge Indias do obey you; from huge New Englands and Antipodal Australias, comes profit and traffic to this Old England of mine! So answers Nature. The Practical Labour of England is not a chimerical Triviality: it is a Fact, acknowledged by all the Worlds; which no man and no demon will contradict. It is, very audibly, though very inarticulately as yet, the one God’s Voice we have heard in these two atheistic centuries.

And now to observe with what bewildering obscurations and impediments all this as yet stands entangled, and is yet intelligible to no man! How, with our gross Atheism, we hear it not to be the Voice of God to us, but regard it merely as a Voice of earthly Profit-and-Loss. And have a Hell in England, - the Hell of not making money. And coldly see the all-conquering valiant Sons of Toil sit enchanted, by the million, in their Poor-Law Bastille, as if this were Nature’s Law; - mumbling to ourselves some vague janglement of Laissez-faire, Supply-and-demand, Cash-payment the one nexus of man to man: Free-trade, Competition, and Devil take the hindmost, our latest Gospel yet preached!

As if, in truth, there were no God of Labour; as if godlike Labour and brutal Mammonism were convertible terms. A serious, most earnest Mammonism grown Midas-eared; an unserious Dilettantism, earnest about nothing, grinning with inarticulate incredulous incredible jargon about all things, as the enchanted Dilettanti do by the Dead Sea! It is mournful enough, for the present hour; were there not an endless hope in it withal. Giant LABOUR, truest emblem there is of God the World-Worker, Demiurgus, and Eternal Maker; noble LABOUR, which is yet to be the King of this Earth, and sit on the highest throne, - staggering hitherto like a blind irrational giant, hardly allowed to have his common place on the street-pavements; idle Dilettantism, Dead-Sea Apism, crying out, “Down with him, he is dangerous!”

Labour must become a seeing rational giant, with a soul in the body of him, and take his place on the throne of things, - leaving his Mammonism, and several other adjuncts, on the lower steps of said throne.

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