History as Wisdom: Thomas Carlyle vs. the ‘Perfectibilarians’

Depiction of the storming of the Tuileries Palace on August 10, 1792 ( Jean Duplessis-Bertaux )

The most memorable critic of ‘Enlightenment’ rationalism was also a visionary moralist.

‘If we act only for ourselves, to neglect the study of history is not prudent,” that very profound and virtuous man Samuel Johnson wrote; “if we are entrusted with the care of others, it is not just.” Perhaps the wisest single volume of history ever published in the English language was Thomas Carlyle’s massive, and massively influential, The French Revolution: A History (1837), just now republished in a fine new paperback edition, annotated and scholarly but readable, in the Oxford World’s Classics series (edited by D. E. Sorenson and B. E. Kinser). It is a work of literature as well as history, in this regard partly resembling the historical and documentary novels of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, perhaps the most important literary works of the past 50 years.

By contrast, the influential English Communist historian Eric J. Hobsbawm (1917–2012) wrote toward the end of his long life that “obsolescence is the unavoidable fate of the historian,” exempting only a few fellow liberal and radical — Whig-progressive or Jacobin-Marxist — historians such as Gibbon, T. B. Macaulay, and Michelet from his generalization: In his view, they had outstanding literary merit. It is clear that Hobsbawm cannot believe in the enduring value and reputation of any historian who failed to share his own secular-progressive faith; yet that worldview has been fundamentally discredited and disconfirmed by the history of the world since 1914, a history in which the great Polish ex-Marxist political philosopher Leszek Kolakowski said “the Devil incarnated himself.” Partly inspired by Kolakowski, the émigré Romanian-American historian Vladimir Tismaneanu has written a fine book called The Devil in History: Communism, Fascism, and Some Lessons of the Twentieth Century (University of California Press, 2014). To the works of Solzhenitstyn and Tismaneanu we may add the French historian Alain Besançon’s volume A Century of Horrors: Communism, Nazism, and the Uniqueness of the Shoah (1998; English translation, 2007) and other books on Communism, by Stéphane Courtois and associates (The Black Book of Communism, 1999) and Harvard’s Richard Pipes (Communism: A History, 2001). The vast literature on the Holocaust needs only to be mentioned to be remembered; a poignant recent book is Bernice Lerner’s Triumph of Wounded Souls (2004).

As the scholar David Berlinski has recently written, “the twentieth century, having introduced into human history crimes never before imagined, or if imagined, never before undertaken, is immortal, and will, like the crucifixion, remain a paramount part of the human present. . . . It is simply there, an obelisk in human history: black, forbidding, irremovable.”

Yet our flattering, “perfectibilian” historians, from Gibbon in the 18th century to Hobsbawm, Steven Pinker, and Yuval Harari (Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, 2015) in the 20th century and our own, could not see or will not meditate what most normal, mature adults understand — and what Solzhenitsyn, Kolakowski, Tismaneanu, Besançon, Berlinski, Courtois, and Pipes, among many others, have documented in incontrovertible detail: the outrageous human evil and unparalleled destructiveness of the past 100 years.

The “enlightened,” perfectibilarian flattery began early, in a worldly, eloquent historian whom Samuel Johnson detested: Edward Gibbon. Writing in 1776 in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Gibbon assured his readers that Europe “is secure from any future eruption of Barbarians; since, before they can conquer, they must cease to be barbarous. Their gradual advances in the sciences of war would always be accompanied . . . with a proportionable improvement in the arts of peace and civil policy; and they themselves must deserve a place among the polished nations whom they subdue.” In History of the Idea of Progress (1980), the distinguished American sociologist Robert Nisbet comments: The “possibility that new and more terrible forms of barbarism might arise from ‘within’” — Napoleons, not to speak of Hitlers and Stalins — “progress in the arts and sciences notwithstanding,” seems not to have occurred to Gibbon.

And Gibbon dangles an even more flattering “Enlightenment” utopian prospect before his readers: We cannot yet know, he writes, “to what height the human species may aspire in their advances toward perfection; but it may safely be assumed that no people, unless the face of nature is changed, will relapse into their original barbarism.” Thus, “We may . . . acquiesce in the pleasing conclusion that every age of the world has increased, and still increases, the real wealth, the happiness, the knowledge, and perhaps the virtue of the human race.” The Whig-liberal interpretation of history has arrived and only that “perhaps” saves Gibbon from complete flattery and illusion.

Seventy years later, in 1846 — despite the French Revolution, Napoleon, and increasing industrial and urban degradation in Britain — the scholar Frank Newman (antagonistic brother of John Henry Newman) wrote with even more confidence in “The Contrasts of Ancient and Modern History”: “Ferocious power like that of the old Caesars can never again disgrace the civilizations of the world.” How evil do Nero, Heliogabalus, and Caligula look now, compared to Hitler, Stalin, and Mao Tse-Tung? David Berlinski helpfully reminds us that in the Soviet Union in 1937–38 — a nation not at war — “the NKVD [Secret Police] shot 850,000 victims out of hand under the notorious Section 58 of the [Soviet Communist] penal code.”

If Frank Newman had read Carlyle’s French Revolution, he apparently had not benefited from it, for Carlyle was keenly aware of human duality and depravity and documented the tortuous operations of human nature in the Revolution very carefully. In fact, as Jacques Barzun has written, Carlyle’s powerful prose and poignant insight into individual and group dynamics enabled him to act “as England’s director of conscience for half a century,” helping define the Victorian age and prevent a revolutionary conflagration in Great Britain, in this respect assisted by the vast popularity of his disciple Charles Dickens, who drew on what he called “Mr. Carlyle’s wonderful book” so heavily in his own novel on the French Revolution, A Tale of Two Cities (1859).

Persistently criticizing the injustice and “imposture” of pre-revolutionary, Ancien Régime France, Carlyle nevertheless illuminated the diabolical depths of revolutionary, Jacobin, “sans-culotte” fanaticism in anarchic, sadistic, indiscriminate murder and mayhem. Condemning aristocratic frivolity, Voltairean cynicism, and Rousseauvian utopianism, Carlyle nevertheless saw that after the destruction of tradition, “the five unsatiated Senses will remain, [and] the sixth insatiable Sense (of Vanity); the whole daemonic nature of man will remain, — hurled forth to rage blindly without rule or rein; savage itself, yet with all the tools and weapons of civilization: a spectacle new in History” (part 1, book 1, chapter 2)

One hundred and sixty years later, in the bicentennial year of the French Revolution, the Anglo-Dutch scholar Simon Schama published a vastly successful history of the French Revolution, about which the Oxford historian William Doyle commented 15 years later: “The publishing sensation [of 1989] was Simon Schama’s Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution, which proclaimed violence as the Revolution’s essence.” Carlyle’s work is full of this tragic realization.

Two very distinguished earlier 20th-century English historians, one a conservative liberal, the other a moderate socialist, saw in Carlyle the greatest of English historical writing. In History and the Reader (1945), the conservative liberal, George Macaulay Trevelyan of Cambridge University, adduced passages from Carlyle and commented that the “best expression of the sense of poetry in the annals of the past was given by Carlyle, in his French Revolution, his Past and Present, and his essay on ‘Boswell’s Johnson’.” Himself a distinguished prose stylist and historian, Trevelyan adds that “the finest thing ever said about the French Revolution was said by Carlyle,” and quotes a famous passage. A quarter of a century later, the socialist, Oxford historian A. J. P. Taylor, wrote: “You do not read [Carlyle’s] books; you experience them, and what you experience in them is the storm of the world. . . . The French Revolution is the only work in which the past is not merely narrated, but recreated” (Essays in English History, 1976).

What Carlyle knows and shows is that history is always and inevitably philosophical and value-laden — the premises on which its narratives are based, the criteria on which its facts are chosen, ordered, and judged. “Man indeed . . . lives in this world,” he wrote, “to make rule out of the ruleless; by his living energy, he shall force the absurd itself to become less absurd” (The French Revolution, 1.2.1). At Carlyle’s best, he has a truly prophetic, almost hallucinatory clarity of insight into human psychology and society, into internal and individual and external and collective dynamics: and especially into the ontological density and depth of the human person.

Regarding human personality, the influential literary critic Harold Bloom describes Carlyle’s insight into the depth and uniqueness of Shakespeare and his importance in our culture: “Far better than the entire history of formal Shakespeare criticism is Carlyle’s fundamental realization that Shakespeare’s true power is cognitive. . . . What Carlyle teaches us is that Shakespeare’s cognitive originality has altered every mode available to us for representing cognition in language. . . . Carlyle sees that Shakespeare has abolished the distinction [between religious and secular] and has become the second Bible of the West” (Bloom, Essayists and Prophets, 2005). Shakespeare’s historical, psychological, and religious insight, his moral imagination, and his verbal formulations and structures provide much of the transmissible wisdom and sanity that we retain in the West today, an antidote or barrier to inanity, amnesia, barbarism, anarchy, chaos, and nihilism.

The humiliation and discrediting of Whig and Marxist “progressive” historians and histories by the catastrophic events of 20th-century history should be a fact too clear to be doubted: There is no immanent, teleological law of cumulative, collective, inevitable, irreversible progress within historical time. This optimistic, flattering view was parodied by Thomas Love Peacock two centuries ago in 1816 in his satirical novel Headlong Hall where Mr. Foster, the “perfectibilarian” (modeled on Percy Shelley), proclaims: “I conceive . . . that men are virtuous in proportion as they are enlightened; and that, as every generation increases in knowledge, it also increases in virtue.” Here is the seductive illusion offered to us by Edward Gibbon and Frank Newman, and subsequently even more grossly by Marxists with their dialectical “scientific socialism,” so tragically falsified and refuted by actual events. As Reinhold Niebuhr wrote in 1949: “Since 1914 one tragic experience has followed another, as if history has been designed to refute the vain delusions of modern man.”

The distinguished Columbia scholar of Victorian literature John D. Rosenberg has written brilliantly on Carlyle, Ruskin, and Tennyson, and in 2002 edited his own edition of Carlyle’s French Revolution (Modern Library). His fine book Carlyle and the Burden of History (Harvard, 1985) has been augmented by his essay “Carlyle: History and the Human Voice” (in Elegy for An Age: The Presence of the Past in Victorian Literature, 2005, which Gary Wills calls “his magnum opus”). In his literary-critical writing, Rosenberg has himself become a vigorous, eloquent, lucid extension and spokesman for the profound ethical concerns that characterized and preoccupied the best of the Victorian age in Britain and America, as seen not only in its writers, such as Carlyle, Ruskin, Jane Austen, Hawthorne, Dickens, Arnold, Melville, and Newman, but in great statesmen such as Lincoln and Gladstone. Rosenberg’s own prose, like that of figures such as G. K. Chesterton, T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, W. E. B. DuBois, F. R. Leavis, Rosenberg’s own teacher and colleague Lionel Trilling, and Sir Christopher Ricks, extends the humane literary tradition that Harold Bloom credited Shakespeare with virtually inventing and Carlyle with illuminating in his essays on Shakespeare and Samuel Johnson.

For Carlyle was not only the first and most memorable critic of “Enlightenment” rationalism, in its contemporary and subsequent English “Whig” and French radical-reductionist-revolutionary forms of historical writing: He was also a visionary moralist. Rosenberg calls him an epical writer like Homer and a prophet in the tradition of the Bible and the visionary poets. In G. K. Chesterton’s great Victorian Age in Literature (1913), Chesterton called him a powerful mystic and metaphysician and credited him and Dickens with undermining intellectual materialism and even with helping prevent a revolution in Britain in the 19th century. Rosenberg praises Carlyle’s extraordinary historical accuracy and documentation in The French Revolution, but sees something else at work in Carlyle at his best — a comprehensive, just vision of things, which Carlyle tragically lost in the later years of his long life.

This vision is intermittently expressed in Carlyle’s early, satirical-grotesque autobiographical but “everyman” novel Sartor Resartus (1834), as for instance in the following passage: “Stands he not thereby in the centre of Immensities, in the conflux of Eternities? He feels; power has been given him to know, to believe; nay does not the spirit of Love, free in its celestial primeval brightness, even here, though but for moments, look through? Well said Saint Chrysostom, with his lips of gold, “the true shekinah is Man”: where else is the god’s-presence manifested not to our eyes only, but to our hearts, as in our fellow-man?” (1.10)

Orthodox Christian critics such as A. O. J. Cockshut and Ian Robinson have faulted Carlyle for an unorthodox mysticism, and atheists such as Nietzsche have faulted him for spirituality itself, but Carlyle, like Blake, Coleridge, Dickens, Hawthorne, Emily Dickinson, and Melville, insists on the traditional metaphysical duality of the human person — each person — as an absolute datum of consciousness and conscience, as central to human identity and sanity. Its mocking and elimination in pre-revolutionary, and then revolutionary, France led to unparalleled destruction and savagery. The mockery and attack on it in revolutionary Russia from 1917 on led to the fanaticism and obscene murderousness of the Communist regime under Lenin and Stalin. Similar comments are relevant to Khmer Rouge Cambodia and Red China, as particularly attested by the sinologist Pierre Ryckmans (Simon Leys). Courtois estimates the global total of Communism’s innocent victims at between 85 and 100 million.

John Rosenberg points out that in an eery foreshadowing of Nazi and Communist murder, torture, and sadism in the 20th century, in The French Revolution Carlyle discusses “the Human Tannery at Meudon, where breeches were made from the skin of the freshly guillotined, and he prays that ‘there be no second Sansculottism in our Earth for a thousand years.’” Edward Gibbon, Frank Newman, and the flattering “perfectibilarians” — such as Steven Pinker and Yuval Harari in our time — are utterly wrong about human nature and human history. In The French Revolution, the heterodox, moody, meditative, melancholic, mystical Tory Carlyle was right.

In Elegy for An Age, which is probably his own last book, John Rosenberg lucidly comments: “For Carlyle the contrary of history is not fiction but oblivion, the unraveling of the collective human memory that holds civilization together. History is not a record of civilization; it is civilization itself, the past speaking to the present and to the future through the voice of the historian. Without that animating voice, we would have neither history nor elegy — only gibberish and unmarked graves.”

The last 100 years have largely been years of obscene cruelty and destructive infamy, and, as David Berlinski suggests, little seems to have been learned from them. If any single work of history is to be called an indispensable classic, it must be Carlyle’s French Revolution. At the end of it, Rosenberg points out, “in the farewell to the reader, Carlyle speaks of man as ‘an incarnated Word’ and of human speech as a living, sacred fountain.” Deny the sacredness of the human person (res sacra homo) and the uniqueness of human language (logos), assimilate them to mere nature, and we are left with either the cacophony of “the insufferable inane” or the silence around Berlinski’s dark, irremovable obelisk of 20th-century history.

M. D. Aeschliman’s book The Restoration of Man: C. S. Lewis and the Continuing Case against Scientism will appear shortly in new editions in French from Pierre Téqui (Paris) and in English from Discovery Institute Press (Seattle). He is a professor emeritus at Boston University and professor of Anglophone culture at the University of Italian Switzerland (Lugano). His edition of Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities (Ignatius Press) was published in 2012.

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