Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge

Visions of Science: Thomas Carlyle

Scottish doctor and chemist Andrew Ure (1778-1857), in his The Philosophy of Manufactures (1835), proclaimed his era as “distinguished from every preceding age by an universal ardour of enterprise in arts and manufactures.” And of all the nations, “Great Britain may certainly continue to uphold her envied supremacy, sustained by her coal, iron, capital, and skill, if, acting on the Baconian axiom, ‘Knowledge is Power,’ she shall diligently promote moral and professional culture among all the ranks of her productive population.” He praised the “physico-mechanical” philosophy for all the blessings it has bestowed on society, “ameliorating the lot of mankind.” The manufacturer, through his factory of machines, and through the manipulation of nature, has produced “articles of necessity, convenience, or luxury, by the most economical and unerring means.” Ure compared the factory “to the muscular, the nervous, and the sanguiferous systems of an animal.” The machine has replaced the human. “Machinery, with little or no aid of the human hand,” he writes, “dispenses entirely with manual labour.”

Ure’s enthusiasm for the “Iron Man,” the great industrial and manufacturing revolution of the early decades of the nineteenth century, was shared by many. But there is another side to the story, of course. The factory was also the “dark Satanic mills” of William Blake’s 1808 poem. Hell had risen, with fog, mud, nightmare, darkness, and squalor, and engulfed the earth. Michael Thomas Sadler (1780-1835), British Tory MP and evangelical Anglican, decried the sorry lot of the factory worker, especially children. He put together a committee to investigate the poor conditions of the factories. He was awarded with much resistance from Whig politicians, who put together their own committee to investigate the findings of Sadler’s committee! The plight of the poor was no match for ideas of progress.

Thomas Carlyle

Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881)

In his last chapter, James Secord explores the work of Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), who, in his well-known Sartor Resartus, serialized in Fraser’s Magazine from 1833-34, and published in a single volume in 1838, satirized men of science and their ideas and hopes of progress. Carlyle appears to be an odd selection in a book that discusses the work of science popularizers such as Davy, Babbage, Herschel, Somerville, Lyell, and Combe. But it is a fitting end, for Carlyle’s writings influenced—perhaps unexpectedly—the next generation of the men of science, the scientific naturalists.

Sartor begins by asking why, in a “our present advanced state of culture, and how the Torch of Science has now been brandished and borne about,” why has “little or nothing of the fundamental character, whether in the way of Philosophy or History, has been written on the subject of Clothes” (my emphasis). This was, of course, ironical. The author digresses into the great advances of science, declaring that “to many Royal Society, the Creation of a World is little more mysterious than the cooking of a dumpling.” Indeed, he goes on, “Man’s whole life and environment have been laid open and elucidated; scarcely a fragment or fibre of his Soul, Body, and Possessions, but has been probed, dissected, distilled, dessicated, and scientifically decomposed: our spiritual Faculties, of which it appears there are not a few, have their Stewarts, Cousins, Royer Collards: every cellular, vascular, muscular Tissue glories in its Lawrences, Majendies, Bichats.” All this deep and glorious scientific work, and yet no science of clothes!

But there is hope, for “Germany, learned, indefatigable, deep-thinking Germany comes to our aid.” While the Philosophy of Clothes languishes among the English, there is a man in Germany, a Professor Diogenes Teufelsdröckh (“god-born devil-dung”) of Weissnichtwo (“know-not-where”), who has published a treatise expressly on the subject, Die Kleider, ihr Werden un Wirken (“Clothes, their Origin and Influence). Kindly, Teufelsdröckh has sent a copy of this work to the present editor and narrator of Sartor. The rest of Sartor discusses the “difficulties,” “reminiscences,” and “characteristics” of Die Kleider.

According to Secord, Sartor is a parody, an ironic “inversion of the reflective scientific treatises that flourished around 1830,” an ad absurdam extension of mechanical philosophy as another author puts it. Many commentators have pointed out the similarities between Carlyle’s Sartor and Jonathan Swift’s (1667-1745) Tale of a Tub (1704) or Gulliver’s Travels (1726). But as Secord notes, although Carlyle indeed drew from these genres, he only did so “to undermine them, to demonstrate the impossibility of drawing sharp lines between different literary forms.” But of all literary forms, Carlyle unremittingly mocks the literature of scientific reflection. As Ralph Waldo Emerson observed, in the American edition of Sartor (Boston, 1837):  “the manifest design of the work…is, a Criticism upon the Spirit of the Age,—we had almost said, of the hour, in which we live; exhibiting, in the most just and novel light, the present aspects of Religion, Politics, Literature, Arts, and Social Life.” It is a work, he continues, which will find its “way to the heart of every lover of virtue.”

Most contemporary readers, however, were confused by the work. At times prolix, paradoxical, and personal, many readers were puzzled and even angered by Carlyle’s mockery of Whiggism, with its talk of “Progress of the Species, Dark Ages, Prejudice, and the like.” Indeed, talk of the progress of science “finds small favour with Teufelsdröckh.”

In a chapter entitled “Natural Supernaturalism,” Carlyle calls for the “birth of a spiritually vital science that would release the human potential for action.” Here the “editor” discusses how Teufelsdröckh’s Philosophy of Clothes has attained “transcendentalism.” Teufelsdröckh asks whether a miracle is simply a violation of the Laws of Nature? But what, exactly, are the Laws of Nature? They are the fixed, unalterable rule of the Universe. But Sartor asks, “What those same unalterable rules, forming the complete Statute-Book of Nature, may be possibly be?

They stand written in our Works of Science, say you; in the accumulated records of Man’s Experience?—Was Man with his Experience present at the Creation, then, to see how it all went on? Have any deepest scientific individuals yet dived down to the foundations of the Universe, and gauged everything there? Did the Maker take them into His counsel; that they read His ground-plan of the incomprehensible All; and can say, This stands marked therein, and no more than this? Alas, not in anywise! These scientific individuals have been nowhere but where we also are; have seen some hand breadths deeper than we see into the Deep that is infinite, without bottom as without shore.

Laplace’s Book on the Stars, wherein he exhibits that certain Planets, with their Satellites, gyrate round our worthy Sun, at a rate and in a course, which, by greatest good fortune, he and the like of him have succeeded in detecting,—is to me as precious as to another. But is this what thou namest ‘Mechanism of the Heavens,’ and ‘System of the World’; this, wherein Sirius and the Pleiades, and all Herschel’s Fifteen thousand Suns per minute, being left out, some paltry handful of Moons, and inert Balls, had been—looked at, nick-named, and marked in the Zodiacal Way-bill; so that we can now prate of their Whereabout; their How, their Why, their What, being hid from us, as in the signless Inane?

System of Nature! To the wisest man, wide as is his vision, Nature remains of quite infinite depth, of quite infinite expansion; and all Experience thereof limits itself to some few computed centuries and measured square-miles. The course of Nature’s phases, on this our little fraction of a Planet, is partially known to us: but who knows what deeper courses these depend on; what infinitely larger Cycle (of causes) our little Epicycle revolves on? To the Minnow every cranny and pebble, and quality and accident, of its little native Creek may have become familiar: but does the Minnow understand the Ocean Tides and periodic Currents, the Trade-winds, and Monsoons, and Moon’s Eclipses; by all which the condition of its little Creek is regulated, and may, from time to time (unmiraculously enough), be quite overset and reversed? Such a minnow is Man; his Creek this Planet Earth; his Ocean the immeasurable All; his Monsoons and periodic Currents the mysterious Course of Providence through AEons of AEons.

We speak of the Volume of Nature: and truly a Volume it is,—whose Author and Writer is God. To read it! Dost thou, does man, so much as well know the Alphabet thereof? With its Words, Sentences, and grand descriptive Pages, poetical and philosophical, spread out through Solar Systems, and Thousands of Years, we shall not try thee. It is a Volume written in celestial hieroglyphs, in the true Sacred-writing; of which even Prophets are happy that they can read here a line and there a line. As for your Institutes, and Academies of Science, they strive bravely; and, from amid the thick-crowded, inextricably intertwisted hieroglyphic writing, pick out, by dexterous combination, some Letters in the vulgar Character, and therefrom put together this and the other economic Recipe, of high avail in Practice. That Nature is more than some boundless Volume of such Recipes, or huge, well-nigh inexhaustible Domestic-Cookery Book, of which the whole secret will in this manner one day evolve itself, the fewest dream.

There is an obvious and quite deliberate echo of God’s response to Job in the Hebrew Bible: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone—while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy? (Job 38.4-7).

Lest we think Carlyle a Luddite or anti-scientific, we should recall, as Secord reminds us, that he excelled in mathematics while at the University of Edinburgh; indeed his first job was teaching mathematics at Annan Academy, a preparatory school for boys in Scotland. He was also a paid assistant of David Brewster (1781-1868), one of the founding members of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. “Carlyle’s ability to mock the developing traditions of scientific writing,” Secord writes, “drew on long experience of teaching, translating, and reviewing.”

Carlyle had become disillusioned from with contemporary science at a young age. In an 1822 article he had written for Brewster’s Edinburgh Encyclopedia on the French mathematician, physicist and philosopher Blaise Pascal, Carlyle ridiculed Pascal’s famous calculator as “a wonderful but useless proof of its author’s ingenuity.” When he began pursuing studies in mineralogy, Carlyle was introduced to the work of Goethe, Schelling, and other writers of German Romanticism. Against the utilitarian philosophies of British thinkers, Carlyle was enraptured dynamic Naturphilosophie.  He came to see mechanics as limited, “focused on applications, and based on experiment and observation; dynamics was primary, vital, and grounded in intuition.” Carlyle saw a need to reform natural philosophy once again, for contemporary philosophers and mathematicians were “turning so-called ‘useful knowledge’ into a Pascal-like engine for the mechanical transformation of every area of life.” This “mechanization” was the “Signs of the Times,” and it will drastically and poisonously alter every aspect of society.

Secord transitions from Sartor to the wider context to help us better grasp Carlyle’s denigration of the “Age of Machinery.” At the urging of Lord Brougham, the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (SDUK) was founded in 1826 with the concerted goal of communicating every piece of “useful” information available to the working classes. But according to Carlyle, the “world of bookselling and publishing was as completely corrupted by mechanism as the rest of British society.” He mocked the SDUK in an 1833 article in Fraser’s Magazine. Fraser’s was known its satirical bite, for railing “against the utopian impracticality of schemes for universal education.” According to Secord, every “issue had articles mocking radicals and the reforming Whigs, especially their support for utilitarian political economy.” The new learning would only distract the worker. Ultimately, these aspirations were impractical. Worse yet, the new learning would endanger traditional values, “the schoolmaster peddling reason could be succeeded by the demagogue preaching irreligion and democracy.” In short, a periodical like Fraser’s was an ideal place for Carlyle to publish his Sartor.

In his call to reform science, Carlyle’s Sartor “became a spiritual guide for thousands of readers in Europe and America, especially [Secord tells us] young men in search of a creed to replace traditional Christianity.” The high calling of the man of science appealed, for example, to readers like Thomas Henry Huxley and John Tyndall. Both Huxley and Tyndall rejected materialism as a philosophy of life: “The evolution of matter and of life need not lead to a world devoid of spirit and governed solely by material processes.” As Sartor declares, the new men of science could “stand peaceful on his scientific watch-tower,” a truly “spiritual observatory.”