In "Signs of the Times," Thomas Carlyle bemoans the rise of the mechanical age, writing that English society has lost sight of the infinite truths of genius and spirituality and turned instead to the finite realities of money and social organizations. He urges a return to the attitudes of a past era that balanced this technological mindset with a more organic one.

To us who live in the midst of all this, and see continually the faith, hope and, practice of every one founded on Mechanism of one kind or other, it is apt to seem quite natural, and as if it could never have been otherwise. Nevertheless, if we recollect or reflect a little, we shall find both that it has been, and might again be otherwise. The domain of Mechanism, meaning thereby political, ecclesiastical or other outward establishments, — was once considered as embracing, and we are persuaded can at any time embrace, but a limited portion of man's interests, and by no means the highest portion.

To speak a little pedantically, there is a science of Dynamics in man's fortunes and nature, as well as of Mechanics. There is a science which treats of, and practically addresses, the primary, unmodified forces and energies of man, the mysterious springs of Love, and Fear, and Wonder, of Enthusiasm, Poetry, Religion, all which have a truly vital and infinite character; as well as a science which practically addresses the finite, modified developments of these, when they take the shape of immediate "motives," as hope of reward, or as fear of punishment. [p. 8]

These two paragraphs, and specifically their openings, seem to reflect two different viewpoints. On the one hand, Carlyle is on equal ground with the reader: he uses "we" and "us" and places himself "in the midst of all this." On the other, he is separated from society: he speaks "pedantically" at the reader, defining and explaining key terms (p. 8).


1. Why does Carlyle begin this passage by placing himself on equal footing with the reader? What effect does this have on his credibility as a peripheral sage writer who imparts valuable observations to the ignorant masses?

2. How does Tom Wolfe's use of definitions of surfing terminology in "The Pump House Gang" differ from Carlyle's? Is Wolfe a sage writer in the same way Carlyle is?

3. Though Wolfe's journalistic voice remains staunchly apart from the culture he writes about, the influence of the tumultuous sixties is unmistakable in Joan Didion's prose. Where does this passage place Carlyle in this hierarchy of detachment? Where would Samuel Johnson fit?


Text of "Signs of the Times."

Victorian Web Overview Thomas Carlyle Leading Questions

Last modified 7 March 2005