In "Signs of the Times" Thomas Carlyle rails against what he calls man’s ‘mechanistic’ nature and praises man’s ‘dynamic’ nature. Carlyle uses contemporary industry (mills) as an example of, and metaphor for, what the mechanistic. The ‘mechanical’ is associated with, logic, quantitative reasoning, empirical observation, the profit motive, utilitarianism, and groupthink. The ‘dynamic’ is more obscure and intangible. Carlyle associates it with is inspiration, ‘truth’, Nature, and deeply felt emotions. The essay argues that contemporary society is increasingly mechanistic in all its aspects. Government, science, education, and philosophy are all targets of Carlyle’s critique. Religious institutions too, are also overly mechanistic.

Or, to take an infinitely higher instance, that of the Christian Religion, which, under every theory of it, in the believing or unbelieving mind, must ever be regarded as the crowning glory, or rather the life and soul, of our whole modern culture: How did Christianity arise and spread abroad among men? Was it by institutions, and establishments and well-arranged systems of mechanism? Not so; on the contrary, in all past and existing institutions for those ends, its divine spirit has invariably been found to languish and decay. It arose in the mystic deeps of man's soul; and was spread abroad by the preaching of the word," by simple, altogether natural and individual efforts; and flew, like hallowed fire, from heart to heart, till all were purified and illuminated by it; and its heavenly light shone, as it still shines, and (as sun or star) will ever shine, through the whole dark destinies of man. Here again was no Mechanism; man's highest attainment was accomplish, Dynamically, not Mechanically. Nay, we will venture to say, that no high attainment, not even any far-extending movement among men, was ever accomplished otherwise. Strange as it may see if we read History with any degree thoughtfulness, we shall find that checks and balances of Profit and Loss have never been the grand agents with men. that they have never been roused into deep, thorough, all-pervading efforts by any computable prospect of Profit and Loss, for any visible, finite object; but always for some invisible and infinite one. The Crusades took their rise in Religion; their visible object was, commercially speaking, worth nothing. It was the boundless Invisible world that was laid bare in the imaginations of those men; and in its burning light, the visible shrunk as a scroll. Not mechanical, nor produced by mechanical means, was this vast movement. No dining at Freemasons' Tavern, with the other long train of modern machinery; no cunning reconciliation of "vested interests," was required here: only the passionate voice of one man, the rapt soul looking through the eyes of one man; and rugged, steel-clad Europe trembled beneath his words, and followed him whither he listed. In later ages it was still the same. The Reformation had an invisible, mystic and ideal aim; the result was indeed to be embodied in external things; but its spirit, its worth, was internal, invisible, infinite. Our English Revolution too originated in Religion. Men did battle, in those old days, not for Purse-sake, but for Conscience-sake. Nay, in our own days, it is no way different. The French Revolution itself had something higher in it than cheap bread and a Habeas-corpus act. Here too was an Idea; a Dynamic, not a Mechanic force. It was a struggle, though a blind and at last an insane one, for the infinite, divine nature of Right, of Freedom, of Country.

Thus does man, in every age, vindicate, consciously or unconsciously, his celestial birthright. Thus does Nature hold on her wondrous, unquestionable course; and all our systems and theories are but so many froth-eddies or sandbanks, which from time to time she casts up, and washes away. When we can drain the Ocean into mill-ponds, and bottle-up the Force of Gravity, to be sold by retail, in gas jars; then may we hope to comprehend the infinitudes of man's soul under formulas of Profit and Loss; and rule over this too, as over a patent engine, by checks, and valves, and balances.

Here, Carlyle portrays modern religion as overly regulated. It is a smoothly operating bureaucracy, predictably collecting tithes, appointing parsons, and dispensing sermons. It is invested in the status quo. This, he implies, is the church of accountants (those operate according to the logic of “Profit and Loss”). The true spirit of the original church, however, was an inspirational and informal network. Its existence challenged the status quo. The inspirational aspect of the original church is reinforced with the reference to the Crusades. The radical aspect is reinforced with the reference of the French Revolution.


Carlyle’s use of the crusades, the Reformation, the English Revolution and the French Revolution bring his piece into the political realm. Is he using these examples for rhetorical effect, or is he implying actual violence/revolution is needed to correct contemporary society?

Carlyle seems to be using the Crusades and the French Revolution as examples of great and noble undertakings — deeply inspirational events. How was the Victorian attitude towards the crusades and French Revolution different from our own?

“Nature” — with a capital ‘n’ — is referenced repeatedly in the essay. Here “Nature hold[s] her . . . unquestionable course.” How is Carlyle using the concept of Nature — Is Nature an appeal to the divine order for the universe (natural law), or simply the absence of human rationality? Does he generally describe man’s nature in a positive or negative light?

Carlyle claims that “man, in every age, vindicate[s], consciously or unconsciously, his celestial birthright.” Here, he seems to argue that the essential nature of man is dynamic, and inexorably triumphs over suppressive forces in any age. Does this contradict his argument that contemporary society is mechanistic and inexorably driving man to spiritual bankruptcy?

Victorian Web Overview Thomas Carlyle Thomas Carlyle’s Works Discussion Questions

Last modified 19 May 2010