Carlyle begins “Signs of the Times,” focusing on the present state of man and then moves to the present state of nations, philosophies, and current events — the signs of the time — yet, his argument also narrows from that of the all encompassing man to the European, as Carlyle can only truly discern the signs of his and our own, European, time. To perceive our own individual aims and endeavors, Carlyle argues, we must see them as interlocked within, yet not forged from, society’s larger chain. Our Mechanical Age in which all — labor, religion, education, philosophy and morality — worships the Profitable, is “but of Opinion; we are but fettered by chains of our own forging.” Thus, Carlyle ends his essay, bemoaning the times but highlighting the agency of the individual, the universal man:

Neither, with all these evils more or less clearly before us, have we at any time despaired of the fortunes of society. Despair, or even despondency, in that respect, appears to us, in all cases, a groundless feeling. We have a faith in the imperishable dignity of man; in the high vocation to which, throughout this his earthly history, he has been appointed. However it may be with individual nations, whatever melancholic speculators may assert, it seems a well-ascertained fact, that in all times, reckoning even from those of the Heraclides and Pelasgi, the happiness and greatness of mankind at large have been continually progressive. Doubtless this age also is advancing. Its very unrest, its ceaseless activity, its discontent contains matter of promise. Knowledge, education are opening the eyes of the humblest; are increasing the number of thinking minds without limit. This is as it should be; for not in turning back, not in resisting, but only in resolutely struggling forward, does our life consist.

Nay, after all, our spiritual maladies are but of Opinion; we are but fettered by chains of our own forging, and which ourselves also can rend asunder. This deep, paralysed subjection to physical objects comes not from Nature, but from our own unwise mode of viewing Nature. Neither can we understand that man wants, at this hour, any faculty of heart, soul or body, that ever belonged to him. 'He, who has been born, has been a First Man'; has had lying before his young eyes, and as yet unhardened into scientific shapes, a world as plastic, infinite, divine, as lay before the eyes of Adam himself. if Mechanism, like some glass bell, encircles and imprisons us; if the soul looks forth on a fair heavenly country which it cannot reach, and pines, and in its scanty atmosphere is ready to [116/117] perish, — yet the bell is but of glass, 'one bold stroke to break the bell in pieces, and thou art delivered!' Not the invisible world is wanting, for it dwells in man's soul, and this last is still here. Are the solemn temples, in which the Divinity was once visibly revealed among us, crumbling away? We can repair them, we can rebuild them. The wisdom, the heroic worth of our forefathers, which we have lost, we can recover. That admiration of old nobleness, which now so often shows itself as a faint dilettantism, will one day become a generous emulation, and man may again be all that he has been, and more than he has been. Nor are these the mere daydreams of fancy; they are clear possibilities; nay, in this time they are even assuming the character of hopes. Indications we do see in other countries and in our own, signs infinitely cheering to us, that Mechanism is not always to be our hard taskmaster, but one day to be our pliant, all-ministering servant; that a new and brighter spiritual era is slowly evolving itself for all man. But on these things our present course forbids us to enter.

Awakening his society from its mechanical trance in which it values the mechanical over the natural or organic, Carlyle promises reform — if only of the individual. Yet, like Johnson, who points to mankind's universal uncertainty, he reminds us that nothing in reality is governed by chance: “Go where it will, the deep HEAVEN will be around it. Therein let us have hope and sure faith” — of society as well.


1. How does Carlyle’s use of biblical allusion and imagery, as well as reference to Hellenic history, contribute to his style and authority within this passage? Are there other examples, within “Signs of the Times” or other works, in which Carlyle uses these same techniques?

2. Whereas Tom Wolfe’s “Pump House Gang” criticizes specific spheres of society, never focusing on the reader himself, Carlyle’s “Signs of the Times” criticizes society, to reveal our relation to it. Though Carlyle’s direct approach is uncomfortable, is it ultimately more hopeful?

3. Within this passage, Carlyle makes distinctions between society and man, Nature and viewing Nature. Are these distinctions always clear, or are there gradations and exceptions?

4. Johnsons’s essay for Rambler No. 184 ends:

In this state of universal uncertainty, where a thousand dangers hover about us, and none can tell whether the good that he pursues is not evil in disguise, or whether the next step will lead him to safety or destruction, nothing can afford any rational tranquillity, but the conviction that, however we amuse ourselves with unideal sounds, nothing in reality is governed by chance, but that the universe is under the perpetual superintendance of Him who created it; that our being is in the hands of omnipotent Goodness, by whom what appears casual to us, is directed for ends ultimately kind and merciful; and that nothing can finally hurt him who debars not himself from the Divine favour.

Whereas Carlyle’s “Signs of the Times” ends:

On the whole, as this wondrous planet, Earth, is journeying with its fellows through infinite Space, so are the wondrous destinies [117/118] embarked on it journeying through infinite Time, under a higher guidance than ours. For the present, as our astronomy informs us, its path lies towards Hercules, the constellation of Physical Power: but that is not our most pressing concern. Go where it will, the deep HEAVEN will be around it. Therein let us have hope and sure faith. To reform a world, to reform a nation, no wise man will undertake; and all but foolish men know, that the only solid, though a far slower reformation, is what each begins and perfects on himself.[SK1]

How do these unforeseen references to a higher guidance, in both concluding paragraphs of Johnson and Carlyle’s essays, reform one’s view on each author’s topic — of chance, of Europe’s spiritual decline?

Victorian Web Overview Thomas Carlyle Leading Questions

Last modified 24 February 2011