Foucault and Carlyle: Modes of Sagacity

by Mark Wallace

Michel Foucault is the postmodernist thinker par excellence. Though he didn’t like to be so labelled, the central approach of his work involves denying universal values and insisting that the human subject is always “in the position of beginning again” (“What is Enlightenment?”), helping to form a template for much postmodern theory. Thomas Carlyle, on the other hand, is a specifically 19th-century figure, fuelled by his hatred of Enlightenment values and rationalism generally, bent on uncovering “the Eternal Laws of the Universe”, and disseminating same to his readership, a strong advocate of imperialism and a great believer in racial determinism in the formation of character. Carlyle, in terms of wide influence on the intellectual circles of the time, was something of a 19th-century Foucault. Let us recall the words of Walt Whitman in this context:

It will be difficult for the future to account for the deep hold this author has taken on the present age, and the way he has color’d its method and thought. I am certainly at a loss to account for it as regarding myself.  But there could be no view, or even partial picture, of the nineteenth century, that did not markedly include Thomas Carlyle.

He color’d the thought of the age, said Walt. A big statement. And few have “color’d” our own age’s thought like M. Foucault. How then do these two roughly analogous figures compare? Let us look at pronouncements of the two men on a similar theme, taking in both cases spoken testimony. for these are likely to be more direct, succinct, and practical – particularly in Carlyle’s case, for he was a Sage, and thus told people how they must live and how society must be conducted. Foucault too was something of a Sage in this respect, rather than simply a theoretician of what Carlyle called the “Dryasdust” variety. A maître à penser, if you will. [Quote from Foucault is from an interview in Rabinow, Ed.’s The Foucault Reader (Penguin, 1991) pp. 340-373, and Carlyle’s from a talk recorded by Sir Charles Gavan Duffy and included in his Conversations with Carlyle (1896), pp. 181-183, under the title “An Harangue”.]

Foucault was not an ideologue, rather than prescribe one approach to politics, he suggested:

I think that the ethico-political choice we have to make every day is to determine which is the main danger.

All allegiances had to be constantly questioned for Foucault. A section from Carlyle can be taken as his response to such a suggestion:

Get out of that, you ugly and foolish windbags: do you think the Eternal God of Nature will suffer you to stand in the way of His work? If you cannot open your eyes and see that this is a thing that must be done, you had better betake yourselves elsewhere – to the lowest Gehenna were fittest – there is no place for you in a world which is ruled, in the long run, by fact and not by chimera.

Carlyle is not responding to Foucault, but to hypothetical opponents of a mooted plan of his to send the poor of Ireland to work on the Bog of Allan, doing what is unclear, but their organization into labour could only be a good thing, according to his values; however, his stance here makes it clear how hostile he is to a Foucauldian approach, which fails to acknowledge that the world is ruled by fact, and fails to distinguish between chimera and fact – that, worse again, effectively denies the distinction. The main danger is the same every day for Carlyle, and the end of Man is an action, and not a thought, though it were the noblest (Sartor Resartus, 2, VI).

Foucault’s prescription is rather vague, and sounds hard, nay Sisyphean. Carlyle’s posits 1) a transcendental truth-maker, or God 2) a means of knowing God’s will – through his intermediary, Carlyle himself 3) and is very decided on the contemptible nature of those who disagree, the ugly and foolish windbags. Thus it fulfils human needs for intellectual submission – to this God and his intermediary – and for scapegoating and xenophobia. All this is lost in Foucault. No wonder he doesn’t hit it off with the man in the street.