Armed Eyesight: Metaphor in Carlyle and in 21st-century Economics

by Mark Wallace

One might be tempted to think that the Carlylean figure of the sage or man of letters is no more. That there was a way of knowing the world articulated by 19th-century sages that can no longer be accessed, for good or ill. Yet echoes of the sage mode of discourse can be found among modern intellectuals and academics. Most ironically, economics may be the 21st-century equivalent of sage writing. Ironic because Carlyle famously described economics (then known as political economy) as the “dismal science”, and indeed railed against it at every opportunity.

It was a dismal science to Carlyle because of its reduction of people to productive units. Carlyle noted that the final consequence of this was that people were not valuable in themselves, but only in how they contributed to the overall economic situation. Thus a person who was not economically viable had no personal value, and was better off dead, being a drain on resources rather than a producer. This capitalistic phenomenon of a person being unable to find work was on that struck Carlyle forcefully:

A full-formed Horse will, in any market, bring from twenty to as high as two hundred Friedrichs d’or: such is his worth to the world. A full-formed Man is not only worth nothing to the world, but the world could afford him a round sum would he simply engage to go and hang himself. (Sartor Resartus, III, IV)

Carlyle rejected what he saw as the implicit premise of political economy that human worth was defined by economic factors, and so the calculations political economists made were anathema to him. He valued such systematic thought little, and instead envisioned the true intellectual as one who took a the widest, most inclusive view possible. The intellectual, for Carlyle, was the one who saw everything, and saw through everything. There was no end to the cultural artefacts that could be read by the true sage. In Sartor Resartus, for example, it is clothes which prove to be transcendentally revealing when seen through the eyes of a sage, and which indeed ranks for Carlyle above any more established field of study:

[T]his Science of Clothes is a high one, and may with infinitely deeper study on thy part yield richer fruit: that it takes scientific rank beside Codification, and Political Economy, and the Theory of the British Constitution; nay rather, from its prophetic height looks down on all these, as on so many weaving-shops and spinning-mills, where the Vestures which it has to fashion, and consecrate, and distribute, are, too often by haggard hungry operatives who see no farther than their nose, mechanically woven and spun?

Carlyle’s point was that this superlatively revealing element of our everyday environment was not considered a science, and so he was demonstrating that far beyond scientific disciplines could knowledge of humanity and society be gained. By treating the study of clothes as a science, Carlyle was parodying scientific discourse, but was also making a very serious point about the necessity to learn from and be attentive to everything in our social and natural environment. To insist on a rigidly disciplinary approach was thus, for Carlyle, to very precisely miss the point. And this disciplinary point-missing Carlyle saw exemplified in the dismal science of Political Economy:

It was a matter of vision, of being able to really see things, and see through things:

The beginning of all Wisdom is to look fixedly on Clothes, or even with armed eyesight, till they become transparent. (SR, Bk. 2, Ch. II)

The irony, then, is that contemporary economics sometimes posits itself as exactly the kind of science of everyday life that Carlyle was looking for. In Tim Harford’s The Undercover Economist, the economist is the person who can look on the everyday and find hidden patterns and meaning therein. On the cover, the following quote from David Bodanis appears:

Reading this book is like spending an ordinary day wearing X-ray goggles.

It would be interesting to know how Carlyle would have felt about the X-ray metaphor. The technology of the X-ray had yet to come into being in the mid-19th century, however, so the metaphor was unavailable to him. Yet his metaphor of armed eyesight is very close. So Carlyle conceptualised the activity of philosophising in a very similar way to Bodanis’ conception of economics.

And in the opening lines of The Undercover Economist proper, Harford again emphasises visual metaphors:

[N]ormal people look remarkable in the eyes of economists. What is the economist seeing? What could he tell you, if you cared to ask? And why should you care? (1)

This is an attractive view of the economist, as one who simply looks upon everyday things, but rather than seeing only what we see, seeing through them to a deeper reality.

Yet, we cannot quite declare Harford to be a neo-Carlylean. Rather than looking on things with impartial curiosity, he brings to bear on them an astounding preconception:

[F]ree markets are just like Fletcher Reede’s son [in the film Liar Liar] – they force you to tell the truth. (60)

Harford believes that nothing that lacks value can survive in a free market, because people will only pay what an object is “worth”. Taxes, he believes, interfere with this “world of truth”.

Now you can begin to see why I say that prices “tell the truth” and reveal information […].[T]he value of the product to the customer is equal to or higher than the price; and the cost to the producer equal to or lower than the price. (62)

There are innumerable problems with this theory: what about alcohol to the alcoholic, a bet to the gambler, junk food to the unhealthy? Are these “worth” their price, or is their value actually negative? That is, these people appear to be paying to harm themselves.

Again, if the value of something is intrinsic and equal to price, why would a multi-million dollar advertising industry exist to convince people to buy, while also pushing up prices to pay for itself. Would not a true world of market truth abolish all advertising except the strictly informational?

Harford admits that the pure market as world of truth does not exist, yet insists on using it as a justification for the free market throughout the book. He does not address the issue that one could just as easily imagine a perfect socialist society, say, or a perfect anarchist society or any such arrangement. Why is it valid to imagine free market perfection and not those others?

In short, it is ultimately clear that Harford is looking at things through a very restrictive lens, seeing things not as they are but as they would be in a perfect free market. This is in line with an economist’s training, but seeing things from a Carlylean perspective, it is far from acceptable, and such a thinker runs the risk of becoming what Carlyle called “a Pair of Spectacles behind which there is no Eye” (SR, I, X). To really see through the phenomena of everyday life, as Hartford nobly attempts, would take a far lesser attachment to any such politico-structural ideal without a real-world existence. Sometimes, in short, an excess of theory is a greater epistemological flaw than no theory at all.