The Victorian Sage

"Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased"

Tag: sage

The Victorian Sage: When Philosophy meets Literature

Still the fullest analysis of the Victorian Sage comes from John Holloway’s 1953 book The Victorian Sage: Studies in Argument (London: Macmillan), and this book, though dated in some respects, is worth revisiting for its approach to the sage.

Holloway’s subtitle is worthy of note: Studies in Argument. Sage writing, then, is predominantly a form of arguing. Holloway’s opening chapter (“The Victorian Sage: His Message and Methods”), about which I will write in this post, starts with a rather vague description of the activity of his chosen sages (Carlyle, Newman, Arnold, Disraeli, George Eliot, Hardy):

[A]ll of them sought (among other things) to express notions about the world, man’s situation in it, and how he should live. (1)

The interest of the sage is of a “general or speculative kind in what the world is like” (1). The sage then is clearly somewhat akin to a philosopher, but he or she (Holloway neglects the “she” but one of his own examples is George Eliot) is a particularly general or speculative one; another way of saying this is that he or she is not a disciplinary philosopher.

But as well as offering a philosophico-moral outlook on life, the sage does something else. Holloway stresses that reading sage-writing “constitutes an experience for the reader” (11). The sage cannot be judged by the success of his or her doctrines, but by what work he or she does for the individual reader. This is difficult to quantify and communicate, obviously, and Holloway doesn’t get much further than the Victorian Sages themselves in this, using the Carlylean trope of vision: “acquiring wisdom is somehow an opening of the eyes” (9). The sages want the reader to experience an opening of the eyes, a quickening of perceptiveness (10). How do they go about this: by any means possible. “The sage has no standard bag of tools” (11). Thus the sage remains a slippery and elusive figure, moving us without us knowing how.

This brings the sage closer to the novelist: disciplinary philosophy is built on logical systems but novelists work by moving us. And Holloway follows this up: initial sages, Carlyle and Arnold notably, were essayists; but Holloway introduces Eliot, Disraeli and Hardy to illustrate how sage-writing and the work of the novelist were highly compatible. The sages were always attached to the notion of expounding their outlook through character (think of Teufelsdrockh in Sartor Resartus, or the many characters – Dryasdust et al. – in Carlyle’s more narrowly sage-like books). For the sage, there is no philosophy without a specific character to expound it. And character and doctrine are never separate, not even for expositional purposes:

Characters, because they can talk, can be authorities, more or less good or bad, for the points of view adopted or rejected by their creator; and more than this, they are not ventriloquist’s mouthpieces only, but people whom we get to know well and whose whole situation we are likely to live through sympathetically. (14)

So, the sage can be seen as half-philosopher, half-novelist. One has the focus on finding out about “man’s place in [the world], and how he should live” alongside the use of character, figurative language/tropes and other literary features. A philosopher without logic, a novelist without plot, the sage is both less and more than either of these more established intellectual figures.

The Sage and the Man of Letters

In Victorian England, the class of person we would probably call a public intellectual went by other names. Two such names were Sage and Man of Letters. Both of these terms are, of course, heavily associated with Thomas Carlyle. John Holloway’s study The Victorian Sage (1953) takes Carlyle as its first case study, contending that Carlyle’s aim is the standard one of the sage, “to state, and to clinch, the basic tenets of a ‘Life-Philosophy'” (excerpted in H. Bloom, ed., Thomas Carlyle [Chelsea House, 1986], p. 17); with the term Man of Letters Carlyle is still more closely associated, for did he not write the classic 19th-century investigation into the concept, “The Hero as Man of Letters” in On Heroes? The titular personage of this  lecture-cum-essay was, said Carlyle, “altogether a product of these new ages.” He was, moreover, “sent hither specially that he may discern for himself, and make manifest to us, this same Divine Idea: in every new generation it will manifest itself in a new dialect; and he is there for the purpose of doing that.” Of course, there is some self-reference here, and Carlyle did himself become associated with the figure of the Man of Letters, see for example John Gross’ The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters (1969). So we can see that there is some quite significant overlap between these two categories, Sage and Man of Letters. What, then, is the distinction?

I’ve been reading Terry Eagleton’s The Function of Criticism (1984), and he attempts a distinction. The Sage, he says,

[R]epresents […] an attempt to rescue criticism and literature from […] squalid political infighting […], constituting them instead as transcendental forms of knowledge […]. Literature will fulfill its ideological functions most effectively only if it sheds all political instrumentality to become the repository of a common human wisdom beyond the sordidly historical. (39-40)

I’m not sure if “ideological” and “common human wisdom” really belong in the same sentence, unless there’s a shift in viewpoint halfway through the sentence. If one accepts the notion of “common human wisdom” one can’t consider it to pertain to anything ideological – which is, by definition, partial and biased. But, certainly, the notion of common human wisdom is one that is central to the Sage and particularly to Carlyle, and it did not pertain to political parties. As early as the French Revolution, this element of Carlyle’s writing was noted and appreciated:

He is not a party historian like Scott, who could not, in his benevolent respect for rank and royalty, see duly the faults of either: he is as impartial as Thiers, but with a far loftier and nobler impartiality.


It is better to view it loftily from afar, like our mystic poet Mr Carlyle, than too nearly with sharp-sighted and prosaic Thiers. (Thackeray, qtd. in Seigel, ed., Thomas Carlyle The Critical Heritage (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971), p. 71.

Carlyle undoubtedly is a sage in Eagleton’s sense then. But what, then, of the Man of Letters. Eagleton defines this personage thusly:

[T]he bearer and dispenser of a generalized ideological wisdom rather than the exponent of a specialist intellectual skill. one whose synoptic vision, undimmed by any narrowly technical interest, is able to survey the whole cultural and intellectual landscape of his age.

Once again, “ideological” appears out of place here, jarring, for similar reasons to those outlined above, with the notion of the “synoptic vision, undimmed by any narrowly technical interest” – how can such a vision, if it is accepted as such, produce an ideological wisdom? (How, indeed, can wisdom, if one accepts that it is wisdom, be ideological?). Eagleton has written on the concept of ideology as much as almost any living author,so his usage of it is perhaps worth investigating. In the Eagleton passage I happen to have close to hand, he writes thusly:

[Ideology] refers more precisely to the process whereby interests of a certain kind become masked, rationalized, naturalized, universalized, legitimated in the name of certain forms of political power. Ideology, Verso, 2007, p. 202)

If this is representative of his view, then it’s a fairly classic Marxist take on the concept . For my purposes, it’s a little narrow – the idea that political power is behind ideology rules out various other motivations for the masking, rationalizing, etc., of interests. Perhaps social power would be better? Social is almost synonymous with the most extended meaning of political, but it does not  bear the same narrow meanings which give some ambivalence to Eagleton’s formulation. Both seem to contain the key point that ideology is of the collective, rather than of the individual. This, I would suggest is a more useful way to view it: to allow that a worldview, say, may be individual, but an ideology is individual consciousness inflected by the social (to keep it unfeasibly broad for the moment) – then, as you work towards a definition, the notion of falsity has to come in: the masking, naturalizing, the false consciousness (as Engels would have it), something along these lines. But not, at any rate, to be considered compatible with “common human wisdom” (a concept most contemporary academic critics would not accept, would, perhaps, laugh at, or even be embarrassed by), but which I, being partial to the outlook of the Victorian Sage (as the name of the blog suggests), find at least an attractive concept, if not one that is practically attainable or definable in a pure sense – that doesn’t, I frankly admit, exist in a pure sense, but is not therefore to be unceremoniously flung out of window (as Carlyle might say).

Detour over: after defining the MoL, Eagleton goes on to helpfully distinguish him from the aforedefined Sage:

Such comprehensive authority links the man of letters on one side with the sage; but whereas the sage’s synopticism is a function of transcendental detachment, the man of letters sees as widely as he does because material necessity compels him to be a bricoleur, dilettante, jack-of-all-trades, deeply embroiled for survival in the very commercial literary world from which Carlyle beat such a hasty retreat. (45)

This is a neat distinction, and one that fits with the connotations of the terms. An early meaning of sage is, according to the OED:

A man of profound wisdom; esp. one of those persons of ancient history or legend who were traditionally famous as the wisest of mankind

Thus the notion of transcendentalism fits well with a personage with mythic associations, while the more matter-of-fact man of letters has in Eagleton’s analysis, more down-to-earth connotations. Yet it is only at an abstract level that the distinction holds up: in reality, the 19th-century writers to whom those terms were applied (and Eagleton is using it in describing 19th-century criticism) were almost generally both. In historical terms, the categorization is unhelpful, and really speaks to the love of taxonimizing that afflicts many critics. To analyze is, to a large extent, to taxonomize, but history tends to break such distinctions down. Thus, my point simply is that though Eagleton’s analysis is somewhat interesting, it’s not one I will be trying to apply.

Nevertheless, I’m interested in the undisciplinary nature of the learning that the man of letters accrues. From a 21st-century academic point of view, this seems to me the most interesting element. The academic sees narrowly, methodologically, where the man of letters saw synoptically. The academic structures in place do not now allow for such a mode of vision. No, for that we have to close our Foucaults and open our Sartors, the opening chapter of which is one of the great paeans to intellectual freedom. In my humble opinion.

[W]ould Criticism erect not only finger-posts and turnpikes, but spiked gates and impassable barriers, for the mind of man? It is written, “Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased.” Surely the plain rule is, Let each considerate person have his way, and see what it will lead to. For not this man and that man, but all men make up mankind, and their united tasks the task of mankind.  (Sartor, Ch. 1)

21st-century Sage: Niall Ferguson and the Western Malaise

Niall Ferguson wrote a book in 2000 entitled The Cash Nexus, the phrase derived from Thomas Carlyle’s Chartism (1839) and Past and Present (1843), and it seems the influence of the prototypical Victorian Sage is strong in the right-wing historian/ economist. In his article “Rue Britannia: Debt used to make us Great” in the Sunday Times of last week (17 June 2012), he was in full neo-sage mode as he identified the “malaise” at the heart of western society, and issued dire warnings for the consequences of our current recklessness.

                            Niall Ferguson

Thomas Carlyle                                                                  Niall Ferguson

The sage approach is characterized by first referencing a current social issue: for example, worker unrest in Chartism; for Ferguson, the issue is, of course, the economic difficulties engulfing various western states. Then, he makes the classic sage move: considering the problem not in itself, but as a symptom of a society rotten to the core. Financial problems are “nothing more than symptoms of an underlying instittutional malaise”. Like Carlyle, Ferguson harks back to a time when society was well-ordered: for Carlyle, it was feudalism; for Ferguson, it seems to be any time between the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the dusk of the British Empire. This was a time of “legislating for economic development” and when “even war became an increasingly profitable activity […] There was no default. There was no inflation. And Britannia bestrode the globe”. But now, Ferguson repeats, we have arguments over austerity and stimulus as “a consequence of a more profound malaise”.

But the sage must not only condemn, he must also make clear the dangers of our path. For Carlyle, that lay in class antagonisms, which would end in revolution and anarchy if not appeased by the prophesied “Aristocracy of Talent”. For Ferguson, the fear is that the west is on the way to being overtaken by China. He informs us that the average American was 20 times richer than his Chinese counterpart in 1978, but is now only 5 times richer. Truly a sobering statistic. The dangers of Chinese economic power are not expressly identified, but that it is not desirable is clear (he has been more explicit on this elsewhere).

There is always blame that must be apportioned by the sage. Carlyle lambasted the Idle Aristocracy, characterized as “Sir Jabesh Windbag”. This class had  abdicated its responsibility to lead, and had to be overthrown, for the real aristocracy to take over, or mob-rule and another French Revolution would be the outcome. For Ferguson, the blame also falls on the acting aristocracy of our time, the governments and financial decision-makers who have broken the covenant between the generations and are in the process of leaving the coming generations in financial ruin.

There is one desirable way out for Ferguson: “a heroic effort of leadership”, one that would persuade “not only the young but also a significant proportion of the parents and grandparents to vote for a more responsible fiscal policy”. That word, heroic, how evocative it is in a Carlylean context! (See On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History (clue’s in the title), or pretty much anything else he wrote). Who Ferguson is talking about is not quite clear, though he does at one point observe: “If young Americans knew what was good for them, they would all be in the Tea Party.” They’re not, though, rather they are still in thrall to the cash nexus, but perhaps, even still, they are only holding out for a hero, and when such a person appears above the political horizon, the western world will bends its collective knee before him and pay due homage. Carlyle would certainly have liked to think so.

In summation, this post has simply tried to pick up on some similar rhetorical devices in use in Ferguson and Carlyle, as part of our ongoing attempts to trace Carlyle’s influence, such as it is, from the 1830s to the present day. In his appeal to national pride and his idealization of the British national past, his appeal to morality (implied in his description of “the present system” as “fraudulent”), his diagnosis of a sickness in our present condition, his apparent nostalgia for warfare and his investment in the idea of heroic leadership, he gives us ample reason to believe that there is at least one neo-Carlylean amongst the celebrated intellects of our time.


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