Saturday, September 22, 2007

Thomas Carlyle on Course Theme and the Relativity of Space

The assigned essays read in class -- well, lectured on only, I fear -- from Thomas Carlyle present the ideas of that great Victorian sage on degeneracy and progress, in the realm of the individual's attitude to the world; and set up the great mythopoeic project of novelist George MacDonald.

The essays form part of an important sequence in his masterwork, Sartor Resartus: "The Everlasting No," "The Centre of Indifference," "The Everlasting Yea," and "Natural Supernaturalism. The sequence is in fact a progression: from a state of spiritual decay in materialism and egotism, up, by stages, to the vigour and health of a state of wonder before the universe.

  • "The Everlasting No" is the position of the materialist and atheist, who, seeing a universe of mere matter, conducts life by "the profit-and-loss philosophy" (i.e. Utilitarianism & free-market capitalism) and, faced with certain oblivion, takes a proto-Existentialist and is finally judged by Carlyle thus: "Worldlings puke-up their sick existence, by suicide, in the midst of luxury." The everlasting "No" is the Worldling's final move to Egotism, where, in a negative epiphany, realises that eternal Death does not have feared, but can be embraced and accepted: "And as I so thought there rushed like a stream of fire on my whole soul; and I shook base fear away from me forever. I was strong, of unknown strength: a spirit, almost a god. The presence here of Milton's Satan is, of course, deliberate by Carlyle
  • "The Centre of Indifference" portrays the movement (of the text's fictional device, the elusive Professor Teufelsdröckh) away from selfish nihilism, and this first stage of advance is quiescent apathy: "Ach Gott, when I gazed into these Stars, have they not looked down on me as if with pity, from their serene spaces....Thousands of human generations, all noisy as our own, have been swallowed-up of Time, and there remains no wreck of them any more....Pshaw! what is this paltry little Dog-cage of an Earth; what art thou that sittest whining there? Thou art still Nothing. Nobody: true, but who, then, is Somebody?....'This,' says our Professor, 'was the CENTRE OF INDIFFERENCE I had now reached; through which whoso travels from the Negative Pole to the Positive must necessarily pass.'
  • 'The Everlasting Yea' is the consequence of ever-questioning human nature which, reflecting upon the state of unhappiness in the universe, suddenly asks of itself: "What Act of Legislature was there that thou shouldst be Happy?....What if thou wert born and predestined not to be Happy, but to be Unhappy?"
    Parenthetically, note that Carlyle is making the step here to the idea that the Egotism -- even, as the class noted in last Monday's lecture, the Solipsism -- of the Everlasting No can be in a sense transcend, rather than negated, by focusing on the Self, but using that focus to voluntarily lessen the Self (and the 'voluntarily' rescues the move for materialist egotism) in the interest of a higher principle -- but still a "higher" within a secular, non-Christian, system.
    Carlyle presents the voluntary diminishment of Self in this neatly secular way: "....the Fraction of your Life can be increased in value not so much by increasing your Numerator as by lessening your Denominator. Nay, unless my Algebra deceive me, Unity itself divided by Zero will give Infinity." Carlyle then takes the further step to a full and positive affirmation. "....There is in man a HIGHER than Love of Happiness....Love not Pleasure; love God. This is the EVERLASTING YEA, wherein all contradiction is resolved." Of course, this is not, in Carlyle, a mere return to the previous form of the understanding of the Divine: the nineteenth century, as Hardy would write, believed itself to witness the Funeral of God. Carlyle, note, presents 'God' as a sense of a Self, directed, as the previous quotation says, toward Love.
    "....the Mythus of the Christian Religion looks not in the eighteenth century [the age of Voltaire, et al] as it did in the eighth....What are antiquated Mythuses to me? Or is the God present, felt in my own heart....? This is Belief: all else is opinion."
    A final quotation -- in fact, the final section of 'Everlasting Yea' -- is worth quoting, for the explicit statement of the progressivism of Carlye's thought here. In it, Carlyle (being even more intensely Scotch and vestigial Calvinist than usual) announces his Philosophy of Work as the crown on the Affirmative view of Life:
    "I....could now say to myself: Be no longer a Chaos, but a World....Produce! Produce! Were it but the pitifullest infinitesimal fraction of a product, produce it, in God's name!....Up, up! Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy whole might."
  • Natural Supernaturalism. This section is a wonder in itself, even as it articulates Wonder as the supreme principle by which a progressive Humanism is possible. Its central understanding is exquisitely simple -- even obvious -- once the fresh and unexpected idea is seen free of the distorting lens of what Carlyle calls Custom: that is, the familiarity of repetition. The world is a miracle, Carlyle says, every action, every flower, every sunrise, every rainfall, a miraculous event. That anything happens is ineffably wondrous.
    ".... perhaps the cleverest trick is [Custom's] knack of persuading us that the Miraculous, by simple repetition, ceases to be miraculous....Am I to view the Stupendous with stupid indifference, because I have seen it twice, or two hundred, or two hundred million times?"
    [This is, by the bye, Carlyle's reiteration of another famous Scot, the 18th Century belle-lettrist and philosopher, David Hume, who explained our belief in some faery thing called "causation" as the action of Custom on our repeated observation of two events related closely in Time.] Carlyle's point of view in 'Natural Supernaturalism' is repeated at the end of the Century in a more imaginative and literary way by G.K. Chesterton in an oft-anthologised chapter (written as a non-Christian) of his Orthodoxy.
    All the towering materialism which dominates the modern mind rests ultimately upon one assumption; a false assumption. It is supposed that if a thing goes on repeating itself it is probably dead; a piece of clockwork. People feel that if the universe was personal it would vary; if the sun were alive it would dance. This is a fallacy even in relation to known fact. For the variation in human affairs is generally brought into them, not by life, but by death; by the dying down or breaking off of their strength or desire. A man varies his movements because of some slight element of failure or fatigue. He gets into an omnibus because he is tired of walking;or he walks because he is tired of sitting still. But if his life and joy were so gigantic that he never tired of going to Islington,he might go to Islington as regularly as the Thames goes to Sheerness. The very speed and ecstasy of his life would have the stillness of death. The sun rises every morning. I do not rise every morning;but the variation is due not to my activity, but to my inaction. Now, to put the matter in a popular phrase, it might be true that the sun rises regularly because he never gets tired of rising. His routine might be due, not to a lifelessness, but to a rush of life. The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in children, when they find some game or joke that they specially enjoy. A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, "Do it again"; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, "Do it again" to the sun; and every evening, "Do it again" to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we. The repetition in Nature may not be a mere recurrence; it may be a theatrical ENCORE..
    The second insight that makes up the power of the 'Natural Supernaturalism' chapter, and creates the dynamism and sense of progression is perhaps best read for oneself. Carlyle's main thrust is the energetic presentation of an understanding whereby both Time and Space are less substantial than -- indeed, at the service of -- the human mind. It is, thanks to the popularisation of Einstein's theorem, no stretch for moderns to accept that Time is relative to the perceiver; to the human mind. But although it is not popular it is equally true, and equally Einsteinian, that Space is relative to the perceiver.
    Einstein's formula is that e = mc^2 (energy equals mass multiplied by the square of the speed of light). Note that the essential fact about formulae is that their arrangement is entirely subjective. It is equally valid to reformulate e = mc^2 for velocity [Fudging here between velocity and speed: speed is change of position in ratio to time taken; velocity adds the element of direction]: thus c = root(e/m). ("c" is a particular velocity: i.e. the speed of light.) There is, in other words, no objective -- i.e. fixed outside individual preference -- reason why the formula should be solved for any one of its elements rather than another. Now, observe how Space is one of the subjective elements of Einstein's formula by which the equation may be solved. Think of distance ("D") as being a change in place ("ΔP"). And velocity as "v"; and Time as "t". You'll remember from High-School that the formula for velocity is v = ΔP / t. (Recall that we're saying that "D" is the same as "ΔP"). This equation can be resolved for both Time and Space: t = ΔP / v and ΔP = vt . Putting this, then, into Einstein's formula for relativity, we have (ΔP / t) = root(e/m) where (ΔP / t) is equal to the velocity of light in a vacuum. And because ΔP is change in position -- i.e. distance, which is just to say Space -- Space is relative. Q.E.D.
    Using ordinary language, Time (which we accept as being relative) is simply a word for what happens when we change places; and Space is a word for what happens when there is a change (in our experience, a forward motion) in Time. Thus, Time and Space are both relative to our perception, and are merely different aspects of the same fact: i.e. phenomena. Carlyle, please note, is not saying that the mind creates Space & Time: he is not a solipsist. What he says (indeed, what many other writers and thinkers of this school have said -- W.V.O. Quine, for instance) is that Space and Time are relative constructs by which the mind organises and negotiates the phenomena it experiences. In a phrase, natural supernaturalism!

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