Going Public with Thomas Carlyle: “Know Thy Work”

Thomas Carlyle

I like Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881). He’s one of my rugged 19th Century romantic existentialist individualists. I don’t buy the whole package of his thought (women never seem to get a mention, for instance), but he can be forgiven for being a man of his time as much as I will need to be if any of my thoughts survive me.

Apart from anything else, Carlyle wrote 21 volumes of the history of Freidrich II of Prussia; and he didn’t even have the Internet! This suggests that he had one thing nailed: he knew how to knuckle down and get on with his work – probably because he didn’t have the Internet.

So, as my contribution this week to the #GoingPublic audio project, here is an excerpt from Book III of  Carlyle’s “Past and Present” that gives us a clue about the root of his productivity, his attitude to work. It amuses me, the way he dismisses “Know Thyself” with a disdainful sweep of his hand and then goes on to expound “Know Thy Work” with increasingly dizzy conceits. But I also find it invigorating. How about you?

The full text is available here.

Check out a wealth of other great audio clips from the Going Public Project.

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7 Responses

  1. …”in idleness alone there is perpetual despair.” I dunno, I’m pretty happy doing nothing, frankly. His thinking on work reeks of post-Reformation, Protestant work ethic to which I no longer prescribe. The boy can certainly write however!

  2. Ha, ha…it would take longer to write 21 volumes than it would to live the life in question!

    • It would for me … but what was the secret of these “old fashioned” writers and their prolific output? I mean In the last two years all I’ve done is reshuffle ideas for books. By now Bede would have been on his fifth volume. Is it their lack of broadband or their protestant work ethic (except in the case of Bede)?

      • I’ve journalled since 1985 and have book cases full of old journals and can still say I write more thoroughly and substantively since writing on the computer. Maybe it’s the fact that I can get more ideas out of a leaky head quickly without fear of dissolution!

    • “I … have book cases full of old journals” That’ll make your biographer’s job much easier! ;-)

      The opposite seems to hold for me. I think I have probably written less(annually by volume) since the ubiquity of home computing.

      • I’ve given this more thought and, although it is true I write much more now that I can do so from a laptop, I don’t write as much in the simple, unpretentious, non-public (blogging, facebook) manner that the journals dictated. Sometimes I start poetry in the journal and finish it online. And, by the way, should I ever have such an auspicious end as to have a biographer, he or she will spend the first week belly laughing, the next shrugging and the next in utter bemusement before ever getting to any kind of story.

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