Past and Present (book)

Past and Present
AuthorThomas Carlyle
GenreMedieval history
PublishedApril 1843

Past and Present is a book by Thomas Carlyle.[1] It was published in April 1843 in England and the following month in the United States. It combines medieval history with criticism of 19th-century British society. Carlyle wrote it in seven weeks as a respite from the harassing labor of writing Cromwell. He was inspired by the recently published Chronicles of the Abbey of Saint Edmund's Bury, which had been written by Jocelin of Brakelond at the close of the 12th century. This account of a medieval monastery had taken Carlyle's fancy, and he drew upon it in order to contrast the monks' reverence for work and heroism with the sham leadership of his own day.


Book 1: Proem

Carlyle expresses his ideas about the Condition of England question in an elevated rhetorical style invoking classical allusions (such as Midas and the Sphinx) and fictional caricatures (such as Bobus and Sir Jabesh Windbag). Carlyle complains that despite England's abundant resources, the poor are starving and unable to find meaningful work, as evinced by the Manchester Insurrection. Carlyle argues that the ruling class needs to guide the nation, and supports an "Aristocracy of Talent". But in line with his concept of "hero-worship", Carlyle argues that first the English must themselves become heroic in order to esteem true heroes rather than quacks.

Book 2: The Ancient Monk

Carlyle presents the history of Samson of Tottington, a 12th-century monk who became Abbot of Bury St. Edmunds, as chronicled by Jocelin of Brakelond. Carlyle describes Samson as a lowly monk with no formal training or leadership experience who, on his election to the abbacy, worked earnestly and diligently to overcome the economic and spiritual maladies that had befallen the abbey under the rule of Hugo, the former abbot. Carlyle concludes from this history that despite the monks' primitive knowledge and superstitions (he refers to them repeatedly as "blockheads"), they were able to recognize and promote genuine leadership, in contrast to contemporary Englishmen:

Here he is discovered with a maximum of two shillings in his pocket, and a leather scrip round his neck; trudging along the highway, his frock-skirts looped over his arm. They think this is he nevertheless, the true Governor; and he proves to be so. Brethren, have we no need of discovering true Governors, but will sham ones forever do for us? (II.xi)

Carlyle presents his history as the narrative of the lives of men and their deeds, rather than as a dry chronicle of external details. To this end, he repeatedly contrasts his history with the style of the fictional historian Dryasdust.

Book 3: The Modern Worker

Carlyle transitions from discussing a medieval society, imbued with meaning, to the plight of the modern worker who lacks absolute meaning in his own existence. He directs his vitriol across multiple fronts, from the injustices of the Corn Laws to the utilitarian reductionism of laissez-faire thinkers. The British aristocracy is attacked for not performing their traditional obligations in guiding society, and the bourgeois elements of society are attacked for reducing life to a money-driven farce of empty talk. He in fact attacks industrial society more generally, which he sees exuding 'Midas-eared Mammonism'.

Book 4: Horoscope

Carlyle ends the book in proposing what must be done to remedy the faults he sees in society, which he boils down to the problem of governing men and relates closely to the matter of organizing labour. He notes that some combination of aristocracy and priesthood must be restored in society to give it guidance, with the force of a radical rejuvenation of spirit to elevate the working man from his wretched existence and away from the 'anarchy of supply and demand'. This new society would see wise leaders elevate the mob into a firm regimented mass.


  1. ^ Wikisource-logo.svg "Past and Present" . Encyclopedia Americana. 1920.

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