Thomas Carlyle on History and Civilization

Friday 05 May 2023

Nick Nielsen
8 min readMay 13, 2023

Thomas Carlyle once made an off-hand remark about, “…the three great elements of modern civilization, Gunpowder, Printing, and the Protestant Religion,” which has been widely quoted. Carlyle credited all of these pivotal developments to the Germans, and in this he was mostly correct. Gunpowder came from China, very slowly making its way across Eurasia during the later middle ages, since idea diffusion was only loosely-coupled at that time. China had also earlier developed moveable type printing, but it did not produce the impact that it did on Western civilization, probably because of the differences between Chinese and Western languages, derived from the Latin alphabet, so much smaller than the Chinese character set. So, in the case of Gutenberg’s moveable type printing, this was an instance of independent invention, and not idea diffusion. Protestantism can lay claim to being an authentically German interpretation of Christianity, which, of course, has its origins in the Levant, and not in Europe.

These three elements of modern civilization identified by Carlyle, then, are a mixed bag in terms of provenance: the historiographical equivalent of something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue. But I would not contest that these elements have shaped Western civilization in a decisive way, and that they mark modern civilization in contradistinction to medieval (or earlier) civilization. When I was thinking about this Carlyle quote today, I realized that it points to a distinct descent for modern civilization than that which I have usually identified. I have taken as my lineage for modern Western civilization what I called the “Three Revolutions,” being the scientific revolution, the political revolution (American and French revolutions), and the industrial revolution.

V. Gordon Childe

There is a sense in which, by identifying these three revolutions and their place within the genesis of modern Western civilization, I am following the lead of V. Gordon Childe, who, as a commie, emphasized the revolutionary pedigree of civilization by locating its origins in the Neolithic agricultural revolution and the urban revolution. I haven’t sought to emulate Childe, but I can see now that this way of looking at history makes it one long series of revolutions, and makes of man an intrinsically revolutionary figure — Homo revolutioniensis, we could call him.

Ultimately, the revolutionary reading of history doesn’t have to interfere with our understanding unless we allow ourselves to become deranged by the concept of revolution. There are, to be sure, many historians who have become ideologically deranged (I mentioned a couple of them last week), but there is nothing inevitable about this, and, for the level-headed, it is not a great danger. The more important, or more dangerous, distortion of history is taking one set of pivotal events as definitive vs. taking another set of pivotal events as definitive, and this is where I am at with Carlyle’s gunpowder, printing, and Protestantism and my three revolutions. It may happen that all of these pivotal developments ultimately coincide, but, as they stand, they place historical events in a different light, and emphasize different aspects of history.

For one thing, Carlyle’s trinity shifts modern history earlier, with gunpowder appearing in the later middle ages, and printing in the 15th century, which can be considered medieval or modern depending on your preference. My three revolutions start where Carlyle’s trinity ends, more or less, as the scientific revolution can’t reasonably be placed before the mid-16th century. But shifting the boundaries of periods is something of an historian’s game that never ends, so, again, there is no great harm or danger in this.

Of particular interest in relation to gunpowder and printing is that both of these innovations seem to be primarily technical, with very little input from science, which did not yet exist in its modern form. And these technologies were continuously improved and refined as primarily a technical art. It was not until Europeans starting applying conic sections to the aiming of artillery that we can truly see the scientific revolution at work in shaping these technologies and their use. Printing, too, was introduced and refined as a technical art. Certainly one could argue that there is something of the scientific temperament in the adoption of these technologies and their rapid improvement, but this is what I have called a loose-coupling of science and technology, which one could also find in the ancient world, and which stands in striking contrast to the tightly-coupled feedback loop of science and technology that we find in modern history.

Just as we can speculate on the bread-before-beer or beer-before-bread controversy at the origins of civilization (on which cf. newsletter 184), we can speculate on the science-before-technology or technology-before-science origins of modern civilization. Carlyle’s trinity implicitly embodies technology-before-science, while my three revolutions implicitly embody science-before-technology. These alternatives are, of course, an over-simplification, because science and technology modify each other. I have quoted philosopher of technology Don Ihde’s use of “technoscience” on several occasions as it is so evocative. One can find anticipations of science (Archimedes) and technology (the Antikythera mechanism) in the ancient world, but the two do not come together as technoscience in antiquity, and they continue to remain distinct in the medieval period — perhaps more distinct than they were in antiquity — so that it is not until modern history, and at that a good way along in modern history, that we get technoscience.

James K. Feibleman, in his book on the philosophy of technology, makes the important observation that ancient philosophy, and ancient culture more generally, despised the hands-on work of the kind of people who produced technology, considering it beneath intellectual notice. Thus the many histories we have of the ancient world have almost nothing about machines in them, with the exception of a few late antique military manuals that give instructions for the construction of war machines. Archimedes’ machines for the defense of Syracuse are mentioned as a kind of curiosity, but without a scientific curiosity as to how they worked, who built them, how they were constructed, and all the practical questions that we today would like to have answered. (This is parallel to the mention of Brunelleschi’s machines used in the construction of the dome of the Florence cathedral, with this example being in a medieval context — again, a mere curiosity.) There must have been a considerable technological infrastructure in the ancient world to produce lead pipes for plumbing and glass for windows, but we have no account of these industries.

The many crafts that went into the construction of the cathedrals, especially celebrated in James J. Walsh’s The Thirteenth: Greatest of Centuries, were much better documented, but even here the evidence is rather thin, and much less than we would want. Walsh argues that medieval civilization had largely solved the problem of education on the basis of the widely understood trades of stonework, metalwork, glasswork, and so on that must have constituted major industries when so many great churches were being built at the same time. Jean Gimpel’s book on medieval technology is also relevant in this connection (on which cf. newsletter 134). Gimpel emphasized that there was a broadly-based technological infrastructure in medieval Europe making use of watermills and windmills, and this experience with a technological infrastructure primed Europe, after a fashion, for the industrial revolution. This, again, is a technology-before-science schema for history.

If we were to produce a periodization of history centered on technology, it would look rather different from our conventional periodizations. Instead of the familiar ancientmedievalmodern sequence, we might start far back in prehistory with the first tools, then there is an undocumented age of technology in civilization, then a lull followed by a long period of technological expansion that takes us through the middle ages well into the modern period, and we don’t come to another technological period until the emergence of technoscience in the twentieth century (or, at earliest, in the late nineteenth century). This history, if properly executed, would have something to recommend it — if nothing else, it would serve as a useful counterexample to shine a light on our presuppositions about the relationship of technology and history.

While on the subject of Carlyle, John Romer in the television version of his book Testament called Carlyle one of the barmiest historians (this remark does not occur in the book). Barmy he may have been, but Carlyle said a couple of things that have endeared him to me. Though no source of the quote is known, Carlyle is supposed to have said, when looking at the stars, “A sad spectacle. If they be inhabited, what a scope for misery and folly. It they be not inhabited, what a waste of space.” It sounds like Carlyle, even if the quote is apocryphal. And Carlyle stands out in my mind as one of the few historians to have given a definition of history that is not specific to the past, in his 1830 essay “On History”:

“History, as it lies at the root of all science, is also the first distinct product of man’s spiritual nature; his earliest expression of what can be called Thought. It is a looking both before and after; as, indeed, the coming Time already waits, unseen, yet definitely shaped, predetermined, and inevitable, in the Time corne: and only by the combination of both is the meaning of either completed.”

Here, the whole of time is seen whole, with the past and future integral with each other, which is an idea that has always appealed to me, and one of the reasons that I have been intrigued by the efforts of big history to include the future in its narrative. These attempts are rather simplistic at present, and could do with significant development and articulation, but it is a hopeful start. With Carlyle, we see that this hopeful start had earlier anticipations. In any case, the whole essay is pregnant with meaning and is worth reading, demonstrating that Carlyle is not to be reduced to the familiar over-simplifications associated with his name.