Carlyle: Work as Religion

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…(A)ll true work is religion: and (whomever or whatever says that) Religion is not work may go (elsewhere) … Work is Worship.

While the Buddha repeatedly referred to work to analogize the skills needed to experience an egoless state devoid of reactivity, Carlyle turned work into a religion.

Carlyle inherited the Christian conception of work as a blessing.  Work was not only “noble” but “sacred”: Regardless of how forgetful a person might be of a high calling, there is always hope in a person that actually and earnestly works: in Idleness alone is there perpetual despair.

Carlyle transformed the Christian conception of work as a blessing into a religion in and of itself. Work was not an aspect or reflection of Christianity or Religion, work is religion.

For Carlyle the desire to work brought the worker “in communication with Nature: the real desire to get Work done will itself lead one more and more to truth, (to) Nature’s appointments and regulations, which are truth”.  Carlyle’s conception of work as a sacred means of obeying divine law resembles Freud’s conception of a “Reality Principle”, insofar as the primary significance of Work for Freud resided in its capacity to bind the worker to reality.

Work had an unmatched power to immediately restore the worker to mental health. “(T)he instant he sets himself to work… the whole soul of a man is composed into a kind of real harmony… Doubt, Desire, Sorrow, Remorse, Indignation, Despair itself, all these like helldogs lie beleaguering the soul of the poor dayworker, as of every man:  but he bends himself with free valour against his task, and all these are stilled, all these shrink murmuring far off into their caves.”

The reality of the world is spiritual, a “divine idea” behind sensuous experience, and this central truth is to be reached not by reason but by intuition. He carried forward the protest (initiated by Coleridge) in favor of a spiritual (rather than mechanistic) conception of the universe. The individual’s relation to a universe permeated by the divine idea is to be developed through renunciation and work.

Carlyle’s philosophy bears some resemblance to the Buddha insofar as both referred to work as a way of deepening one’s relationship with an existential reality.  But whereas the Buddha reiterated and emphasized that the skills necessary to experience egolessness and equanimity were like the skills of embodied in the skilled worker, Carlyle identified work itself as ennobling.  The worker’s skills were not analogous to that which was needed to experience a deeper and more authentic mental state – work itself constituted the deeper and more authentic mental state.

For Carlyle, work:

  • Is older than all the preached Gospels or Religions. Work is the primordial religion: it is the “unpreached” but “ineradicable (and) forever enduring” religion.
  • The way to achieve well-being: “Work, and therein have well-being…”
  • Is immediately necessary due to the imminence of death. One should “work while it is still Today. For the Night cometh, wherein no man can work.”
  • Sacred regardless of how menial such work might appear. “All true work is sacred….”
  • Reflects participation in a divine and invisible spirit, in a “form of things unseen…He works in and for the Unseen.”
  • Should be pursued without concern for work’s rewards. The worker who is concerned with “the world and its wages, its criticisms, counsels, helps, impediments” would, suffer in his labor, like the ancient Greek heroes (such as Heracles and Sisyphus) who languish in Hades. Those who “work not as in a Great Taskmaster’s eye will work wrong, work unhappily for themselves and for you.”
  • Restores mental health. “All Works, each in their degree, are a making of madness sane.” Like Freud, Carlyle recognized that work bound the worker to reality: “By very working, they will learn, Antaeus-like, their foot on mother Fact: how can they but learn?”
  • Inevitably confers virtue. “Show me a people energetically busy – I show you a people of whom great good is already predictable; to whom all manner of good is yet certain, if their energy endure.”

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