To me, a useful way to think about how the form and content of the book work together is to think of sonata form in classical music.
Carlyle in fact often uses musical metaphors, so this comparison is perhaps not so strange as it might sound. SR, like a piece of music in sonata form, has three sections. In sonata form the three sections are labelled exposition, development, and recapitulation. In sonata form, the exposition introduces two contrasting melodic themes, a primary and a secondary theme.
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The development section in sonata form explores the two main themes through various kinds of manipulations and additions of new materials. Often, for example, in the exposition the two melodic themes will be in different keys, while in the recapitulation the secondary theme will be recast in the key of the primary theme. The conflict or instability that is set up at the beginning is thus resolved. It is, I think, nevertheless, a very appropriate analogy, because the literary Bildungsroman and the musical sonata form—which both deal with conflict and development and resolution—both started to become popular around the same time in the 18th century and became staples of Romantic culture in the 19th century.
If you dive in deep enough, he says, you can return with true riches. However, the Editor feels that to adequately convey this philosophy to the English reading public, he also needs to introduce the philosopher. In earlier eras the lives of philosophers were told for the same reason that the lives of other great individuals were told: as a form of moral education and to provide exemplary models.
The works that a philosopher or artist, for example, produced were interpreted separately, according to whether the artifact in question served a particular function well, or conformed to certain conventions of beauty or logic, or was made in accord with the model of Nature. Questions of personality or psychology or cultural context for the most part had no bearing on the interpretation of the work or artifact though there are some exceptions to this. In the Romantic era, however, people began to feel that the artifacts that a person made—whether a work of philosophy or of art or of craftsmanship, or whatever—were an expression of that person as made within a particular community, at a particular point in history, for a particular purpose, and so on.
And so to understand that work of art or philosophy, etc. This mode of interpretation, which is sometimes called historical interpretation, followed most directly from the philosophy of Johann Gottfried Herder in the late 18 th century, although such ideas had been expressed earlier in various parts of the world.
With questions of personality and historical context in mind, what can we say about Book I? This can be enlarged to a contrast between England and Germany generally, or at least English and German culture.
Germany at the same time, however, was dominated by Idealism, the theory that the mind imposes form on the external world, that we, in some sense, create the world around us. Utilitarianism is basically an Enlightenment philosophy, while modern Idealism is associated with Romanticism. The motivating force of SR as a whole is that the Editor wants to bridge this philosophical divide, although on his own terms and for his own purposes.
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What English intellect could have chosen such a topic, or by chance stumbled on it? Again, what I want to bring out is that the Editor is making a contrast here.
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In the midst of this revolutionary and reformist din, the Editor positions himself as a conservative. He writes: the Editor thinks it needful to give warning: namely, that he is animated with a true though perhaps a feeble attachment to the Institutions of our Ancestors; and minded to defend these, according to ability, at all hazards; nay, it was partly with a view to such defence that he engaged in this undertaking.
So the Editor is making plain his conservative intervention into current events. So the Editor in the beginning is interested in this philosophy not because of its revolutionary potential, or we should say, not because of its externally political revolutionary potential. He is interested in it for other reasons, which I think have more to do with internal or intellectual or spiritual or psychological— whichever term you prefer—but an internal and individual kind of revolution that can set the stage for gradual political reform.
Aside from this, the Editor tries to remain aloof, or at least claims that he will remain aloof and objective—whether or not he actually does so is another interesting question. So some kind of radicalism is one feature of his character. Another is inner division or contradiction. This also comes out in many passages. He looks upon the world with immense love and sympathy but also somehow with perfect indifference. Actually, some real-life Romantics—Wordsworth comes to mind—have been described in a similar way. And again you find references to this indifference throughout SR.
And note the mocking parenthetical reference to parentheses. So the contrast between our two characters is perhaps not quite total; or there is already some common ground. His book, in other words, contains parts that basically lay out facts and parts that theorize based on the facts, or show the real significance of the facts. The last seven chapters of Book I of SR give something of an overview of the clothes philosophy. And even in just the brief excerpts provided by the Editor we find mentioned various manner of aprons and mantles and ruffles and breeches and so on.
Among all these facts, however, some very interesting philosophical speculations already appear, particularly in what is for us Chapter V of Book I.
Beginning as ornament, however, clothes have had all kinds of strange consequences. This is really just the hint, or foreshadowing, of an argument that will be expanded on later. The idea is that clothes are what individualize us; they distinguish us from each other, not just as individuals, but as classes of individuals; and they help regulate social or political behavior. If clothes produce us as individual and social beings, then are we nothing more than our clothes? There is, to put it another way, a hint of a fear not that the emperor will be revealed to have no clothes, as the old story put it, but that the emperor is only clothes.
But is this a real philosophy? There is some debate among scholars about how seriously to take the clothes philosophy. Is it serious, or some elaborate joke? On the face of it, it seems absurd, at least within the context of the history of philosophy.
Even if the clothes philosophy should turn out to be partly incoherent or partly in jest, we should pay serious attention to its argument. These later chapters of Book I cover such things as the nature of reality, the basis of social power, and the relation of the human and the divine—all this seen through the metaphor of clothes.
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In fact, the topic of clothes is revealed to be all- encompassing. How can he make such a seemingly absurd claim? There is some truth to the notion that, if you want people to treat you like a rock star, dress like a rock star; if you want people to treat you like a bum, dress like a bum. If you want to change how people treat you, try dressing differently. The clothes, as it has commonly been put in Western culture, make the man.
The person in the fine red condemns the one in blue to death, and Blue walks to the gallows and is hanged. It is the particular costume or uniform of the fellow in red that compels the compliance of the fellow in blue. But if civilization is the attempt to have a society in which naked physical violence is avoided as much as possible, the clothing we wear and the ways we learn to respond to different clothing is one important way this gets done. So far, perhaps, so good. There is an old philosophical distinction between appearance and reality, the idea being that the world as it appears to us is not the way it really is.
Matter is appearance, or what is visible to or conceivable by us. Spirit is the invisible and unimaginable reality. The relationship between the two is that matter is the clothing or garment of spirit. So what is beyond matter?
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What is this spirit? So matter is the clothing of spirit. But this is not all.
It is implied here, and spelled out later in the book, that matter, the clothing of spirit, wears out. According to this philosophy, we are spirit clothed with a body and with garments that eventually wear away.
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There are a number of remarkable passages in the later chapters of Book I dealing with these themes. The Editor himself is seen to be struggling with them and seems to be wondering whether this is all just nonsense. But we will have a chance to return to this in Book III. This biography is what is presented in Book II. In Book II we get, in musical terms, our development section. This is also the most famous part of the book.