The Collected Letters, Volume 12


TC TO GERALDINE E. JEWSBURY ; 16 July 1840; DOI: 10.1215/lt-18400716-TC-GEJ-01; CL 12: 198-201


Chelsea, 16 july, 1840—

Dear Miss Jewsbury,

It gives me true pleasure, and is indeed what I expected, that you find such profit and significance in Goethe.1 Sincere natures recognise the voice of a sincere nature, be the dialect never so different. I have long felt, as you do, that there are no modern words like these of this man. It is the kind of Speech which men were wont to call inspired, in times when the worth of true Speech was better understood than now. You will by and by, as I compute, find great benefit, instruction, solace, furtherance in many ways, as you get more intimately into that sphere of German Thought, and make yourself at home there.

Meanwhile, think not by any means that I forbid your studies in Physiology!2 You are to prosecute these till you yourself feel that you have done with them. There is no branch of human inquiry, however unwisely handled, but has valuable elements of knowledge scattered in it. I myself spent many bewildered days in reading about those matters; neither can I say, tho' the result threatened to prove mere darkness of the Everlasting Black, that I did not at last derive a certain profit from them. But in regard to reading, really old Johnson's rule, one of the simplest, is among the best: That we are to read what we really have a desire for reading! Take the book you have a true wish for.3 You are prepared for that book then; you will get good of it then. Our authentic appetite, not our false superficial one which often differs widely from that, is well worth attending to, here as always.

You take up, with your usual clearness, what Goethe means by Renunciation; we must not be too strict in searching out the details.4 Many of these, I have no doubt, depend on the mere form of his Book; that it is a Prose Poem, composed under such and such conditions. We are to understand, in general, that he finds withal an infinite rigour under the soft surface of Life; that he looks on this as the basis of Life,—as the hard everlasting rocks are of the beautiful and fruitful green of the Earth. It was to me, I can still recollect, like a light-beam, that saying of his, “that with Renunciation, Life properly begins.”5 The desire of happiness, implanted in all creatures, is but animal, then? I said: Desire must be perfected into Will, which is human, rational? One then properly begins to live!— Say to all manner of Happiness, “I can do without thee!”—a man is thereby made a kind of god. I believe you will see more and more into this. The watery “sensibility” &c &c of these times is another of its waterinesses, with which a healthy soul is required to have nothing to do, or next to nothing.

But when is the necessity of Duty? Why should we and must we follow thro' mere pain and suffering, if perhaps it be still towards mere pain? This thought, a kind of beginning of madness, a staggering as if over the Abyss, is also not unknown to me. My dear friend, it is an unanswerable question.6 No other answer, I think, is possible except even this, That the question itself is a beginning of madness! How can such a question be “answered”; by what plainer thing shall we make Moral Necessity plain,—itself the very central element of our being, to be taken as the first axiom in all other speculation? Why must the harp be musical? Why, because it is a harp! It is there for that purpose. So with a man and morality. It is a disease, literally a disease, that he should ask himself such a question. Alas, there are many, too many inducements, in times of ruin, scepticism insincerity and semi-delirium or whole-delirium, to make any of us ask it! We have Benthams, Paleys,7 Moral Philosophies, Immoral: all of which, necessary products of these latter centuries, and not without worth for their purpose,—seem to me essentially based on wind, logic and nonentity; and, tho it looks most arrogant to say it, have to me grown altogether incredible, and are not there for me at all! It is like a poor man who fancies himself all made of glass, and that he would break if you struck him,—this singular moral hypochondria of a Bentham, and his “motives,” his “pains and pleasures” &c &c. Brother, thou art not made of glass; thou wilt not break!— But no reasoning will cure him. He is fit for the hospital, for our prayers and his own. Consider it, my dear friend, as a piece of the ATHEISM of our age, that you are put upon such questions. You will grow one day to see them lie beneath you,—deep, far down as death and chaos; to which region, and not to our upper world of the sun, they do indeed properly belong. I wish I could say something better to you; but the best is, Go on doing what is right: all kinds of solution, enlargement and healing lie in that.

Neither can I tell you much more about SILENCE.8 My friends, to whom I speak, all or nearly all cavil about this that I call “Silence,” “unconsciousness,” and the like: I answer, Really I have in my hopelessness no other word: I do mean by it a great world of things; which are unknown unheeded to this generation;—which you probably do not know, and, I can assure you, ought to know!— “Precision of idea,” is a thing I insist upon, as of primary moment; to go upon the vague, the hypothetic or uncertain, in any sense, will never do, according to me. SILENCE has nothing to say against all this; Silence BEGINS when all this has got itself said and done. But I mean to indicate withal that when our words are all over, the secret of the thing is not yet over; nay properly the secret may be said to be beginning just then! I would have us to consider that after all our scheming, calculating, working and exhibiting, we are a kind of growing trees; that our roots are in the deep bosom of the Infinite, and all that we shew above ground, to others or even to ourselves, is poor and small in comparison. For all speculation, still more for all conduct I find this of Silence (what I mean thereby) a most significant fact. Or rather I find it becomes the basis of my whole conception of the world, so far as I attempt to form one. But what can I say of it here, that will not too probably add confusion to the already obscure! Do you know an Essay of mine, called Characteristics, in the Edinburgh Review of some ten years ago, and published since in that book of Miscellanies?9 It is very cramp reading; yet I will bid you read it till you have understood it, a thing you are equal to: the germ of all I have since concluded upon these matters lies there. I think you may make it all out if you have curiosity enough. I know not but it might be profitable.

Your Letters, dear Sister, are always welcome; doubly so if I can in any thing be of help to you. Continue your noble solitary pilgrimage, with assured step and heart.

Yours very sincerely /

T. Carlyle