12 April 2016

Sartor Resartus: Faith and Doubt in Victorian Britain

David Amigoni, in Victorian Literature, remarks that Victorian society revolved around oppositions: rural and urban, modernity and historicity, progress and tradition, and science and faith (5-6). Continually stuck in a fight between opposing and contradictory ideologies, the Victorians were probably relieved by the permission to doubt granted them in chapters 7, 8, and 9 of Book Two in Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus.


Sartor Resartus, often referred to as Thomas Carlyle’s “spiritual autobiography”, follows the main character, Diogenes, as he “gains an education steeped in the traditions of the Enlightenment which destroys his belief in revealed religion, but leaves him little or nothing positive to embrace” (Trela). All of this leads to a crisis of faith which we see in “The Everlasting No”. Diogenes goes through a period of doubt in “The Center of Indifference” but then he realizes that he must embrace the divinity of the universe as expressed in “The Everlasting Yea”. Diogenes's path, and much of his reasoning, mirrors that of Carlyle himself as he worked through his own crisis of faith (Trela). By putting his own spiritual journey out there, himself a great man known for his intellectualism and his faith, Carlyle gave Victorians permission to question the traditional views and dogma of established religions.

The argument Carlyle makes that might have helped allay Victorian anxiety is that doubt increases faith. Carlyle writes that readers can’t “call our Diogenes” wicked due to his crisis of faith because “unprofitable servants as we all are, perhaps at no era of his life was he more decisively the Servant of Goodness, the Servant of God, than even now when doubting God’s existence”. Carlyle contends that true faith requires challenge and that “a tearing down or questioning of the beliefs of one faith is in fact the preparation for a newer, richer, and truer form of belief in a new era” (Trela). He gives Victorians permission to question their faith and to modify it for a new generation: “In every new era, too, such Solution comes out in different terms; and ever the Solution of the last era has become obsolete, and is found unserviceable. For it is man’s nature to change his Dialect from century to century; he cannot help it though he would” (Carlyle). Victorians embodied change and that spilled over into faith; as Amigoni states, “religious faith in a stable creation was never far from intellectual skepticism engendered by a sense of impermanence in Victorian society and culture” (Amigoni 6). For a society in the midst of tremendous change in all aspects of life, a society steeped in tradition, simultaneously hanging on to and rejecting ideologies of the past, permission to change must have been comforting.

Then again, even with the relieving messages in the text, Victorian society may not have benefitted from Sartor Resartus at all as it received a “bewildered reception with the audience of its day; neither Tories, Utilitarians, nor Whigs really understood it…due to Carlyle’s intentional disruption of the expectations of his British audience’s na├»ve realism” (Baker 225). Even if the text was understood by a broad audience, the Victorians never had a massive revival of faith, at least not to the “Everlasting Yea” extreme.

As with Victorian times, contemporary western societies may feel relief or even vindication at Carlyle’s contention that doubt is a path to a stronger faith. Doubt in a higher power permeates western culture as, again like with the Victorians, science continually answers those questions once put to God and experience and humanity deny tenets of organized religious dogma once held fast. Also like the Victorians, contemporaries seem stuck at Doubt, never quite making it to the Everlasting Yea.

Do you think people appreciate permission to doubt? Does doubt actually increase faith?

Works Cited

Amigoni, David. Victorian Literature. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2011. Print.

Baker, Lee C. R. “The Open Secret of “Sartor Resartus”: Carlyle’s Method of Converting His Reader”. Studies in Philology 83.2 (Spring 1986): 218-235. Web. 8 Mar. 2016.

Carlyle, Thomas. Sartor Resartus. eBooks@Adelaide. The University of Adelaide. Web. 6 March 2016.

Trela, D.J. "Carlyle, Thomas 1795-1881." Encyclopedia of Life Writing: Autobiographical and Biographical Forms. Ed. Margaretta Jolly. London: Routledge, 2001. Credo Reference. Web. 8 Mar. 2016.

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