In Carlyle’s first two sentences, he shares with us his innermost fears about England’s future. He writes, “The condition of England, on which many pamphlets are now in the course of publication, and many thoughts unpublished are going on in every reflective head, is justly regarded as one of the most ominous, and withal one of the strangest, ever seen in this world. England is full of wealth, of multifarious produce, supply for human want in every kind; yet England is dying of inanition” (page 477). According to Merriam-Webster, inanition is “the quality or state of being empty” either as a result of starvation or through “the absence or loss of social, moral, or intellectual vitality”. In his defense of this idea, Carlyle completely skips commenting on citizens who are weak or lame. He tells us that even the most successful and the most able-bodied men are relegated to workhouses and Poor-law Prisons. He describes 1,200,000 workers sitting idle, “their hopes, outlooks, share of this fair world, shut-in by narrow walls. They sit there, pent up, as in a kind of horrid enchantment; glad to be imprisoned and enchanted, that they may not perish starved” (page 478). Carlyle forces readers to ask what kind of life these workers are living. Is wealth worth all of this hardship? Carlyle writes, “This successful industry of England, with its plethoric wealth, has as yet made nobody rich” (page 479). “In the midst of plethoric plenty, the people perish; with gold walls, and full barns, no man feels himself safe or satisfied” (page 480). Carlyle uses examples of the wealthy sick from eating rich foods and the poor sick from lack of food. He writes of dissatisfaction with working conditions and the desertion of moral values in the face of both poverty and excess.
Using the story of Midas, Carlyle’s tale ends with an unsettling warning: getting what we want most may lead to our ultimate downfall. Carlyle sees very little benefit from the accumulation of wealth in England. Instead, he sees starvation, neglected morals, wasted intelligence, and a widening social gap. England’s inanition is seen in the faces of every citizen and the covers of every newspaper. And so Carlyle cautions us against the lure of wealth.
Unfortunately, we have not heeded this warning. Some progress may have been made with the institution of child labor laws and improvement of working conditions in some countries, but we continue to pursue wealth. While religious teachers of all denominations urge us to tithe and to share wealth among our communities and the poor, our societies strive to horde wealth and status. Hundreds of years later, we still have wealthy celebrities and politicians bored, unsatisfied, and getting into trouble. We still have poor families starving and unable to pay the rent. Perhaps Carlyle was right to question the grip wealth has on humanity—it seems like this goal is very hard to let go, and if we continue to lust after wealth, our future may be the ominous one Carlyle anticipated.