Everlasting No

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The Everlasting No is the name given by philosopher and historian Thomas Carlyle in his 1832 book Sartor Resartus to an attitude of aggressively malicious unbelief he claimed to find in some people. It is deliberately opposed by Carlyle to the Everlasting Yea, a spirit of resolute faith without a definite object, but it is important to note that the Everlasting No was more than idle atheism. It instead expresses a determination to mock and malign every aspect of humanity's, in his view, "noblest sentiments" — which atheism does not necessarily do in and of itself.

Carlyle believed that the truest proof for the existence of a God could be found in the high feelings and ambitions of humanity, and that a persistent atheism could only exist and grow through the Everlasting No — for instance, by tearing down those high feelings and ambitions. Similarly, Carlyle argued that the most ideal form of the Everlasting Yea was only to be found through devout opposition to nihilism.[note 1] In this way, the Everlasting No and Everlasting Yea actually each owed their existence to the other, and were both mutually dependent.

In Sartor Resartus, the character of Diogenes Teufelsdröckh[note 2] sets forth the malicious Everlasting No in his initial absurd philosophical ramblings (of which Carlyle "translates" some parts) before venturing through a transformative period of neutrality and eventually accepting the Everlasting Yea. Teufelsdröckh at his most dour seems a predecessor of some of the more grim New Atheists — or at least a predecessor of how they are often perceived, rightly or wrongly. He sneers:

"By what strange chances do we live in History? Erostratus by a torch; Milo by a bullock; Henry Darnley, an unfledged booby and bustard, by his limbs; most Kings and Queens by being born under such and such a bed-tester; Boileau Despreaux (according to Helvetius) by the peck of a turkey; and this ill-starred individual by a rent in his breeches,—for no Memoirist of Kaiser Otto's Court omits him. Vain was the prayer of Themistocles for a talent of Forgetting: my Friends, yield cheerfully to Destiny, and read since it is written."[1]

Of course, when Carlyle wrote the novel, his intended targets consisted primarily of various early German philosophers (like the school of Hegel, for instance) and the abusive landed gentry of England at the time. It was written while he himself was going through a stormy crisis of faith (which many believe led him to deconvert to atheism). The whole novel is devised partly as an attack against the type of rhetoric he regarded as constantly paying lip service to God while making no philosophical insights of any kind; thereby making a person hostile to God himself, potentially while deconverting the same person. Nevertheless, the next generation of German philosophers, like Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, would go on to greatly admire Carlyle, despite him not being an atheist at the time he wrote the novel.

The novel contrasts the "Everlasting No" with an "Everlasting Yes" that seems to constantly approve existence without requiring a belief in a definite deity.

In many ways, this cartoonish nihilist could be interpreted as resembling the straw man caricatures of today's atheists that some theists (such as Deepak Chopra[2]) love to draw — but unlike the trite clichés they use, it has few real imitators.

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  1. However, it's worth noting that Carlyle did not specifically call it that, as "nihilism" as a worldview had not been invented yet at the time.
  2. "Teufelsdröckh" means something like "Devilshit" or "Devildirt" in German. No kidding.