Charles Dickens’ Hard TimesCharles Dickens’s novel Hard Times critiques the use of extreme utilitarianism as an acceptable means to governing a society in which citizens are able to lead happy, productive, flourishing lives. “Just the facts,”19th century English utilitarianism argued, are all one needs to flourish. Those answers that we can arrive at by way of mathematical, logical reasoning are all needed to live a full human life. Hard Times shows however that a “just the facts” philosophy creates a community inhospitable to the needs of one another, a society nearly void of human compassion, and one lacking in morality. Underlying the novel’s argument is the Aristotelian concept that the primary purpose of government is to correctly educate citizens in morality and, consequentially, to cultivate an upright social environment where all are inspired to flourish.
How fitting, then, that early in the novel we are introduced to Thomas Gradgrind, educator and owner of the M’choakumchild school where “just the facts” are taught and the apotheosis of 19th century English utilitarianism. Although “Gradgrind intellect” is calculated to be the best way to maximize happiness, in the M’choakumchild class room it soon becomes clear that its adherents are the most unhappy and immoral in Coketown, even more so than the “Hands” who suffer from its cruelty indirectly. If the purpose of the state is to cultivate moral individuals who are able to flourish together, the state built on utilitarian values inevitably fails.
Part of the inadequacy of utilitarianism and its statistical approach to addressing human problems is its objective, mass-quantity view of people. Gradgrind’s description alone captures the disconnected nature and col…
…human nature” makes for a bare-bones human existence, replete with crime, immorality, greed, and as especially demonstrated in Louisa’s case, unhappiness. Mr. Sleary’s compassion gives voice to Dickens’s hope for a more unselfish perspective on human motivation. His critique concludes that the success of government lies in realistically evaluating humanity in all of its general and idiosyncratic tendencies. As Nussbaum says in her essay, Dickens does not call for a “relativistic” approach to governance but one more in touch with the realities and complexities of being human.
Dickens, Charles. Hard Times. Ed. Fred Kaplan and Sylvere Monod. New York: W.W. Norton& Company, Inc, 2001.
Nussbaum, Martha C. “The Literary Imagination in Public Life.” Hard Times. Ed. Fred Kaplan and Sylvere Monod. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2001. 429-439.