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Carlyle, Thomas (1795–1881)


Thomas Carlyle, the essayist, historian, and philosopher of culture, was born in Ecclefechan, Scotland, the eldest son of a stern, puritanical stonemason. There can be little doubt that the often-hysterical extravagances of Carlyle's later social doctrines had a direct emotional origin in the Calvinism of his childhood. In 1809 he became a divinity student at Edinburgh University, but he soon stopped attending the university courses and read widely on his own in modern literature. After leaving Edinburgh in 1814, he taught school, at the same time broadening his already impressive span of reading. In addition to imaginative literature and German philosophy, Carlyle's serious interests at this time extended to Voltaire and François Fénelon, as well as to the scientific works of Isaac Newton and Benjamin Franklin. A reading of Edward Gibbon in 1817 immediately precipitated Carlyle's rejection of the Bible as a historical record and gave impetus to his growing interest in history and social institutions.

Convinced that he could never become a minister, he returned to Edinburgh in 1819 and began his literary career as a freelance journalist. The next three years were the most miserable in a generally agonized life. He was unknown; he was socially, ideologically, even stylistically antipathetic to the fashionable literary world. He was also very poor, desperately lonely, and because of his irregular eating habits, almost permanently dyspeptic. Religious doubts quickly darkened into unbelief, and in 1822 he experienced the spiritual crisis later hieroglyphically recorded in Sartor Resartus (18331834). Like the hero of Sartor, Diogenes Teufelsdröckh, Carlyle found a new (if decidedly secular) faith in the moral efficacy of work: "Doubt of any sort cannot be removed except by Action," extols Teufelsdröckh. Conviction is worthless until it is converted into activity, mere speculation being "endless, formless, a vortex amid vortices." Therefore, one must "Do the Duty which lies nearest thee Work while it is called To-day; for the Night cometh wherein no man can work." Here, in a language persuasively familiar to his readers, Carlyle expressed the chief psychotherapeutic discovery of his youthone which was more widely disseminated in the writings of Thomas Arnold, John Ruskin, John Henry Newman, and particularly the later prophetic Carlyle himself, and was to become a leitmotif of mid-Victorian culture. Soon Carlyle found a role in which his genuine talents could emerge. His translation of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Wilhelm Meister in 1824 and his Life of Schiller, which was published as a book in 1825, established him as the first interpreter of German literature to the British public.

Carlyle's marriage in 1826 to Jane Baillie Welsh, an attractive, high-strung, and unusually intellectual twenty-five-year-old woman, ended his loneliness without in any way soothing the more creative ontological anxieties upon which his work depended. Carlyle's long years of isolated reading now bore fruit in a series of remarkable articles published in the Great Reviews.

Literary Criticism

Carlyle's early essays, especially "Jean Paul Friedrich Richter" (1827), "The State of German Literature," "Goethe," "Burns" (1828), "Voltaire," and "Novalis" (1829), are masterpieces of literary and ideological exegesis. However, his critical method, which was uncompromisingly didactic even for its day, was much more a criticism of life than any technical analysis of words on a page; in effect, it was essentially romantic criticism. Carlyle viewed literature as a form of self-revelation and literary criticism as a heightened confrontation of personalities engaged in the quest for moral truth. He stressed the primary need for the "transposition of the critic into the author's point of vision," which is the prerequisite of all historical and biographical as well as literary studies. Like Samuel Taylor Coleridge before him, Carlyle recognized Germany as the great contemporary source of spirituality and inwardness. For Carlyle, however, Goethe rather than Immanuel Kant was Germany's spiritual leader. More than any other writer, Goethe triumphed over all doubts and denials and manifested the freedom of belief and activity. In this respect Carlyle believed that there was a significant contrast to be made between Goethe and Voltaire. In the essay "Voltaire," Carlyle argued that despite Voltaire's intellectual adroitness, his power of rapid, perspicuous arrangement of scientific and historical data, his humanity, and his universal susceptibility of mind, his real claim to greatness was that he "gave the death-stab to modern superstition." Such an achievement was, however, too negative: For Carlyle, Voltaire remained essentially a mocker, "the greatest of all Persifleurs," his chief fault being a terrible lack of earnestness.

This contrast between Voltaire and Goethebetween the pragmatic values of the eighteenth century and those of a new age of belief which was, if not actually beginning, at least imminentran through Carlyle's works in ever-widening applications. Moreover, it is symptomatic of the type of thinker Carlyle was that most of his later ideas were already contained embryonically in his very earliest writings (for example, in his first original publication in 1822 in the New Edinburgh Review, which was significantly a critique of Goethe's Faust ). Had he stuck to literature and written more about the English classics, Carlyle would today no doubt be placed between Coleridge and Matthew Arnold as one of the major British literary critics of his age. But his interest in literature was only a steppingstone to a more vital concern with history and social diagnosis. He never really methodologically distinguished between criticism, biography, and historical and philosophical analysis. They were all used as media through which the current crise de conscience was to be more clearly seen and diagnosed. In this respect Carlyle may be thought of, in his early works, as an amateurish practitioner of Geisteswissenschaften (or "human studies"), in roughly the sense given to that term by Wilhelm Dilthey.

Early Social Criticism

"Signs of the Times" (1829), "On History" (1830), and particularly "Characteristics" (1831) were Carlyle's earliest communications in the self-assumed role of Victorian prophet. The early nineteenth century, he claimed, was a mechanical age, both externally and internally, its chief symptom being an excessive self-consciousness. With its inheritance of the largely negative contributions of the Enlightenment, it was an age of inquiry and doubt rather than of meditation and faith. Outwardly, social mechanization was more prized than individual vitality. Inwardly, morality no longer sprang from belief in a transcendental authority but arose out of prudential feeling grounded on mere calculation of consequences. The most grievous mistake of bourgeois liberalism was its doctrine that social welfare can be promoted solely through external politico-economic legislation, whereas, in truth, all human progress that is genuine ("dynamical") must emerge from the moral culture of individual men. According to Carlyle, although the present time is thus out of joint, there is nevertheless strong hope for the future. History is a cyclical but progressive (perhaps spiral) unfolding of human capabilities, and borrowing freely from Johann Gottfried Herder and the Saint-Simonians, he affirmed that the modern period is the end of a critical phase. Even as the darkest hour heralds the dawn, so the springtime of organic rebirth is now at hand.

As it happened, Carlyle was not the only British subscriber to this philosophy of history in the early 1830s. J. S. Mill's papers on "The Spirit of the Age," which appeared in the Examiner for 1831, propounded very similar views. These papers, which immensely impressed Carlyle, led to the formation of his somewhat precarious friendship with Mill. Doubtless the chief obstacle for Mill was Carlyle's blatantly authoritarian concept of morality and his notorious views on liberty and democracy, three notions that were soon to be dramatically embodied in Carlyle's theory of the hero.

The Hero and History

In the French Revolution (1837), Carlyle stereoscopically visualized the events between the death of Louis XV and the appointment of Napoleon Bonaparte as commander in chief of the Army of the Interior in 1795 as the accumulated result not so much of economic or social, but of moral and, in the last analysis, theological causes. The French Revolution, he sometimes seemed to suggest, was an upheaval ordained by the Creator to punish the sins of the world. Yet at the same time, and importantly for Carlyle's anthropomorphic imagination, it was an exhibition of individual personalities (of Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, Comte de Mirabeau, Georges-Jacques Danton, Maximilien-Francois-Marie-Isidore de Robespierre, etc.) in their most intense form. "History," he had written in 1830, "is the essence of innumerable Biographies." Biography, which is based on insight into human personality, is the foundation of all historical inquiry; hence, the true history of an age is the biography of its great men. Carlyle's main interest in history (as in literature) was in the moral psychology of specific individuals who seemed to him endowed with certain admirable traits of character that he felt to be chronically lacking in the contemporary Zeitgeist.

The lectures he delivered in 1840, On Heroes, Hero Worship, and the Heroic in History, blended mythology with metaphysics to produce an image of the ideal type of individual needed as the savior of humankind. The hero can take many forms: He can be a god (Odin), a prophet (Muammad), poet (Dante Alighieri and William Shakespeare), priest (Martin Luther and John Knox), a man of letters (Samuel Johnson, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Robert Burns), or a political ruler (Oliver Cromwell and Napoleon). In fact the hero can be "what you will, according to the kind of world he finds himself born into": His ever-varying persona results from the deeper needs of society. He is directed not by the "mechanical" needs of men, but by their "dynamical," unseen, mystical needs. Thus, all heroes have discerned "truly what the time wanted" and have led it "on the right road thither." In this sense, the hero is a gift from heaven, or as Carlyle otherwise puts it, a force of nature; his essential quality is "Original Insight" into the "primal reality of things." Because of the hero's firm contact with the "great Fact of Existence," he cannot lie. "He is heartily in earnest "; an unconscious sincerity emanates from him turning his acts or utterances into "a kind of 'revelation'" which the ordinary, unheroic man is morally obliged to recognize and obey. For "all that is right includes itself in this of co-operating with the real tendency of the World." Indeed, the proper feelings of ordinary men toward the heroes of their age are loyalty (which is "akin to religious Faith"), reverence, admiration, and "an obedience which knows no bounds." Hero worship, Carlyle significantly concludes, is a basic and indestructible tendency of human nature: It is "the one fixed point in modern revolutionary history, otherwise as if bottomless and shoreless."

As with Friedrich Nietzsche's Übermensch, there was a tendency in the twentieth century to view Carlyle's theory of the hero far too much in terms of contemporary political experiencethat is, to think of the hero as a direct ancestor of fascism. But Carlyle, like Nietzsche, was essentially a philosopher of culture, not a political theorist. The hero concept is best understood as a rather curious and obsessional example of a spiritual phenomenon that reached something of a climax in the nineteenth century, most notably in the thought of Ludwig Feuerbach, Auguste Comte, Karl Marx, and Nietzschenamely, the uneasy substitution of purely secular objects of veneration for the traditional transcendental one. Worship of God gave way to worship of man and human society.

After 1840

Beginning with Chartism (1839), and more disastrously in Past and Present (1843) and the Latterday Pamphlets (1850), Carlyle explicitly incorporated the hero concept within the central tenets of his early social criticism to produce not only a renewed attack upon the materialistic spirit of industrial society but also an indictment of political liberty and democracy. Once more he protested against laissez-faire, the irresponsible pursuit of wealth in which "cash payment" has become the "sole nexus" between men, thus displacing the traditional ties of obligation. But social justice, he now paradoxically asserted, can be achieved only through the enforcement of social inequality. Members of the aristocracy and those heroes of the business world, the "Captains of Industry," must assume their responsibilities as rulers of the masses: Freedom consists in "the right of the ignorant man to be guided by the wiser." In this instance, as in nearly all of Carlyle's writing after about 1840, it seems that genuine social criticism was lost sight of in an increasingly pathological obsession with power: Nothing could have been further from the spirit of Mill's On Liberty (1859) and Representative Government (1861). In Oliver Cromwell's Letters and Speeches, with Elucidations (1845) and the History of Frederick the Great (18581865), Carlyle tried to give some historical backing to his by now hopeless moral aberrations for which he ultimately received the Prussian Order of Merit in 1874.

It is impossible to exaggerate Carlyle's impact, for better and worse, upon all aspects of Victorian culture, ranging from the development of the novel (particularly as evidenced in the work of Charles Dickens), to the formation of social policy. Nietzsche described him as a man constantly misled by a craving for a strong faith that he lacked the necessary capacity to experience. But it was hardly the capacity Carlyle lacked; rather, like Nietzsche himself, he needed something to have faith in. In the absence of his father's God, he chose what seemed to him the best substitutethe hero.

See also Arnold, Matthew; Coleridge, Samuel Taylor; Comte, Auguste; Dante Alighieri; Dilthey, Wilhelm; Fénelon, François de Salignac de la Mothe; Feuerbach, Ludwig Andreas; Franklin, Benjamin; Gibbon, Edward; Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von; Johnson, Samuel; Kant, Immanuel; Luther, Martin; Marx, Karl; Mill, John Stuart; Newman, John Henry; Newton, Isaac; Nietzsche, Friedrich; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques; Ruskin, John; Social and Political Philosophy; Voltaire, François-Marie Arouet de.


works by carlyle

The Centenary Edition, edited by H. D. Trail, 30 vols. (London, 18961899; New York, 18961901) is the most complete edition of Carlyle's Works. Carlyle's correspondence, most notably with Goethe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mill, and John Stirling, is essential reading for anyone interested in Carlyle's thought or, indeed, in nineteenth-century intellectual history in general. See also Correspondence of Emerson and Carlyle, edited by J. Slater (New York: Columbia University Press, 1964).

works on carlyle

To date there exists no full-scale analysis of the whole range of Carlyle's thought. The best short account is given by Ernst Cassirer in The Myth of the State (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1946), Chs. 1516. J. A. Froude, Thomas Carlyle 17951835, 2 vols. (London: Longmans Green, 1882) and Thomas Carlyle 18341881, 2 vols. (London: Longmans Green, 1884) are still indispensable. Among the many important specialized studies are B. H. Lehmann, Carlyle's Theory of the Hero (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1928); C. F. Harrold, Carlyle and German Thought: 18191834 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1934); René Wellek, "Carlyle and the Philosophy of History," Philological Quarterly 23 (1944): 5576; and G. Holloway, The Victorian Sage (London: Macmillan, 1953), Chs. 13.

other recommended works

Rigney, Ann. "Sublimity: Thomas Carlyle and the Aesthetics of Historical Ignorance." In Imperfect Histories: The Elusive Past and the Legacy of Romantic Historicism. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001.

Sussman, Herbert L. Fact into Figure: Typology in Carlyle, Ruskin, and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1979.

Vida, Elizabeth Maximiliana. Romantic Affinities: German Authors and Carlyle: A Study in the History of Ideas. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993.

Michael Moran (1967)

Bibliography updated by Desirae Matherly Martin (2005)

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