Scheme of Topics
The Progress of the Hero in Carlyle’s Writing 3
Carlyle’s Early Reading on the Nature of History 8
Carlyle’s Reading on the Hero 15
Teufelsdröckh as Hero – 1836 25
On Heroes and Hero-Worship – 1841 28
Carlyle’s Conception of the Hero in Sartor Resartus and On Heroes
Thomas Carlyle’s conception of history was a reaction against two types of history-writing which oppressed his flammingly subjective and affirmative soul; the interpretative but skeptical histories of Gibbon, Hume, and Robertson, and the objective fact-catalogues of his time which he scornfully labeled “Dryasdust.” To Carlyle neither method recognized the presence of human personality, of men who formed rather than were formed by the forces of their world. Carlyle’s writing of history became a method of attacking mechanistic theories of the universe, an assertion of the Romantic doctrine of the importance of individual consciousness and history. Also Carlyle believed firmly in the significance of his own subjective experience, and by extension, that biography and auto-biography were the great interests of mankind. Thus he was fitted to be the prophet of the “great-man” theory to his time. Yet he also espoused order and strength in government as the expression of the “nationhood” of a people. A generation nursed by the Romantic tradition, but becoming increasingly nationalistic and concerned with social issues, was to find in the subjective and patriotic Carlyle one of their greatest historians, and in his hero the expression of their combined idealism and desires.
-2- Carlyle’s ideal of hero-worship resulted from the conjunction of several reinforcing tendencies in his thought. Of course the chief of these was simply his great interest in biography, his penchant for seeing history as a series of related central lives. In 1822 he planned his first original literary project, a proposed series of essays on the English Civil Wars, to be treated in “mental portraits” of its central figures. (Louise Merwin Young, Thomas Carlyle and the Art of History, Philadelphia, 1939, p. 119.)
Also his tendency to concentrate on heroes was the result of his view of history as an active struggle between good and evil. It is more difficult to assign moral qualities to impersonal forces and laws of history than to persons; indeed the historian of natural laws tends to have sympathy with the victims and heroes on each side of an issue, and to forget the moral issue struggled over. Carlyle by contrast believed issues of good and evil lay at the center of all history, and what more natural habitat for moral forces than in the human soul? It followed that all of chief importance in history may be learned by comprehending individual personalities.
Also Carlyle was by nature an artist interested in dramatic effects, not a logician concerned with facts in a chain of causality. He wished to see contrasts of light and darkness, the black absence of significance as a background for a hero bursting forth -3- in intense brightness. He selected events for emphasis according to the informed intuition of his moral sense—for could an occurrence that had no moral significance or passionate importance to the soul be in any profound sense “true”? Therefore Carlyle’s religious moralism and his artistic desire to select and embellish portraits combined with his native interest in biography to produce an insistence upon the “hero” as the object of a historical method and of the reverence of mankind.
The Progress of the Hero in Carlyle’s Writing
Carlyle’s early writings reveal that he was extremely interested in German literature. He translated Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship into three volumes in 1824, the following year wrote a Life of Schiller, and in 1827 brought out a four volume work on German Romance. His next major work was Sartor Resartus, printed in 1837, at the same time a parody of and a tribute to Germanic philosophy, romance literature, and academic ideals.
Carlyle’s next writings veered away from literary to historical themes. The French Revolution, published in three volumes in 1837, is a collection of distinct character portraits, reminiscent in method of what he had wanted to do earlier with the Puritan Revolution. After he was compelled to formulate and stereotype his view of the hero in his series of public lectures given in 1840, On Heroes and Hero-Worship, his later histories became more and more encomiums of a single individual. He published two -4- volumes of Oliver Cromwell’s Letters and Speeches in 1845, then continued on to complete his life’s most ambitious project, The History of Frederick II of Prussia, in six volumes, from 1858 to 1865. His History of Frederick was well received and partially influenced British public opinion in favor of Bismark and a united Prussia. (Young, Thomas Carlyle and the Art of History, p. 3)
Simultaneously with his histories, Carlyle wrote “prophetic” pamphlets and books on social questions: Chartism in 1840, Past and Present in 1843, Latter Day Pamphlets in 1850, and “Shooting Niagara, and After” in 1867, becoming increasingly insistent on the chaos and disorder which would result from continued democratic tendencies. Perhaps as Carlyle saw that England’s political course was directly opposed to that which he had advocated, he retreated to an increased insistence on the need for a hero to save England from its self-willed confusion. Trevelyan comments that he crosses the line between respect for the hero and hero-mania: “Two real heroes, Abbot Samson (in Past and Present) and Oliver Cromwell were the primrose path by which he descended to the everlasting bonfire of Frederick.” (G.M. Trevelyan, Carlyle: An Anthology, London, 1953, p. 3.)
Carlyle had developed his mistrust of parliamentary government in a childhood and youth of poverty. He saw Parliament concern itself chiefly with intramural politics, while its members -6- used the hypotheses of political economy as a rationale for failing to relieve the sufferings of their countrymen. The First Reform Bill had not improved conditions, and if the enfranchisement of the upper-middle class only introduced into Parliament a horde of selfish manufacturers, what good could further extension of the franchise do?
Early in life Carlyle had depreciated the aristocracy as a class of useless idlers, expending their and others’ energies merely in contriving to endure life with a modicum of boredom. Upon observing upper class society for the first time, he writes to his future wife that he would swallow ratsbane within three months if he were fated to exist as a man of fashion, that truly “there is not a more futile class of persons on the face of the earth.” (From a letter June, 1823, quoted in Basil Willey, Nineteenth Century Studies: Coleridge to Matthew Arnold, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, 1949, p. 137.) Meeting aristocrats in London modified his early views, however, and he came slowly to consider that the aristocracy, “with its perfection of human politeness, its continual grace of bearing and acting, steadfast ‘honour’, light address and cheery stoicism….” was the best of English social classes. (From Journal for 8 February 1848, quoted in Ibid., p. 138.) By the time of Latter Day Pamphlets, Carlyle looked to the aristocracy and the “Captains of Industry” (upper-middle class) for the amelioration of society. (Raymond Williams, Culture and Society 1780-1950, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, 1963, p. 95.) Along -7- with the tendency to admire the upper class came an increasing disgust with the “masses”—“Sons of the Devil, in overwhelming majority”, with their “Blockheadism, gullibility, bribeability, amenability to beer and balderdash.” (Carlyle, in Past and Present and “Shooting Niagara, and After,” quoted by Williams, Culture and Society, p. 95.) It is thus natural that Carlyle comes to take his heroes more and more from among heads of state, the ultimate aristocrats, and that “The Hero as King” is automatically granted more frequent mention in his later works than even his poetic and literary brethren.
Perhaps this growing disrespect for the “mass” permitted Carlyle his one final strange transmutation of the hero philosophy. From the beginning of his writing he had believed, like the Calvinist systems of his background, that right often embodied itself in external might. “Might and Right do differ frightfully from hour to hour;” he explains, “but given them centuries to try in, they are found to be identical.” (Carlyle in Chartism, quoted by Willey, Nineteenth Century Studies, p. 140.) Later he attempts to clarify—“right is the eternal symbol of might” rather than the converse.(From Journal for 8 February 1848, quoted in Ibid., p. 138.) Yet in a universe in which there is any conjunction at all between right and might, it might be tempting to try to discern the plan of God in an approximate way by scanning the signs of the times. It is but a short step from the rough equation (From letter to Lecky, quoted in ibid.) -8- of might and right to assigning the arbitrary positive moral values to acts of power which are assumed to have had a good effect. Thus Carlyle can speak with scorn of the Dryasdust that would concern itself with the havoc wrought by William the Conqueror (Carlyle, Past and Present, in William Buckler, ed., Prose of the Victorian Period, Boston, 1958, p. 156.), and can write with adoration of the creator of the Prussian Army. Carlyle’s statement that power and moral right are equivalent after the passage of centuries could provide a license for tendentiousness under a guise of detachment and objectivity, for does not the historian see every present action or tendency as the culmination of centuries which have prepared for it? In this way the equation of might and right, which had originally been for Carlyle only a method of affirming his optimism concerning the final government of the universe, had as an unpleasant side effect the occasional exoneration of evil under the mantle of power.
Carlyle’s Early Reading on the Nature of History
Carlyle early opposed the skeptical and mechanistic interpretations of the British school of the 18th century historians, inclined to emphasize paradox and accident and to denigrate the individual. He turned to the German philosophical -9- historical thinkers, who interpreted history as the revelation of a divine purpose, and became so imbued with their ideas that sometimes a philosophical passage of Carlyle’s reads like a compendium of German Romantic-Idealistic beliefs in translation. Comparing Carlyle’s ideas with those of his German sources reveals what type of ideas Carlyle tended to appropriate or to reject. Also the “hero-worship” latent within him was to some extent formed into a group of definite beliefs by the nature of his German readings.
Carlyle produced his Life of Schiller in 1825, his first formal biography. He had extravagant praise for Schiller’s lectures on the nature of history: “There perhaps has never been in Europe another course of history sketched out on principles so magnificent and philosophical.” (From Life of Schiller, in Works, ed. H.D. Traill, London, 1896-99, p. 98, quoted in Charles Harrold, Carlyle and German Thought, New Haven, 1934, p. 158. I have relied on Harrold greatly in describing Carlyle’s German reading, as his is the only book which I have been able to find describing any but the most general ideas which Carlyle found in German authors.) Schiller was both a theorizing and practicing historian, and both his ideas and methods affected Carlyle. He pointed out that there are great blanks in history which can never be filled, and that history is at best a collection of fragments—ideas which suggest Professor Teufelsdrockh's six paper bags of inchoate “data”. Schiller also maintained that a only the theory of an inner and active purpose in history can make any record of events intelligible, and therefore, that only the historian who was a philosopher -10- could understand and re-create the past. (Schiller, Sämmtliche Werke, ed. by H. Kurz, Hildburghausen, 1868-70, 9 vols., vol. VII, pp. 366-82, cited in Harrold, Carlyle and German Thought, p. 158.12) It was in such a philosophic re-creation of the past that Carlyle was to find his mission.
Also Carlyle found in Schiller the German historian most resembling himself in an interest in concrete circumstances. It is strange to think that, by comparison with the German movement, Carlyle had a marked propensity for detail. Carlyle reported that Schiller had been drawn to history because “it was grounded on reality,” (Life of Schiller, pp. 84-85, quoted in ibid.) and from a desire to speculate on the workings of human nature. Furthermore the two men were united in an interest in examining original sources. But Carlyle criticizes Schiller for his tendency to over-generalize, and his extreme attention to the philosophical aspects of each period. (from statements by Carlyle quoted in ibid., p. 160, source not cited.)
Yet he admired the philosophic tendency in general if not its overuse. He described Schiller’s method as that of seeing a specific portion of history as part of a larger process, and used a similar “philosophic order” in the French Revolution, (in Life of Schiller, p. 85-86, from Harrold, ibid, p. 159.15) implying throughout that the Revolution was only a branch of a greater historic process in which moral ideas were seeking realizations.
-11- In Friedrich Schilling Carlyle found further ideas on the relation between history and revelation. History was the creation of the ideal State through the achievement of harmony between freedom and necessity, spirit and matter. The struggle between these forces produced the Divine Will in history. (Schelling, Method of Academical Study, lectures 8 and 9, described in Harrold, Carlyle and German Thought, p. 163.) Carlyle was certainly no Hegelian, nor did he believe in the antagonism of spirit and matter. Yet both the Hegelians and Carlyle believed that appearance and idea together were needed to form reality. Carlyle would have agreed with the Hegelians that history rather than philosophy was the story of most concern to mankind, and when he wrote an account of his own philosophical questionings, he placed it in scattered portions amid a biographic sketch. In a way he also presented his “hero” as an idea incorporated in matter and working in history. And although Carlyle would have disagreed with Hegel and Schelling on the nature of the conflict within history, he also believed in such a conflict, and interpreted it as that between good and evil.
Since the historian treated the highest of all subjects, the revelation of the Divine Will, Schelling stated that he should set forth events in an elevated style, recalling the unity, fullness of effect, and sublimity of epic or tragedy. (Schelling, Sämmtliche Werke, Stuttgart und Augsburg, 1859-61, 10 vols., Vol. V, Methode, p. 291, 3009-10, quoted in long note describing historical “art”, Harrold, ibid., p. 293, also ibid., p. 163, 168.17) As Carlyle’s history seems a series of eloquent declamations centering around protagonists, perhaps he found in Schelling an apologia for history -12- as an “art”.
Three other German philosophers—Novalis, Fichte, and Schlegel, held beliefs similar to those of Schiller and Schelling on the presence of divine revelation in history. Friederick Schlegel attacked British historians for ignoring the one animating principle of historical studies—the recognition of the moral principle. The understanding of history must involve a fundamental philosophy of revelation. “…History and Philosophy ought ever to be as closely united as possible,” he wrote in a statement that could almost have been uttered by Carlyle. (Schlegel, Lectures on the History of Literature, Ancient and Modern, Anonymous trans., London, 1871, p. 302, quoted in Harrold, Carlyle and German Thought, p. 162.)
Novalis used phrasing very similar to Carlyle’s when he called the whole of history an Evangel. (Novalis, Werke, ed. H. Friedemann, Berlin, 1908, 4 vols., III, pp. 187-88, quoted in ibid., p. 167.) Carlyle spoke of “Man’s history, and Men’s history, a perpetual Evangel,” (Ibid., p. 167, source not cited.) and often used the word “evangel” in similar contexts. Both men felt that in the lives of individual men lay the mystery of all history. Novalis stated that “The greatest mystery is man himself. The solution of this infinite problem is indeed the history of the world,” (Novalis, III, p. 57, in ibid.) and Carlyle repeated throughout his On Heroes that the most important revelation which could be granted a “hero” was that -13- concerning the nature of man. And perhaps Carlyle’s lifetime study of history was an application of Novalis’ conception: “What shapes a man, if it be not his life-history? And so the great man is formed by nothing else than the history of the world.” (Novalis, Werke, III, p. 90, in Harrold, Carlyle and German Thought, p. 167.22)
In Johann Fichte Carlyle found a more complete attempt at schematizing the nature of revelation in history. Even as Carlyle found God revealed in institutions, as (at times) the Church and the State, so to Fichte the Divine Idea manifested itself in all the cultural achievements of humanity—in law, religion, science, and art. (Fichte, Sämmtliche Werke, ed. J.H. Fichte, Berlin, 1845-46, 8 vols., VI, pp. 369-71, VII, pp. 11-15, in ibid., p. 165.) Every age has its Idea which the historian seeks out to define. Carlyle likewise felt that he perceived a particular spirit in each age; for example, the French Revolution seemed to him a divine judgment of the age of the skeptical philosophers. (Carlyle, Past and Present, in Works, Centenary Edition, p. 240, discussed in ibid., pp. 166-7.) More specifically, Fichte perceived human history as alternating between periods of positive and negative faith, which he described around a world plan of five stages, proceeding from the absence of reason to its complete triumph. Carlyle was not interested in the five stages, but he chose the idea of successive positive and negative periods as one of his own tenets. He based his scorn of the eighteenth century on the fact that it had been a “negative” -14- period of attacks upon the faith of mankind, and expected that the nineteenth century would being a return to positive values.
In Fichte also Carlyle found a confirmation of his belief in the permanence of good actions, and in the unity between eternity and its temporal vesture. Fichte spoke of “…the One, Eternal, Self-comprehensive, Self-existent Idea” which comprehended every moment of itself eternally present within itself. “Nothing in this system is lost…. Nothing really good is lost in the stream of Time….” (Fichte, Grundzüge, in Werke, VII, pp. 62, 88, in Harrold, op. cit., p. 170.) Carlyle, in somewhat more temperate language, was to affirm that “no Truth or Goodness realized by man ever dies, or can die.” (Characteristics, Vol. III of Works, Centenary Edition, p. 38 in ibid., p. 170.) In the Union of the eternal and temporal Carlyle saw the opportunity for man to help achieve the “Eternal Idea” through his temporal labors. “[Our life] is wholly a Movement, a Time-impulse…Hence also our Whole Duty, which is to move, to work.” (Sartor Resartus, quoted in ibid.) Thus he was able to move Fichte’s transcendental visions somewhat to the realm of practical morality.
In summary, Carlyle came to his reading of German literature with an instinctive tendency towards Romantic theories of history, theories which explained history as the embodiment of an eternal -15- Purpose or a moral conflict. He found in all the major German thinkers of the time an emphasis on the importance of historical writing, and the belief that history was in one way or another a form of revelation. Furthermore he found sporadic suggestions on the elevated manner in which history should be presented, and on the presence of successive cycles of moral conflict and resolution in the progression of man’s thought. Also he found a continual emphasis on an “Eternal Idea” and on the concept of a timeless existence, which were to form for him much of the content of what he meant by the word “God”. And finally he was to find in all this a background for his own moral imperative: establish good within history that it may be subsumed into the infinite.
Carlyle’s conception of the hero was to become a portion of this view of history; it was through the hero that the revelation of divinity would be most easily achieved and recognized. The hero was to be the artist, the man who could speak in an elevated manner worthy of revelation, the herald of a positive faith who would stifle the sterile cries of the skeptics. It was his deeds which were to “redeem the time” into which he was born, and lead to a correspondence with the over-arching Eternal Idea.
Carlyle’s Reading on the Hero
Carlyle’s chief sources for the specific tenets of his theory were in Fichte, but in a less specific way he had found some antecedents in the “original genius” conception of the eighteenth century, in Hume’s theory of the deification of -16- superior mortals, (Harrold, Carlyle and German Thought, p. 181.) and in the Romantic heroes and emotions of the works of Byron (but Carlyle did not like the Byronic hero, perhaps because he was self-absorbed rather than a bringer of revelation—what Carlyle would have considered dilettantish), Shelley, and even Wordsworth (The Prelude could be described as an epic on Wordsworth as “The Hero as Poet”). The “Sturm and Drang” movement in Germany in the late 18th century also idolized heroes which resembled Carlyle’s to some noticeable degree—Kraftmenschen, “Ganze Kerle”, Naturtalente. (“man of strength,” “real fellow,” “natural talent”. My husband, William Boos, provided these characterizations of the storm-and-stress hero figure (eg. Goethe’s Götz Von Berlichingen, “with the Iron Hand”, or Karl Moor in Schiller’s Die Nauber, or even some of the earlier versions of the character of Faust).) Also in his master Goethe Carlyle found an example of a “hero” in modern times, a poet-prophet-sage to whom all Europe turned at the end of his life for his opinions and teachings. Fichte, however, had an articulated theory of the hero, and from this Carlyle borrowed greatly both its specific tenets and spirit.
Fichte wrote two books which deal with the hero, Grundzüge des gegenwärtigen Zeitalters, or Fundamental Characteristics of the Present Age, and Über das Wesen des Gelehrten, or On the Nature of the Learned. In the Grundzüge, Fichte gives the hero an importance and mission similar to that which Carlyle assigns him. “Everything great and good upon which our present existence rests, … has an existence only because noble and powerful men have resigned all the enjoyment so far life for the sake of Ideas….” (Character of the Present Age, trans. Wm. Smith, London, 1847, p. 40, in Harrold, op. cit., p. 182.) Carlyle de-emphasizes the sacrifice of pleasure for ideas, and instead changes the hero’s object to an Idea rather than ideas.
-17- Yet the hero remains the source of all things good for mankind; “…the history of what man has accomplished in this world is at the bottom of the History of the Great Men who have worked here.” (On Heroes and Hero-Worship, ed. W.H. Hudson, London, 1965, p. 1.) Both men believed that revelation must await the God-inspired man, and expressed the thought in very similar terms. Fichte writes, “The original Divine Idea … remains for the most part unexpressed, until the God-inspired man appears and declares it,” (Fichte, Popular Works, trans. Wm. Smith, London, 1873, quoted in ibid., p. 184.) and Carlyle states of the Great Man: “A messenger he, sent from the Infinite Unknown….” (On Heroes, p. 281.) Also Fichte, like Carlyle, used his term Heroen to apply to all benefactors of the human race rather than to men merely heroic in an exploit.
Das Wesen des Gelehrten is devoted exclusively to the subject of the hero, and in On Heroes Carlyle quotes from it lengthily. Fichte divides the human race among scholars, who appropriate the Divine Idea, average persons, who only bungle in striving after the form rather than the Idea, and those who do not strive at all, who are nothing, mere hod-carriers. Fichte’s description of the lowest class of men reminds one of Carlyle’s declamations against those whose words say nothing, and who should therefore remain silent. It is interesting that Carlyle had no active conception of an average morality, or of an imperfect but -18- partially productive quality of life; he tended to see people as endowed either with haloes or with grisly horns.
Both Carlyle and Fichte believed in what has been called “the mutability of the hero-stuff.” (Lehman, B.H., Carlyle’s Theory of the Hero, Durham, N.C., 1928, pp. 126-8, mentioned in Harrold, op. cit., 185.) In Fichte the Idea struggles to form reality, and chooses its form according to the needs of any particular time. Thus the hero may become an artist, scientist, or prophet. The heroic impulse will manifest itself as a penchant towards some individual facet of the Idea, that is, genius will appear as a specific genius for some particular thing. (Fichte, Das Wesen des Gelehrten, in Werke, VI, p. 374, in ibid., p. 185-6.) Carlyle expresses a similar belief in the fundamental resemblance of heroes; “at bottom, the Great Man…is ever the same kind of thing: Odin, Luther, Johnson, Burns…I have no notion of a truly great man that could not be all sorts of men.” (On Heroes, p. 312.) Or, “You may see how a man would fight, by the way in which he sings….” (Ibid, p. 330.) Yet Fichte is emphasizing the different properties of the Idea, only one of which is granted to each hero, whereas Carlyle is asserting a quite different concept, that the individual hero possesses latently and simultaneously the sun of all the heroic capabilities.
Carlyle also follows to a striking degree Fichte’s description of the central characteristics of the hero. Fichte’s hero is first of all possessed of “integrity”, the first virtue also of Carlyle’s -19- heroes—the “wild, deep-hearted” Odin, author of a “genuine, very great and manlike” mythology, (On Heroes, p. 255.) the true, sincere Mahomet, “one of those who cannot but be in earnest,” (Ibid., p. 289.) Dante the honest transcriber of what which he saw, Shakespeare, “the noble sincere soul, who is a voice of Nature,” (Ibid., p. 346.) Luther the opponent of the insincere, (Ibid., p. 353.) Johnson, the genuine as opposed to the ungenuine man of letters, (Ibid., p. 384.) and Burns, a man of “savage sincerity.” (Ibid.)
Carlyle emphasizes even more the second Fichtean virtue, “insight.” To both men this insight is moral, and the hero is, among other things, man’s leader into a higher spiritual life. All of Carlyle’s heroes are described as penetrating into the heart of things, as seeing the inner life in nature and describing it to their fellow men; “…I say the degree of vision that dwells in a man is the correct measure of the man.” (Ibid., p. 338.) Odin perceives nature as “naked, flashing-in on him there, awful, unspeakable,” (Ibid., p. 245.) in a revelation of the belief needed by “common languid Times, with their unbelief, perplexity….” (Ibid., p. 250.) Mahomet receives a vision of the reality of things: “The great Mystery of Existence…glared-in upon him, with its terrors, with splendors….” (Ibid., p. 289.) “Such light had come, as it could, to illuminate the darkness….” (Ibid., p. 292.) Dante is a vates, “one who has penetrated…into the sacred Mystery of the Universe.” (Ibid., p. 313.) In speaking of Dante Carlyle associates -20- the ideas of integrity and insight: “Once more, here is no Hearsay, but a direct Insight and Belief; this man too could not help being a sincere man!” (On Heroes, p. 314.) He describes the vates’ perception, so deep “that it becomes Song,” (Ibid., p. 316.) for all that is sufficiently deep is musical. Dante “has a great power of vision”; he “seizes the very type of a thing.” (Ibid., p. 325.) Carlyle next describes Shakespeare’s vision as the source of his power to delineate men; “The word that will well describe the thing follows of itself from such clear intense sight of the thing.” (Ibid., p. 336.) And so with every one of Carlyle’s heroes; few of their differentiating characteristics are delineated further than this. Indeed, Carlyle’s outburst on Shakespeare could be taken as a eulogy of all the heroes collectively, “And is not [his] morality, his valour, candour, tolerance, truthfulness; his whole victorious strength and greatness, which can triumph over such obstructions, visible there too? Great as the world!” (Ibid., p. 336.)
Fichte also assigns two subsidiary qualities to the hero, and these likewise appear uniformly throughout Carlyle's hero-portraits. The hero is a silent man; he learns truth from silence and only brings forth words from the deep well of silent patience. Mahomet and Cromwell were silent men; even Shakespeare was the -21- product of a great natural silence which could not fully express itself. Furthermore the hero was unself-conscious; he was not aware even of his own sincerity. In the essay on Mahomet Carlyle states, “The Great Man’s sincerity is of the kind he cannot speak of, is not conscious of…,” ( On Heroes, p. 280.) and all of the heroes are men of wild souls, speaking instinctively. One is reminded of the nature of the Romantic “creative imagination”; it would be hard to conceive of the mad prophet of “Kubla Khan” as conscious in any way of himself, or indeed of anything outside the magic circle of incantation which surrounds him.
There are other similarities between Carlyle and Fichte. Both agree that the mission of the Great Man is action. Fichte (optimistically) declares: “Where Genius is really present, Industry spontaneously appears.” The Divine Idea must of necessity result in the Divine Deed. (Über das Wesen, in Werke, VI, p. 377, 179, in Harrold, On Works, p. 188.) One is reminded of the Calvinist assumption that where virtue is present, industry will manifest itself. At any rate, Carlyle gave his hero-kings precedence over his hero-poets, yet in some way qualified this evaluation by treating his greatest poet, Shakespeare, as a king in his own right, one whom the world should have recognized and made leader over its practical affairs. Thus the hero is not necessarily a man of action, but he is always capable of being one and waits only for promotion to this highest of spheres.
-22- Carlyle’s toleration of brutality and carnage in the “true” hero also found its origin or confirmation in Fichte. Fichte attacked those who complained of the slaughter necessitated by such conquests as Alexander’s, neglecting the numerous flickering perceptions of the Idea that Alexander’s swords may have extinguished. In a similar manner Carlyle came to depreciate the claims of the Saxon victims of William the Conqueror, of the Irish exterminated by Cromwell, and of the Silesians who resisted Friederich the Great. (Harrold, op. cit., p. 190.) Fichte believed that the civilized had a mission to govern the barbarous, and the wise to govern the foolish, and one senses that the two overlapped. (Ibid.) Carlyle states a similar idea: “Is not all work of man in the world a making of order?” (On Heroes, p. 429. [In discussing Cromwell]) The identification of “order” with “good” in itself can lead to a disrespect for the lives of dissidents with whom one does not agree. Yet Carlyle never came to accept the converse of his statement, that any creation of “order” implied that a good work had been formed. When Fichte states that in the Rulers’ works “we see God face to face, and need no other proof:—God is, we will say,—for they are, and He in them” (Fichte, Werke, VI, Über das Wesen des Gelehrten, p. 428, quoted in Harrold, p. 190.), Carlyle turns his face away from such blanket attribution of the presence of God to a particular class. With -23- some exceptions, Carlyle remained a mystic, seeing specific revelations of good and evil, but continuing to believe that these moral forces might evince themselves anywhere, that an immoral ruler—Napoleon—might be found as well as a noble man in (moderately) low station—Abbot Samson.
Carlyle was also influenced by Fichte in his conception of “The Hero as Man of Letters.” He translates Fichte’s Gelehrter, “scholar,” a category meant to include all forms of the hero, as Teacher, Ruler, etc., by the term “Literary Man”, and applies to him specifically some of the qualities which Fichte included in his descriptions of each different form of hero. Thus when Fichte speaks of the Teacher as a “priest of knowledge”, Carlyle uses the same description more specifically of the writer. ("a perpetual Priesthood, from age to age….” in On Heroes, p. 385.) When Fichte speaks of the Scholar bringing the Divine Idea, Carlyle paraphrases, “In the true Literary Man there is…a sacredness: he is the light of the world….” ( Ibid.) Carlyle seems to express even more interest in the “literary man” than in the poet. He places his “Hero as Man of Letters” in the penultimate, emphatic position leading up to the essay on the foremost hero, “The Hero as King.” He divulges some of his most immediate literary opinions in the introductory portion of his discussion of Johnson and Burns, and feels that the literary man is destined in the future to provide a religion to the world.
-24- Also he describes Dante as “narrow” and a lesser man than Shakespeare, whom he treats less as a poet than as a character portraitist. In this way Carlyle took Fichte’s ideas on the Gelehrter and applied them with especial emphasis in his conception of the literary man.
The Carlylean hero, therefore, is a compound conception—descended from English pre-romantic and Romantic tendencies, as well as from a long series of German apostrophes to the ruler, the great man, the hero. To Johann Fichte, however, was Carlyle most indebted for the exact manner in which he formulated his hero-portraits; and it is interesting to wonder how specifically Carlyle would have anatomized the nature of the hero had he not been able to read a man with conceptions similar to those of Fichte.
Teufelsdröckh as Hero—1836
Carlyle finished Sartor Resartus in 1831, approximately ten years before his publication in re-worked form of his lectures, On Heroes and Hero-Worship. Although Teufelsdröckh is not usually considered as one of Carlyle’s heroes, he possesses embryonically many of the traits which Carlyle was to incorporate into the heroes in his later lectures—intelligence, insight, into the moral nature of the universe, natural sincerity, propensity for silence, and literary pursuits. Simultaneously, however, Teufelsdröckh is a mock-hero, a parody of the German Romantic hero as well as of the German academic. He is a noble -25- man who is also ineffectual, a learned man whose academic career borders on the inane (he does not even give lectures), a philosopher of eccentric private habits, and an author whose scholarship is often arbitrary, pettifogging, and misdirected. His Clothes-Philosophy is at the same time an indirect assertion of the “Idealism” in which Carlyle believed, and a parody of the edifice of philosophy which can be built around a trivial topic, Carlyle himself had little tendency towards systematic philosophy; when writing On Heroes he was to ignore Fichte’s category of the hero as philosopher. Thus Carlyle is deriding Teufelsdröckh’s unnecessary and pretentious schematizations, while at the same time he respects his earnest seeking after truth. It is this gentle sense of the comic pitfalls which may await the person grasping too possessively after “the truth” which distinguishes Sartor from Carlyle’s later works. By the time he writes On Heroes, Carlyle seems to feel that the man endowed with complete sincerity and integrity will as a consequence possess both eloquence and practical abilities. Teufelsdröckh is here a last tribute to the limitations of even a “profound”, intelligent, and earnest man.
The distancing comedy in the treatment of Teufelsdröckh produces a strange effect—at the same time Carlyle is intensely earnest and yet also skeptical concerning the writing of his “author”. Another device produces the same ambiguity. Into the transcriptions of Teufelsdröckh’s life-history and opinions intrudes the Editor, able at the same time to look up at and down upon his subject. He exclaims that Teufelsdröckh was indeed a -26- great genius, but in the next breath comments that his Clothes-Philosophy was a rather meager product to show as the result of a lifetime of thought. When describing Teufelsdröckh’s musing on the value of belief, in itself a cherished subject to Carlyle, the Editor can exclaim with wry perception of the vanity of those who are certain they possess any essential knowledge, “Beware, O Teufelsdröckh, of spiritual pride!” (Sartor Resartus, p. 75.) And when describing with affectionate emphasis Teufelsdröckh’s childhood, he can disclaim disbelief in some of the more roseate of Teufelsdröckh’s reports. (Ibid., p. 88.) The Editor himself is also shown up as a typical British editor—pedantic, prudish, over-sensitive to the emotions of the “British public”, prolix over the obvious, and obtuse at arbitrary points. Thus the Editor and Teufelsdröckh form a check upon each other, and the reader is left at times with the impression that, amidst correction and counter-correction, he himself is not certain where truth lies. On Heroes lacks the same checks and balances, and thus its intensities are unrelieved by any provision for disagreement in perception or in degree of application.
There is a difference also in the nature of the central experience undergone by Teufelsdröckh and the protagonists of On Heroes. In a sense the experiences are similar, for Teufelsdröckh learns how to govern his conduct and thoughts even as the -27- prophets and bards of On Heroes are given knowledge of the moral nature of the universe and of the obligations of mankind. Yet the heroes are not described before their moment of revelation; they seem to perceive as an inherent part of their nature. Odin and Mahomet perhaps have a sudden revelation burst in upon them, but only Mahomet’s questionings and spiritual search are in my way described. Carlyle frequently calls his heroes “tormented”, but only in the cases of Dante and Johnson does he explain this characterization. By contrast Teufelsdröckh is never seen as the calm possessor of perfect revelation; what to the others came automatically or instantaneously was to him a painful and uncertain conversion, leaving him still with his writings confused, his opinions unheeded, his life and future threatened. We hear far more of his plaintive uncertainties than of his assertions of revelation, and even these latter he applies chiefly to his own life rather than to mankind in general. His progress to the “Everlasting Yea” is like a diary—Carlyle’s own—far more the confrontation of the individual with his own limited perceptions and abilities than the full “seeing into the heart of things” of the Carlylean hero. Teufelsdröckh is not so much a hero to be worshipped as Everyman, one from whom we can learn not because he is superior but because he has been there before us. It is as though in Sartor we see a man struggling to achieve the certainties of soul which are more easily assumed in On Heroes.
-28- On Heroes and Hero-Worship—1841
On Heroes was delivered as a series of lectures in London in 1840, when Carlyle was forty-five. He wrote the book later in the same year from his own notes and those of a reporter. People seemed to react personally to his lectures; his first comments on Utilitarianism were interrupted by the young Mill shouting, “No!”, and one young man took up researches on Scandinavian mythology after hearing Carlyle’s brief comments. (David Wilson, Carlyle on Cromwell and Others, London, 1925, p. 84.) Carlyle noted that his audience was most attentive when he touched on the career and personal character of the hero on whom he was speaking, was more restless when he digressed into general disquisition. The audience had some cause; a thirteen page introduction precedes the mention of Odin, twelve pages introduce Luther, and twenty-three preface the discussion of Dr. Johnson. In a forty page essay on Dante and Shakespeare, scarcely a specific mention of a work or a passage of Shakespeare is made, and only two paragraphs describe the contents of the Divine Comedy.
The heroes are treated in six levels of progression: as divinity, as prophet, as poet, as priest, as man of letters, and as king. The changes in category are made necessary, not by an alteration in the character of the hero, but by the differing degrees of perception with which men receive him. Mankind no longer calls its heroes divine, not from any increased disrespect, but because it has a higher notion of the divine. There is also -29- a progression in revelation from hero to hero; Odin perceives only the significance in and beyond nature, while Mahomet realizes that nature’s greatest work is man and that he is endowed with a moral capacity. Mahomet’s belief that he has seen God is superseded in Dante by the belief that he has seen the truth behind appearance. From Dante to Shakespeare occurs a progression from the prophet of the Catholic faith of the Middle Ages to the prophet of a new “Catholic” faith for all civilization. (By a new “Catholic” faith I think he means some combination of Christian and humanistic thought.) From Shakespeare to Cromwell there is a progression from the poet to whom fate did not grant an active part in public affairs to the king who was able to fulfill simultaneously all of the roles of the great man. (On Heroes, p. 422.) In some way his examples of the progressive unfolding of the nature of the hero remind one of Lessing’s theory of perfectibility, or of the successive revelation of the nature of a perfect religion.
In other ways also Carlyle’s conception of hero-worship partakes of the “Nachschein” of Christianity. He speaks of the greatest human emotion as hero-worship, the perception of the divine that has been granted to men through the lives of the heroes. The hero is described in words which might traditionally have applied to Christ, “The Hero is he who lives in the inward appearance of things in the True, Divine, and Eternal, which exists always in unseen to most, and in the Temorpary, Trivial….” (Ibid., p. 384.) Almost -30- all of the roles of Carlyle’s hero are ascribed to Christ—divinity, priest, king, reformer, teacher, prophet. It is as though Carlyle, worried about the validity of orthodox ascriptions of divinity to Christ, wished to direct the same emotion of worship towards a series of men who partook in some way of “divinity”. Instead of one incarnation there would be a series of epiphanies, moments of revelation of divine truth.
Since all of the heroes are prophets of divine revelation, the priest’s role becomes less unique and necessary. Of all Carlyle’s portraits, “The Hero as Priest” seems presented with least emphasis or novelty. As his mission as emissary of God is redundant, he can only be described as a reformer, and not always a fore-sighted or unbigoted one. The decreased attention to official priesthood is part of Carlyle’s shift of emphasis to a broader priesthood of heroes.
The situation of the “Hero as Priest” is only an extreme example of that of all the heroes: they each resemble each other in career and wisdom. Indeed their resemblance in life-work seems as great as their resemblance in character. Odin serves not only as a divinity but as a warrior, teacher, reformer, prophet to his people, priest of an embryonic religion, poet, and creator of a mythology later to become literature. Mahomet is likewise a prophet, priest, teacher, warrior, perceiver of the moral nature of things, creator of a literary-religious work, and ruler. Dante has a less active mission—he is the prophet of a -31- religion, the poet who expresses the Idea of an entire civilization, the seer who perceives moral truth. Shakespeare is a poet, king, prophet who perceives the nature of humanity, and priest of a new religion. Cromwell is a prophet, warrior, reformer, perceiver, rude poet, priest, and king. And so forth. It is hard to think of a hero insignificant enough to be described adequately within the confines of his category.
Often Carlyle emphasizes the “rudeness” and savagery of his heroes in order to magnify by contrast their achievements. Thus Mahomet is a rude, primitive soul; Shakespeare is a wild son of nature, a Warwickshire peasant; Johnson a man little educated; Cromwell a Bible-reading farmer; Odin a rude barbarian crouched in skins before an open fire. Yet Mahomet may have been a highly “civilized” man, Shakespeare was not a peasant but an entrepreneur of some means, Johnson received a formal education until forced by poverty to leave Pembroke College, Oxford, after fourteen months of residence, and Cromwell was undoubtedly devout but also prosperous. If nothing is known of Odin, how do we know the extent of his rudeness, or whether he wore coarse skins? Why couldn’t he have worn gold linked chains of mail and been magnate of a complex trading empire? At times Carlyle’s attempt to prove all of his heroes “self-made” man causes him to slightly condescend to their actual life and habits.
In a similar manner all of the landscapes which Carlyle describes are intense, craggy, wild yet at times beautiful backgrounds for a rude and primitive mind. Iceland is “a wild -32- land of barrenness and lava; swallowed…in black tempests, yet with a wild gleaming beauty in summer-time…snow jokuls, roaring gysers, sulphur pools and horrid volcanic chasms….” (On Heroes, p. 253.) The Arabian desert has a similar starkness mingled with beauty—“savage inaccessible rock-mountains, great grim deserts, alternating with beautiful strips of verdure…” (Ibid., p. 282.) The geographical backgrounds of the other heroes are less described, but it is implied that they have all been influenced by the wild truthfulness of “nature”, that Johnson has been cramped by the unhealthy city even as Burns sacrificed much of his energies to urban sophistication and wealth. Carlyle’s transcriptions of nature both help to create and derive from his image of the savage or impoverished hero.
Carlyle’s method of selecting his heroes is intuitive, and develops itself through a form of circular, or a priori, reasoning. His general manner of proving a man honest against the claims of decriers is to attack the meanness of unbelief. He answers the accusers of Mahomet by asserting, “One would be entirely at a loss what to think of this world at all, if quackery so grew and were sanctioned here.” (Ibid., p. 279.) He continues by declaring that a Great Man cannot but be true, and that therefore Mahomet was no liar. Mahomet’s words are thus a “fiery mass of Life cast-up from the great bosom of Nature herself.” (Ibid., p. 281.) With similar -33- reasoning does he declare the moral superiority of Cromwell. The theory of Cromwell’s falsity is incredible to him, he states, since he “cannot believe the like, of any Great Man whatever.” (On Heroes, p. 436.) Such a faith applied to any blackguard would render him ipso facto a saint. Carlyle continues by berating the “superficial unbelieving generation…, with no eye but for the surfaces and semblances of things” (Ibid., p. 436.) which alone could form such an opinion of a Great Man. “Can a great soul be possible without a conscience in it,” (Ibid., p. 436) he orates, and the conclusion is predetermined. Cromwell is the one great statesman of England, the “one man, in the course of fifteen hundred years” (Ibid., p. 452.) granted to England to be a proper ruler.
On Heroes is significant partially because of the originality of mind with which Carlyle chose his heroes. Cromwell and Mahomet were both disrespected until Carlyle’s essays restored them to some esteem. Carlyle’s comments on John Knox imply that Puritan reformers in general were then under severe ban. Carlyle had a sympathy for all manifestation of religious earnestness, a tolerance which was exceptional in an age divided between Enlightenment dispassionateness and partisan orthodoxy. Some of the wanderings of Carlyle's logic were forgiven him by his contemporaries because he preached a new religion of revelation and amorphous thought to include tolerance.
-34- On Heroes is stringent in a way Sartor Resartus is not—it is a series of intense paens to Great Men, an act of worship too serious to be interrupted by any of the uncertainties or crosswanderings of thought which make Sartor much more than a direct statement of belief. In Sartor, Carlyle’s beliefs were transcribed for the first time, and in their tentative expression lay an ability to examine the process of doubt and choice which had lapsed in the older Carlyle. Carlyle had stated his formal beliefs many times by the time he composed On Heroes, and he felt less obliged to belabour ambiguities which seemed to him clarified or forgotten. Also the form of On Heroes was one which demanded brief, dramatic simplifications of belief for oral delivery, not the amorphous disquisition-autobiography which had permitted his emotions freedom to interact with each other. The stereotyped formulations of On Heroes probably remained in Carlyle’s mind as he wrote his other historical works, and helped predetermine his thinking on the great rulers he chronicled.
Carlyle had been deeply influenced by the German Romantics in most of his opinions on the nature of history and of the hero, and became in turn a popularizer of modified German Romantic ideas on these subjects to his generation. He introduced a re-evaluation of reformers whose careers had been derided or forgotten by the previous century, although his tolerance towards men of action and power also included a certain condoning of violence and occasional ruthlessness. His conception of the hero remains in muted and attenuated form as part of the Romantic-Victorian legacy— -35- for example, in our conception of “national heroes” and in the history and biography written by Victorian and post-Victorian historians. The men of the English Romantic movement did not often write histories (Scott was an exception), and it was left to Carlyle to popularize a variation of the noble, wild Romantic hero in a form amenable to the ideals of the moral and activist Victorians. Many men of the nineteenth century retained a lifetime gratitude to Carlyle for providing the only alternative they could encounter to rationalistic or “materialistic” thought.
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