"The Hero as Divinity"

  1. Why does Carlyle place the hero as divinity first in his sequence, rather than begin with, say, the hero as prophet or king?
    (He represents the elemental form of the hero, one of the original Thinkers who gave thoughts to other men--Pagan religions struggled to set forth this elemental respect for the Heroic, 15. The Hero, the world child-man, perceives the unity of nature and spirit, 7.)
  2. What is the assumed most appropriate landscape or environment for the divine hero? What forms of national myths does Carlyle prefer, and why? Do his preferences suggest his own background? Do they follow Victorian trends?
    (assumes this primal response to nature should occur in a rustic and simple landscape; prefers Norse myths to Greek ones, 19)
  3. Why is the heroic vision also religious?
    (The heroic vision is a religious one, in that it perceives the unity of man and nature: the hero is sincere, earnest, and courageous. This is the stage before moral dichotomies arise, the stage of perceiving, 30, 31. Further, heroes must occur from the beginning of time, since all history is the story of Great Men and is progressive. We must choose one of our first heroes from the earliest known history, on the edge of human records of our existence. That Carlyle knows little of Odin seems to prompt the assumption that Odin must have beeen simple and elemental--he projects his ignorance of Odin, and his desired scheme, onto Odin.)
  4. What rhetorical methods does Carlyle use to inspire respect for Odin as divinity? Would more argument or attempted proof have helped?
    (uses metaphor; biblical analogies and language; repetitive, incremental evocations; assertion through word play, paradox, emphasis (!), emotive language, denial of the obverse, and tautology; use of legends, false etymological data; circles around point, restating all possible combinations of elements)
  5. Can you give some reasons for the choice of Odin as the representation of divine heroism? Also, why do you think he prefers Norse to Greek myths?
    increasing interest in medieval characteristic of the period
    attempt to link English culture with Norse ancestors (36); Shakespeare seen as heir of Norse myths
    Norse culture still exotic and unknown--no complete translation of the Norse Elder Edda appeared until that of William Morris and Magnusson in the latter third of the century. But some knowledge of Norse legend was becoming fashionable: e. g. Thomas Gray, "The Descent of Odin," and "The Fatal Sisters"; Thomas Percy, Reliques; Paul Mallet, Introduction to the History of Denmark, trans. 1770; W. Herber, trans. of a great portion of the Edda, 1804; and about 50 translations from the Icelandic of various degrees of accuracy and completeness appeared 1770-1820, and later collections of myths by George Dasent and others.
    Norse myth appealed to an awakened taste for the "sublime"--the powerful, stark and impressive.
    So Carlyle was here speaking to an already awakened interest.
  6. What views on the nature of history seem implicit in this essay?
    history as biography
    the view that only heroes are a significant force--non-heroes cannot imitate them, nor presumably, influence history
    truth seems to be progressively revealed--heroes come to greater anticipatory prophetic insight (cmp. Hallam in Tennyson’s "In Memoriam")
    the outer world of appearances is a show; the world is instead governed by a true idea (36)
    present hierarchies have some basis in moral truth (i. e., social distinctions)
    nations have souls--e. g. the French are frivolous and rebellious, the Germans true and faithful
    the emphasis on great men is so severe that it would seem to exclude women
    man is the crown of creation--the only significant truth is human truth (no importance given to the perspective of animals or other forms of life)
    history is cyclical; periods of belief are followed by periods of skepticism
    influential ideas (e. g., hero-worship, Mahometism, must contain some truth)
  7. Which of Carlyle’s beliefs or features of language remind you of the English Romantics?
    emphasis on wildness, sincerity, nature--Romantic, esp. Wordsworthian
    metaphors of light and darkness
    great world tree, cmp. Wordsworth’s metaphor for the universe of thought in The Prelude
    poet represents a primitive, elemental man
    dislike of skepticism
    respect for silent song
    poet compelled to write, 181
    influence of Platonic thought in Shelley and Wordsworth; Carlyle also shared the Romantic suspicion of the improper uses of science (Blake, Wordsworth, Keats, 18)
  8. Against what philosophical and historical beliefs do you feel Carlyle is reacting?
    belief that history is a series of accidents and natural processes--Hume, Gibbon, Voltaire, Scottish enlightenment thinkers such as Frances Hutcheson and Adam Smith
    detests skepticism, its alleged view of the universe as a machine; this leads him to the paradox that although he is not religiously orthodox, he finds religious skepticism morally destructive
    dislikes history as Dryasdust--the importance of history lies not in facts but in its essential meaning, a useful antidote to Victorian accumulations of data. History is a work of moral perception, an art.
    dislikes science, which according to him is a mere reduction of the mystery of things (18)
  9. What do you feel are some philosophical beliefs inherent in this essay?
    universe is organic--its Idea rather than its outward form is significant
    all things are moving forces, electric--life is fundamentally mysterious
    central emotion of life is reverence for what is higher than the self (11)
    not pantheism--the divine spirit moves in man, not the lower creatures or inanimate nature
  10. What effect is served by Carlyle’s constant use of biblical language and metaphors?
    (enforces a sense of divinity; to his audience would have seemed inspiring and soothing, a proof by analogy)
  11. What is the relation of the content and manner of On Heroes to the Scottish Calvinism of Carlyle’s background?
    (accepts Christian belief in the supernatural, the primacy of man in creation, divine intervention in history, the moral dichotomy between good and evil, individual salvation 176, the condemnation of false appearances of the world)
  12. In short, several early nineteenth-century Presbyterian moral and metaphysical assumptions are maintained in metaphorical garb, as are also many of the social judgements and concern for discipline prevalent in his background.
  13. Do you feel his description of Christianity is an accurate one? (11)
    (ignores levelling and ethical emphases of Christianity--the believer is to improve, to become a better person, not merely to reverence a perfection he/she cannot imitate)
  14. What political attitudes seem implicit in Carlyle’s writing as early as "The Hero as Divinity"? (12, 13, 15, Obedience and reverence are the duties of man. Individual genius is not granted to everyone; not democracy but moral hierarchy must be worked out in the world. Revolutions are misguided rebellions against imperfect heroes, but even with good ones, no egalitarianism is possible or desirable. Revolutions may be inevitable, but they are never good--by definition they are upsurges of masses of men, and thus violations of the importance of individuals. Chartism, ballot-boxism, and other appeals to a broader populace are a social pestilence, 175.)
  15. In your view, are there any political realities which Carlyle avoids or refuses to face?
    (Carlyle avoids the basic issue: how can we discern the heroic? In an evil world, aren’t some powerful men evil rather than heroic? Surely this is a world of anti-heroes as well? This question is important in assessing Carlyle’s legacy, perceived by some retrospectively as enabling the extreme forms of leader-worship associated with Nazism. But to be fair to Carlyle, his hero is a religious man with a unitive vision, not a megalomaniac empire-builder and exterminator of peoples.)

"The Hero as Poet"

  1. Does Carlyle assume that all would agree with him about the identity of the two most important poets? (85) Would he be correct in this assumption? (Dante a recent taste)
  2. Is Carlyle’s account of Dante’s biography accurate? How does his version fit into his narrative pattern? (86) How might it have influenced Dante’s Victorian reception? (possibly influenced D. G. Rossetti, especially his poem, "Dante at Verona")
  3. Which episode from the Divine Comedy does Carlyle most admire? Was this a common Victorian taste? (94; the Victorians most admired the story of Francesca and Paolo, which was the subject of several sculptures, paintings and other artworks, e. g. Rossetti’s "Francesca and Paolo")
  4. What does Carlyle see as Shakespeare's relation to his age? Would this be consistent with many of the strands of recent Shakespeare criticism?
  5. Why do you think he fails to discuss individual works? What does Carlyle see as Shakespeare's importance to the British nation?

"The Hero as Priest"

How do you account for the choice of "priest" to describe Protestant ministers? What aspects of his background would have motivated his choice of Luther and Knox as his chief examples of heroic priests? What difficulties does the biography of Knox present to him, and how does he justify Knox's more violent acts, such as the destruction of statues?

"The Hero as Man of Letters"

  1. What is significant about this "new kind of hero"? Who is the greatest man of letters, according to Carlyle, and why does Carlyle not discuss him? (158)
    (155, only a century old, our most important and greatest modern person. How about statesman or king?)
  2. What is distinctive about the hero as man of letters? (books are vehicles for the perception of divinity behind the appearances of things
  3. What may be the man of letters’ class situation? (167, struggles from lower to upper classes) What does Carlyle seem to imply about class differences? (accepts some moral validity to these distinctions) To what extent may Carlyle’s remarks be autobiographical?
  4. What has been the chief enemy of the man of letters? (170, age of skepticism) According to Carlyle, what is the basic error of Benthamism? (173) Do you feel this is a reasonable critique?
    (174, debate is false, assertion or denial true; 176, opposes mission of saving world, i. e. reformism)
  5. Why does Carlyle choose for this category Samuel Johnson and Jean Jacques Rousseau?
  6. As we approach the modern age, does Carlyle seem more doubtful about his heroes? What reasons may have influenced his choice of Rousseau and Burns?
  7. Do you find the essay’s conclusion satisfactory?
  8. What is the contrast between the poet and the "man of letters"?
  9. Why, according to Carlyle, is Shakespeare greater than Dante? What assumptions lie behind this judgement?
  10. Why no "women of letters," do you think?

"The Hero as King"

  1. According to Carlyle, why is "French Sansculottism" a form of madness? Why is it not a struggle toward order? What is wrong with the notions of Liberty and Equality?
    (202, 217; "I have no quarrel with. . . ", but does, 202; cmp. his denial of Divine Right of Kings, followed by a qualified defense,198; marches and countermarches across topic)
  2. What does Carlyle give as the reasons for submitting to a hero? (203) Are these good reasons?
    (poetic courtesies make life noble--cmp. Burke’s defense of chivalry)
  3. According to Carlyle, why must all substance be clothed in forms? (205) How is his statement altered by an appeal to "forms" rather than "form"?
    (of course substance needs form, but conventional forms are a different thing altogether)
  4. Do you think Carlyle is consistent in sympathizing with the Puritan Reformation above the French Revolution?
    (the former also a destruction of false idols, yet he does not call it "madness")
  5. How do we know that Cromwell was not false? That he was heroic? Do you think Carlyle’s arguments are convincing?
    (210, a skeptical age disliked him--the enemy of my enemy is my friend; 211, no great man is false; he was silent, delayed his kingship, engaged in deep prayers)
  6. Why, according to Carlyle, was it necessary for Cromwell to dissolve three parliaments?
  7. Why was Napoleon a great hero at all? Do you consider him a fit end for the sequence? Would all Victorians have agreed with Carlyle?
  8. Does the book end anticlimactically? Or alternately, do you think the ending provides adequate closure?

Some Final Questions:

Are there any inconsistencies between the various presentations of the "hero," or is that an improper standard by which to assess these essays?
Why do you think Carlyle was able to become one of the most influential thinkers of his century?

Carlyle was incalculably influential; every educated man and woman of the century read Carlyle’s writings. His works were praised by Tennyson, Ruskin, Morris, Mill--by conservatives, liberals, and even working-class reformers--and almost everyone recorded that he had had an inspirational effect on their lives. His style influenced that of Dickens and Hopkins, among others.

Carlyle held many Romantic and biblical/Calvinist attitudes, but he also expressed a Victorian concern with social problems, the nature of government, and he motivations for an active life. His arguments were sufficiently energetic yet unspecific so that all could feel inspired by them--he could serve as all things to all--an exhorter to a higher, more energetic view of things, a preacher of faith but not a specific faith. Many Victorian intellectuals had lost orthodox Christian belief but still wanted sermons and a sense of conscious affirmation.

Less positively, Carlyle also shared Victorian Francophobia, and the sense of the alleged racial and moral superiority of Great-Britons/Anglo-Saxons. His cultural nationalism is shown in his choice of English and Scottish heroes--Shakespeare, Burns, Cromwell, Johnson--as models of intellect and action, though his eclecticism is shown in the inclusion of several non-British ones as well--Mahommed, Odin, Dante, even Napoleon.

What are some Victorian writings which may have been influenced by Carlyle’s notion of the hero? (e. g. Tennyson’s portrait of Arthur in The Idylls of the King)
How may Carlyle’s Scottish background have influenced his style, beliefs, or choice of heroes?
Why do you think none of his "heroes" are women? Can you think of women admired by the Victorians who might have fit well into his definitions of heroism?
How are On Heroes and Hero-Worship and Carlyle’s other writings influenced by his study of German literature and social thought? (Fichte, Hegel, Schelling, etc.)