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Thomas Carlyle

Thomas Carlyle (December 4, 1795 - February 5, 1881) was a Scottish essayist and historian, whose work was hugely influential during the Victorian era. He was born in Ecclefechan, Dumfries and Galloway, and was educated at Annan Academy. Coming from a strictly Calvinist family, Carlyle was expected by his father to become a preacher. However, while at Edinburgh University he lost his Christian faith. Nevertheless Calvinist values remained with him throughout his life. This combination of a religious temperament with loss of faith in orthodox Christianity made Carlyle's work appealing to many Victorians who were grappling with scientific and political changes that threatened the traditional social order.

Carlyle's thinking was heavily influenced by German Transcendentalism, in particular the work of Fichte. He established himself as an expert on German literature in a series of essays for Frazer's Magazine, and by translating German writers, notably Goethe. His first major work, Sartor Resartus, purported to be a commentary in the thought of a German philosopher called Diogenes Teufelsdröckh (which translates as 'god-born devil-shit'), author of a tome entitled "Clothes: their Origin and Influence". Teufelsdröckh's Transcendentalist musings are mulled over by a skeptical English editor who also provides fragmentary biographical material on the philosopher.

Sartor Resartus was intended to be a new kind of book: simultaneously factual and fictional, serious and satirical, speculative and historical. It ironically commented on its own formal structure, while forcing the reader to confront the problem of where 'truth' is to be found. The imaginary 'Philosophy of Clothes' holds that meaning is to be derived from phenomena, continually shifting over history, as cultures reconstruct themselves in changing fashions, power-structures, and faith-systems. The book contains a very Fichtean conception of religious conversion: based not on the acceptance of God but on the absolute freedom of the will to reject evil, and to construct meaning. This had led some writers to see Sartor Resartus as an early Existentialist text.

Sartor Resartus was initially considered bizarre and incomprehensible, but had a limited success in America, where it was admired by Ralph Waldo Emerson, influencing the development of New England Transcendentalism. However, within Britain Carlyle's success was assured by the publication of his two volume history of The French Revolution, A History in 1837. After the completed manuscript of the book was accidentally burned by the philosopher John Stuart Mill, Carlyle had to begin again from scratch. The resulting second version was filled with a passionate intensity, hitherto unknown in historical writing. In a politically charged Europe, filled with fears and hopes of revolution, Carlyle's account of the motivations and urges that inspired the events in France seemed powerfully relevant. Carlyle's style of writing emphasised this, continually stressing the immediacy of the action – often using the present tense. For Carlyle, chaotic events demanded what he called 'heroes' to take control over the competing forces erupting within society. While not denying the importance of economic and practical explanations for events, he saw these forces as essentially 'spiritual' in character – the hopes and aspirations of people that took the form of ideas, and were often ossified into ideologies ('formulas' or 'Isms', as he called them). In Carlyle's view only dynamic individuals could master events and direct these spiritual energies effectively. As soon as ideological 'formulas' replaced heroic human action society became dehumanised.

This dehumanisation of society was a theme pursued in later books, such as Past and Present, in which Carlyle contrasted life in a Medieval monastery with modern society. For Carlyle the monastic community was unified by human and spiritual values, while modern culture deified impersonal economic forces and abstract theories of human 'rights' and natural 'laws'. Communal values were collapsing into isolated individualism and ruthless laissez faire Capitalism.

These ideas were influential on the development of Socialism, but aspects of Carlyle's thinking in his later years also helped to form Fascism. Carlyle moved towards his later thinking during the 1840s, leading to a break with many old friends and allies such as Mill and, to a lesser extent, Emerson. His belief in the importance of heroic leadership found form in his book "Heroes and Hero Worship", in which he compared different types of hero. For Carlyle the hero was somewhat similar to Aristotle's "Magnanimous" man – a person who flourished in the fullest sense. However, for Carlyle, unlike Aristotle, the world was filled with contradictions with which the hero had to deal. All heroes will be flawed. Their heroism lay in their creative energy in the face of these difficulties, not in their moral perfection. To sneer at such a person for their failings is the philosophy of those who seek comfort in the conventional. Carlyle called this 'valetism', from the expression 'no man is a hero to his valet'.

All these books were influential in their day, especially on writers such as Charles Dickens and John Ruskin. However, after the revolutions of 1848, and political agitations in Britain Carlyle published a collection of essays entitled "Latter Day Pamphlets" in which he attacked democracy as an absurd social ideal, while equally condemning hereditary aristocratic leadership. The latter was deadening, the former nonsensical: as though truth could be discovered by totting up votes. Government should come from the ablest. But how we were to recognise the ablest, and to follow their lead, was something Carlyle could not clearly say.

In later writings Carlyle sought to examine instances of heroic leadership in history. The "Letters and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell" (1845) he presented a positive image of Cromwell: someone who attempted to weld order from the conflicting forces of reform in his own day. Carlyle sought to make Cromwell's words live in their own terms by quoting him directly, and then commenting on the significance of these words in the troubled context of the time. Again this was intended to make the 'past' 'present' to his readers.

His last major work was the epic life of Frederick the Great. In this Carlyle tried to show how an heroic leader can forge a state, and help create a new moral culture for a nation. For Carlyle, Frederick epitomised the transition from the liberal Enlightenment ideals of the eighteenth century to a new modern culture of spiritual dynamism: embodied by Germany, its thought and its polity. The book is most famous for its vivid portrayal of Frederick's battles, in which Carlyle communicated his vision of almost overwhelming chaos mastered by leadership of genius. However, the effort involved in the writing of the book took its toll on Carlyle, who became increasingly depressed, and subject to various probably psychosomatic ailments. Its mixed reception also contributed to Carlyle's decreased literary output.

Later writings were generally short essays, often indicating the hardening of Carlyle's political position. His notoriously racist essay "An Occasional Discourse on the Nigger Question" suggested that slavery should never have been abolished. It had kept order, and forced work from people who would otherwise have been lazy and feckless. This – and Carlyle's support for the repressive measures of Governor Eyre in Jamaica – further alienated him from his old liberal allies. Eyre had been accused of brutal lynchings while suppressing a rebellion. Carlyle set up a committee to defend Eyre, while Mill organised for his prosecution.

Carlyle's private life was also experiencing difficulties. He had increasingly become alienated from his wife Jane Welsh Carlyle . Indeed it seems probable that their marriage was never consummated. Her sudden death plunged him into further despair, during which he wrote his highly self-critical "Reminiscences of Jane Welsh Carlyle". This was published after his death by his biographer James Anthony Froude, who also made public his belief that the marriage was unconsummated. This frankness was unheard of in the usually respectful biographies of the period. However, it was consistent with Carlyle's own belief that the flaws of heroes should be openly discussed, without diminishing their achievements.

Upon Carlyle's death on February 5, 1881 in London, it was made possible for his remains to be interred in Westminster Abbey but his wish to be buried beside his parents in Ecclefechan was respected.

The reputation of Carlyle's early work remained high during the nineteenth century, but declined in the twentieth, especially after his dire prediction that democracy would bring chaos proved untrue. His reputation in Germany was always high, because of his promotion of German thought and his biography of Frederick the Great. Friedrich Nietzsche , whose ideas are comparable to Carlyle's in some respects, was dismissive of his moralism, regarding him as a thinker who failed to free himself from the very petty-mindedness he professed to condemn. Carlyle's distaste for democracy and his belief in charismatic leadership was unsurprisingly appealing to Adolf Hitler, who was reading Carlyle's biography of Frederick during his last days in 1945.

This association with fascism did Carlyle's reputation no good in the post-war years, but "Sartor Resartus" has recently been recognised once more as a unique masterpiece, anticipating many major philosophical and cultural developments, from Existentialism to Postmodernism. It has also been argued that his critique of ideological formulas in "The French Revolution" provides a good account of the ways in which revolutionary cultures turn into repressive dogmatisms. Essentially a Romantic thinker, Carlyle attempted to reconcile Romantic affirmations of feeling and freedom with respect for historical and political fact. Nevertheless, he was always more attracted to the idea of heroic struggle itself, than to any specific goal for which the struggle was being made.

Thomas Carlyle. Carlyle as a young man modelling himself on Goethe
Thomas Carlyle. Carlyle as a young man modelling himself on Goethe


  • (1829) Signs of the Times The Victorian Web
  • (1831) Sartor Resartus Project Gutenberg
  • (1837) The French Revolution, A History Project Gutenberg
  • (1841) On Heroes And Hero Worship And The Heroic In History Project Gutenberg
  • (1843) Past and Present
  • (1845) Letters and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell
  • (1849) An Occasional Discourse on the Nigger Question
  • (1850) Latter-Day Pamphlets Project Gutenberg
  • (1851) The Life Of John Sterling Project Gutenberg
  • (1858) History Of Friedrich II Of Prussia Project Gutenberg

External links

Wikiquote has a collection of quotations by or about Thomas Carlyle

  • Project Gutenberg text of Thomas Carlyle: Biography by John Nichol

Last updated: 02-07-2005 10:13:27
Last updated: 02-22-2005 02:38:43