Photo by Elliott & Fry, c.1860s
4 December 1795|
Ecclefechan, Dumfriesshire, Scotland
|Died||5 February 1881
|Occupation||Essayist, satirist, translator, historian, mathematician|
|Alma mater||University of Edinburgh|
|Literary movement||Victorian literature|
|Notable works||Sartor Resartus
The French Revolution: A History
On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and The Heroic in History
Carlyle circle (mathematics)
Thomas Carlyle (4 December 1795 - 5 February 1881) was a Scottish philosopher, satirical writer, essayist, translator, historian, mathematician, and teacher. Considered one of the most important social commentators of his time, he presented many lectures during his lifetime with certain acclaim in the Victorian era. One of those conferences resulted in his famous work On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and The Heroic in History where he explains that the key role in history lies in the actions of the "Great Man", claiming that "History is nothing but the biography of the Great Man".
A respected historian, his 1837 book The French Revolution: A History was the inspiration for Charles Dickens' 1859 novel A Tale of Two Cities, and remains popular today. Carlyle's 1836 Sartor Resartus is a notable philosophical novel.
A great polemicist, Carlyle coined the term "the dismal science" for economics. He also wrote articles for the Edinburgh Encyclopædia, and his Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question (1849) remains controversial. Once a Christian, Carlyle lost his faith while attending the University of Edinburgh, later adopting a form of deism.
Carlyle was born in Ecclefechan in Dumfriesshire. His parents determinedly afforded him an education at Annan Academy, Annan, where he was bullied and tormented so much that he left after three years. His father was a member of the Burgher secession church. In early life, his family's (and nation's) strong Calvinist beliefs powerfully influenced the young man.
After attending the University of Edinburgh, Carlyle became a mathematics teacher, first in Annan and then in Kirkcaldy, where he became close friends with the mystic Edward Irving. (Confusingly, there is another Scottish Thomas Carlyle, born a few years later, connected to Irving via work with the Catholic Apostolic Church.)
In 1819-1821, Carlyle returned to the University of Edinburgh, where he suffered an intense crisis of faith and a conversion, which provided the material for Sartor Resartus ("The Tailor Retailored"), which first brought him to the public's notice.
Carlyle developed a painful stomach ailment, possibly gastric ulcers, that remained throughout his life and likely contributed to his reputation as a crotchety, argumentative, somewhat disagreeable personality. His prose style, famously cranky and occasionally savage, helped cement an air of irascibility.
Carlyle's thinking became heavily influenced by German idealism, in particular the work of Johann Gottlieb Fichte. He established himself as an expert on German literature in a series of essays for Fraser's Magazine, and by translating German works, notably Goethe's novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre. He also wrote a Life of Schiller (1825).
In 1826, Thomas Carlyle married fellow intellectual Jane Baillie Welsh, whom he had met through Edmund Irving during his period of German studies. In 1827, he applied for the Chair of Moral Philosophy at St Andrews University but was not appointed. A residence provided by Jane's estate was a house on Craigenputtock, a farm in Dumfrieshire, Scotland. He often wrote about his life at Craigenputtock - in particular: "It is certain that for living and thinking in I have never since found in the world a place so favourable." Here Carlyle wrote some of his most distinguished essays, and began a lifelong friendship with the American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson.
In 1831, the Carlyles moved to London, settling initially in lodgings at 4 (now 33) Ampton Street, Kings Cross. In 1834, they moved to 5 (now 24) Cheyne Row, Chelsea, which has since been preserved as a museum to Carlyle's memory. He became known as the "Sage of Chelsea", and a member of a literary circle which included the essayists Leigh Hunt and John Stuart Mill.
Here Carlyle wrote The French Revolution: A History (3 volumes, 1837), a historical study concentrating both on the oppression of the poor of France and on the horrors of the mob unleashed. The book was immediately successful.
By 1821, Carlyle abandoned the clergy as a career and focused on making a life as a writer. His first fiction was "Cruthers and Jonson", one of several abortive attempts at writing a novel. Following his work on a translation of Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship, he came to distrust the form of the realistic novel and so worked on developing a new form of fiction. In addition to his essays on German literature, he branched out into wider ranging commentary on modern culture in his influential essays Signs of the Times and Characteristics. Moreover, at this time he penned articles appraising the life and works of various poets and men of letters, including Goethe, Voltaire and Diderot.
His first major work, Sartor Resartus ("The Tailor Retailored") was begun in 1831 at his home (which his wife Jane provided for him from her estate), Craigenputtock, and was intended to be a new kind of book: simultaneously factual and fictional, serious and satirical, speculative and historical. Ironically, it commented on its own formal structure while forcing the reader to confront the problem of where 'truth' is to be found. Sartor Resartus was first serialised in Fraser's Magazine from 1833 to 1834. The text presents itself as an unnamed editor's attempt to introduce the British public to Diogenes Teufelsdröckh, a German philosopher of clothes, who is in fact a fictional creation of Carlyle's. The Editor is struck with admiration, but for the most part is confounded by Teufelsdröckh's outlandish philosophy, of which the Editor translates choice selections. To try to make sense of Teufelsdröckh's philosophy, the Editor tries to piece together a biography, but with limited success. Underneath the German philosopher's seemingly ridiculous statements, there are mordant attacks on Utilitarianism and the commercialisation of British society. The fragmentary biography of Teufelsdröckh that the Editor recovers from a chaotic mass of documents reveals the philosopher's spiritual journey. He develops a contempt for the corrupt condition of modern life. He contemplates the "Everlasting No" of refusal, comes to the "Centre of Indifference", and eventually embraces the "Everlasting Yea". This voyage from denial to disengagement to volition would later be described as part of the existentialist awakening.
Given the enigmatic nature of Sartor Resartus, it is not surprising that it first achieved little success. Its popularity developed over the next few years, and it was published in book form in Boston 1836, with a preface by Ralph Waldo Emerson, influencing the development of New England Transcendentalism. The first English edition followed in 1838.
The Everlasting Yea is Carlyle's name in the book for the spirit of faith in God in an express attitude of clear, resolute, steady, and uncompromising antagonism to the Everlasting No, and the principle that there is no such thing as faith in God except in such antagonism against the spirit opposed to God.
The Everlasting No is Carlyle's name for the spirit of unbelief in God, especially as it manifested itself in his own, or rather Teufelsdröckh's, warfare against it; the spirit, which, as embodied in the Mephistopheles of Goethe, is forever denying - der stets verneint - the reality of the divine in the thoughts, the character, and the life of humanity, and has a malicious pleasure in scoffing at everything high and noble as hollow and void.
In Sartor Resartus, the narrator moves from the "Everlasting No" to the "Everlasting Yea," but only through "The Centre of Indifference," a position of agnosticism and detachment. Only after reducing desires and certainty, aiming at a Buddha-like "indifference", can the narrator realise affirmation. In some ways, this is similar to the contemporary philosopher Søren Kierkegaard's "leap of faith" in Concluding Unscientific Postscript.
Based on Goethe's having described Christianity as the "Worship of Sorrow", and "our highest religion, for the Son of Man", Carlyle adds, interpreting this, "there is no noble crown, well worn or even ill worn, but is a crown of thorns".
The "Worship of Silence" is Carlyle's name for the sacred respect for restraint in speech till "thought has silently matured itself, ... to hold one's tongue till some meaning lie behind to set it wagging," a doctrine which many misunderstand, almost wilfully, it would seem; silence being to him the very womb out of which all great things are born.
In 1834, Carlyle moved to London from Craigenputtock and began to move among celebrated company. Within the United Kingdom, Carlyle's success was assured by the publication of his three-volume work The French Revolution: A History in 1837. After the completed manuscript of the first volume was accidentally burned by the philosopher John Stuart Mill's maid, Carlyle wrote the second and third volumes before rewriting the first from scratch.
The resulting work had a passion new to 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 historical writing stressed the immediacy of 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 'spiritual' - 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.
Like the opinions of many deep thinkers of the time, these ideas were influential on the development and rise of both Socialism and 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 On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and The Heroic in History, in which he compared a wide range of different types of heroes, including Odin, Muhammad, Oliver Cromwell, Napoleon, William Shakespeare, Dante, Samuel Johnson, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Robert Burns, John Knox, and Martin Luther. These lectures of Carlyle's are regarded as an early and powerful formulation of the Great Man theory.
The book was based on a course of lectures he had given. The French Revolution had brought Carlyle fame, but little money. His friends worked to set him on his feet by organising courses of public lectures for him, drumming up an audience and selling guinea tickets. Carlyle did not like lecturing, but found that he could do it, and more importantly that it brought in some much-needed money. Between 1837 and 1840, Carlyle delivered four such courses of lectures. The final course was on "Heroes." From the notes he had prepared for this course, he wrote out his book, reproducing the curious effects of the spoken discourses.
"The Hero as Man of Letters" (1840):
Carlyle was one of the very few philosophers who witnessed the industrial revolution but still kept a non-materialistic view of the world. The book included people ranging from the field of Religion through to literature and politics. He included people as coordinates and accorded Muhammad a special place in the book under the chapter title "Hero as a Prophet". In his work, Carlyle declared his admiration with a passionate championship of Muhammad as a Hegelian agent of reform, insisting on his sincerity and commenting "how one man single-handedly, could weld warring tribes and wandering Bedouins into a most powerful and civilised nation in less than two decades." His interpretation has been widely cited by Muslim scholars seeking Western support that Muhammad was one of the great men of history.
Carlyle held "That great men should rule and that others should revere them," a view that for him was supported by a complex faith in history and evolutionary progress. Societies, like organisms, evolve throughout history, thrive for a time, but inevitably become weak and die out, giving place to a stronger, superior breed. Heroes are those who affirm this life process, accepting its cruelty as necessary and thus good. For them courage is a more valuable virtue than love; heroes are noblemen, not saints. The hero functions first as a pattern for others to imitate, and second as a creator, moving history forwards not backwards (history being the biography of great men). Carlyle was among the first of his age to recognize that the death of God is in itself nothing to be happy about, unless man steps in and creates new values to replace the old. For Carlyle the hero should become the object of worship, the center of a new religion proclaiming humanity as "the miracle of miracles... the only divinity we can know." For Carlyle's creed Bentley proposes the name Heroic Vitalism, a term embracing both a political theory, Aristocratic Radicalism, and a metaphysic, Supernatural Naturalism. The Heroic Vitalists feared that the recent trends toward democracy would hand over power to the ill-bred, uneducated, and immoral, whereas their belief in a transcendent force in nature directing itself onward and upward gave some hope that this force would overrule in favor of the strong, intelligent, and noble.:17-18,49-58
Nietzsche agreed with much of Carlyle's hero worship, transferring many qualities of the hero to his concept of the superman. He believed that the hero should be revered, not for the good he has done for the people, but simply out of admiration for the marvelous. The hero justifies himself as a man chosen by destiny to be great. In the life struggle he is a conqueror, growing stronger through conflict. The hero is not ashamed of his strength; instead of the Christian virtues of meekness, humility and compassion, he abides by the beatitudes of Heroic Vitalism: courage, nobility, pride, and the right to rule. His slogan: "The good old rule, the simple plan, that he should keep who has the power, and he should take who can.":52
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 the United Kingdom, Carlyle published a collection of essays entitled "Latter-Day Pamphlets" (1850) in which he attacked democracy as an absurd social ideal, while equally condemning hereditary aristocratic leadership. Two of these essays, No. I: "The Present Times" and No. II: "Model Prisons" were reviewed by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in April 1850. Carlyle criticised hereditary aristocratic leadership as "deadening"; however, he criticised democracy as nonsensical, mocking the idea that objective truth could be discovered by weighing up the votes for it. Government should come from those most able to lead. But how such leaders were to be found, and how to follow their lead, was something Carlyle could not (or would not) clearly say. Marx and Engels agreed with Carlyle as far as his criticism of the hereditary aristocracy. However they criticised Carlyle's plan to use democracy to find the "Noblest" and the other "Nobles" that are to form the government by the "ablest" persons.
In later writings, Carlyle sought to examine instances of heroic leadership in history. The Letters and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell (1845) 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 essay "Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question" (1849) suggested that slavery should never have been abolished, or else replaced with serfdom. It had kept order, he argued, and forced work from people who would otherwise have been lazy and feckless. This and Carlyle's support for the repressive measures of Governor Edward Eyre in Jamaica during the Morant Bay rebellion further alienated him from his old liberal allies. As Governor of the Colony, Eyre, fearful of an island wide uprising, brutally suppressed the rebellion, and had many black peasants killed. Hundreds were flogged. He also authorised the execution of George William Gordon, a mixed-race colonial assemblyman who was suspected of involvement in the rebellion. These events created great controversy in Britain, resulting in demands for Eyre to be arrested and tried for murdering Gordon. John Stuart Mill organised the Jamaica Committee, which demanded his prosecution and included some well-known British liberal intellectuals (such as John Bright, Charles Darwin, Frederic Harrison, Thomas Hughes, Thomas Henry Huxley, and Herbert Spencer).
Carlyle set up rival Governor Eyre Defense and Aid Committee for the defence, arguing that Eyre had acted decisively to restore order. His supporters included John Ruskin, Charles Kingsley, Charles Dickens, Alfred Tennyson and John Tyndall. Twice Eyre was charged with murder, but the cases never proceeded.
Similar hard-line views were expressed in Shooting Niagara, and After?, written after the passing of the Electoral Reform Act of 1867 in which he "reaffirmed his belief in wise leadership (and wise followership), his disbelief in democracy and his hatred of all workmanship - from brickmaking to diplomacy - that was not genuine".
His last major work was the epic life of Frederick the Great (1858-1865). In this Carlyle tried to show how a 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, arguably very biased, portrayal of Frederick's battles, in which Carlyle communicated his vision of almost overwhelming chaos mastered by leadership of genius.
Carlyle called the work his "Thirteen Years War" with Frederick. In 1852, he made his first trip to Germany to gather material, visiting the scenes of Frederick's battles and noting their topography. He made another trip to Germany to study battlefields in 1858. The work comprised six volumes; the first two volumes appeared in 1858, the third in 1862, the fourth in 1864 and the last two in 1865. Emerson considered it "Infinitely the wittiest book that was ever written." James Russell Lowell pointed out some faults, but wrote: "The figures of most historians seem like dolls stuffed with bran, whose whole substance runs out through any hole that criticism may tear in them; but Carlyle's are so real in comparison, that, if you prick them, they bleed." The work was studied as a textbook in the military academies of Germany.
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, notably The Early Kings of Norway: Also an Essay on the Portraits of John Knox appeared in 1875, a series on early-medieval Norwegian warlords and an essay attempting to prove that the best-known portrait of John Knox did not depict the Scottish prelate. This was linked to Carlyle's long interest in historical portraiture, which had earlier fuelled his project to found a gallery of national portraits, fulfilled by the creation of the National Portrait Gallery, London and the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. He was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1878.
Carlyle was the chief instigator in the foundation of the London Library in 1841. He had become frustrated by the facilities available at the British Museum Library, where he was often unable to find a seat (obliging him to perch on ladders), where he complained that the enforced close confinement with his fellow readers gave him a "museum headache", where the books were unavailable for loan, and where he found the library's collections of pamphlets and other material relating to the French Revolution and English Civil Wars inadequately catalogued. In particular, he developed an antipathy for the Keeper of Printed Books, Anthony Panizzi (despite the fact that Panizzi had allowed him many privileges not granted to other readers), and criticised him, as the "respectable Sub-Librarian", in a footnote to an article published in the Westminster Review. Carlyle's eventual solution, with the support of a number of influential friends, was to call for the establishment of a private subscription library from which books could be borrowed.
Carlyle had a number of would-be romances before he married Jane Welsh, important as a literary figure in her own right. The most notable were with Margaret Gordon, a pupil of his friend Edward Irving. Even after he met Jane, he became enamoured of Kitty Kirkpatrick, the daughter of a British officer and an Indian princess. William Dalrymple, author of White Mughals, suggests that feelings were mutual, but social circumstances made the marriage impossible, as Carlyle was then poor. Both Margaret and Kitty have been suggested as the original of "Blumine", Teufelsdröckh's beloved, in Sartor Resartus.
Thomas also had a friendship with writer Geraldine Jewsbury starting in 1840. During that year Jewsbury was going through a depressive state and also experiencing religious doubt. She wrote to Carlyle for guidance and also thanked him for his well-written essays. Eventually Carlyle invited Jewsbury out to Cheyne Row, where Carlyle and Jane resided. Jewsbury and Jane from then on had a tight friendship and Carlyle also helped Jewsbury get on to the English literary scene.
Carlyle married Jane Welsh in 1826. He met Welsh through his friend and her tutor Edward Irving, with whom she came to have a mutual romantic (although not intimate) attraction. Welsh was the subject of Leigh Hunt's charming poem, "Jenny kiss'd Me".
Their marriage proved to be one of the most famous, well documented, and unhappy of literary unions. Over 9000 letters between Carlyle and his wife have been published showing the couple had an affection for each other marred by frequent and angry quarrels.
It was very good of God to let Carlyle and Mrs Carlyle marry one another, and so make only two people miserable and not four.
Carlyle became increasingly alienated from his wife. Carlyle's biographer James Anthony Froude published (posthumously) his opinion that the marriage remained unconsummated.
Although she had been an invalid for some time, his wife's sudden death in 1866 was unexpected and it greatly distressed Carlyle who was moved to write his highly self-critical "Reminiscences of Jane Welsh Carlyle", published posthumously.
After Jane Carlyle's death in 1866, Thomas Carlyle partly retired from active society. He was appointed rector of the University of Edinburgh. His last years were spent at 24 Cheyne Row (then numbered 5), Chelsea, London SW3 (which is now a National Trust property commemorating his life and works) but he always wished to return to Craigenputtock.
Upon Carlyle's death on 5 February 1881 in London interment in Westminster Abbey was offered but rejected due to his explicit wish to be buried beside his parents in Ecclefechan. His final words were, "So, this is death. Well!"
Carlyle would have preferred that no biography of him were written, but when he heard that his wishes would not be respected and several people were waiting for him to die before they published, he relented and supplied his friend James Anthony Froude with many of his and his wife's papers. Carlyle's essay about his wife was included in Reminiscences, published shortly after his death by Froude, who also published the Letters and Memorials of Jane Welsh Carlyle annotated by Carlyle himself. Froude's Life of Carlyle was published over 1882-84. The frankness of this book was unheard of by the usually respectful standards of 19th-century biographies of the period. Froude's work was attacked by Carlyle's family, especially his nephew, Alexander Carlyle and his niece, Margaret Aitken Carlyle. However, the biography in question was consistent with Carlyle's own conviction that the flaws of heroes should be openly discussed, without diminishing their achievements. Froude, who had been designated by Carlyle himself as his biographer-to-be, was acutely aware of this belief. Froude's defence of his decision, My Relations With Carlyle was published posthumously in 1903, including a reprint of Carlyle's 1873 will, in which Carlyle equivocated: "Express biography of me I had really rather that there should be none." Nevertheless, Carlyle in the will simultaneously and completely deferred to Froude's judgement on the matter, whose "decision is to be taken as mine."
Thomas Carlyle is notable both for his continuation of older traditions of the Tory satirists of the 18th century in England and for forging a new tradition of Victorian era criticism of progress known as sage writing.Sartor Resartus can be seen both as an extension of the chaotic, sceptical satires of Jonathan Swift and Laurence Sterne and as an enunciation of a new point of view on values.
Carlyle is also important for helping to introduce German Romantic literature to Britain. Although Samuel Taylor Coleridge had also been a proponent of Schiller, Carlyle's efforts on behalf of Schiller and Goethe would bear fruit.
The reputation of Carlyle's early work remained high during the 19th century, but declined in the 20th century. George Orwell called him, "a master of belittlement. Even at his emptiest sneer (as when he said that Whitman thought he was a big man because he lived in a big country) the victim does seem to shrink a little. That [...] is the power of the orator, the man of phrases and adjectives, turned to a base use." However, Whitman himself described Carlyle as lighting "up our Nineteenth Century with the light of a powerful, penetrating and perfectly honest intellect of the first-class" and "Never had political progressivism a foe it could more heartily respect". 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, calling him an "absurd muddlehead" in Beyond Good and Evil and regarded 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 appealing to Joseph Goebbels, who read Carlyle's biography of Frederick to Hitler during his last days in 1945. Many critics in the 20th century identified Carlyle as an influence on fascism and Nazism.Ernst Cassirer argued in The Myth of the State that Carlyle's hero worship contributed to 20th-century ideas of political leadership that became part of fascist political ideology.
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 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, Carlyle attempted to reconcile Romantic affirmations of feeling and freedom with respect for historical and political fact. Many believe that he was always more attracted to the idea of heroic struggle itself, than to any specific goal for which the struggle was being made. However, Carlyle's belief in the continued use to humanity of the Hero, or Great Man, is stated succinctly at the end of his essay on Muhammad (in On Heroes, Hero Worship & the Heroic in History), in which he concludes that: "the Great Man was always as lightning out of Heaven; the rest of men waited for him like fuel, and then they too would flame."
There are several published "Collected Works" of Carlyle:
Unauthorized lifetime editions:
Authorised lifetime editions:
Carlyle had quite a few unusual definitions at hand, which were collected by the Nuttall Encyclopedia. Some include: