Nothing stops the man who desires to achieve. Every obstacle is simply a course to develop his achievement muscle. It's a strengthening of his powers of accomplishment. - Thomas Carlyle
Thomas Carlyle was a philosopher, a historian, a mathematician, and a writer from Scotland. He is also regarded as one of the most influential personalities during the 19th century. He famously claimed that economics is the ‘dismal science’. He is best remembered for his controversial classic On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and The Heroic in History. Carlyle brilliantly analyses history, religion, and politics through the lens of heroes.
Thomas Carlyle was influential in his own lifetime and continues to be so over 130 years after his death is a proposition with which few will disagree. His role as his generation’s foremost interpreter of German thought, his distinctive rhetorical style, his approach to history via the “innumerable biographies” of great men, and his almost unparalleled record of correspondence with contemporaries both great and small, makes him a necessary figure of study in multiple fields.
Carlyle attempted to find a skepticism-refuting faith and to combine philosophy and theology with literature. He promoted idealism in a rationalistic age. Carlyle was a proponent of the Reason/Understanding dichotomy. In Novalis he refers to "the recognition, by these Transcendentalists, of a higher faculty in man than Understanding; of Reason (Vernunft), the pure, ultimate light of our nature." He possessed a certain distaste for hyper-rational, systematic metaphysics. Carlyle, possessed a superior knowledge of German authors and works. The form of idealism that developed was not extreme, retaining some few elements of rationalism. In Novalis, Carlyle regards an idealist as being one who "boasts that his Philosophy is Transcendental, that is, 'ascending beyond the senses' . . . To a Transcendentalist, Matter has an existence, but only as a Phenomenon: were we not there, neither would it be there."
Carlyle expressed a deep admiration for so-called "Great Men," for "all things that we see standing accomplished in the world are properly the outer material result, the practical realization and embodiment, of thoughts that dwelt in the Great Men sent into the world." Carlyle tended to regard greatness as an act of the individual will. Carlyle was a man of action. Carlyle possessed a great need for the teeming life of the sprawling metropolises, and was concerned with his role as a critic of society.
Carlyle’s influence upon American Transcendentalism was profound. His prime model was Goethe, and he tended to lump the German philosophers together under the Goethean banner. He was, however, the main channel through which Goethe and other German poets and novelists flowed into America, as well as an important influence in his own right.
Carlyle published Chartism in 1841. He argued the immediate answers to poverty and overpopulation was improved education and an expansion of emigration. This position angered many of his radical friends. Other books by Carlyle during this period included On Heroes, Hero Worship and the Heroic in History (1841) and Past and Present (1843).
Carlyle highly disapproved of the industrial revolution. Something he called the "Mechanical Age". In 1842 he described his first journey on a steam locomotive: "I was dreadfully frightened before the train started; in the nervous state I was in, it seemed to me certain that I should faint, from the impossibility of getting the horrid thing stopped."
No sooner does a great man depart, and leave his character as public property, than a crowd of little men rushes towards it. There they are gathered together, blinking up to it with such vision as they have, scanning it from afar, hovering round it this way and that, each cunningly endeavoring, by all arts, to catch some reflex of it in the little mirror of himself. - Thomas Carlyle
Carlyle breaks down the word worship into "worth-ship." He's not promoting a blind allegiance to unworthy heroes, but precisely the opposite - a knowing allegiance to heroes who are worthy of it according to one's own judgement.
Carlyle’s vivid portraits of Muhammad, Dante, Luther, Napoleon are just a few of the individuals Carlyle celebrated for changing the course of world history—made On Heroes a challenge to the anonymous social forces threatening to control life during the Industrial Revolution. Carlyle argues that paganism comes from hero-worship. The "perplexed jungle" of Paganism arises from the human tendency to admire and worship other humans as well as forces of nature.
Hero worship is innate. Carlyle writes that even if all "traditions, arrangements, creeds, societies" disappeared, hero worship will remain. Hero worship is not a constructed practice, it's a deep instinct. People need heroes as they need a sherpa on K2.
Have a purpose in life, and having it, throw into your work such strength of mind and muscle as God has given you. - Thomas Carlyle
Carlyle writes that the noblest human feeling is "admiration for one higher than himself." To find an idol is to find an ideal. From our heroes, we reverse-engineer the principles and practices we want to live by. A father to his son, a mother to her daughter, humans have mastered imitation better than any species on earth. The model one chooses is essential to ones success.
The great man theory of history is one of Carlyle’s most compelling. He is often best remembered for this line: "The history of the world is but the biography of great men." Carlyle believed that history was made not by cultural or technological factors, but by superior individuals. Genghis Khan, Jesus, Martin Luther, Napoleon, Frederick The Great, Plato, Aristotle, Alexander the Great, Moses, Cyrus, Julius Caesar, George Washington. These men color history through their ambitions, wills to power, and memorable actions thrust upon the world.
Carlyle was aware that the hero worship instinct can go wrong: "Woe to him that claims obedience when it is not due." Obedience and loyalty are not things to be asked for - they can only be given as a natural response to authentic heroism.
"Find in a country the Ablest Man that exists there and raise him to the supreme place: you have a perfect government for that country; no ballot-box, parliamentary eloquence, voting, constitution-building, or other machinery whatsoever can improve it a whit." - Carlyle
Is history shaped by cultural and technological shifts? Or the choices of great men?The latter, says Thomas Carlyle in his book "On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and The Heroic in History". The book's primary thesis is that the study of history must involve the study of great men who shaped its primary events.
What is the nature of these heroes? Above all, heroes "stand upon things, and not shows of things." Heroes confront reality while others hide behind simulations and pretense. Heroes can't swallow lies no matter how "regular, decorous, or accredited by Conclaves" they are. Heroes possess a noble mentality while most others a slave mentality. One acts while the other is acted upon. A knowing allegiance to heroes who are worthy of it according to one's own judgement. In short, he was an absolute Monarchist.
Carlyle's book is interesting and worthwhile because it eloquently challenges ideas that are taken for granted today. Carlyle writes that recognizing and venerating the heroic is important because the alternative is "to be forever governed by the Unheroic."
Our main business is not to see what lies dimly at a distance, but to do what lies clearly at hand. -Thomas Carlyle
Carlyle goes to great lengths to describe what history-shaping heroes have in common. Above all, they have ONE trait in common. Above all, they have a "deep, great, genuine sincerity."
Carlyle writes that while most people can "walk in a vain show," heroes cannot. Heroes cannot live except in the "awful presence of Reality." This inability to swallow lies, indulge in pretense for social accolades, and lead an insincere life is the primary trait of a hero.
There's a lot in the world that is "regular, decorous, and accredited by...conclaves" that is nevertheless a lie. Heroes can't abide by views or decisions just because they are common, socially acceptable, or have the experts' approval.
Carlyle writes of the heroic figure: "His sincerity does not depend on himself; he cannot help being sincere!" Being heroic is not a conscious decision - it's a healthy instinct.
Carlyle writes that "the heart remains cold before" stately and dignified men who talk in "measured euphemisms." They don't inspire, they lack a hero's sincerity and passion. They manage the perceptions about reality; they don't master reality itself.
A person with a clear purpose will make progress, even on the roughest road. A person with no purpose will make no progress, even on the smoothest road. - Thomas Carlyle
Carlyle also attacks the modern obsession with skepticism. Skepticism has a paralyzing effect that is seldom noted. Carlyle describes the opposite of a hero: "to fall into Skepticism, into dilettantism, insincerity." Skeptics replace action with endless questioning, dilettantes replace commitment with permanent dabbling, and insincere people hide cowardice behind an ironic pose.
Thomas Carlyle, wrote that skepticism is a little word containing a "a whole Pandora's box of miseries." Skepticism is highly valued today, so it's fascinating to read his biting critique.
Carlyle is clear that he doesn't advocate blind faith. He writes: "Doubt, truly, is not itself a crime. Certainly we do not rush out, clutch up the first thing we find, and straightway believe that!" So what's the problem?
The problem with skepticism is this: asking questions goes from being a means to an end (the answers) to an end itself. People define themselves by their permanently doubtful attitude. A "chronic atrophy" of the acting impulse sets in.
Good skepticism updates old things - bad skepticism merely destroys them without offering anything to fill up the void. When skepticism is "not an end but a beginning," it is healthy. The end must be finding answers.
Carlyle writes: "A man lives by believing something; not by debating and arguing about many things." This brings to mind Chesterton's quip: "The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.”
Carlyle argues that we shouldn't despair if the heroic ideal seems unattainable. A bricklayer can't lay a perfectly perpendicular wall, but the ideal of perpendicularity helps him lay an acceptable and strong wall. The ideal of the heroic plays the same funciton.
Carlyle writes that we are all on a “dark pilgrimage through the waste of time,” and heroic writers give us the light we need. Great writers convince us that we are indeed on a pilgrimage - there's something holy at the end - and shine a light on pitfalls on the way.
The hero must "stand upon things, and not shows of things." The hero respects his time and energy by not expending them upon illusions. His sincerity is the source of his greatness. His unrelenting grip on reality is why his actions have weight.
Carlyle argues that the cry for "liberty and equality" comes out of the idea that "wise great men" are impossible. The violent French revolution happened because the rebels were skeptical about true nobility, and thought "a level immensity of foolish small men would suffice."
Humans are order making creatures - but skeptics are only interested in destruction. Carlyle writes that we are all "born enemies of disorder," but the skeptics are disorder's secret worshipers.
The side-effect of skepticism: "genuine acting ceases...dexterous similitude of acting begins." To act, one needs a solid grip on the world - skepticism makes this grip slippery. If everything is just a play of shadows, then your actions become weightless and empty like shadows.
Skepticism leads to "simulacra and universal decadence." Carlyle argues that we should maintain silence until our doubts have " in some measure become affirmations or denials." Instead of muddying the waters of discourse with skepticism, add clarity when ready.
In sum, Carlyle isn't against using doubt as a tool to reach clarity; he's against doubt for doubt's sake. At the end of the day, we aren't information-processing algorithms - we are human beings who must act. Skepticism is good when it informs action; bad when it holds it back. Carlyle’s last words are believed to be, "So, this is death. Well!” One should lead a heroic life or find those that are and claim them as idols. For the heroic beautiful and what is beautiful is what brings light to life.