Carlyle was a Scottish essayist, satirist, and historian, whose
work was hugely influential during the Victorian era. Coming from
a strictly Calvinist family, Carlyle was expected by his parents
to become a preacher. However, while at the University of Edinburgh
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 traditional Christianity made Carlyle's work
appealing to many Victorians who were grappling with scientific
and political changes that threatened the traditional social order.
Life and Influences
Carlyle was born in Ecclefechan, Dumfries and Galloway, and was
educated at Annan Academy, Annan. He was powerfully influenced
by his family's (and his nation's) strong Calvinism. After attending
the University of Edinburgh, Carlyle became a mathematics teacher,
first in Annan and then in Kirkcaldy, where Carlyle became close
friends with the mystic Edward Irving. In 1819 - 1821, Carlyle
went back to the University of Edinburgh, where he suffered an
intense crisis of faith and conversion that would provide the
material for Sartor Resartus. He also began reading deeply in
German literature. 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,
His first major work, Sartor Resartus (1832) 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 narrator finds
contempt for all things in human society and life. He contemplates
the "Everlasting No" of refusal, comes to the "Center
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.
Carlyle establishes that the bases for common belief and faith
are empty, that men are locked into hollow forms and satiated
by vacuous pleasures and certainties. His narrator rebels against
the smugness of his age and the positive claims of authority.
He eventually finds that rage cannot provide a meaning for life,
that he cannot answer the eternal question by merely rejecting
all answers. He eventually comes to see that the matters of faith
to common life can be valid, if they are informed by the soul's
passions and the individual affirmation.
He seeks a new world where religion has a new form, where the
essential truths once revolutionary and undeniable are again made
new. 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
1834, Carlyle moved to London and began to move among celebrated
company, thanks to the fame of Sartor Resartus. Within the United
Kingdom Carlyle's success was assured by the publication of his
two volume work The French Revolution, A History in 1837. After
the completed manuscript of the book was accidentally burned by
the philosopher John Stuart Mill's maid, 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.
dehumanisation of society was a theme pursued in later books.
In Past and Present (1843), Carlyle sounded a note of conservative
skepticism that could later be seen in Matthew Arnold and John
Ruskin: he compared the lives of the dissipated 19th century man
and a medieval abbot. 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, justified by what he called
the "dismal science" of economics.
and Hero Worship
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'.
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. The
latter was deadening, the former nonsensical: as though truth
could be discovered by toting 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
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.
Everlasting Yea and No
The Everlasting Yea is Carlyle's name 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.
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 for ever 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.
of Silence and Sorrow
Based on Goethe calling Christianity 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".
"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.
His last major work was the epic life of Frederick the Great (1858-1865).
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
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 Edward 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
Carlyle married Jane Welsh in 1826, but the marriage was quite
unhappy. The letters between Carlyle and his wife have been published,
and they show that the couple had an affection for one another
that was marred by frequent quarrels. There was a sexual incident
that is the cause of much speculation by biographers. Whether
this was a case of impotence or psychosexual neurosis, no one
can be sure, but the couple was apparently celibate.
became increasingly alienated from his wife. Although she had
been an invalid for some time, her death (1866) came unexpectedly
and plunged him into 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. Froude's views were attacked by Carlyle's
family, especially his nephew, Alexander 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.
Jane Carlyle's death in 1866, Thomas Carlyle partly retired from
active society. He was appointed rector of the University of Edinburgh.
The Early Kings of Norway: Also an Essay on the Portraits of John
Knox appeared in 1875.
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.
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. Sartor
Resartus can be seen both as an extension of the chaotic, skeptical
satires of Jonathan Swift and Laurence Sterne and as an annunciation
of a new point of view on values. Finding the world hollow, Carlyle's
misanthropist professor-narrator discovers a need for revolution
of the spirit. In one sense, this resolution is in keeping with
the Romantic era's belief in revolution, individualism, and passion,
but in another sense it is a nihilistic and private solution to
the problems of modern life that makes no gesture of outreach
to a wider community.
British critics, such as Matthew Arnold, would similarly denounce
the mob and the naïve claims of progress, and others, such
as John Ruskin, would reject the era's incessant move toward industrial
production. However, few would follow Carlyle into a narrow and
solitary resolution, and even those who would come to praise heroes
would not be as remorseless for the weak.
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. Carlyle
also made a favorable impression on some slaveholders in the U.S.
South. His conservatism and criticisms of capitalism were enthusiastically
repeated by those anxious to defend slavery as an alternative
to capitalism, such as George Fitzhugh.
reputation of Carlyle's early work remained high during the 19th
century, but declined in the 20th century. 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
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.
(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
(1843) Past and Present
(1845) Letters and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell
(1849) An Occasional Discourse on the Nigger Question Online text
(1850) Latter-Day Pamphlets Project Gutenberg
(1851) The Life Of John Sterling Project Gutenberg
(1858) History Of Friedrich II Of Prussia Project Gutenberg
Carlyle had quite a few unusual definitions at hand, which were
collected by the Nuttall Encyclopedia. Some include:
of Immensities - an expression of Carlyle's to signify that
wherever any one is, he is in touch with the whole universe of
being, and is, if he knew it, as near the heart of it there as
anywhere else he can be.
Gigman - Carlyle's name for a man who prides himself
on, and pays all respect to, respectability. It is derived from
a definition once given in a court of justice by a witness who,
having described a person as respectable, was asked by the judge
in the case what he meant by the word; "one that keeps a
gig," was the answer. Carlyle also refers to "gigmanity"
Hallowed Fire - an expression of Carlyle's in definition
of Christianity "at its rise and spread" as sacred,
and kindling what was sacred and divine in man's soul, and burning
up all that was not.
Mights And Rights - the Carlyle doctrine that Rights
are nothing till they have realised and established themselves
as Mights; they are rights first only then.
Pig-Philosophy - the name given by Carlyle in his Latter-Day
Pamphlets, in the one on Jesuitism, to the wide-spread philosophy
of the time, which regarded the human being as a mere creature
of appetite instead of a creature of God endowed with a soul,
as having no nobler idea of well-being than the gratification
of desire--that his only Heaven, and the reverse of it his Hell.
Plugston of Undershot - Carlyle's name for member of
the manufacturing class
Present Time - defined by Carlyle as "the youngest
born of Eternity, child and heir of all the past times, with their
good and evil, and parent of all the future with new questions
and significance," on the right or wrong understanding of
which depend the issues of life or death to us all, the sphinx
riddle given to all of us to rede as we would live and not die.
Prinzenraub - (the stealing of the princes), name given
to an attempt, to satisfy a private grudge of his, on the part
of Kunz von Kaufingen to carry off, on the night of the 7th July
1455, two Saxon princes from the castle of Altenburg, in which
he was defeated by apprehension at the hands of a collier named
Schmidt, through whom he was handed over to justice and beheaded.
See Carlyle's account of this in his "Miscellanies."
Printed Paper - Carlyle's satirical name for the literature
of France prior to the Revolution.
Progress of the Species Magazines - Carlyle's name for
the literature of the day which does nothing to help the progress
in question, but keeps idly boasting of the fact, taking all the
credit to itself, like Æsop's fly on the axle of the careering
chariot soliloquising, "What a dust I raise!"
The Conflux of Eternities - Carlyle's expressive phrase
for time, as in every moment of it a centre in which all the forces
to and from eternity meet and unite, so that by no past and no
future can we be brought nearer to Eternity than where we at any
moment of Time are; the Present Time, the youngest born of Eternity,
being the child and heir of all the Past times with their good
and evil, and the parent of all the Future, the import of which
(see Matt. xvi. 27) it is accordingly the first and most sacred
duty of every successive age, and especially the leaders of it,
to know and lay to heart as the only link by which Eternity lays
hold of it and it of Eternity .