Thomas Carlyle

From New World Encyclopedia

The most familiar view of Carlyle is as the 'bearded sage' with a penetrating gaze.

Thomas Carlyle (December 4, 1795 – February 5, 1881) was a Scottish essayist, satirist, and historian, whose writings were highly influential during the Victorian era. Coming from a strictly Calvinist family, Carlyle was expected by his parents to enter the ministry. 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.

Carlyle held that the universe was ultimately good and directed by a divine will that worked through the agency of heroes and leaders. In his Sartor Resartus, Carlyle challenged the basis of conventional faith and accepted pieties. He believed that religion required a new form where the essential truths, once revolutionary but grown ossified, were again made new. Anticipating New England transcendentalism, Carlyle argued that for faith to be valid, it must be informed by the soul's passions.

For Carlyle, individualism and laissez-faire capitalism were undermining communal human and spiritual values. While recognizing political, economic, and social factors, he believed that these forces were essentially spiritual and needed to be directed by leaders with boldness and vision. His increasing hostility to modern egalitarian democracy would influence the development of socialism, while insistence upon the need for heroic leadership, paradoxically, contributed to the later emergence of fascism. A late, notoriously racist essay suggesting that slavery should never have been abolished lent support to the American slave system and contributed to his break with liberal reformers such as John Stuart Mill.

Early life and influences

A younger Thomas Carlyle

Carlyle was born in Ecclefechan, Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland and was educated at Annan Academy, Annan, Dumfries and Galloway. 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 Gottlieb 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 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.


Early writings

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 "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. 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 Transcendentalism.

In 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 dehumanized.

This dehumanization of society was a theme pursued in later books. In Past and Present (1843), Carlyle sounded a note of conservative scepticism that could later be seen in Matthew Arnold and John Ruskin: he compared the lives of the dissipated nineteenth-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.

Heroes 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 heroes. 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. 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 say.

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 Oliver 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.

The 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.

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 Johann Wolfgang von 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.

In Sartor Resartus, the narrator moves from the "Everlasting No" to the "Everlasting Yea," but only through "The Center of Indifference," which is a position not merely of agnosticism, but also of detachment. Only after reducing desires and certainty and aiming at a Buddha-like "indifference" can the narrator move toward an affirmation. In some ways, this is similar to the contemporary philosopher Soren Kierkegaard's "leap of faith" in Concluding Unscientific Postscript.

In regards to the abovementioned "antagonism," one might note that William Blake famously wrote that "without contraries is no progression," and Carlyle's progress from the everlasting nay to the everlasting yea was not to be found in the "Centre of Indifference" (as he called it) but in Natural Supernaturalism, a Transcendental philosophy of the divine within the everyday.

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."

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.

Later work

Carlyle (left) depicted with Frederick Maurice in Ford Madox Brown's painting Work (1865)

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 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"[1] 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 prosecution.

Private life

Carlyle had a number of romantic attachments before he married Jane Welsh. 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," Teufelsdröch's beloved, in Sartor Resartus.[2] [3]

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. Their personal relations is the cause of much speculation by biographers, but the couple was apparently celibate.

Carlyle 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.

After 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.

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.


Thomas Carlyle is notable both for his continuation of older traditions of the Tory satirists of the eighteenth 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, sceptical 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.

Later 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.

Carlyle is also important for helping to introduce German Romantic literature to Britain. Although Samuel Taylor Coleridge had also been a proponent of Friedrich Schiller, Carlyle's efforts on behalf of Schiller and Goethe would bear fruit.

Carlyle also made a favorable impression on some slaveholders in the United States southern states. His conservatism and criticisms of capitalism were enthusiastically repeated by those anxious to defend slavery as an alternative to capitalism, such as George Fitzhugh.

The reputation of Carlyle's early work remained high during the nineteenth century, but declined in the twentieth 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 moralizing, calling him an "insipid muddlehead" in Beyond Good and Evil, 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 recognized 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[4]
  • (1831) Sartor Resartus[5]
  • (1837) The French Revolution: A History[6]
  • (1841) On Heroes And Hero Worship And The Heroic In History[7]
  • (1843) Past and Present
  • (1845) Oliver Cromwell's letters and speeches, with elucidations, ed. Thomas Carlyle, 3 vol. (1845, often reprinted). Oliver Cromwell's letters and speeches, with elucidations, Retrieved April 23, 2008.</ref>
    • Morrill, John. "Textualizing and Contextualizing Cromwell." Historical Journal 1990 33(3): 629-639. ISSN 0018-246X Fulltext online at Jstor. Examines the Abbott and Carlyle edit
  • (1849) An Occasional Discourse on the Nigger Question[8]
  • (1850) Latter-Day Pamphlets[9]
  • (1851) The Life Of John Sterling[10]
  • (1858) History of Friedrich II of Prussia [11]


  1. "An Occasional Discourse on the Nigger Question", Economics New Thought. Retrieved April 23, 2008.
  2. Simon Heffer, Moral Desperado - A Life of Thomas Carlyle, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1995, 48
  3. Dr. Rizwana Rahim, January 6, 2006; "East Did Meet West - 3", Pakistan Link. Retrieved April 23, 2008.
  4. The Victorian Web, The Victorian Web. Retrieved April 23, 2008.
  5. Project Gutenberg, Project Gutenberg. Retrieved April 23, 2008.
  6. Project Gutenberg, Project Gutenberg. Retrieved April 23, 2008.
  7. Project Gutenberg, Project Gutenberg. Retrieved April 23, 2008.
  8. An Occasional Discourse on the Nigger Question, Economics New School. Retrieved April 23, 2008.
  9. Project Gutenberg, Project Gutenberg. Retrieved April 23, 2008.
  10. Project Gutenberg, Project Gutenberg. Retrieved April 23, 2008.
  11. Project Gutenberg, Project Gutenberg. Retrieved April 23, 2008.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Aproberts, Ruth. The Ancient Dialect: Thomas Carlyle and Comparative Religions. University of California Press, 1988. ISBN 9780520061163
  • Heffer, Simon. Moral Desperado: A Life of Thomas Carlyle. Trafalgar Square, 1996. ISBN 9780297815648
  • Kaplan, Fred. Thomas Carlyle: A Biography. University of California Press, 1993. ISBN 9780520082007

External links

All links retrieved February 6, 2020.

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