Part one: the motives and prerequisites


Gevorg A. Tshagharyan
The article examines the perceptions of heroic and hero-worship in Victorian age. The subject of special focus are the prerequisites and stimuli for the appearance of these terms, their manifestations and development on the background of the mental climate of the époque. In this vein, an attempt is made to examine Thomas Carlyle’s theory of the hero and the heroic within the framework of the intellectual and theoretical assumptions of the time under consideration.

In each of four consecutive years, from 1837 to 1840, T. Carlyle delivered a series of lectures in London. Each lecture series was a great success, and the last of the four produced one of the most famous books of the author, “On Heroes, HeroWorship, and the Heroic in History”.

T. Carlyle became interested in heroes and hero-worship early in his career. In the 1831 essay on “Schiller”, for instance, he declared that “great men are the Firepillars in this dark pilgrimage of mankind; they stand as heavenly Signs, everliving witnesses of what has been, prophetic tokens of what may still be, the revealed, embodied Possibilities of human nature”.

The heroic was a central element in Carlyle’s thinking and was to become, after several anticipatory treatments in various essays and occasional reviews, the leading principle of all his later social theory. The subject was also a major Victorian preoccupation, widely shared by Carlyle’s fellow Victorians who, said Edmund Gosse, turned “admiration” from “a virtue into a religion, and called it Hero-Worship”. In this sense, one of the reasons for the enormous vogue of heroworship is the cult of enthusiasm. For hero-worship, in the words of its major prophet, is “infinite admiration”, and the worshiper an enthusiast who “can love his hero or sage without measure, and idealize, and so, in a sense, idolize him”. This perception marks a striking reversal of the rationalistic attitude in the previous century. When D. Hume and E. Gibbon submitted the heroic to the cold glance of reason, they aimed to see it as a mask to hide selfish ambition or else a patent form of fanaticism and delusion. But when enthusiasm became a virtue, the Romantic Victorian eye brought with it the power to see men as a hero and the heart to respond with appropriate worship.

T. Carlyle’s 1840 lectures were, therefore, an incursion into the mainstream of Victorian thought, and his theory of the hero in some ways was merely the final, high doctrine in a movement which had been for some years under way. Carlyle’s originality lay not so much in his choice of subject matter as in the depth and seriousness of his treatment and the imaginative richness with which he invested it.

T. Carlyle also set out to counter certain fashionable contemporary attitudes in which history was considered mainly as an impersonal play of forces. According to such views, great men were, as James Anthony Froude remarked, “the creatures of their age, not the creators of it, scarcely even its guides”. In line with egalitarian sentiments, the individual leader was judged no differently from his fellows, and was seen to be merely in a position to hasten a development which would have eventually taken place without him. Carlyle sought to counteract such prevailing notions in his 1840 lectures and to posit instead the view that (in Froude’s words) “every advance which humanity had made was due to special individuals supremely gifted in mind and character, whom Providence sent among them at favoured epochs”. Hence, at a time when the Bible and the Church were no longer able to satisfy the religious instincts of many Victorians, the heroic and heroworship, like nature and great men, could be welcomed as another manifestation of the divine spirit working in the world.

Thus, when the Victorian period began, all the prerequisites for hero-worship were present: the enthusiastic temper, the conception of “great man”, the revival of Homeric mythology and medieval ballad, the popularity of W. Scott and G. Byron, and the living presence of Napoleonic soldiers and military leaders. In the fifty years after 1830 the hero-worship was a dominant factor in English culture.