Part Two the Hero as Divinity, Prophet, and Poet

Gevorg A. Tshagharyan

The paper discusses Thomas Carlyle’s (1795-1881) last series of public lectures, “On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History” (1840), which was the culmination of his four-year experiment as a public lecturer, and was published in book form in 1841.

The study focuses on the three types of Carlylean heroes (divinity, prophet, and poet), which are presented respectively on the background of Carlyle’s perceptions of Norse mythology, Islam, and poetry. Though Carlyle did not allow chronology to define the structural basis of the book, his schema does imply an evolving process in the history of ideas and beliefs. However, in contrast to the evolutionary vision (later formulated by Charles Darwin), Carlyle’s historical pattern presents a pessimistic, descending scale. As he sees it, the form of heroic expression contracts with time, and advancing social circumstances make it increasingly difficult for the heroic spirit to manifest itself.

Carlyle’s book avoids clear schematization. Nonetheless, his own tripartite arrangement of the subject, as suggested by the book’s full title, provides an appropriate framework for discussion. Specifically, Carlyle recognized a close interconnection between the hero, the attitude of hero-worship, and the changing historical environment in which the hero worked out his life. There is a constant interplay between these three elements. The hero, for instance, provided a dramatic impetus to historical events. His effect upon others is like that of a catalyst or, in Carlyle’s metaphor, a lightning rod or conductor. At the same time, the hero does not act in a vacuum or in social isolation. What the hero says “all men were not far from saying”. Bound by time and the culture, the hero hears more clearly than others the monitions of the age and directs its struggles. The effect the hero achieves often resembles that of the inspired poet, “the Seer; whose shaped spoken Thought awakes the slumbering capability of all into Thought”. He sums up and completes a general will and impulse, and his actions authenticate a commonly held sentiment. These relations between the hero and the hero-worshiper are reciprocal. The imaginative reader who “shudders at the hell of Dante” himself becomes almost a poet, just as the ability to recognize a genuine hero is itself a form of heroism.

In considering such historical figures as Muhammad, Dante, and Shakespeare, Carlyle attempted to redress long-held misconceptions, while in his lecture on Odin he tried to encourage a deeper and more sympathetic understanding of Norse mythology and Scandinavian paganism as a credible religious system. In general, the heroes of the first two lectures, Odin and Muhammad, whose teachings would have struck Carlyle’s Victorian audience as arcane, enabled Carlyle to illustrate his conviction that genuine religious feeling is grounded in the permanent fact of hero-worship rather than in any outward framework of myths subject by their very nature to constant historical revision. In selecting Odin as divinity in place of Jesus, the “greatest of all Heroes” (just as he chose Muhammad in place of Moses and the Biblical prophets), Carlyle provoked his audience to think afresh about the evolution of their own religion while his indirection took him clear of giving offense or of becoming entangled in theological difficulties. Equally, through his treatment of Islam and Scandinavian paganism he could stress the shared nature of all religious experience and the centrality of hero-worship itself.

Carlyle’s aim in these portraits was to show his heroes in a true light, finally freed from the “falsifying nimbus” of their fame. If, as he hoped, these heroes could be rescued from malice, misconception, and the false report enshrined in the historical record, if they could once again stand clearly before his audience and readers, might not the example lead to the fostering of new heroic avatars? With this in mind, he sought to overturn the traditional Western view of the prophet of Islam as impostor, fraud, and even anti-Christ. It was in his 1838 lectures on literature that he first expressed his opinion that Muhammad was “no impostor at all”, and the surprised response of his audience may have led Carlyle to return to the subject in 1840. Thus, in this lecture, “The Hero as Prophet”, Carlyle went beyond Jewish and Christian tradition to the great prophet of Islam, and revealed in him the essential heroic qualities: the capability of looking “through the shews of things into things” themselves and a determined readiness to live in submission to the will of God. Carlyle was aware that his Victorian audiencewas likely to have a number of prejudices against Muhammad and he faced those prejudices in his passionate defense of the Arab prophet’s truth and sincerity.

Dante and Shakespeare were Carlyle’s two exemplars of the artist-hero. Carlyle’s case for the artist as hero involves in part a rebuttal of utilitarian estimates of art as useless or impractical. In his accounts of Dante and Shakespeare Carlyle insists that art has a value which is unrelated to price and a usefulness which goes beyond the limits of the utilitarian prospectus. “Will you give up your Indian Empire or your Shakespeare?” he asks his fashionable audience. “Indian Empire will go, at any rate, some day; but this Shakespeare does not go, he lasts forever with us; we cannot give up our Shakespeare!”. In describing the heroic role of the artist, Carlyle perceives a connection between language and action, which condemns as an absurdity the view that artists are merely passive spectators of the world. In the Carlylean meritocracy men of letters and poets belong equally with statesmen and warriors to the heroic fraternity. In the artist hero are to be found traces of the politician, thinker, legislator, and philosopher, “in one or the other degree, he could have been, he is all these”. The reverse is equally true, for there is something of the poet in all other heroes: “Napoleon has words in him which are like Austerlitz battles,” the marshals of Louis XIV were “poetical men”, and Mirabeau could have been a great writer had the course of his life led him that way.

Summing up the essential data of Carlyle’s public lectures, the following is to be singled out: the author clearly formulated a number of fundamental concepts and patterns of his hero theory, which ideological germs have been outlined in his literary, sociological and historical essays over the years. These conceptions led him to the precise point where his fundamental doctrine and his personal quest for self-definition met. The transition from historian to social commentator that had prompted him to publish the lectures on heroes as a book also contained the seeds for future perceptions and re-evaluation of his legacy. Writing what is perhaps the most prophetic book of the 19th century England, Carlyle formulated the circle of historical understandings which became influential especially in the second half of the 20th century.