Part Three: The Hero as Priest, and Man of Letters


Gevorg A. Tshagharyan
The paper examines 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 experience as a public lecturer, and was published in a book form in 1841. The study focuses on the two types of Carlylean heroes (priest, and man of letters), which are presented respectively on the background of Carlyle’s perceptions of Reformation, Puritanism, and Enlightenment.

Carlyle represented his heroic priests, Martin Luther and John Knox, as dissentients whose antagonism to idolatry straitened their mental horizons. They belonged to the second act of a world-historical drama that started with Mahomet and culminated in the French Revolution. It was primarily a regenerative action, being necessary to the emergence of “Truth and Reality” in opposition to “Falsehood and Semblance.” Carlyle acknowledged that Protestantism, at least on first impressions, was “entirely destructive to this that we call Hero-worship.” Yet the destructive purport of Protestantism, however narrow and rigid, promised a “new genuine sovereignty and order” that was rooted in self-scrutiny and “private judgment”. More importantly, Carlyle considered the Reformation and the Puritan Revolution as movements that retarded the free play of thought and imagination that Dante and Shakespeare initiated.

Carlyle believed that Luther’s words and actions forged positive change in modern Europe. Luther’s great achievement was to wrest spiritual authority from abstract “Idols” and to lodge it in the heart and conscience of the believer. The creator of the Lutheran Bible was, like Shakespeare, “a great Thinker” whose character combined honesty with intelligence. Luther offered a way to search for truth, a path to the general exercise of private judgment. Luther’s spiritual contributions were also those which he made to language and literature. Highlighting Luther’s love for music, including his skill on the flute, Carlyle suggested that love of music characterizes all great men, who are prophet, priest, and poet combined. Quoting Jean Paul on Luther, Carlyle called Luther’s words “half-battles”, an expression that he would often repeat. Luther revealed his heroism, Carlyle observed, in the declaration before the Diet of Worms: “Here stand I, I cannot otherwise”. Carlyle always assessed the influence that Luther and his teachings had had on his own development, and he continued to pay him tribute as a hero.

John Knox, the leader of the Scottish Reformation, was a lifelong hero to Carlyle. He saw in Knox everything he treasured in a hero: sincerity, a passionate devotion to truth, a constant awareness of a divine call to duty, and the ability to realize his ideals in the actual world. Carlyle was aware of the highly negative images of Knox which were current in British society, but he rejected these for his own image of a steadfastly heroic Knox.

Knox too had “a good honest intellectual talent, no transcendent one,” but in comparison with Luther, he was a “narrow, inconsiderable man”. Still, Knox’s life mission extended beyond the borders of his native country: “The Puritanism of Scotland became that of England, of New England. A tumult in the High Church of Edinburgh spread into a universal battle and struggle over all these realms; — there came out, after fifty years struggling, what we all call the ‘Glorious Revolution,’ a Habeas-Corpus Act, Free Parliaments, and much else!”. Carlyle praised Knox’s gift for converting Scotland into “a whole ‘nation of heroes;’ a believing nation”. It was insignificant for Carlyle that Knox’s triumph was posthumous, for the same could have been said of Odin, Mahomet, Dante, and Shakespeare. That Knox’s distinct Scottish identity lived after his death in the pages of his country’s philosophy, literature, science, art, and poetry was a sure evidence of his heroic eminence.

From the analysis of the hero as priest and the endeavor for theocracy, Carlyle proceeded to his fifth lecture, “The Hero as Man of Letters.” This transition was a planned move, one meant to accentuate the leitmotif — the hero as an exemplary thinker and activist — that had been implicit in each of the previous lectures. Carlyle declared that a new resource of spiritual authority had emerged in the nineteenth century that drastically altered the way in which beliefs could be transmitted. The creation of cheap printing served as a lectern to a new priestcraft: “The writers of Newspapers, Pamphlets, Poems, Books, these are the real working effective Church of a modern century.” Carlyle himself was a notable member of this literati, and in his role as lecturer he demonstrated the supremacy of this “recognized Union of our Priests or Prophets”. It was a vocation available to all and free of the adhesions of class or privilege: “It matters not what rank he has, what revenues or garnitures: the requisite thing is, that he have a tongue which others will listen to; this and nothing more is requisite.” Trading in the currency of ideas, the authority of writers transcended that of kings. Democracy itself, Carlyle stated, was the inevitable offspring of the print revolution: “Literature is our Parliament […]. Printing, which comes necessarily out of Writing […], is equivalent to Democracy: invent Writing, Democracy is inevitable”. As the French Revolution had shown, kings who ignored this “Church” did so at their peril.

Yet Carlyle was too honest to miss the impediments that men of letters faced in seeking the truth. With some unwillingness, he admitted that the careers of Samuel Johnson, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Robert Burns were dominated by failure and indignity. The “galling conditions” under which they lived prevented them from “unfolding themselves into clearness, victorious interpretation of that ‘Divine Idea,’” which the German philosopher Fichte had set as the highest aim of their craft. These men “were not heroic bringers of the light, but heroic seekers of it,” and what Carlyle proposed to exhibit was their “Tombs” rather than their triumphs. This shift in tone from the prospects of literary utterance to the squalid reality of literary life haunted Carlyle personally and professionally, and the stylistic subterfuges of the lecture sharply evoked his own anxieties. On the one hand, the ennobling facets of “ugly Poverty” are evident in his renditions of the heroic endeavors of Johnson, Rousseau, and Burns. On the other hand, their “unregulated” struggle condemned them to brutal drudgery and denigration, with “Johnson languishing inactive in garrets […], Burns dying brokenhearted as a Gauger […], Rousseau driven into mad exasperation, kindling French Revolutions by his paradoxes”. Carlyle had not yet lost hope in the prospect of “Men of Letters” as “Governors,” with the “man of intellect at the top of affairs.” But he was not ready to speculate as to how this change could be effected in the present circumstances, in which “large masses of mankind, in every society of our Europe, are no longer capable of living at all by the things which have been”. Still uncertain about his own expectations as a writer, Carlyle feared to make prognoses about the future of his profession.

Summing up the essential data of Carlyle’s public lectures, the following is to be singled out: the author distinctly formulated a number of fundamental concepts of his hero theory, outlined in his literary, sociological and historical essays. These conceptions led him to the precise point where his fundamental doctrine and his personal quest for selfdefinition met. Thus, as Michael K. Goldberg points out, it is indisputable that by the time of his lectures Carlyle conceived of himself as a writer in the heroic tradition he was depicting. Considering literary work and literary art in the context of the heroic and presenting his chosen types to the British audience, Carlyle recognized a line of literary kings into which he might fit himself.