In “The Hero as Man of Letters” (text), Thomas Carlyle attacks the intellectual and moral legacies of the Enlightenment by juxtaposing that age’s ideals with the values and leadership embodied by great writers. Carlyle’s lecture ostensibly addresses the written word’s power, in the hands of a “Man-of-Letters hero,” to illuminate “the True, Divine, and Eternal.” However, Carlyle uses the figure of an intellectually brave, spiritually strong, and morally sound “heroic writer” operating in a long tradition of scholarly leadership as a figure against whom he can contrast the supposedly corrosive values promulgated in the eighteenth century. The heroic writer therefore becomes a vehicle for addressing the moral chaos and “spiritual paralysis” that, in Carlyle’s opinion, beset Victorian Britain. Reflecting on the Enlightenment’s effects, Carlyle argues

Alas, the evil that pressed heaviest on those Literary Heroes of ours was not the want of organization for Men of Letters, but a far deeper one; out of which, indeed, this and so many other evils for the Literary Man, and for all men, had, as from their fountain, taken rise. That our Hero as Man of Letters had to travel without highway, companionless, through an inorganic chaos, — and to leave his own life and faculty lying there, as a partial contribution towards pushing some highway through it: this, had not his faculty itself been so perverted and paralyzed, he might have put up with, might have considered to be but the common lot of Heroes. His fatal misery was the spiritual paralysis, so we may name it, of the Age in which his life lay; whereby his life too, do what he might, was half paralyzed! The Eighteenth was a Sceptical Century; in which little word there is a whole Pandora's Box of miseries. Scepticism means not intellectual Doubt alone, but moral Doubt; all sorts of infidelity, insincerity, spiritual paralysis. Perhaps, in few centuries that one could specify since the world began, was a life of Heroism more difficult for a man. That was not an age of Faith, — an age of Heroes! The very possibility of Heroism had been, as it were, formally abnegated in the minds of all. Heroism was gone forever; Triviality, Formulism and Commonplace were come forever. The "age of miracles" had been, or perhaps had not been; but it was not any longer. An effete world; wherein Wonder, Greatness, Godhood could not now dwell; — in one word, a godless world! How mean, dwarfish are their ways of thinking, in this time, — compared not with the Christian Shakspeares and Miltons, but with the old Pagan Skalds, with any species of believing men! The living TREE Igdrasil, with the melodious prophetic waving of its world-wide boughs, deep-rooted as Hela, has died out into the clanking of a World-MACHINE. "Tree" and "Machine:" contrast these two things. I, for my share, declare the world to be no machine! I say that it does not go by wheel-and-pinion "motives" self-interests, checks, balances; that there is something far other in it than the clank of spinning-jennies, and parliamentary majorities; and, on the whole, that it is not a machine at all! — The old Norse Heathen had a truer motion of God's-world than these poor Machine-Sceptics: the old Heathen Norse were sincere men. But for these poor Sceptics there was no sincerity, no truth. Half-truth and hearsay was called truth. Truth, for most men, meant plausibility; to be measured by the number of votes you could get. They had lost any notion that sincerity was possible, or of what sincerity was. How many Plausibilities asking, with unaffected surprise and the air of offended virtue, What! am not I sincere? Spiritual Paralysis, I say, nothing left but a Mechanical life, was the characteristic of that century. For the common man, unless happily he stood below his century and belonged to another prior one, it was impossible to be a Believer, a Hero; he lay buried, unconscious, under these baleful influences. To the strongest man, only with infinite struggle and confusion was it possible to work himself half loose; and lead as it were, in an enchanted, most tragical way, a spiritual death-in-life, and be a Half-Hero!

By discussing the adverse conditions that men of letters faced in the eighteenth century, Carlyle broadens the lecture’s scope to account for the ways in which these intellectual ills affect both the writers who should educate and uplift society and the societies that are failed if these writers, due to prevalent intellectual movements, are ill-equipped to perform their didactic function. The lecture therefore expands to echo the criticism of the modern “mechanical age” that directs Carlyle’s essay “Signs of the Times.” Both pieces argue that an the intellectual and industrial revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, by virtue of upending centuries of tradition and introducing new, rationalistic paradigms for understanding all aspects of society and human interaction, have also undermined western culture by eliminating the societies’ traditional spiritual and emotional foundations.

Questions

1. Carlyle, like Didion and Wolfe, employs specifics in constructing his argument. However, the nature of this piece (a lecture, not an essay) and Carlyle’s style result in references to specific people, cultures, etc appearing in different ways than in a Didion or Wofle piece. Do details work in the same way in both Carlyle’s lecture and “The White Album” or “The Pump House Gang”? Or does Carlyle’s use of specifics serve a different rhetorical end?

2. Carlyle is not the first writer we have read who criticizes contemporary European values and habits of mind. Unlike Montaigne and Swift, however, he does not cloak his argument in satire. Does his direct tone notably alter an argument that, in its target and moral stakes, might otherwise closely echo the issues of moral and intellectual complacency raised in “Of Cannibals” and “A Modest Proposal”? Is it effective?

2. Carlyle is not the first writer we have read who criticizes contemporary European values and habits of mind. Unlike Montaigne and Swift, however, he does not cloak his argument in satire. Does his direct tone notably alter an argument that, in its target and moral stakes, might otherwise closely echo the issues of moral and intellectual complacency raised in “Of Cannibals” and “A Modest Proposal”? Is it effective?

3. How do the rhythms and cadence of Carlyle’s writing advance and complement the development of his argument? Is there a connection between the length and diction of his sentences and the progression and climax of his argument?

4. What rhetorical techniques — such as metaphors, allusions, or crucial, repeated words like “mechanical” or “sincere” — are most effective in advancing Carlyle’s argument and conveying a sense of intensity and urgency?


Victorian Web Overview Thomas Carlyle On Heroes and Hero-Worship

Last modified 24 February 2011