decorative initial 'I'n his fifth lecture, entitled "The Hero as Man of Letters," Thomas Carlyle attempts to connect heroes of the past with significant men of the present. Such a connection would perhaps grant the reader a clearer insight into Carlyle's definition of heroism. Are heroes judged on standards of the past or present? Are all heroes judged equally? Carlyle wrestles to reconcile the seemingly mutually exclusive notions of transcendence and history as he progresses thematically through his analysis of hero worship. The scholar Chris R. Vanden Bossche concludes that the major struggle Carlyle faces in his analysis is whether a hero is named such because of a specific circumstance or because of a greater trait. How does one grant the status of hero, usually reserved strictly for figures from the past, to men of the current generation? How are standards created and kept consistent with a culture's idea of heroism?

Carlyle argues that there is a lapse in common judgment if his audience continues to acknowledge a transcendental status in previously worshipped gods and similar religious figures, but ignores such characteristics in modern artists. Earthly applause and petty recognitions are not enough according to Carlyle, for great men of letters must earn true transcendent status. During the following passage Carlyle attempts to remove men from a specific historical incident and grant them a classification that would allow their greatness to be regarded without concern to time. Carlyle equates the teaching and influence of the modern writer to heroes of the past, and goes on to comment that by granting hero status to the man of letters we are able to better understand our time period, and thus the time and place where we reside:

Alas, the Hero from of old has had to cramp himself into strange shapes: the world knows not well at any time what do with him, so foreign is his aspect in the world! It seemed absurd to us, that men, in their rude admiration, should take some wise great Odin for a god, and worship him as such; some wise great Mahomet for one god-inspired, and religiously follow his Law for twelve centuries: but that a wise great Johnson, a Burns, a Rousseau, should be taken for some idle nondescript, extant in the world to amuse idleness, and have a few coins and applauses thrown in, that he might live thereby; this perhaps, as before hinted, will one day seems a still absurder phases of things! — Meanwhile, since it is the spiritual always that determines the material, this same Man-of-Letters Hero must be regarded as our most important modern person. He, such as he may be, is the soul of all. What he teaches, the whole word will do and make. The world's manner of dealing with him is the most significant feature of the world's general position. Looking well at his life, we may get a glance, as deep as is readily possible for us, into the life of those singular centuries which have produced him, in which we ourselves live and work. [p.155]


By removing the issue of time from his definition, does this mean that the standards for heroism have become more or less flexible? Are new standards being created all together? Is the modern writer judged by some transcending criteria or by modern/past principles?

How does the idea of changing standards, or a revision of principles, relate to other Victorian texts? How, in specifically Jane Eyre or Great Expectations, does the idea of different standards for different times alter not only the characters' perceptions, but also his or her actions?

Carlyle mentions the idea of relevance in this section. He suggests that hero worship of a few specifically mentioned individuals would help the reader to better understand their modern world. Why does Carlyle utilize such an idea in this section? Is it to better his argument concerning the worshipping of writers, or can it be applied to the book as a whole?

What does this section say about the purpose of hero-worship?


Carlyle, Thomas. On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1966.

Victorian Web Overview Thomas Carlyle On Heroes and Hero-Worship

Last modified 19 April 2004