This is Part III of the author's "Masculinity in Charlotte Brontë, E. B. Browning, and Thomas Carlyle."

In his lectures on heroes, On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History, Thomas Carlyle uses various examples of great men throughout recorded history to convey his notion of a Hero. This Hero for him defines masculinity, what every man should strive to emulate. He goes to great lengths to draw threads through the many different types of men he gives his audience as examples of the Hero throughout time. According to Carlyle, all heroes have a basic "material" of which they are all made, some sort of stuff that in each great man allows him to be great. They have, for example, "a sort of savage sincerity — not cruel, far from that; but wild, wrestling naked with the truth of things" (Carlyle, p. 193), but at the same time, they also have "a most gentle heart withal, full of pity and love, as indeed the truly valiant heart ever is" (Carlyle, p. 140). A Hero is a man who willingly devotes his life to the divine and inner truth and shares his vision with the rest of the world. For Carlyle, this is the definition of a true man: one who is a deep and spiritual being, living his life by divine truths.

[A]ll sorts of Heroes are intrinsically of the same material; that given a great soul, open to the Divine Significance of Life, then there is given a man fit to speak of this, to sing of this, to fight and work for this, in a great, victorious, enduring manner; there is given a Hero, — the outward shape of whom will depend on the time and the environment he finds himself in. [Carlyle, p. 115]

He allows for differences in how the material of the hero will manifest itself by saying that each man is shaped by his own times. The basic qualities must be there; which form it will take out of the many he uses as examples depends on what circumstances into which a Hero is born. In a sense, Carlyle's view of the Hero resembles the way that Jane saw Rochester shaped by circumstance, but Carlyle feels that if a man has the basic qualities of a Hero, he will not become corrupted, and therefore there is no need of the reforming woman.

The Hero, a man who stretches across eras, speaks to generations beyond his own. A Hero is the embodiment of manhood, the ultimate male, masculinity incarnate. A Hero is a great man, one to whom every man looks up and feels a sense of awe. Hero-worship is only natural, he says, because we recognize that these men embody the greatness all other men strive for.

Hero-worship is the deepest root of all; the tap-root, from which in a great degree all the rest were nourished and grown . . . Worship of a Hero is transcendent admiration of a Great Man. I say great men are still admirable; I say there is, at bottom, nothing else admirable! No nobler feeling than this of admiration for one higher than himself dwells in the breast of men. [Carlyle, p. 11]

Every man strives to model himself after these great men, to live the virtues that they embody, to strive for the status that these men have achieved. They are the original men, the true men of each era, whose truth stretches on beyond their times. They are archetypal, pure manhood and virtue. "They were the leaders of men, these great ones; the modellers, patterns, and in a wide sense creators, of whatsoever the general mass of men contrived to do or to attain" (Carlyle, p. 1)

Carlyle's Hero must possess what he terms over and over again as sincerity. A true man is sincere in what he thinks, what he says, and what he does. He must strive to find the deep truth of the world and, once found, live by it in every aspect of his life. This sincerity makes him great; it has a touch of godliness to it. "Such sincerity, as we named it, has in very truth something of divine. The word of such a man is a Voice direct from Nature's own Heart" (Carlyle, p. 54). Sincerity, for Carlyle, reaches into the depths of thought, brings out a nugget of pure truth, and spreads word of that truth in one's own life. It is pure, it is simple, it is divine. Manliness is completely enmeshed with truth, but this truth a man can find for himself; Carlyle makes no mention of a woman or other guide. The great man can look into nature and God and divine all truths for himself.

But though a great man must live his life by truth, it is not something he can talk of, nor is it something he can even be truly aware of. It is not a self-conscious process; rather, a man must simply have the need within him to live this way and not be able to comprehend any other way of being. It is something he cannot help but doing and being, something that is innate simply because he is a great man.

The Great Man's sincerity is of the kind he cannot speak of, is not conscious of: nay, I suppose, he is conscious rather of insincerity; for what man can walk accurately by the law of truth for one day? No, the Great Man does not boast himself sincere, far from that; perhaps does not ask himself if he is so: I would say rather, his sincerity does not depend on himself; he cannot help being sincere! [Carlyle, p. 45]

Carlyle values this quality of appropriate silence, not just when talking about one's sincerity but in all things. He makes a clear distinction between a man who goes out and tries to prove his strength by doing brash things and man who has inner strength and wisdom. For him, the latter is much manlier; rather than brawn and brute force, Carlyle values a much more serene strength, a spiritual strength.

A fundamental mistake to call vehemence and rigidity strength! A man is not strong who takes convulsion-fits; though six men cannot hold him then. He that can walk under the heaviest weight without staggering, he is the strong man . . . A man who cannot hold his peace, till the time come for speaking and acting, is no right man. [Carlyle, p. 185]

Speaking without anything to say reveals the opposite of manhood, for according to Carlyle, a man who can know where, when, and what to say is a true man.

Carlyle presents his heroes as Great Men but not great men as conquerors; rather they are great in spirituality and thought. They are contemplative, dwelling in the deep workings of the world, seeing through artificial things to the deep truths. Alhough he stresses their capacity to do, their greatness does not come from deeds but from their thoughts, their philosophizing, their new theories that they introduce into the world.

Untamed Thought, great, giantlike, enormous;--to be tamed in due time into the compact greatness, not giantlike, but godlike and stronger than gianthood, of the Shakspeares, the Goethes! — Spiritually as well as bodily these men are our progenitors. [Carlyle, p. 20]

He describes their thoughts as giantlike and godlike, stressing the manhood he sees in simply thinking rather than doing. He builds thoughts up to divine status in an attempt to equate them with masculinity. They are "untamed", "enormous", "godlike and stronger than gianthood". Where manhood is often understood as the ability to go out and conquer, as brawn and bravery, he conceives manhood as much more of a passive quality, as the ability to ponder the world and perceive the depths of it.

Intellect is not speaking and logicising; it is seeing and ascertaining. Virtue, Vir-tus, manhood, hero-hood, is not fair-spoken immaculate regularity; it is first of all, what the Germans well name it, Tugend (Taugden, dow-ing or Dough-tiness), Courage and the Faculty to do. [Carlyle, p. 218]

Courage and the elimination of fear play a role in manhood for Carlyle, even if the Hero needs not prove his courage in combat. "Valour is still value. The first duty for a man is still that of subduing Fear. We must get rid of Fear; we cannot act at all till then" (Carlyle, p. 32). The difference between Carlyle's theory of what makes a man a great man and the standard definition is that the man only need express his thoughts in a good way; he does not have to act, to demonstrate his lack of fear.

In a similar way in which women have depicted themselves as a spiritual guide for a morally weak man, Carlyle sees his masculine, great man as a spiritual guide for the world. He places the Hero in the position of light-bearer, of a figure which can spread spirituality, truth, and wisdom to the rest of mankind.

In the true Literary Man there is thus ever, acknowledged or not by the world, a sacredness: he is the light of the world; the world's Priest; — guiding it, like a sacred Pillar of Fire, in its dark pilgrimage through the waste of Time. [Carlyle, p. 157]

Whereas women have seen men as dependent upon them and in need of a spiritual crutch, Carlyle sees no room for women in his essays; there is only the great men and the rest of the world. He puts men in the feminine role of spiritual guide, stressing peaceful contemplation over strength of actions.

Masculinity in Charlotte Brontë, E. B. Browning, and Thomas Carlyle


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 18 May 2004