In his lecture “The Hero as Man of Letters,” Thomas Carlyle expounds upon the “phenomenon” of the Man of Letters: this new-age hero serves to elucidate, through the use of writing and printing, the realities of the world that lay hidden beneath the Earth’s superficialities. The Man of Letters functions as a sort of sage-writer, first identifying society’s present grievous condition before ultimately directing his audience toward salvation. In this particular lecture, Carlyle references the transcendental theories of German philosopher Johann Fichte: men tend to ignore or completely misinterpret the “Divine Idea of the World” – the concept that all on Earth, both inanimate and sentient, boast a divine origin – and focus, instead, on its superficialities and practicalities.
That all things which we see or work with in this Earth, especially we ourselves and all persons, are as a kind of vesture or sensuous Appearance: that under all there lies, as the essence of them, what he calls the "Divine Idea of the World;" this is the Reality which "lies at the bottom of all Appearance." To the mass of men no such Divine Idea is recognizable in the world; they live merely, says Fichte, among the superficialities, practicalities and shows of the world, not dreaming that there is anything divine under them. But the Man of Letters is sent hither specially that he may discern for himself, and make manifest to us, this same Divine Idea: in every new generation it will manifest itself in a new dialect; and he is there for the purpose of doing that.
Per Fichte’s philosophy and Carlyle’s interpretation, the ability to discern for his audience the divinity of all earthly objects renders the Man of Letters a true hero. In a society that demonstrates increasing tendencies to turn from the divine to worship, instead, the materialistic, the Man of Letters represents a beacon, possessing the power to enlighten the ignorant masses and dissuade society from pursuing an unholy future.
Carlyle continues his lecture to identify the “heart of the world’s maladies”: skepticism. God’s presence in the world begets a truthful world; if one chooses to doubt divinity, he subsequently embraces a world of untruth and insincerity. A Man of Letters, therefore, must not only convince society that its godless practices will elicit formidable misery, he must also convince society that the world is Truth — injected with Godliness and sincerity.
It seems to me, you lay your finger here on the heart of the world's maladies, when you call it a Sceptical World. An insincere world; a godless untruth of a world! It is out of this, as I consider, that the whole tribe of social pestilences, French Revolutions, Chartisms, and what not, have derived their being, — their chief necessity to be. This must alter. Till this alter, nothing can beneficially alter. My one hope of the world, my inexpugnable consolation in looking at the miseries of the world, is that this is altering. Here and there one does now find a man who knows, as of old, that this world is a Truth, and no Plausibility and Falsity; that he himself is alive, not dead or paralytic; and that the world is alive, instinct with Godhood, beautiful and awful, even as in the beginning of days!... I prophesy that the world will once more become sincere; a believing world; with many Heroes in it, a heroic world! It will then be a victorious world; never till then.
Carlyle’s prophecy that the world possesses the capacity to change, to “once more become sincere; a believing world… a heroic world!” indicates his faith in the capabilities of the Men of Letters. Consequently, Carlyle champions the efficacy of writing and printing as a means of communicating with society in addition to the ability of certain, “heroic” writers to effect change among the masses.
1. In his essay entitled “Signs of the Times,” Carlyle focuses on the negative repercussions of the growing mechanization of society. In what ways does the following excerpt from his lecture “The Hero as Man of Letters” relate to his overall message in “Signs of the Times”? Do the works complement or refute one another?
But this I do say, and would wish all men to know and lay to heart, that he who discerns nothing but Mechanism in the Universe has in the fatalest way missed the secret of the Universe altogether. That all Godhood should vanish out of men's conception of this Universe seems to me precisely the most brutal error, — I will not disparage Heathenism by calling it a Heathen error, — that men could fall into.
2. Carlyle specifically references Johnson, Rousseau, and Burns as heroic Men of Letters. Do you think Carlyle considers himself to be ranked among these men?
3. Carlyle states that there are two categories of Men of Letters: those who are “genuine” and those who are “spurious.” Which category do you think Carlyle perceives himself to fall into? What qualities of Carlyle’s writing do you believe render him a “genuine” Man of Letters?
4. In the opening paragraphs of his lecture, Carlyle emphasizes the power of an author’s work to withstand the test of time, enabling him to “rule . . . from his grave, after death, whole nations and generations.” Carlyle mainly attributes this phenomenon to revolutionary developments in the realms of writing and printing: “So long as the wondrous art of Writing, or of Ready-writing which we call Printing, subsists, he [the Man of Letters] may be expected to continue, as one of the main forms of Heroism for all future ages.”
Do you believe that all works can be equally effective across generations despite the inherent differences that exist between generations. Consider the works we have studied thus far. For example, do you think the works of Johnson, Didion, and Wolfe are as poignant as their original audiences found them to be? Are Johnson’s less poignant than those of Didion and Wolfe considering he wrote almost two centuries earlier?
5. In “Signs of the Times,” Carlyle seems less inclined to believe in society’s ability to turn away from its unholy, destructive path. Why the tone change in “The Hero as Man of Letters”?
Carlyle, Thomas. On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1966.
Last modified 24 February 2011