n a series of published lectures, On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History, Thomas Carlyle discusses six heroic paradigms, the hero as divinity, prophet, poet, priest, man of letters, and king. These heroes from "widely-distant countries and epochs" are unified in Carlyle's text by being in-tune with a "Divine Idea" to which most people are deaf (p.2). In the passage below, taken from the lecture on The Hero as Man of Letters, Carlyle introduces the Divine Idea and explains its scope and power.
Drawing from the Transcendental philosophy of German Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Carlyle argues that humans and all earthly objects are physical covers for a manifestation of God that lies within everything on earth. This manifestation is the reality under the superficial surface of matter. The man of letters is heroic because he can discern the hidden reality of God on earth and attempts share it with us. Similarly, the divinity, the prophet, and all the other heros know that God is in everyone, and attempt to bring this knowledge to the ignorant masses. With the Divine Idea introduced below, Carlyle argues that the heroic work done by the six different heroes is essentially the same.
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. Such is Fichte's phraseology; with which we need not quarrel. It is his way of naming what I here, by other words, am striving imperfectly to name; what there is at present no name for: The unspeakable Divine Significance, full of splendor, of wonder and terror, that lies in the being of every man, of every thing, — the Presence of the God who made every man and thing. Mahomet taught this in his dialect; Odin in his: it is the thing which all thinking hearts, in one dialect or another, are here to teach. [p.156]
1. Carlyle asserts that "A man's religion is the chief fact with regard to him" (p.2). Indeed, the quality that makes heroes stand out most in this text is their conception of God. What view of personal spirituality is found in Victorian literary works such as Aurora Leigh? How do writers like Elizabeth Barret Browning qualify Carlyle?
2. In On Heroes Carlyle often projects a smug view that Protestant Christianity is the one true religion. Is there an an element of religious uncertainty in the above passage?
3. What is the significance of Carlyle's statement that a Man of Letters is "sent hither?" Are all people "sent hither," or just heroes?
4. Are heroes ultimately able to convey their true conception of God to the masses? Were they better able to do so in history than in Carlyle's contemporary Europe? What hinders heroes from sharing their spiritual truth with others?
Carlyle, Thomas. On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1966.
Last modified 20 April 2004