In his lecture “The Hero as Man of Letters,” Thomas Carlyle asserts that true heroes seek to reveal, “in one dialect or another”, the “Divine Significance . . . that lies in the being of every man, of every thing.” Heroes, Carlyle explains, can take forms “of Heroism that belong to the old ages,” such as divinity, prophet, poet, and priest, or, a contemporary form, “The Hero as Man of Letters.” Furthermore, because heroes come from different cultures and places, they will have different modes and manners of speaking and acting. Yet these heroes, of different forms, from “widely-distant countries and epochs”, and with their respective tongues, are each “sent into the world” to “discern for [themselves], and make manifest to [the public]” the universal truths that lie “at the bottom of all Appearance”. This “Reality”, Carlyle writes, is what the German philosopher Fichte calls the “Divine Idea of the World”, and is the central function through which all heroes teach.

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.

Thus for Carlyle, teaching this “Divine Significance” unifies the heroes of past and present, allowing them to transcend “the body and material substance” of their respective times and “persuade men” of the “soul” of their generations — “All that Mankind has done, thought, gained or been.” What Carlyle ultimately reveals then is a language of heroes, which melds together, “with a wondrous new contiguity and perpetual closeness, the Past and Distant with the Present in time and place.”

Questions

1. Carlyle writes that “Heroes . . . are sent into the world” to reveal the “Divine Significance” of their generations. He also states that “To the mass of men no such Divine Idea recognizable in the world.” Is Carlyle suggesting that heroes are only chosen? By whom are they chosen?

2. Why does Carlyle go into detail about three heroes of “prior time”, “Johnson, Burns, Rousseau”? Is Carlyle advocating for his own status as a “genuine literary hero”?

3. Carlyle explains that the ”Hero as Man of Letters” should be “inspired”, thus making him an “original man”. Does this notion of “originality” contradict with Carlyle’s idea that at the center of all appearance lies a “divine” “Godlike” truth?


Victorian Web Overview Thomas Carlyle On Heroes and Hero-Worship

Last modified 24 February 2011