Modern semiotics is based around the sign, the inextricable union of a signifier and a signified. In his series of lectures, On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History, Thomas Carlyle propounds a theory of idolatry based upon the indissoluble distance between what is seen, the "Symbol" and what is. Carlyle claims that all worship "must proceed by Symbols," all worship is, in some sense, idolatrous (121). He makes this argument in order to excuse idolatry, stating that the practice of worshipping a Symbol (or worshipping through a Symbol) is not wrong in and of itself; only "insincere Idolatry" is "condemnable" (122). Thus Carlyle makes two arguments: first, a symbol is separable, and separated, from the thing it signifies, and second, value still exists in symbols, despite this dissociation.

Idol is Eidolon, a thing seen, a symbol. It is not God, but a Symbol of God; and perhaps one may question whether any the most benighted mortal ever took it for more than a Symbol. I fancy, he did not think that the poor image his own hands had made was God; but that God was emblemed by it, that God was in it some way or other. And now in this sense, one may ask, Is not all worship whatsoever a worship by Symbols, by eidola, or things seen? Whether seen, rendered visible as an image or picture to the bodily eye; or visible only to the inward eye, to the imagination, to the intellect: this makes a superficial, but not substantial difference. It is still a Thing Seen, significant of a Godhead; an Idol. The most rigorous Puritan has his Confession of Faith, and intellectual Representation of Divine things, and worships thereby; thereby is worship first made possible for him. [121]


1. Carlyle claims all men worship a "Thing Seen," visible or imagined. What is the relationship between this "Thing Seen" and God or true divinity?

2. How does the figure of the Hero fit into Carlyle's generalization about idolatry? Can a Hero be defined as someone who knows/worships God without any symbols between them, or are Heroes too caught in this trap?

3. Carlyle gives an implicit value to Symbols through his claim that all men come to worship through them. Can this value be expanded to include secular symbols? What value does Carlyle place on words as Symbols? How does his valuation of religious Symbols relate to Aurora Leigh's arguments about the role of poetry?

4. Carlyle's argument in this passage rests at least partially on his belief that "the most benighted mortal" never took a Symbol for God Himself. Where are other examples in the text where Carlyle uses his own "fancy" to build an argument? What is the role of rationality and logic in Carlyle's lectures?

5. How does the discussion in this passage of God vs. a Symbol of God relate to the first chapter/lecture on Odin? Did Carlyle see Odin as a Symbol through which ancient Germanic peoples came to worship the "true" God? Carlyle emphasizes Mahomet's extreme distaste for idolatry; by denying Islam as correct while holding up Mahomet as a Hero, is Carlyle in some sense making Mahomet an idol/a Symbol?


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

Last modified 20 April 2004