decorated inititial 'C'arlyle's lectures on hero worship, though addressing varying forms of the hero in history, each concern one prominent theme in the interconnected style of sage-writing. That is, though the author uses different examples to express his notions of the heroic or of the Great Man in history — through the hero as a man of letters, as prophet, as king or as poet — each literary sermon epitomizes the necessity of the hero's sincerity and originality. These traits intricately connect to the author's assumption that a hero is a diviner of the processes of Nature, processes that are further linked with the Divine. This emphasis upon the heroism as emblematic of sincerity is first pronounced in Carlyle's discussion of Odin, one of the gods of Scandinavian paganism.

The essence of the Scandinavian, as indeed of all Pagan Mythologies, we found to be recognition of the divineness of Nature, sincere communication of man with the mysterious invisible Powers visibly seen at work in the world round him. This, I should say, is more sincerely done in the Scandinavian than in any Mythology I know. [p.30]

In Carlyle's mind, sincerity of belief and action overrides any artistic failure in the hero's attempts to communicate his divine inspiration. This point appears in the author's attitude toward the Koran. Carlyle scorns the literary organization of the document itself but overlooks the problematic style and format of the book because he credits its sincerity.

When once you get this confused coil of a Koran fairly off your hands, and have it behind you at a distance, the essential type of it begins to disclose itself; and in this there is merit quite other than the literary one. . . . One would say the primary character of the Koran is this of its genuineness, of its being a bona-fide book. [p. 65]

In the themes of divinity and religion, Carlyle exemplifies how the hero's genuine and sincere belief enables him to be a leader of men. However, in the later chapters addressing other types of heroes, this notion of the sincere hero becomes less clear and perhaps more contradictory. This possibility is illustrated by the lecture on the Hero as Priest. In this chapter, Carlyle augments his definition of the hero by citing such a person as one who throws off the practice of blind worship and belief and instead chooses to follow his own beliefs. Using Luther as an example, Carlyle states that the hero is a man who sincerely embraces the truth, but this certainty is one that he derived from within himself — it is not related to the acceptance of a pre-existing dogma. Whereas Carlyle praises the Koran as a literary creation that embodies a code for other humans to read, understand, and believe, he utilizes Luther to undermine the notion of sincerity as promoting pre-existing belief and instead relies upon a definition of sincerity in which a hero creates a completely new set of doctrines to describe the realms of the Natural and the Spiritual.

Hero-worship? Ah, me, that a man be self-subsistent, original, true, or what we call it, is surely the furthest in the world from indisposing him to reverence and believe other men's truth! It only disposes necessitates and invincibly compels him to disbelieve other men's dead formulas, hearsays, and untruths. A man embraces truth with his eyes open, and because his eyes are open: does he need to shut them before he can love his Teacher of truth? He alone can love, with right gratitude and genuine loyalty of soul, the Hero-Teacher, who has delivered him out of darkness into light. Is not such a one true Hero and Serpent-queller; worthy of all reverence! [p. 126]


1. What is Carlyle's definition of sincerity throughout his series of lectures? Does this definition change or transform as the sermons progress or does the notion remain constant throughout? How is sincerity intertwined with the author's understanding of originality?

2. Do you find any contradiction in Carlyle's description of the Hero as Priest? Specifically, Carlyle asserts that this man is heroic because he does not accept other men's "formulas, hearsays, and untruths," yet the author then expects this priest-hero's followers to just as blindly accept these same possible untruths from the man Carlyle deems heroic. How can this disparity be reconciled, if it can be at all?

3. Is there any objective way of determining the notion of sincerity according to Carlyle? More simply, do you feel that Carlyle ever chooses his heroes based upon an objective set of criteria, revolving around the concepts of sincerity or originality, or are Carlyle's heroic icons merely personal favorites with the author? Does Carlyle make his information fit his pre-existing beliefs?


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

Last modified 20 April 2004