Thomas Carlyle is a bully; that is to say, his argument often devolves into a tautological Q & A where our question — What makes a hero? — is echoed back at us with a kind of reductive violence, an interlocutory interdiction, for, as Carlyle nearly yells, "no sadder proof can be given by a man of his own littleness than disbelief in great men" (13). "En guard!" shouts Carlyle from the lectern. But Carlyle is not simply asking for humility, a humanistic faith in the other, he is asking for a collective investment in one other: the hero. This is history as the "biography of great men." arranged in a "heroarchy," a "system of human associations," a "dignity of rank," which as Carlyle points out, seems a lot like a hierarchy, and a highly prejudicial one at that, where Johnsons are welcome but Jane Austens need not apply.

Early on, Carlyle pronounces the hero as a man who cannot fail to be recognized as such, "shaped by the world's reception of him" (43). A hero is a hero by virtue of being considered a hero (11). This seems, to say the least, a bit exclusionary of those without the aid of Mahomet or Luther's good PR. Yet Carlyle also wants to posit the hero as a transcendental figure, a "hero at all points" (28), unanchored to the vicissitudes of the historical moment. This poses something of a problem for Carlyle's historico-biographical schema when, for example, dealing with his two kings, Napoleon and Cromwell. Cromwell is the favorite, for all intensive purposes, because he succeeds where Napoleon eventually lands in prison and dies. Carlyle's explanation, that a sudden bout of "charlatanism," insincerity (?), caused Napoleon's downfall, belies the typology of his hero-at-all-points. History changes Napoleon. Carlyle has tied his historical rubric so tightly around the transcendental figure of the hero, that Napoleon's failings are necessarily his own. Though Napoleon and Cromwell both rise to power as rebels, outsiders, the fact that one of them becomes a tyrant, tells us that though Carlyle says he is interested in "liberty and equality" (as a hobby, like chess or astronomy?), the worship of great men, as de Tocqueville observed in the eighteenth century, is the very possibility of tyranny.

This contradiction between a typology of transcendence and historical determinism are never resolved. But their unhappy proximity on the page is revealing of the way in which effects are of paramount importance in Carlyle's thinking. The hero is necessarily the one who "never thinks cant;" he can, he will, and the proof of that is, so to speak, always in the pudding. But cause and effect are never far removed from each other; in fact hero-worship, the "effect" of the transcendental hero is also the cause, the "shape-giver," of said hero. The plinth precedes the statue; worship the object of worship. History dissolves itself in the liquid of cause and effect, reversing the orders, and effacing its own origins. Thus, if Carlyle is aware of the contradiction, he has no interest in resolving it because its very possibility allows him to imagine the hero — the "original man," the "man sent from the infinite (45). "

In his account of Mahomet's religious conversion the causal chain is further conflated when Carlyle effectively argues that the virtue of Islam (and its victory) is the effect as well as the cause of its superiority:

Any religion . . . will, in the long run, conquer nothing that does not deserve to be conquered. What is better than itself it cannot put away, only what is worse. [61

As Carlyle rightly insists, men are not the mere "product of their times." It would be wrong, as a result, to dismiss or to excuse his above pronouncement as some throwaway Victorianism. Carlyle, the historian, knew enough about the violence of religious compulsion — the crusades, the inquisition, the Roman persecutions — to understand the derogation of liberties, the disorder (a four-letter word in his section on the French Revolution), that is the attendant of organized intolerance. But such is the inevitable logic of winner-takes-all; an "ethics" of strength where the hero — the rebel-king or the rebel-prophet or the man of letters or "their" movements — matter more, are valued more highly, than others.

For this reason, Carlyle's invocation of Shakespeare — at the table usually reserved for Wagner and Nietzsche — is, at least at first, somewhat chilling. Carlyle writes of the bard:

In spite of the sad state Hero-worship now lies in, consider what this Shakespeare has actually become among us. Which Englishman we ever made, in this land of ours, which million of Englishmen, would we not give-up rather than the Stratford Peasant?

It is not that the passage is hyperbolic; it is the sense in which it is not hyperbolic enough. Carlyle, like his heroes, wishes to be taken seriously, sincerely. For my part I sincerely see a line of people waiting to be traded: one million for one hero. "Come and get it!" Considering the course of European history that followed Carlyle this is some frightening arithmetic. To his credit, though, Carlyle seems also to be taking a proverbial shot at the aristocracy in favor of the contributions of the "Stratford Peasant." Carlyle's Shakespeare may put us ill at ease, at times, but his praise of the playwright, in political and heroic terms, is prescient nonetheless:

Consider now, if they asked us, Will you give-up your Indian Empire or your Shakespeare, you English . . . Officials would answer doubtless in official language; but we, for our part too, should not we be forced to answer: Indian Empire, or no Indian Empire, we cannot do without Shakespeare! Indian Empire will go, at any rate, some day; but this Shakespeare does not go, he lasts forever with us; we cannot give-up our Shakespeare! [p. 113]

The Indian Empire is gone. But Shakespeare remains, in England and in the US, a national treasure, an unimpeachable hero.

In what ways his he right about the author as a hero-with-legs, so to speak, a great man with real lasting power? For in our own times, despite pronouncements of his untimely death, there is a veritable obsession with the author; his pictures grace dust-jackets, his life is examined in books and papers (see for example this or any week's NY Times Book Review or last week's book, Possession by A.S. Byatt, and the hunt for Randolph Ash). Is the author, the man of letters or the poet, still a hero in our own times? More than Carlyle's other heroes?

His comparison of Shakespeare and India may, at first, seem like a rhetorical device. But his choice of these two examples is itself revealing. How are the spheres of literature and poetry and empire connected here? Is it a choice between our culture and imperial culture? Are they the same thing, (one substituting for the other) since literature and nationhood seem tied by Carlyle? Or, in positioning himself so far outside the establishment, in denoting Empire's inevitable end, is he simply privileging writing over jingoism and geopolitical power?


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

Last modified 27 April 2004