Thomas Carlyle’s On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History remains one of the best repositories in English of the development in late Romanticism called heroic vitalism. The book, a series of six lectures that Carlyle delivered to London audiences in 1840, represents not so much soundly based ideas about the making of history as it does Carlyle’s view of how the world would be if powerful and inspired people were to have the power he thought they deserved. The book thus became England’s contribution to the nineteenth century cult of the “great man,” a dream that was most seductively attractive to intellectuals forced to put their ideas in the marketplace with all the other merchants, but closed off from the real power that was being exercised in the newly industrialized world by economic entrepreneurs.
This work has received mixed reviews from readers and critics. Some consider it inferior; even Carlyle made disparaging remarks about it in his later years. Others, however, find in the volume a clear sense of the values that Carlyle preached consistently in his writings from his earliest sustained social analysis, Sartor Resartus (1833-1834), to his later historical writings on Oliver Cromwell and Frederick the Great.
Like most nineteenth century historians and philosophers, Carlyle promotes the notion that progress is good and inevitable; unlike many of his contemporaries, however, he does not believe that the passage of time in and of itself assures progress. Only when persons of heroic temperament step forward to lead the masses can true progress for society occur. The persons featured in On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History were just such people; their actions, and their willingness to live in accordance with the vision of society that motivated them, changed history for the better. Carlyle finds no one around him acting in a way to set his own age right; given to commercialism and self-gratification, the people of nineteenth century Europe lack the will or the leadership to make something worthwhile of their lives. If his work is not totally successful in conveying a portrait of heroism good for all times, it does succeed in showing Carlyle’s disenchantment with the nineteenth century and its lack of heroes.
Carlyle’s basic idea is that all history is the making of great persons, gifted with supreme power of vision or action. It thus becomes one’s duty to “worship Heroes.” We all of us reverence and must ever reverence Great Men: this is, to me, the living rock amid all the rushings-down whatsoever; the one fixed point in modern revolutionary history, otherwise as if bottomless and shoreless.
In the world of onrushing liberalism and industrialism, with the memory of God ever dimming through the growth of science and skepticism, Carlyle needs a faith and develops one based on the worship of great men.
This faith, dubious enough under restrictions of law and order, not to mention the existence of great women, becomes even more dubious as handled by Carlyle. As the six lectures progress, he moves from myth to history with no clear distinction. He offers leaders of religious movements, great poets, and military conquerors as equally great or heroic. Hero worship not only should be devout; it actually was. In Carlyle’s estimation, love of God is virtually identical with loyalty to a leader. Despite his scorn for business activity and its operators, Carlyle’s heroes are all men of practical intelligence. He values the same kind of industriousness, resoluteness, and obvious sincerity that could serve to build economic as well as political or clerical empires.
The performance of heroism depends on the interaction of the person with the great social forces of the age; heroes cannot change the course of history alone. In this sense, Carlyle disagrees...
(The entire section is 1588 words.)