Heroes And Hero-worship "Worship Is Transcendent Wonder"

Thomas Carlyle

"Worship Is Transcendent Wonder"

Context: In his introductory lecture, "The Hero as Divinity," Carlyle takes up the examination of heroes and the nature of that process of deification to which they are subject. He feels that if we can see the hero clearly we can understand a basic process of history; and as a means to that understanding, he inquires into the nature of religion. "It is well said, in every sense, that a man's religion is the chief fact with regard to him. A man's, or a nation of men's. By religion I do not mean here the church-creed which he professes, the articles of faith which he will sign and, in words or otherwise, assert; not this wholly, in many cases not this at all. We see men of all kinds of professed creeds attain to almost all degrees of worth or worthlessness under each or any of them. This is not what I call religion. But the thing a man does practically believe . . . and know for certain, concerning his vital relations to this mysterious Universe, and his duty and destiny there, that is in all cases the primary thing for him, and creatively determines all the rest. That is his religion . . . if you tell me what that is, you tell me to a very great extent what the man is, what the kind of things he will do is. Of a man or of a nation we inquire, therefore, first of all, What religion they had? . . . Answering of this question is giving us the soul of the history of the man or nation." First he takes up Paganism; we find it strange, says Carlyle, that men could have believed in such a chaos of divinity. Some feel that Paganism was merely quackery in which the people were duped by an unscrupulous priesthood, but Carlyle rejects this idea. "Quackery," he points out, "gives birth to nothing; gives death to all things." Men had found a basic truth in Paganism, and the quackery and dupery had come later. Having disregarded the quackery theory, he considers the allegory theory–that Paganism was a poetic kind of symbolism. This he also discards, feeling that men would not base a solid belief on what is merely a poetic sport. Carlyle's own belief is that to the primitive mind all things in nature have their air of divine mystery, and that the Pagan worship of natural objects and forces was based on man's sense of wonder.

. . . What in such a time as ours it requires a Prophet or Poet to teach us, namely, the stripping-off of those poor undevout wrap-pages, nomenclatures and scientific hearsays,–this, the ancient earnest soul, as yet unencumbered with these things, did for itself. The world, which is now divine only to the gifted, was then divine to whosoever would turn his eye upon it. . . . Canopus shining-down over the desert, with its blue diamond brightness (that wild blue spirit-like brightness, far brighter than we ever witness here), would pierce into the heart of the wild Ishmaelitish man, whom it was guiding through the solitary waste there. To his wild heart, with all feelings in it, with no speech for any feeling, it might seem a little eye, that Canopus, glancing-out on him from the great deep Eternity; revealing the inner Splendour to him. Cannot we understand how these men worshipped Canopus; became what we call Sabeans, worshipping the stars? Such is to me the secret of all forms of Paganism. Worship is transcendent wonder; wonder for which there is now no limit or measure; that is worship. . . .