Victorian Critical Theory

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What were the influences of essayist-historian Thomas Carlyle on Victorian society?

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While Carlyle's influence and thought can be difficult to pigeonhole, as a public intellectual he most broadly influenced Victorian society in conservative directions, away from the feared republicanism of the French Revolution, which still worried the upper classes in the 19th century, and towards hierarchy and hero worship. He was part of the "great man" school of history and believed it was the influence of the strong, even ruthless, ruler that changed the destiny of history and nations. He believed everyone should accept their place in society, even if they happened to be slaves; that power should be concentrated in a few hands; and that the franchise should not be extended. Contemporaries saw him as inspiring people away from materialism and towards pure ideals. One man, Hector Macpherson, wrote that he "lifted a whole generation of young men" and inspired them to believe that the spiritual reality was the true reality.

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As Carlyle grew in influence and people began to think a great deal of his opinion, he further expanded his opinions on what he saw as increasing materialism and greed among the unemployed or lower classes of people.  He saw this greed and materialism as driving the increased popularity of democracy and was strongly opposed as he felt there needed to be a clear ruling class that could be counted on to lead the way morally and intellectually for the lower classes.

His essays and other works served to represent one of the overall feelings against the working class people, particularly those who had migrated to the cities and created large populations of destitute city dwellers, and he felt they were unsatisfied with their lot and looking for handouts rather than being willing to work hard for an honest wage.

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