Critical And Miscellaneous Essays "History Is The Essence Of Innumerable Biographies"

Thomas Carlyle

"History Is The Essence Of Innumerable Biographies"

(Magill's Quotations in Context)

Context: In this essay, first published in Frazer's Magazine, No. 10, in 1830, the great historian of the French Revolution and of the six-volume history of Frederick II of Prussia gives his ideas on history. Carlyle begins with the assertion that a talent for history is born in everybody, as our chief inheritance. As we do nothing but enact History, so likewise we say little but recite it. However, the living, actual History of Humanity consists of far different and more fruitful activities than those recorded in the history books. There is an infinite complexity in the simplest facts that constitute the Experience of Life. And the author points out the pitfalls ahead of Historians who produce Artists in history as well as Artisans in history who labor mechanically, without an eye for the whole, or even knowledge that there is a whole. He comments on some of the different sorts of Historians; the Ecclesiastical Historian, like the Political Historian, spends more time on outward mechanics than on essentials. Other Historians concentrate on separate provinces of human action: Sciences, Practical Arts, or Institutions. Carlyle ends with the expressed hope that a Philosophy of History may some day be evolved. As to the difficulties ahead, he has this to say:

. . . Before Philosophy can teach by Experience, the Philosophy has to be in readiness, the Experience must be gathered and intelligently recorded. . . . let anyone who has examined the current of human affairs, and how intricate, perplexed, unfathomable, even when seen into with our own eyes, are their thousandfold blending movements, say whether the true representing of it is easy or impossible. Social Life is the aggregate of all the individual men's Lives who constitute Society; History is the essence of innumerable biographies. But if one Biography, nay, our own Biography, study and recapitulate it as we may, remains in so many points unintelligible to us; how much more must these million, the very facts of which, to say nothing of the purport of them, we know not, and cannot know!