"No Great Man Lives In Vain"

(Magill's Quotations in Context)

Context: The various beliefs and theories of Carlyle, appearing in his Sartor Resartus and elsewhere, are incorporated into a series of six lectures that he delivered in May, 1840, and published the next year. Previously he had declared that society changes and must do so intelligently, directed by its best men, whom he called its heroes. Now he characterizes these heroes under six headings: Divinity, Prophet, Poet, Priest, Man of Letters, and King. History is a record of their deeds. According to Carlyle's philosophy, Universal History, covering all that man in general has accomplished in the world, is "at bottom the history of the great men who have worked on the earth." This idea contrasts with the theory of the so-called scientific historians like the Frenchman, Taine, that man's surroundings as well as the spirit of his times have had their influence, and it was these which brought the great man or Hero into existence. George Washington did not create the American Revolution; rather, it brought him into being. The undemocratic Carlyle preached that man in masses could not achieve without the strength and wisdom of a few to organize, lead, guide, and even drive the unthinking majority. So in his writing, he runs counter to modern thinking. In the first of his lectures, he says that he was led to consider the subject of great men because we cannot look even imperfectly at one without learning from him. Where did the first Hero come from? He must have been a product of Paganism. Carlyle calls Northland Mythology an impersonation of the visible workings of Nature, by which he probably means "personification," since he developed a kind of German jargon in Sartor Resartus, and clung to it in much of his writing. Among the many Norsemen, came one with an original power of thinking. His associates looked up to him, calling him a prophet, a god, and so this man named Odin became the chief Norse god, and worthy of admiration and even adoration. One German philologist derived his name from the Teutonic word meaning "Movement" and "Power." Wednesday is (W)Odin's day.

Thus if the man Odin himself have vanished utterly, there is this huge Shadow of him which still projects itself over the whole History of his People . . . What this Odin saw into, and taught with his runes and his rhymes, the whole Teutonic People laid to heart and carried forward. His way of thought became their way of thought:–such, under new conditions, is the history of every great thinker still . . . Ah, Thought, I say, is always Thought. No great man lives in vain. The history of the world is but the Biography of great men.