Thomas Carlyle Introduction - Essay


Thomas Carlyle 1795-1881

Scottish philosopher, social critic, essayist, historian, biographer, translator, and editor.

For additional information on Carlyle's life and works, see .

Carlyle achieved literary notoriety for his penetrating and often scathing criticism of Victorian society. His writings demonstrate his opposition to the Victorian emphasis on the logical and mechanical nature of the universe and his feelings against democracy in Britain. In conveying these views, Carlyle developed a writing style so distinct that it has been referred to as "Carlylese," and such works as Sartor Resartus (1833-34) and The French Revolution (1837) are often regarded as revolutionary in both their prose and their content. Carlyle's methods and themes met with mixed and extreme reactions in his time and continue to fascinate twentieth-century scholars.

Biographical Information

Carlyle was born in 1795 in Ecclefechan, Scotland, to James Carlyle, a stonemason, and Margaret Aitken Carlyle. He studied mathematics at Edinburgh University, but he left before earning his degree. Making a break with his Calvinist upbringing and family tradition, Carlyle chose not to become a clergyman, instead earning his living as a tutor at Annan and then as a schoolmaster at Kirkcaldy School. After returning to Edinburgh in 1818, Carlyle wrote occasional book reviews but grew increasingly depressed by his uncertainty regarding his vocation and religion. In the early 1820s, Carlyle appears to have undergone a spiritual conversion, which he later described in Sartor Resartus as a realization of a sense of individual freedom. In 1826, he married Jane Welsh, whom he had courted for some time. After publishing several essays, Carlyle attempted with much difficulty to place Sartor Resartus. It was finally accepted by Fraser's Magazine in 1833. Following a move to Chelsea, Carlyle began work on The French Revolution. It was published in 1837 and brought Carlyle recognition as a major literary figure. Most of Carlyle's major works were produced before the death of his wife—these works include On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History (originally a series of lectures, published in 1841), Past and Present (1843), Latter-Day Pamphlets (1850), The Life of John Sterling (1851), and History of Friedrich II. of Prussia, Called Frederick the Great (1858-65). Carlyle was devastated by the death of his wife in 1866, and his literary output after her death is small. Carlyle died in 1881.

Major Works

The publication of Sartor Resartus established Carlyle as a social critic, though the work was received with much confusion because of its unique literary style. The title of the work means "the tailor re-tailored" and highlights the main theme of the work: that social customs and religious and political institutions are merely the "clothing" of essential realities. The book is presented as the efforts of a nameless editor, aided by a German colleague, to summarize the life and theories of the German Professor Diogenes Teufelsdröckh (devil's dung). Teufelsdröckh's philosophy stresses that just as clothes go out of fashion, so do ideas and institutions, and they also must be reenvisioned or retailored. Therefore, the significance of being able to see through these symbols, or clothes, is emphasized throughout the work. Carlyle's literary style in this volume presents as many challenges to the reader as does his format in that it heavily employs allusion, metaphor, and other techniques that have been described as "eccentricities" and "syntactical aberrations."

In addition to this philosophy, sometimes characterized as a religious vision without a personal God, Carlyle also developed distinct ideas about the political, social, and economic troubles of his day. In The French Revolution, Carlyle sympathized with the revolutionaries to some extent but despised anarchy and appeared to fear the rule of the people. In On Heroes and Hero-Worship, Carlyle presented the view that the vast majority of people are unsuited to rule and instead need heroes to provide solid leadership. Additionally, in the essay "Chartism" (1839), Carlyle used the Chartist movement as an example of a threatening revolution in England and advocated British imperialism as the antidote for England's problems—problems that, in Carlyle's view, stemmed from democracy and attempts at reform. Similarly, in Past and Present, Carlyle questioned democracy and analyzed the problems of workers in England. Some have suggested that in this work Carlyle foresaw the growth and development of the Labor Party in England.

Critical Reception

Just as readers and critics in Carlyle's time found Sartor Resartus perplexing, modern scholars disagree on Carlyle's intention in this work. The "Clothes Philosophy" has been discussed at length by critics, and many have a common understanding of its emphasis on symbolism, the idea that the world's institutions cloak a deeper, divine reality. Yet it is the method Carlyle used to convey this message—particularly the interplay between the Editor and the anonymous colleague—that is problematic for many critics. Lee C. R. Baker, for example, argues that the Editor's apparent skepticism about embracing Teufelsdröckh's philosophy (which would seem to undercut Carlyle's aim of getting the reader to embrace this philosophy) is actually ironic. The use of irony is necessary, Baker states, in order to help "bring forth the reader's own understanding of the Clothes Philosophy." D. Franco Felluga, however, maintains that efforts like Baker's to impose order or a "stable system of thought" on Sartor are attempts to "retailor" the work. Felluga argues that Carlyle's goal is to expose "all systems as limiting and false."

The French Revolution examines this period of history in a manner that took Carlyle's contemporary critics off guard. A review in the Athenaeum in 1837 charges Carlyle with carrying "quaintness, neologism and a whimsical coxcombery" through three volumes of "misplaced persiflage and flippant pseudo-philosophy." Modern scholars have been a bit more kind. Robert W. Kusch reviews Carlyle's marriage of metaphor and theme throughout the work and praises this union as Carlyle's "artistry at its best." With On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History, it is the message, more than the method, that has attracted critical attention. Ernst Cassirer explains that Carlyle sought to "stabilize the social and political order" in England and was convinced that hero worship was the best way to achieve this aim. Tracing the effects of Carlyle's views into the twentieth century, Cassirer links him to National Socialism and even to Hitler, and claims that for Carlyle history was identified with great men without whom there would be only stagnation. David J. Delaura takes another view of Heroes, arguing that the unity of the lectures stems from Carlyle's efforts to "define the characteristics, the message, and the social role of the prophet." In examining these features, Delaura argues, Carlyle revealed himself as the hero of Heroes, as a prophet, "at times the prophet whose wise and healing word the age looked for."