Thomas Carlyle, “On Hero-Worship, Heroes, and Heroism in History” (1840) – There’s nothing quite like “sage literature” to bring out the flippant in me, and Thomas Carlyle was one of the great sages of the Victorian period. “Great” in the sense of major: his hatred of Jews, disdain for black people, and sheer priggishness prevent him from being “great” in the sense of “good.” So I want to start this in jest: talking about the Spanish title of the work, “Los Heros,” and how much more appealing it is than the English original; quoting Sam Elliott in “The Big Lebowski”- “…what’s a hero? But sometimes, there’s a man. And I’m talkin’ about the Dude here. Sometimes, there’s a man, well, he’s the man for his time and place.”
Sam Elliott’s not that far off from Carlyle’s definition, but of course, being a Victorian sage, Carlyle can’t help but ladle morality all over what’s otherwise a pretty succinct value-neutral definition of a hero. More than someone about whom it can be said “he fits right in there,” the Carlylian hero is the driving force of history; it’s from Carlyle the concept of the “great man theory of history” comes. Heroes set the pattern for other men (gendered pronoun used advisedly- Carlyle doesn’t get near what women might or might not contribute to his schema). They both express the great truth of a given era and shape that truth themselves. They’re transcendent and immanent at the same time. They are the enemies of disorder. Where the sincere beliefs of a supremely capable man meet up with the right context, there we see the truly great men of history, in Carlyle’s telling- though he tends to downplay the “context” bit.
Who are the examples of heroes? Well, Odin, the Norse God, for one, who Carlyle claims was probably at one point a man. The Prophet Muhammad comes next. Luther and Knox get the laurels from this post-puritan Scot. A lot of the examples, surprisingly to me, were men of letters: Dante, Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson, Robert Burns, Rousseau. Finally, we get military men such as Cromwell and Napoleon, the latter proclaimed “our last great man” at the end of the series (these were originally lectures).
Carlyle was equal parts Puritan and Romantic. The Romantic comes out in his finding the definition of heroism in men who operated at cross-purposes: a pagan God, the founder of Islam, a Catholic poet, two Protestant preachers, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau walk into a bar… but this works because Carlyle’s program isn’t any given ideology going in his time but his own crystalizing ideas of heroism as a force in and of itself, independent of program. Indeed, he disagrees strongly with Rousseau’s program, sees him as a progenitor of the horrors of the French Revolution, but he’s still a hero, especially for what Carlyle sees as an eighteenth century cursed by reasonableness and “formula,” an unheroic age.
If the job of the hero is to shape history, the job of everyone else is to recognize, worship, and obey heroes. This is part of where Carlyle as progenitor of fascism comes from. I think this is somewhat overblown from a historical perspective, though it doesn’t help that Goebbels was reading Carlyle’s biography of Frederick the Great to Hitler in the last days in the bunker. Rather, I think Carlyle was a precursor to and major influence on the irrationalist trends that blossomed in the general bourgeois freakout of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, that created the gestalt out of which fascism came. So, a progenitor at second hand, along with a great many figures we’d hesitate to call fascist.
Still and all, a stark vision, where the historical job of the French Revolution was not to liberate anyone but to strike down false forms and “formulas,” ossified deposits of previous orders, allowing for new waves of heroes to arise and instantiate a new order. What Carlyle sees as good about Napoleon was his exemplifying the power of the “career open to the talents.” One gets the feeling that if Carlyle wrote twenty years later he’d have another chapter, the Industrialist as Hero. Not for nothing does “Moldbug” Yarvin, with his desire for a tech-CEO-God-king-manager-to-complain-to, claim Carlyle as a major influence (though that fucking STEM nerd doesn’t get history well enough to understand that Carlyle was also at heart a Puritan, Yarvin’s bete noir).
Obviously, I disagree with pretty much all of this. I don’t want to get into a whole “thing” about the role of the individual in history- it’s a tedious, often fatuous question. We’ll just leave it to say that all of the careers of Carlyle’s heroes can be understood as expressions of larger forces at work through individuals. Maybe this makes me one of the accursed “skeptics,” thinking along the grain of the valets to whom no man is a hero; Carlyle has a lot to say against the type. I don’t know about all that. I think individuals make their impact in some sort of harmonious relationship with larger forces, not that they’re irrelevant. But they also breathe, eat, shit, and die like other people. As De Gaulle, who presumably would have made the roster, put it, “the graveyards are full of indispensable men.” Moreover, a hero is a thin reed, to which what happened to England after Carlyle’s favorite, Cromwell, died, can attest. The collective can and has acted on the historical stage to move things in one direction or another — even Carlyle gives this backhanded creedence through reference to “ages of heroes” — and you’re better off uplifting and empowering that than relying on individual dudes, no matter how impressive. Still, this was an interesting work, and Carlyle has a strong, compelling voice, if not one I especially like. One of the more worthwhile books I’ve read in my recent explorations in reactionary writings. ***’