On Heroes, Hero-Worship,
and the Heroic in History
by Thomas Carlyle
“There needs not a great soul to make a hero; there needs a god-created soul which will be true to its origin; that will be a great soul!” ― Thomas Carlyle
In May, 1840, Thomas Carlyle gave a series of six lectures on Heroes in History. These lectures were subsequently published under the title On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History. In these lectures Carlyle discusses and defends his concept of the great man, or the divinely inspired, unpredictable hero. The breadth of his examples from Odin and Mahomet (Mohammed) to Shakespeare and Dante, and Napoleon among others provides an idea of the scope of his presentation. These are not all heroes in the sense that the concept of hero, if it exists at all, is considered today. But that is one of the best aspects of these lectures for they challenge the twenty-first century reader to think about the nature of the hero and heroism and what it might mean to worship a hero.
Certainly Carlyle's heroes seem arbitrary and perhaps a bit odd: Odin, Mahomet, Dante, Shakespeare, Luther, John Knox, Samuel Johnson, Rousseau, Robert Burns, Cromwell, and Napoleon. In my reading I found no philosophic basis that linked these men together and while divinity links several, that idea does not explain the poets or military leaders. Most are presented as men who rose from humble beginnings to reach great achievements; but they do not all share this characteristic. Certainly they all had a great impact on the history of mankind, but even here it is hard to compare a Napoleon with a Knox or a Shakespeare with Mahomet. Carlyle does claim that a sort of sincerity and originality are components of the actions and thoughts of all of these men.
"But of a Great Man especially, of him I will venture to assert that it is incredible that he should have been other than true. . . what I call a sincere man. I should say sincerity, a deep, great, genuine sincerity, is the first characteristic of all men in any way heroic. . . Such sincerity, as we named it, has in very truth something of divine. The word of such a man is a Voice direct from Nature's own Heart. Men do and must listen to that as to nothing else;" (The Hero as Prophet)
But is Sincerity enough? Not for the Poet, for he is also "a heroic figure belonging to all ages; whom all ages possess, when once he is produced, whom the newest age as the oldest may produce;"
In our culture hero-worshiping has declined, seemingly replaced with the pursuit of mentors, leaders, and role-models. The heroes that Carlyle describes may be these things, but they are larger than life idols whose thought and actions span across the ages. Carlyle relies on a degree of divine inspiration that also has declined since Nietzsche's declaration of the death of god. Carlyle may have anticipated this in his declaration that no new religions would be formed. Unfortunately he did not anticipate secular religions like Communism and Fascism.
Choosing political leaders like Cromwell and Napoleon, Carlyle raises questions about his idea of goodness. He seems carried away with his enthusiasm for these heroes and all too willing to brush over their flaws. His hero had to be absolute; or rather, if Carlyle found him "sincere" he forgave him everything. It is thinking like this that has given Carlyle a bad name in an era that has seen absolute power lead to the death of millions. Carlyle was not a philosopher, he rather relied on a sort of common sense. This included a belief that in our hearts we know what is good. But good men may disagree, and the struggle between good and evil requires more rigorous thinking.
In our era where egalitarianism is worshiped to excess, or at least to the extent that it can inhibit individual thought, Carlyle's views on the heroic and its worship seem out of date at best. Reading his lectures, however, provides an opportunity to think about the issues of heroism and the goodness (or lack thereof) of great men. He challenges some of the ideas that are accepted as truths in our culture and I found my thinking strengthened by the challenge.
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