Thomas Carlyle

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Carlyle, Thomas,

1795–1881, English author, b. Scotland.

Early Life and Works

Carlyle studied (1809–14) at the Univ. of Edinburgh, intending to enter the ministry, but left when his doubts became too strong. He taught mathematics before returning to Edinburgh in 1818 to study law. However, law gave way to reading in German literature. He was strongly influenced by GoetheGoethe, Johann Wolfgang von
, 1749–1832, German poet, dramatist, novelist, and scientist, b. Frankfurt. One of the great masters of world literature, his genius embraced most fields of human endeavor; his art and thought are epitomized in his great dramatic poem Faust.
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 and the transcendental philosophers and wrote several works interpreting German romantic thought, including a Life of Schiller (1825) and a translation (1824) of Goethe's Wilhelm Meister.

In 1826 he married Jane Baillie Welsh, an acidly witty, well-informed, generally disagreeable, but ambitious woman who did much to further his career. Their marriage, one of the most famous literary unions of the 19th cent. and one of the most unhappy, is meticulously documented in the more than 9,000 letters still extant that they wrote one another. The Carlyles moved to Jane's farm at Craigenputtock in 1828. There he wrote Sartor Resartus (published 1833–34 in Fraser's Magazine), in which he told his spiritual autobiography. He saw the material world as mere clothing for the spiritual one. The God of his beliefs was an immanent and friendly ruler of an orderly universe. In denying corporeal reality, Carlyle reflected his revulsion for the materialism of the age. In 1832 Ralph Waldo EmersonEmerson, Ralph Waldo
, 1803–82, American poet and essayist, b. Boston. Through his essays, poems, and lectures, the "Sage of Concord" established himself as a leading spokesman of transcendentalism and as a major figure in American literature.
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 went to Craigenputtock and began a friendship with Carlyle that was continued in their famous correspondence.

Later Life and Works

In 1834 the Carlyles moved to London to be near necessary works of reference for the projected French Revolution. Finally completed in 1837 (the first volume had been accidentally burned in 1835), the book was received with great acclaim. Although it vividly recreates scenes of the Revolution, it is not a factual account but a poetic rendering of an event in history. Carlyle extended his view of the divinity of man, particularly in his portraits of the great leaders of the Revolution.

In subsequent works Carlyle attacked laissez-fairelaissez-faire
[Fr.,=leave alone], in economics and politics, doctrine that an economic system functions best when there is no interference by government. It is based on the belief that the natural economic order tends, when undisturbed by artificial stimulus or regulation, to
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 theory and parliamentary government and affirmed his belief in the necessity for strong, paternalistic government. He was convinced that society does change, but that it must do so intelligently, directed by its best men, its "heroes." His lectures, published as On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and The Heroic in History (1841), express his view that the great men of the past have intuitively shaped destiny and have been the spiritual leaders of the world.

Carlyle's other works expanded his ideas—Chartism (1840); Past and Present (1843), contrasting the disorder of modern society with the feudal order of 12th-century England; Oliver Cromwell's Letters and Speeches (1845); Latter-Day Pamphlets (1850); Life of John Sterling (1851); and a massive biography of a hero-king, Frederick the Great, on which he spent the years 1852–65. In 1866 his wife died, and the loss saddened the rest of his life.


One of the most important social critics of his day, Carlyle influenced many men of the younger generation, among them Matthew ArnoldArnold, Matthew,
1822–88, English poet and critic, son of the educator Dr. Thomas Arnold.

Arnold was educated at Rugby; graduated from Balliol College, Oxford in 1844; and was a fellow of Oriel College, Oxford in 1845.
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 and John RuskinRuskin, John,
1819–1900, English critic and social theorist. During the mid-19th cent. Ruskin was the virtual dictator of artistic opinion in England, but Ruskin's reputation declined after his death, and he has been treated harshly by 20th-century critics.
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. His style, one of the most tortuous yet effective in English literature, was a compound of biblical phrases, colloquialisms, Teutonic twists, and his own coinings, arranged in unexpected sequences.


See his Reminiscences (1881) and numerous collections of his letters and his wife's; biographies by J. A. Froude (4 vol., 1882–84, repr. 1971) and D. A. Wilson (6 vol., 1923–34, repr. 1971; Vol. VI finished by D. W. MacArthur); studies by E. Neff (1932, repr. 1968), E. Bentley (1944), J. Symons (1952, repr. 1970), G. B. Tennyson (1966), and A. J. LaValley (1968); studies of the Carlyle marriage by T. Holme (1965, repr. 2000), P. Rose (1983), and R. Ashton (2003).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Carlyle, Thomas


Born Dec. 4, 1795, in Ecclefechan; died Feb. 5, 1881, in London. British essayist, historian, and philosopher.

Carlyle graduated from the University of Edinburgh in 1814. His world view was formed under the influence of German romanticism and classical idealism, as expressed by such representatives as J. G. Fichte and F. W. von Schelling. These ideas infuse the philosophical novel Sartor Resartus (literally, “the tailor mended”), written by Carlyle in 1833–34 (Russian translation published in 1902). According to the “philosophy of clothing” developed in the book, the whole world and all history are external transient garments or emblems, behind which there is an eternal divine essence, the sole reality.

A number of Carlyle’s works from the 1830’s and early 1840’s show sympathy for the working masses and at times combine a radical critique of capitalism with an idealization of the Middle Ages and appeals for a restoration of hierarchical feudal social relations; the latter tendency brought him close to feudal socialism. His work The French Revolution (1837; Russian translation, 1907) justified the overthrow of the absolutist structure by the masses, but it also contained the extremely subjective idealistic conception of the “cult of the hero.” This concept was further developed by Carlyle in a series of lectures between 1837 and 1840, which was published in 1842 as On Heroes, Hero Worship, and the Heroic in History (Russian translation, 3rd ed., 1908). According to Carlyle, the laws of the world set down by providence are revealed only to “the elect,” to “heroes,” who are the only real creators in history: “The history of the world is but the biography of great men.” In his view, the masses are only a crowd, a tool in their hands. He noted that the heroic principle periodically weakens in society and then the blind destructive forces hidden in the crowd burst forth; but this lasts only until society again finds its “true heroes,” for example, Cromwell or Napoleon. Such, according to Carlyle, is the closed circle of history. The idea of a “cult of the hero” was widely accepted by bourgeois historiography. With the development of the class struggle of the proletariat, the petit bourgeois historical and philosophical ideas of Carlyle became more reactionary.


The Works, vols. 1–30. London, 1896–1905.
Letters, vols. 1–2. London-New York, 1888.


Marx, K., and F. Engels. Soch., 2nd ed., vols. 1, 7. (See index of names.)
Nemanov, I. N. “Sub’ektivistsko-idealisticheskaia sushchnost’ vozzrenii T. Karleilia na istoriiu obshchestva.” Voprosy istorii, 1956, no. 4.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
References in periodicals archive ?
Carlyle, Thomas (1832) 'Corn Law Rhymes', reprinted in Miscellaneous Essays, London: Chapman and Hall, 1888, vol.
Carlyle, Thomas (1839) 'Chartism', in Miscellaneous Essays, London: Chapman and Hall, 1888, vol.
Carlyle, Thomas. "The Hero as Man of Letters." On Heroes and Hero Worship.
Sartor Resartus ("The Tailor Re-tailored") Humorous essay by Carlyle, Thomas, ostensibly a learned treatise on the philosophy, symbolism, and influence of clothes, published serially in Fraser's Magazine (November 1833-August 1834).