Thomas Carlyle

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Carlyle, Thomas

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 Goethe 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 Emerson 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-faire 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 Arnold and John Ruskin. 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.
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In a conversation with Horace Traubel recounted in With Walt Whitman in Camden, he discussed the minor poet John Sterling, a friend of Thomas Carlyle:
The three periods that cover the nineteenth century--1834-1860; 1861-1880 and 1881-1900--are inaugurated by Thomas Carlyle's texts "Preface by the Editor to Essays, First Series" and "Letters to Emerson" and conclude with three texts by Friedrich Nietzsche taken from "Schopenhauer as Educator in Untimely Meditations", from The Gay Science and from "Raids of an Untimely Man in Twilight of the Idols", respectively.
(178) The radicalism of Thomas Carlyle's early years is best exemplified in his Reminiscences posthumously published in 1881.
4 Which one of Scotland's great philosophical thinkers have been attributed with this thought- provoking quote - "It's a small world but I wouldn't want to paint it?" (a) David Hume (b) Gordon Strachan (c) Thomas Carlyle (d) Chic Murray 5.
The origin of the book's unique title, according to the foreword, is this: "In 1845, Jane Carlyle wrote to her husband, essayist Thomas Carlyle, 'Instead of boiling up individuals into the species -- I would draw a chalk circle round every individuality and preach to it to keep within that, and preserve and cultivate its identity at the expense of ever so much lost giltlacker of other people's isms.' Jane was ahead of her time.
Twain first alludes to Sartor Resartus by citing Carlyle's professor who developed a philosophy of clothes in "The Czar's Soliloquy." According to Baetzhold, Twain added Sartor Resartus to his library sometime during the 1880s ("Thomas Carlyle" 127).
Britain's best-known and best-selling historians were the forgotten Henry Thomas Buckle, the poet and statesman Lord Macaulay who died in that year leaving uncompleted his History of England, and the still rumbling intellectual volcano Thomas Carlyle, whose The French Revolution retains the power to amaze even today.
In the mid-1840s, Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle propounded what at the time was known as 'the Great Man Theory"--the idea that history can largely be explained by the influence of great men and women, or heroes, who through their charisma, intelligence, and political skills have an outsized and decisive historical effect.
This volume consists of essays exploring works of literature by the following ten modern artists: Elizabeth Bishop, Henrik Ibsen, Choderlos de Laclos, Dazai Osamu, Stefan George, Thomas Carlyle, D.
In addition to the pilgrimage--or, in Woolf's case, pilgrimages--that each writer made to Thomas Carlyle's house (a site to which this collection, too, makes repeat pilgrimages: it is also a subject of Shiach's essay), they have in common, according to Minow-Pinkney, a marginal point of view that leads each to be skeptical about the objectivity of realist literary convention.
These figures are: Thomas Carlyle, Walter Bagehot, Anthony Trollope, and John Stuart Mill.
In Chapter II Mill makes clear his strong faith in the individual: "If all mankind minus one," he writes, "were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had that power, would be justified in silencing mankind." One can understand why his one time friend, Thomas Carlyle, who believed in a strong leader of a nation, disagreed wholeheartedly with Mill's beliefs.