Thomas Carlyle


Thomas Carlyle

Thomas Carlyle was born on the 4th December in 1795 in Ecclefechan, Dumfiesshire. Carlyle was a philosopher, historian, essayist, mathematician and historian. His most noted works are The French Revolution (1847), On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and ‘The Heroic in History’ (1841). Carlyle’s father was a small farmer and an ardent Calvinist whose beliefs influenced Carlyle. Throughout his life, Carlyle had a strong bond with his family, consisting of eight siblings and parents. Carlyle also did much teaching and lecturing, which were acclaimed during the Victorian Era and gave rise to some of his most noted works.[1]

Education and Life Events

Carlyle’s initially attended a village school in Ecclefechan, until his parents sent him to Annan Academy in 1805. It is said that Carlyle suffered from severe bullying and tormenting which caused him leave after three years. In 1809, Carlyle attended the University of Edinburgh where he kept his areas of study broad and did not commit to one area of expertise. After this, Carlyle became a maths teacher in both Annan and Kirkcaldy, which he found unfulfilling and not well suited to him. As a result he returned to the Edinburgh University, this time to specialise in law. Carlyle was extremely lonely for these three years, and abandoned the idea of joining the Ministry as his father had planned for him. He also developed a painful stomach ulcer, not thought to have been resolved for the rest of his life, which undoubtedly contributed to the image of surliness he maintained. In 1826 Carlyle married Jane Welsh, and in 1831they moved to London, where he continued his writing l. After his wife’s death in 1866, Carlyle withdrew from society and died in 1881 whereupon he was buried beside his parents in Ecclefechan.[2]

Noted Works

Carlyle’s first significant work was Sartor Resartus which was enterprising it its style which was a combination of fact and fiction, with semi-autobiographical aspects, making it somewhat historic. He struggled to find a publisher for this work so had to resort to initially composing it as an article to be published in installments. The name ‘Sartor Resartus’ translates as ‘the Tailor Retailored’ as it explores the metaphorical garments needed to clothe civilization. These include, religion, government, and other forms of institution. Carlyle comes to the conclusion that these garments are becoming worn down and frayed, which requires civilisation to be ‘retailored’.[3]

One of Carlyle’s most noted historical works is The French Revolution, written in 1837, consisting of three volumes. His style in this was also distinctive, as he sometimes used the present tense to emphasis the need of rapidity of action to be successful which was his key argument; a popular notion due to the European context of the possibility of revolution taking place in other counties as well as France. The outbreak of revolution in France in 1789 initiated two schools of thought on the possibility of revolution in Britain- those who embraced revolution as a positive force for change, and those who feared it for its violence and use of terror. The work added fuel to the fire of the debate due to the graphic style of writing. The work also hovered between the brink of novelist and historian, as he lacked the objectivity expected in professional historicism whilst writing descriptively creating a vivid and potentially inspiring account of the events that occurred.[4]

In 1840, Carlyle explored the theme of ‘the Hero’ in history in a series of six lectures that were published in 1841 as a book. The lectures and book were extremely popular and successful. They consist of six lectures, each of which concerns a different type of hero: The hero as a divinity, the hero as a prophet, the hero as a poet, the hero as a Priest, the hero as a man of letters and the hero as a king. Examples of those he praises are Muhammad, Shakespeare and Martin Luther. Carlyle encourages others to exhibit similar traits to these examples of heroes. He uses examples of heroes throughout the past, emphasising the specific characteristics which makes them great. Carlyle, through this work, coined the “Great Man theory”, in which the course of history is examined through the work of influential individuals. Carlyle also believed that by studying these influential characters, people would become more intact with their own heroic sides and would discover new aspects to their own personalities.[5]

Reputation and Impact

Carlyle had a particular influence on his contemporaries as he survived a spiritual crisis in the period of his life in which he returned to the University of Edinburgh, which he detailed in Sartor Resartus. The structure of this work and the concept of abandonment of the old faith is apparent in later authors.[6]These authors, including Dickens and Tennyson, like Carlyle, suggested that literacy and art were becoming more significant as sources of spiritual knowledge than religion itself.[7]

Carlyle was also a pioneer of the Victorian style of ‘Sage’ writing. This involved writing nonfiction in a creative and vivid manner, as seen in The French Revolution. The style is seen as a development of wisdom literature alongside aspects of the Old Testament prophets which featured elements of warning.

It is thought that Carlyle’s work had an influence on the development of Nazi Germany due his antidemocratic if slightly fascist stance, his belief in the right of leaders to impose their will on their subjects and his evident love of German culture in his work. Historian, Werner Maser, believes that Hitler’s own writings share characteristics with Carlyle’s idealistic here-worshiping style. This may be due to the fact that Hitler possibly encountered the Carlyle during his studies in Lintz. By the 1930s, the Nazis used Carlyle as an intellectual forebear by attributing anti-Semitism to him and his works were often debated and praised in German articles. Historian, Herbert Grierson, claims that Carlyle gave inspiration to Friedrich Nietzsche, the Nazi’s favoured philosopher, making the influence perhaps less direct.[8]

Bibliography/Reading List "Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881). On Heroes, Hero-Worship, And The Heroic In History. Keller, Ed. 1917.

Carlyle, Thomas. The French Revolution. Champaign, Ill.: Project Gutenberg.

Carlyle, Thomas. Sartor Resartus. Champaign, Ill.: Project Gutenberg.

Carlyle, Thomas, and Edwin Mims. Past And Present. New York: C. Scribner's Sons, 1918.

Carlyle, Thomas, Goldberg, Michael K, Brattin, Joel J, and Engel, Mark. On Heroes, Hero-Worship, & The Heroic In History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

Cumming, Mark. The Carlyle Encyclopedia. Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2004.

Enotes. “Sator ResartusSummary.”

Everything Explained. “Great Man Theory.”

Froude, James Anthony. Thomas Carlyle; A History Of His Life In London, 1834-1881. London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1884.

Grierson, Herbert John Clifford. Carlyle & Hitler. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1933. "Thomas Carlyle: The French Revolution — Faculty of History". Last modified 2015.

Encyclopedia Britannica. "Thomas Carlyle | British Essayist And Historian.” "Masculinity In Thomas Carlyle's On Heroes, Hero-Worship And The Heroic In History"



[1] Cockshut, A.O.J. 2015. "Thomas Carlyle | British Essayist And Historian". Encyclopedia Britannica.

[2] Cockshut, A.O.J. 2015. "Thomas Carlyle | British Essayist And Historian". Encyclopedia Britannica.

[3] Enotes, Sator ResartusSummary.

[4],. 2015. "Thomas Carlyle: The French Revolution — Faculty of History".

[5]  Everything Explained, “Great Man Theory”, 2009-2016,

[6]  Landow, George. 2014. "Thomas Carlyle's Influence On Contemporary (And Later) Writers". Victorianweb.Org.

[7] Landow, George. 2014. "Thomas Carlyle's Influence On Contemporary (And Later) Writers". Victorianweb.Org.

[8] Grierson, Herbert John Clifford. Carlyle & Hitler. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1933.