On Heroes, Hero-Worship, & the Heroic in History

by Thomas Carlyle

Other authorsJoel J. Brattin (Contributor), Michael K. Goldberg (Introduction), Mark Engel (Contributor)
Hardcover, 1993




Berkeley : University of California Press, 1993.


Thomas Carlyle's fascinating work looks at the concept of the Hero by comparing a wide range of different types of heroic figures, including Odin, Shakespeare, Cromwell and the Prophet Mohammed.

User reviews

LibraryThing member antiquary
Easily Carlyle's best book of those I have read, without the tiresome self-indulgent digressions typical of much of his work. Personally, I broadly accept his thesis that
individuals do have major historical impact (though not always with good results).
LibraryThing member Stevil2001
In a nutshell: "Goddamn atheists! Get off my lawn. Especially you, Bentham. P.S. Voltaire is the Antichrist."
LibraryThing member jwhenderson
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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LibraryThing member madepercy
Thomas Carlyle's lectures On Heroes, Hero-worship, and the Heroic in History were delivered in 1840, and published as a book in 1841 by James Fraser, London. My version is a public domain reprint of the 1912 version published by D.C. Heath, Boston, edited and with an introduction by Herbert S. Murch PhD of Princeton University. I first learnt of Carlyle in teaching leadership, where this book is regarded as the first leadership theory, the "Great Man" theory. Carlyle considers the hero as divinity (Odin), prophet (Mohammed), poet (Dante, Shakespeare), priest (Luther, Knox), man of letters (Johnson, Rousseau, Burns), and king (Cromwell, Napoleon). Of note is his Orientalism toward the Prophet Mohammed. In his treatise of prophet as hero, the Muslim Prophet is sincere, yet Carlyle repeatedly turns on the Prophet in his other chapters. Notable, too, is his treatment of any hero who is not related directly to the history of England (i.e. Odin and Luther), in that Mohammed, Rousseau, and Napoleon are heroes to the non-English, and therefore cannot escape this title, but are otherwise overly-emotional hypocrites and shams in their beliefs, if not in their honour in pursuing their (otherwise incorrect) convictions. Yet Carlyle seems to use this as a vehicle for rhetoric, rather than admonishment, and his respect for these non-Anglo heroes is obvious, where he is not attempting to convince his audience that he is using these only by way of example, rather than having any respect for the "other" that is anymore than skin-deep. Nevertheless, his espousal of the "Great Man" theory is more detailed than the leadership textbooks would suggest, as it is easily dismissed due to contemporary sensibilities, yet in its historical context, it is an important starting point for any student of leadership. This edition is well-supported by notes, but it must be taken as a transcript of a lecture. If one reads this as a coherent "book", the speech is enthusiastic, to say the least, and makes for difficult reading. But after a couple of false starts, I was able to envisage Carlyle giving his lectures, and by imagining the reading to be the man actually speaking, the "book" reads quite well. I find it difficult to rate this work higher than three stars, as it is a bit like reading a medical text of the times on the benefit of leeches - in hindsight, there is much to debate. However, when one considers Carlyle's influence on the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson, this is no light-weight intellectual, but someone like James Mill to Ricardo and Bentham, and therefore not to be too readily dismissed.… (more)



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