Thomas Carlyle

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No sadder proof can be given by a man of his own littleness than disbelief in great men.

Thomas Carlyle (1795-12-041881-02-05) was a Scottish essayist, satirist, and historian, whose work was hugely influential during the Victorian era.


  • Speech is human, silence is divine, yet also brutish and dead: therefore we must learn both arts.
    • Notebooks (1830)
  • It is now almost my sole rule of life to clear myself of cants and formulas, as of poisonous Nessus shirts.
    • Letter to His Wife (1835)
  • The Public is an old woman. Let her maunder and mumble.
    • Journal (1835)
  • A witty statesman said, you might prove anything by figures.
    • Chartism (1839), Ch. 2, Statistics
  • Democracy is, by the nature of it, a self-canceling business; and it gives in the long run a net result of zero.
    • Chartism, Ch. 6, Laissez-Faire
  • So here hath been dawning
    Another blue Day:
    Think wilt thou let it
    Slip useless away.
  • He that works and does some Poem, not he that merely says one, is worthy of the name of Poet.
    • Introduction to Cromwell's Letters and Speeches (1845)
  • Here numerous persons, with big wigs many of them, and austere aspect, whom I take to be Professors of the Dismal Science, start up in an agitated vehement manner: but the Premier resolutely beckons them down again
  • A Parliament speaking through reporters to Buncombe and the twenty-seven millions, mostly fools.
    • Latter Day Pamphlets, No. 6
  • A healthy hatred of scoundrels.
    • Latter Day Pamphlets, No. 12
  • "Genius" (which means transcendent capacity of taking trouble, first of all).
  • Happy the people whose annals are blank in history books!
    • Life of Frederick the Great, Bk. XVI, ch. 1
  • This great maxim of Philosophy he had gathered by the teaching of nature alone: That man was created to work, not to speculate, or feel, or dream.
    • Reminiscences (1881), referring to his father, James Carlyle.
    • Sometimes quoted as "Man was created to work, not to speculate, or feel, or dream; Every idle moment is treason". The second of those two clauses in fact comes from Thomas Arnold The Christian Life (1841), Lecture VI.

Critical and Miscellaneous Essays (1827–1855)

  • A well-written Life is almost as rare as a well-spent one.
    • Richter (1827)
  • The great law of culture is: Let each become all that he was created capable of being.
    • Richter
  • The three great elements of modern civilization, gunpowder, printing, and the Protestant religion.
    • The State of German Literature (1827)
  • Literary men are...a perpetual priesthood.
    • The State of German Literature
  • In every man's writings, the character of the writer must lie recorded.
    • Goethe (1828)
  • A poet without love were a physical and metaphysical impossibility.
    • Burns (1828)
  • Our grand business undoubtedly is, not to see what lies dimly at a distance, but to do what lies clearly at hand.
  • … with what scientific stoicism he walks through the land of wonders, unwondering …
    • Signs of the Times
  • Aesop's Fly, sitting on the axle of the chariot, has been much laughed at for exclaiming: What a dust I do raise!
    • Boswell's Life of Johnson (1832)
  • Whoso belongs only to his own age, and reverences only its gilt Popinjays or smoot-smeared Mumbojumbos, must needs die with it.
    • Boswell's Life of Johnson
  • The stupendous Fourth Estate, whose wide world-embracing influences what eye can take in?
    • Boswell's Life of Johnson
  • All work is as seed sown; it grows and spreads, and sows itself anew.
    • Boswell's Life of Johnson
  • The work we desire and prize is not the courage to die decently, but to live manfully.
    • Boswell's Life of Johnson
  • There is no heroic poem in the world but is at bottom a biography, the life of a man; also, it may be said, there is no life of a man, faithfully recorded, but is a heroic poem of its sort, rhymed or unrhymed.
    • Sir Walter Scott (1838)
  • Under all speech that is good for anything there lies a silence that is better. Silence is deep as Eternity; speech is shallow as Time.
    • Sir Walter Scott (1838)
  • No man lives without jostling and being jostled; in all ways he has to elbow himself through the world, giving and receiving offense.
    • Sir Walter Scott
  • Literature is the Thought of thinking Souls.
    • Sir Walter Scott
  • All greatness is unconscious, or it is little and naught.
    • Sir Walter Scott
  • The uttered part of a man's life, let us always repeat, bears to the unuttered, unconscious part a small unknown proportion. He himself never knows it, much less do others.
    • Sir Walter Scott
  • It can be said of him [Scott], when he departed he took a man's life along with him. No sounder piece of British manhood was put together in that eighteenth century of time.
    • Sir Walter Scott
  • Nothing that was worthy in the past departs; no truth or goodness realized by man ever dies, or can die.
    • Sir Walter Scott
  • There is endless merit in a man's knowing when to have done.
    • Dr. Francia (1845)

Sartor Resartus (1833–1834)

  • The Book had in a high degree excited us to self-activity, which is the best effect of any book.
    • Bk. I, ch. 4
  • No man who has once heartily and wholly laughed can be altogether irreclaimably bad.
    • Bk. I, ch. 4
  • He who first shortened the labor of copyists by device of movable types was disbanding hired armies, and cashiering most kings and senates, and creating a whole new democratic world: he had invented the art of printing.
    • Bk. I, ch. 5
  • Man is a tool-using animal...Without tools he is nothing, with tools he is all.
    • Bk. I, ch. 5
  • Be not the slave of Words.
    • Bk. I, ch. 8
  • Man's unhappiness, as I construe, comes of his greatness; it is because there is an Infinite in him, which with all his cunning he cannot quite bury under the Finite.
    • Bk. I, ch. 9
  • Wonder is the basis of worship.
    • Bk. I, ch. 10
  • What you see, yet can not see over, is as good as infinite.
    • Bk. II, ch. 1
  • Sarcasm I now see to be, in general, the language of the Devil; for which reason I have, long since, as good as renounced it.
    • Bk. II, ch. 4
  • With stupidity and sound digestion man may front much.
    • Bk. II, ch. 4
  • Alas! the fearful Unbelief is unbelief in yourself.
    • Bk. II, ch. 7
  • Great men are the inspired (speaking and acting) texts of that divine Book of Revelations, wherof a chapter is completed from epoch to epoch, and by some named History.
    • Bk. II, ch. 8
  • Love not Pleasure; love God.
    • Bk. II, ch. 9
  • "Do the Duty which lies nearest thee," which thou knowest to be a Duty! Thy second Duty will already have become clearer.
    • Bk. II, ch. 9
  • As the Swiss inscription says: Sprechen ist silbern, Schweigen ist golden— "Speech is silvern, Silence is golden"; or, as I might rather express it: speech is of time, silence is of eternity.
    • Bk. III, ch. 3
  • For is not a Symbol ever, to him who has eyes for it, some dimmer or clearer revelation of the God-like?
    • Bk. III, ch. 3
  • The highest ensign that men ever met and embraced under, the Cross itself, had no meaning save an accidental extrinsic one.
    • Bk. III, ch. 3
  • That there should one Man die ignorant who had capacity for Knowledge, this I call a tragedy.
    • Bk. III, ch. 4

The French Revolution. A History (1837)

  • France was long a despotism tempered by epigrams.
    • Pt. I, Bk. I, ch. 1
  • No lie you can speak or act but it will come, after longer or shorter circulation, like a Bill drawn on Nature's Reality, and be presented there for payment, — with the answer, No effects.
    • Pt. I, Bk. III, ch. 1
  • To a shower of gold most things are penetrable.
    • Pt. I, Bk. III, ch. 7
  • "The people may eat grass": hasty words, which fly abroad irrevocable—and will send back tidings.
    • Pt. I, Bk. III, ch. 9
  • A whiff of grapeshot.
    • Pt. I, Bk. V, ch. 3
  • O poor mortals, how ye make this earth bitter for each other.
    • Pt. I, Bk. V, ch. 5
  • Battles, in these ages, are transacted by mechanism; with the slightest possible development of human individuality or spontaneity: men now even die, and kill one another, in an artificial manner.
    • Pt. I, Bk. VII, ch. 4
  • History a distillation of rumor.
    • Pt. I, Bk. VII, ch. 4
  • The All of Things is an infinite conjugation of the verb To do.
    • Pt. II, Bk. III, ch. 1
  • The difference between Orthodoxy or Mydoxy and Heterodoxy or Thy-doxy.
    • Pt. II, Bk. IV, ch. 2

Heroes and Hero-Worship (1840)

Full text online

The Hero as Divinity

Lecture I The Hero As Divinity. Odin. Paganism: Scandinavian Mythology. (5 May 1840)
  • No sadder proof can be given by a man of his own littleness than disbelief in great men.
  • The history of the world is but the biography of great men.
  • We must get rid of fear.

The Hero as Prophet

Lecture II The Hero As Prophet. Mahomet: Islam. ([8 May 1840)
  • We have chosen Mahomet not as the most eminent Prophet; but as the one we are freest to speak of. He is by no means the truest of Prophets; but I do esteem him a true one. Farther, as there is no danger of our becoming, any of us, Mahometans, I mean to say all the good of him I justly can. It is the way to get at his secret: let us try to understand what he meant with the world; what the world meant and means with him, will then be a more answerable question. Our current hypothesis about Mahomet, that he was a scheming Impostor, a Falsehood incarnate, that his religion is a mere mass of quackery and fatuity, begins really to be now untenable to any one. The lies, which well-meaning zeal has heaped round this man, are disgraceful to ourselves only.
  • The greatest of faults, I should say, is to be conscious of none.
  • Much has been said of Mahomet's propagating his Religion by the sword. It is no doubt far nobler what we have to boast of the Christian Religion, that it propagated itself peaceably in the way of preaching and conviction. Yet withal, if we take this for an argument of the truth or falsehood of a religion, there is a radical mistake in it. The sword indeed: but where will you get your sword! Every new opinion, at its starting, is precisely in a minority of one. In one man's head alone, there it dwells as yet. One man alone of the whole world believes it; there is one man against all men. That he take a sword, and try to propagate with that, will do little for him. You must first get your sword! On the whole, a thing will propagate itself as it can. We do not find, of the Christian Religion either, that it always disdained the sword, when once it had got one.
  • I care little about the sword: I will allow a thing to struggle for itself in this world, with any sword or tongue or implement it has, or can lay hold of. We will let it preach, and pamphleteer, and fight, and to the uttermost bestir itself, and do, beak and claws, whatsoever is in it; very sure that it will, in the long-run, conquer nothing which does not deserve to be conquered. What is better than itself, it cannot put away, but only what is worse. In this great Duel, Nature herself is umpire, and can do no wrong: the thing which is deepest-rooted in Nature, what we call truest, that thing and not the other will be found growing at last.
  • We are to remember what an umpire Nature is; what a greatness, composure of depth and tolerance there is in her. You take wheat to cast into the Earth's bosom; your wheat may be mixed with chaff, chopped straw, barn-sweepings, dust and all imaginable rubbish; no matter: you cast it into the kind just Earth; she grows the wheat, — the whole rubbish she silently absorbs, shrouds it in, says nothing of the rubbish. The yellow wheat is growing there; the good Earth is silent about all the rest, — has silently turned all the rest to some benefit too, and makes no complaint about it! So everywhere in Nature! She is true and not a lie; and yet so great, and just, and motherly in her truth. She requires of a thing only that it be genuine of heart; she will protect it if so; will not, if not so. There is a soul of truth in all the things she ever gave harbor to. Alas, is not this the history of all highest Truth that comes or ever came into the world?
  • Mahomet can work no miracles; he often answers impatiently: I can work no miracles. I? "I am a Public Preacher;" appointed to preach this doctrine to all creatures. Yet the world, as we can see, had really from of old been all one great miracle to him. Look over the world, says he; is it not wonderful, the work of Allah; wholly "a sign to you," if your eyes were open!
  • His Religion is not an easy one: with rigorous fasts, lavations, strict complex formulas, prayers five times a day, and abstinence from wine, it did not "succeed by being an easy religion." As if indeed any religion, or cause holding of religion, could succeed by that! It is a calumny on men to say that they are roused to heroic action by ease, hope of pleasure, recompense, — sugar-plums of any kind, in this world or the next! In the meanest mortal there lies something nobler.
  • Mahomet himself, after all that can be said about him, was not a sensual man. We shall err widely if we consider this man as a common voluptuary, intent mainly on base enjoyments, — nay on enjoyments of any kind. His household was of the frugalest; his common diet barley-bread and water: sometimes for months there was not a fire once lighted on his hearth. They record with just pride that he would mend his own shoes, patch his own cloak. A poor, hard-toiling, ill-provided man; careless of what vulgar men toil for
  • No Dilettantism in this Mahomet; it is a business of Reprobation and Salvation with him, of Time and Eternity: he is in deadly earnest about it! Dilettantism, hypothesis, speculation, a kind of amateur-search for Truth, toying and coquetting with Truth: this is the sorest sin. The root of all other imaginable sins. It consists in the heart and soul of the man never having been open to Truth; — "living in a vain show." Such a man not only utters and produces falsehoods, but is himself a falsehood. The rational moral principle, spark of the Divinity, is sunk deep in him, in quiet paralysis of life-death.
  • Enjoying things which are pleasant; that is not the evil: it is the reducing of our moral self to slavery by them that is.
  • We will not praise Mahomet's moral precepts as always of the superfinest sort; yet it can be said that there is always a tendency to good in them; that they are the true dictates of a heart aiming towards what is just and true
  • On the whole, we will repeat that this Religion of Mahomet's is a kind of Christianity; has a genuine element of what is spiritually highest looking through it, not to be hidden by all its imperfections. The Scandinavian God Wish, the god of all rude men, — this has been enlarged into a Heaven by Mahomet; but a Heaven symbolical of sacred Duty, and to be earned by faith and well-doing, by valiant action, and a divine patience which is still more valiant. It is Scandinavian Paganism, and a truly celestial element superadded to that. Call it not false; look not at the falsehood of it, look at the truth of it. For these twelve centuries, it has been the religion and life-guidance of the fifth part of the whole kindred of Mankind. Above all things, it has been a religion heartily believed. These Arabs believe their religion, and try to live by it! No Christians, since the early ages, or only perhaps the English Puritans in modern times, have ever stood by their Faith as the Moslem do by theirs, — believing it wholly, fronting Time with it, and Eternity with it.
  • To the Arab Nation it was as a birth from darkness into light; Arabia first became alive by means of it. A poor shepherd people, roaming unnoticed in its deserts since the creation of the world: a Hero-Prophet was sent down to them with a word they could believe: see, the unnoticed becomes world-notable, the small has grown world-great; within one century afterwards, Arabia is at Grenada on this hand, at Delhi on that; — glancing in valor and splendor and the light of genius, Arabia shines through long ages over a great section of the world. Belief is great, life-giving. The history of a Nation becomes fruitful, soul-elevating, great, so soon as it believes.

The Hero as Poet

The Hero As Poet. Dante: Shakspeare

OF this Shakspeare of ours, perhaps the opinion one sometimes hears a little idolatrously expressed is, in fact, the right one; I think the best judgement not of this country only, but of Europe at large, is slowly pointing to the conclusion, That Shakspeare is the chief of all Poets hitherto; the greatest intellect who, in our recorded world, has left record of himself in the way of Literature. On the whole, I know not such a power of vision, such a faculty of thought, if we take all the characters of it, in any other man. Such a calmness of depth; placid joyous strength; all things imaged in that great soul of his so true and clear, as in a tranquil unfathomable sea! It has been said, that in the constructing of Shakspeare's Dramas there is, apart from all other 'faculties' as they are called, an understanding manifested, equal to that in Bacon's Novum Organum. That is true; and it is not a truth that strikes every one. It would become more apparent if we tried, any of us for himself, how, out of Shakspeare's dramatic materials, we could fashion such a result! The built house seems all so fit,- everyway as it should be, as if it came there by its own law and the nature of things,- we forget the rude disorderly quarry it was shaped from. The very perfection of the house, as if Nature herself had made it, hides the builder's merit. Perfect, more perfect than any other man, we may call Shakspeare in this: he discerns, knows as by instinct, what condition he works under, what his materials are, what his own force and its relation to them is. It is not a transitory glance of insight that will suffice; it is deliberate illumination of the whole matter; it is a calmly seeing eye; a great intellect, in short. How a man, of some wide thing that he has witnessed, will construct a narrative, what kind of picture and delineation he will give of it,- is the best measure you could get of what intellect is in the man. Which circumstance is vital and shall stand prominent; which unessential, fit to be suppressed; where is the true beginning, the true sequence and ending? To find out this, you task the whole force of insight that is in the man. He must understand the thing; according to the depth of his understanding, will the fitness of his answer be. You will try him so. Does like join itself to like; does the spirit of method stir in that confusion, so that its embroilment becomes order? Can the man say, Fiat lux, Let there be light; and out of chaos make a world? Precisely as there is light in himself, will he accomplish this.

Or indeed we may say again, it is in what I called Portrait-painting, delineating of men and things, especially of men, that Shakspeare is great. All the greatness of the man comes out decisively here. It is unexampled, I think, that calm creative perspicacity of Shakspeare. The thing he looks at reveals not this or that face of it, but its inmost heart and generic secret: it dissolves itself as in light before him, so that he discerns the perfect structure of it. Creative, we said: poetic creation, what is this too but seeing the thing sufficiently? The word that will describe the thing, follows of itself from such clear intense sight of the thing. And is not Shakspeare's morality, his valour, candour, tolerance, truthfulness; his whole victorious strength and greatness, which can triumph over such obstructions, visible there too? Great as the world! No twisted, poor convex-concave mirror, reflecting all objects with its own convexities and concavities; a perfectly level mirror;- that is to say withal, if we will understand it, a man justly related to all things and men, a good man. It is truly a lordly spectacle how this great soul takes in all kinds of men and objects, a Falstaff, an Othello, a Juliet, a Coriolanus; sets them all forth to us in their round completeness; loving, just, the equal brother of all. Novum Organum, and all the intellect you will find in Bacon, is of a quite secondary order; earthy, material, poor in comparison with this. Among modern men, one finds, in strictness, almost nothing of the same rank. Goethe alone, since the days of Shakspeare, reminds me of it. Of him too you say that he saw the object; you may say what he himself says of Shakspeare: 'His characters are like watches with dial- plates of transparent crystal; they show you the hour like others, and the inward mechanism also is all visible.'

The seeing eye! It is this that discloses the inner harmony of things; what Nature meant, what musical idea Nature has wrapped up in these often rough embodiments. Something she did mean. To the seeing eye that something were discernible. Are they base, miserable things? You can laugh over them, you can weep over them; you can in some way or other genially relate yourself to them;- you can, at lowest, hold your peace about them, turn away your own and others' face from them, till the hour come for practically exterminating and extinguishing them! At bottom, it is the Poet's first gift, as it is all men's, that he have intellect enough. He will be a Poet if he have: a Poet in word; or failing that, perhaps still better, a Poet in act. Whether he write at all; and if so, whether in prose or in verse, will depend on accidents: who knows on what extremely trivial accidents,- perhaps on his having had a singing-master, on his being taught to sing in his boyhood! But the faculty which enables him to discern the inner heart of things, and the harmony that dwells there (for whatsoever exists has a harmony in the heart of it, or it would not hold together and exist), is not the result of habits or accidents, but the gift of Nature herself; the primary outfit for a Heroic Man in what sort soever. To the Poet, as to every other, we say first of all, See. If you cannot do that, it is of no use to keep stringing rhymes together, jingling sensibilities against each other, and name yourself a Poet; there is no hope for you. If you can, there is, in prose or verse, in action or speculation, all manner of hope. The crabbed old Schoolmaster used to ask, when they brought him a new pupil, 'But are ye sure he's not a dunce?' Why, really one might ask the same thing, in regard to every man proposed for whatsoever function; and consider it as the one inquiry needful: Are ye sure he's. KHADIRI OMAR

The Hero as Priest

The Hero As Priest. Luther; Reformation: Knox; Puritanism
  • The Age of Miracles is forever here!

The Hero as Man of Letters

  • In books lies the soul of the whole Past Time; the articulate audible voice of the Past, when the body and material substance of it has altogether vanished like a dream.
  • A man lives by believing something; not by debating and arguing about many things.
  • All that mankind has done, thought, gained or been: it is lying as in magic preservation in the pages of books.
  • What we become depends on what we read after all of the professors have finished with us. The greatest university of all is a collection of books.
  • The suffering man ought really to consume his own smoke; there is no good in emitting smoke till you have made it into fire.

* Adversity is sometimes hard upon a man; but for one man who can stand prosperity, there are a hundred that will stand adversity. (Often shortened to "can't stand prosperity" as an unknown quote.)

Past and Present (1843)

  • "A fair day's wages for a fair day's work": it is as just a demand as governed men ever made of governing. It is the everlasting right of man.
    • Bk. I, ch. 3
  • Fire is the best of servents; but what a master!
    • Bk. II, ch. 9
  • All work, even cotton spinning, is noble; work is alone noble...A life of ease is not for any man, nor for any god.
    • Bk. III, ch. 4
  • Every pitifulest whipster that walks within a skin has had his head filled with the notion that he is, shall be, or by all human and divine laws ought to be, 'happy.' His wishes, the pitifulest whipster's, are to be fulfilled for him; his days, the pitifulest whipster's, are to flow on in an ever-gentle current of enjoyment, impossible even for the gods. The prophets preach to us, Thou shalt be happy; thou shalt love pleasant things, and find them. The people clamor, Why have we not found pleasant things? ...God's Laws are become a Greatest Happiness Principle. There is no religion; there is no God; man has lost his soul.
    • Bk. III, ch. 4
  • The English are a dumb people. They can do great acts, but not describe them.
    • Bk. III, ch. 5
  • Every noble crown is, and on earth will forever be, a crown of thorns.
    • Bk. III, ch. 7
  • Blessed is he who has found his work; let him ask no other blessedness.
    • Bk. III, ch. 9
  • He who takes not counsel of the Unseen and Silent, from him will never come real visibility and speech.
    • Bk. III, ch. 11
  • Captains of Industry.
    • Bk. IV, ch. 4 (chapter title)


  • A person usually has two reasons for doing something: a good reason and the real reason.
    • More often attributed to John Pierpont Morgan
  • Lord Bacon could as easily have created this planet as he could have written Hamlet.
    • According to Moncure Conway (Thomas Carlyle (1881) p. 122) Carlyle said this in reply to a Baconian enthusiast who was attempting to convert him.
  • No pressure, no diamonds.
    • More often attributed to Mary Case.

About Carlyle

  • It was very good of God to let Carlyle and Mrs Carlyle marry one another and so make only two people miserable instead of four.

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