Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Heroes and Hero Worship by Thomas Carlyle

A few days ago on his blog The Victorian Sage
Victorian Sage
Mark Wallace revealed that Huff Po U.K. had mentioned Thomas Carlyle in an introduction to a prospective mens’ month. I felt that the impugning of featuring only male heros in his book Heroes and Hero Worship was waving the bien pensant flag. You Bad Victorian, me Good New Man sort of thing – the breast beating of the Beta New Man as opposed to the breast beating of the Alpha Male Silverback Victorian. Mark in his reply made the point that any mention of Heroes might open up new vistas. He mentioned also the category of the Man of Letters favoured by Carlyle which has led me to read that chapter initially delivered as a lecture entitled The Hero as Man of Letters.

Is it a tract for our times? That’s an interesting question and one fraught with the possibility of being cut off at the gulch by a hashtag posse. Carlyle's early struggles had an heroic quality. There were no networks that he could use. His father was not that sort of Mason. Heroes tend to be one off individuals defined by their own power. How free of ethnic and class considerations can they be? Carlyle’s black humour and his scorn had a Celtic tinge to it. The merry cackling of Jane and Tom in Chelsea over Harriet and John Stuart must have been great crack yet it has to be admitted that Mill’s Utilitarianism is the order of our day with its implicit standardisation and its cult of happiness . The call to Work, to suffer and to grow in power seems demented compared to that.

Bentham and by implication Mill receive a swingeing chastisement:

The other day speaking, without prior purpose that way, of Bentham's theory of man and man's life, I chanced to call it a more beggarly one than Mahomet's. I am bound to say, now when it is once uttered, that such is my deliberate opinion. Not that one would mean offence against the man Jeremy Bentham, or those who respect and believe him. Bentham himself, and even the creed of Bentham, seems to me comparatively worthy of praise. It is a determinate being what all the world, in a cowardly half-and-half manner, was tending to be. Let us have the crisis; we shall either have death or the cure. I call this gross, steam-engine Utilitarianism an approach towards new Faith. It was a laying-down of cant; a saying to oneself: "Well then, this world is a dead iron machine, the god of it Gravitation and selfish Hunger; let us see what, by checking and balancing, and good adjustment of tooth and pinion, can be made of it!" Benthamism has something complete, manful, in such fearless committal of itself to what it finds true; you may call it Heroic, though a Heroism with its eyes put out! It is the culminating point, and fearless ultimatum, of what lay in the half-and-half state, pervading man's whole existence in that Eighteenth Century. It seems to me, all deniers of Godhood, and all lip-believers of it, are bound to be Benthamites, if they have courage and honesty. Benthamism is an eyeless Heroism: the Human Species, like a hapless blinded Samson grinding in the Philistine Mill, clasps convulsively the pillars of its Mill; brings huge ruin down, but ultimately deliverance withal. Of Bentham I meant to say no harm.

But this I do say, and would wish all men to know and lay to heart, that he who discerns nothing but Mechanism in the Universe has in the fatalest way missed the secret of the Universe altogether. That all Godhood should vanish out of men's conception of this Universe seems to me precisely the most brutal error,—I will not disparage Heathenism by calling it a Heathen error,—that men could fall into. It is not true; it is false at the very heart of it. A man who thinks so will think wrong about all things in the world; this original sin will vitiate all other conclusions he can form. One might call it the most lamentable of Delusions,—not forgetting Witchcraft itself! Witchcraft worshipped at least a living Devil; but this worships a dead iron Devil; no God, not even a Devil! Whatsoever is noble, divine, inspired, drops thereby out of life. There remains everywhere in life a despicable caput-mortuum; the mechanical hull, all soul fled out of it. How can a man act heroically? The "Doctrine of Motives" will teach him that it is, under more or less disguise, nothing but a wretched love of Pleasure, fear of Pain; that Hunger, of applause, of cash, of whatsoever victual it may be, is the ultimate fact of man's life. Atheism, in brief;—which does indeed frightfully punish itself. The man, I say, is become spiritually a paralytic man; this godlike Universe a dead mechanical steam-engine, all working by motives, checks, balances, and I know not what; wherein, as in the detestable belly of some Phalaris'-Bull of his own contriving, he the poor Phalaris sits miserably dying!

My final quote from Heroes refers to the Man of Letters but might just as well apply to anyone, man or woman, and in any century, who has not found ‘the path with heart’:

His fatal misery was the spiritual paralysis, so we may name it, of the Age in which his life lay; whereby his life too, do what he might, was half paralyzed! The Eighteenth was a Sceptical Century; in which little word there is a whole Pandora's Box of miseries. Scepticism means not intellectual Doubt alone, but moral Doubt; all sorts of infidelity, insincerity, spiritual paralysis. Perhaps, in few centuries that one could specify since the world began, was a life of Heroism more difficult for a man. That was not an age of Faith,—an age of Heroes! The very possibility of Heroism had been, as it were, formally abnegated in the minds of all. Heroism was gone forever; Triviality, Formulism and Commonplace were come forever. The "age of miracles" had been, or perhaps had not been; but it was not any longer. An effete world; wherein Wonder, Greatness, Godhood could not now dwell;—in one word, a godless world!


Mark Patrick Wallace said...

Yes, Mill would appear to have won out in that debate. Greatest happiness for the greatest number and all that. The question is, though, does this rational approach conflict with or fail to take into account basic features of the human mind? Carlyle's position is that pursuing happiness, while rational, is much less natural to humans than pursuing difficulty and striving against constraints. This view is not unique to Carlyle: it's similar to Dostoyevsky's view of the will in Notes from Underground and to Nietzsche's Will to Power, among others. And really, looking at developments throughout history, it's not clear that the rationalist pursuit of happiness explains all that much. Utilitarianism is idealistic rather than historical: we can use it to picture the good life, but not to deal with the path of much of history, or even contemporary cultural movements.

ombhurbhuva said...

True bill.

The Wikipedia entry on ‘blood, toil, tears and sweat’,_toil,_tears,_and_sweat
shows it to have been a cog as previously nearly identical phrases have been uttered by heroic chaps and others. We respond to reality in literature and in life:
“We had fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart's grown brutal from the fare,”
Do you watch Leftovers the H.B.O. show? It is a depiction of disruption and the refusal to suffer consciously. The showing of the divagation into aberration is well done.