Philip Rosenberg, so the blurb tells us, “dramatically reverses the standard interpretation of Carlyle…and explores for the first time the radical dimension of Carlyle’s works.” Odd, I thought. Surely this was done for the first time thirty years ago by Eric Bentley in A Century of Hero-Worship. So I turned next to the index of Rosenberg’s book where the first reference to Bentley was on page 39 and read as follows:

The most common assumption with regard to Carlyle’s politics has been that his attack on Benthamite Radicalism comes from the right rather than from the left. From Emery Neff…to Eric Bentley, who sees Carlyle as almost an architect of the Third Reich, the idea of a right-wing Carlyle has been predominant in the literature.

How do you see a man almost as an architect? Either he was an architect or he wasn’t. The weasel-word means nothing. But I found this statement even stranger than the blurb. For did not Bentley maintain that the one certain way to misinterpret Carlyle was to regard him as a protofascist? I pulled down from the shelf my English edition of Bentley’s book. On the first page of the introduction the reader was reminded that “specifically, the doctrine of hero-worship should not lightly be dismissed as Hitlerism.”

Toward the end of the book Bentley showed at length how many scholars and authors had tried to claim Carlyle as an architect of this or that cause and how ludicrous such claims turned out to be. He convicted Sir Herbert Grierson and other pillars of scholarship of vulgarly pandering to wartime prejudices when they pinned a Nazi label on Carlyle. No doubt Carlyle was no believer in democracy, but if that was a crime then Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Shaw, Flaubert, Zola, Joyce, Proust, Yeats, Rilke, and T. S. Eliot should also be in the dock.

It was not all that easy to take this line when Bentley was writing his book (for the most part in 1940). Historians of ideas, political theorists, and sociologists were then asking how the success of fascism had come about, and in the search for scapegoats everything from pop culture (which had enervated an otherwise heroic proletariat) to the philosophes of eighteenth-century France—who had vainly imagined that they were the standard-bearers in the fight against authoritarian government—got cast for the role of proto-Nazis. Bentley did not deny that there was a sinister side to Carlyle which prefigured the high-brow fascism of Hamsun and Daudet and the professors of Hitler’s Germany. But Bentley was far more concerned to show how Carlyle anticipated Marx and Engels, Nietzsche and Bergson, Freud and Jung, and, above all, William James: how he held novel theories of psychology and a pragmatic view of truth. His life indeed was one long fight against contemporary orthodoxies, and I cannot conceive how anyone who reads Bentley’s book could imagine that he was casting Carlyle for the role of architect of the Third Reich. So much for Mr. Rosenberg’s first dismissive charge.

Mr. Rosenberg would then have us infer that Bentley envisaged Carlyle as a right-wing figure whereas “Carlyle has very little in common with conservative ideology.” Quite the reverse: Bentley reminded us why Dickens dedicated Hard Times and Ruskin Munera Pulveris to Carlyle; and why Emerson and Whitman, Havelock Ellis and Patrick Geddes, looked to him for inspiration. (He might have added that even a rationalist such as T. H. Huxley wrote: “Sartor Resartus led me to know what a deep sense of religion was compatible with an entire absence of theology,” and attributed his regeneration in part to Carlyle; and even a Whig historian such as Trevelyan thought that no historian conveyed the irony and tragedy of the condition of man better than Carlyle.)

But Bentley did more than this. He not only established Carlyle as the enemy of mechanistic Benthamism, aristocratic flunkeydom, middle-class commercialism and the advocate of the supreme worth of the individual who was at once the inheritor of history and the prime actor in it. He also established Carlyle as the weaver of a genuinely new strand in the history of thought, a strand which could not have been woven before the French Revolution and the Romantic Revival, a strand which ran through Nietzsche to Wagner and Shaw, and ended in Spengler, Stefan George, and D. H. Lawrence. This strand attempts to tease aesthetic standards into the warp of history and politics. The reason why Engels admired him was not merely that he despised the bourgeoisie as much as the landed aristocracy and gentry whose enclosures drove yeomen to the towns, but because Carlyle recognized that all politics are a struggle for power: that money, the cash nexus, was now the bond between men; that no one can be free who does not recognize necessity; and that events in society cannot be explained other than through history.


Carlyle was a sage. If he must be typecast he was a historian and not a philosopher or (as Mr. Rosenberg would have) a political theorist. In England in those days the individual was thought to move historical events. Carlyle attached supreme importance to the sufferings and achievements of ordinary individuals and in order to account for historical change argued that Great Men transformed life. In his highest role the hero took the place of God. If Carlyle had a political theory it was Aristocratic Radicalism, which differed from philosophic radicalism in its conception that history was dynamic and men demonic. Precisely because the organic order and development of the world can be shattered by man’s demonic activity, the chief virtues in life are obedience, order, hierarchy. These can be achieved only if the hero is so far above criticism and dispute that he is, in a word, worshiped. (Whereas Bentley refers this anthropological notion back to Shakespeare’s notion of kingship, it is characteristic of Philip Rosenberg that he parades Max Weber’s theory of charismatic leadership in order to explain Carlyle’s ideas.)

Carlyle understood what men actually felt about their leaders. That was what made him original. He understood that the leaders were sometimes regarded as individuals and sometimes as the embodiment of collective groups such as classes, or parties, or factions. In this Marx was something of an old-fashioned, mechanistic psychologist; but Carlyle, anticipating Freud, worked with newly fashioned notions of the collective unconscious. His analysis of the psychology of the mob in the French Revolution was as much a part of his theory of historical change as his belief that heroes could alter the impersonal forces of history and defeat blind necessity, which Marx believed held mankind in its grip. Churchill in 1940 is a Carlylean hero.

Such were the ideas which Eric Bentley discovered in Carlyle and which transformed his place in Victorian studies. Bentley’s book bears all the marks of a wartime production: There are virtually no footnotes, and though there is a spirited critical bibliography the index is inadequate. It sparkles with fireworks and intellectual illumination.

When a Scot or an Irishman wants to criticize England he settles in London and is paid by an English publisher to do the job.

The philosopher of progress often finds that progress has been suspended for his lifetime.

The idealization of youth is highbrow boyscoutism.

Every cult of Greece and Rome that has been formed since the Renaissance has served to exalt the go-getting destructive type…. One thinks of the Girondins.

But it is by no means all epigrams. Both the range of reading and the width of reference are remarkable for a young man. The book is swept along by a passion for ideas, their relations and effects. Bentley writes out of himself. He judges Carlyle against his own understanding of the way politics, history, and mankind works, an understanding which is of course molded by his times.

It is noticeable that when Bentley wants to make an illuminating comparison he reaches back to the past, to Aristotle or Augustine, or he cites Carlyle’s contemporaries—Byron, Coleridge. German Historismus. To the entrenched academic Bentley will look like a light skirmisher, a lancer, pricking his way swiftly across a plain when he ought to have been digging in and advancing by set-piece battles to take over new positions. But then Bentley covers such a wide territory: he travels light but far, even though the seventy-odd pages in which he deals with Carlyle are not as weighty as Rosenberg’s two hundred.

Mr. Rosenberg has a totally different plan of campaign. He resembles a siege-engineer, first of all assembling the most modern engines of warfare and then selecting the most appropriate ammunition to hurl at the palisaded fortress of Carlyle so that it will be forced to render up its secrets. The first paragraph of his book brings forward Lionel Trilling on the self, and then follow Auerbach on narration, Arendt on man and scientific method, Talmon on totalitarianism, and soon such heavy weapons as Weber and Talcott Parsons are trundled out.

Cyril Connolly has called this method “making with the blocks.” You shift the blocks around and the subject is squeezed until it fits the interstices between them. Or the subject is set against the value judgments which the concepts of the blocks dictate—and is usually found wanting and therefore is sentenced to jail. If a dull mind makes with the blocks—and all too often it does because the method is a device to avoid thinking while giving the impression of profound mental energy—an exceedingly tedious book emerges.


Mr. Rosenberg’s mind is certainly not dull. He is intelligent, alert, well aware of the points in his argument where he must show that he is aware of a weakness, a gap, or the need of an interpretation, a commitment. There is no false name-dropping, the digging is thorough and sound; and though his style is not arresting and the words do not leap off the page, it is alive and readable. His book is far denser than Bentley’s airy account. Just how searching a scholar he is can be seen in his first three chapters where he analyzes how Carlyle regarded the self. This is indeed original. He shows that the gospel of work was not a belief that hard work heals man by curing egoism, cafard, anomie—or what Kipling called “the cameelious hump.” It was a belief that only by annihilating the self can a man be born again. That was the meaning of his own rebirth which he described in Sartor.

By this time the reader can see that Mr. Rosenberg is moving the blocks about to a purpose. By referring to Hegel, Marx, and Weber and to contemporary “human condition” analyses he constructs a series of crucial questions and problems fundamental to the nineteenth-century social situation (and indeed to ours). He then shows how Carlyle’s mind between 1828 and 1843 developed the process of answering these questions and problems. Having refuted the view that society is not a collection of rational selves competing for the maximization of pleasure, Carlyle next reinterpreted history. (The argument here is a familiar one.) His study of the French Revolution convinced him that only through revolutionary force could a new order emerge. He saw through the liberal constitutionalism of the Girondins as simply the imposition of rule by the middle class. He was unique in not condemning the Terror. In one of his memorable metaphors Carlyle declared that without sans-culottism the old clothes of the ancien régime could never have been shed.

Unfortunately, Mr. Rosenberg laments, Carlyle denied that a sans-culottic order could in fact be established (i.e., a true revolutionary government legitimized by consent) because institutionalized anarchy was a contradiction in terms. But Mr. Rosenberg comforts himself that perhaps, after all, Carlyle understood that revolution can throw up the just and stern government that mankind ought to desire; and certainly Carlyle mused that the destruction of the Bastille, the Terror, and the patriotic war had surely not been in vain, “Patience, thou must have patience; the end is not yet.”

The reader is then taken through Carlyle’s devastating critique of English society, which is rightly praised because, as Bentley said, his genius consisted “in the way in which, like a sponge, he sucked in so much of the current of the age.” This critique, according to Mr. Rosenberg, led Carlyle to the verge of maintaining that the organic growth of society can only occur in an atmosphere of “revolutionary activism”—and indeed of communal action by working-class groups throughout society: a kind of perpetual Maoist cultural revolution. It is true that Carlyle never quite makes it—he was hopelessly isolated by the lack of a genuine radical movement in England. But he continued to wrestle with the problem of how sans-culottism was to find leadership. Certainly not through despicable parliamentary government.

The answer came to Carlyle through his notion, so hated by us but which Mr. Rosenberg is very right to praise, that history can be seen as the history of great men as well as the movement of impersonal forces. The true hero does not lash the mob into submission, nor does he rely on the slavish adulation of flunkies and valets. The true hero awakens the latent heroism in his followers. To the six types of hero which Carlyle identified in his famous lectures, there should be added a seventh—regenerated man himself. This is the thesis which Mr. Rosenberg nails to the mast. He deduces that between the ages of thirty-three and forty-eight Carlyle was a radical, and that his writings “if properly interpreted [italics mine] can be of considerable use in the development of a theory of radical activism at a time when, after the diffuse and unfocused activism of the 1960s, such a theory is badly needed.”

Radical is a poor overworked nag of a word. It should be put out to grass for a decade or two. Clearly in the sense that Carlyle struck at the roots of accepted notions he was radical. But Rosenberg means something quite different: he means that Carlyle was a radical in the sense that Cobbett, Bronterre O’Brien, or Marx and Engels were. Defiantly he adds that only if it can be shown that Carlyle’s observations about society were erroneous or his analysis wrong can there be any doubt about the matter.

But it is not Carlyle’s observations and analysis that are at stake. It is Mr. Rosenberg’s. It is a tiny point but when he states that the ruling classes in England with the Poor Law of 1804 had “chosen not to interfere with natural laws…in such a way as to make things quite comfortable for the manufacturing interest,” has he forgotten that Tories passed Factory Acts or that the theory of not interfering with natural economic laws was invoked to abolish the Corn Laws? Was there ever a “moral economy” which existed before the “political economy” of industrialism and the cash nexus as Mr. Rosenberg, following Tawney, imagines there to have been? This is a matter on which there has been, to put it mildly, considerable historical debate, and by no means all of it on the side of Carlyle and Tawney.

Mr. Rosenberg praises Dickens for his creation of Bounderby and then ticks him off sharply for creating the Brothers Cheryble and suggesting that businessmen could be benevolent. Oh dear, oh dear! Dickens and Ruskin are rebuked for believing that what the age needed was a reform of the heart. But how does their simple recipe differ essentially from Carlyle’s notion of the “seventh hero”? What is Carlyle’s regenerated man, who has annihilated his egotistical self through work to be born again, but someone whose heart has been “reformed”?

No one would question Mr. Rosenberg’s mastery in moving the blocks of his choosing—those formidable vast analyses of the relationships within society of history and of the destiny of mankind made by Hegel, Marx, Weber, and their commentators. But I do ask myself whether he has read much political theory. The nineteenth-century conservative and liberal political theories are much tougher and more subtle than he allows. At one point, praising Carlyle’s understanding of the supreme importance of power, he alludes to the liberal fantasy of believing that power can be eliminated from political life and be replaced by legal relationships. But the liberal theorists (who wrote in opposition to seventeenth-century absolutism) were not likely to fail to recognize power: they thought that what had to be done was to contain it, and the only way to do this was to separate it and institutionalize conflicting interest groups and forces. No sane liberal ever doubted that the state exercised power: the problem was how to limit that exercise.

But the most staggering omission is any analysis of Carlyle’s hero-worship. When Mr. Rosenberg shakes his head sadly over Carlyle’s little weakness in being unable to envisage how a true revolutionary legitimate government, a sans-culottic order, can be established, he shies from the intolerable insoluble dilemma which affects all socialist thinkers. That dilemma is how equality (or whatever goals the radical wants to realize) can be established while yet claiming that the government which establishes them (very possibly having to use force) is governing according to the will of the people. Carlyle solved the dilemma by inventing the hero, which may, or may not, satisfy those who look for poetic and imaginative insights from sages and historians—insights incapable of being realized in cold political realities. For political theory Carlyle’s solution means Caesarism—and it is no accident that, apart from Goethe, and (in a diminished sense) Sir Robert Peel, the only hero Carlyle allowed among his contemporaries was Napoleon—a name which does not feature in Mr. Rosenberg’s index and appears, I think, only once, cursorily, on page 30.

It does not feature because he ignores this central question in political theory, the legitimization of authority. It was ignored of course, by Carlyle, but then he did not conceive himself to be a political philosopher. Mr. Rosenberg blandly pronounces that the Carlyle aged fifty and sixty can be dismissed on the grounds that he simply failed to develop further. In fact he adopts the same position which Trevelyan took in his excellent essay on “The Two Carlyles” and argues that after 1848 a good man went wrong and became the odious reactionary who wrote apologies for Cromwell and Frederick the Great, defended Governor Eyre, and ended his days sunk in misanthropy.

Unfortunately for this interpretation Carlyle did indeed continue to develop—but not in the direction which suits Mr. Rosenberg’s thesis. Carlyle was not schizophrenic. His ferocious Caesarism grew inevitably out of his root and branch clearance of the political terrain. In proclaiming that right was might he was less astute than Machiavelli in perceiving the consequences. The remainder of his life he spent in identifying the actual processes whereby the hero rules; and he reveled in the “hardness” of the decisions which the hero has to take. That is what Carlyle enjoys when he describes Frederick of Prussia whose apparent brutalities and equivocations are to be condoned as the hero’s understanding of destiny. Indeed Carlyle tells us where the band of heroes—men who understood that their leader was a hero and assumed heroic proportions themselves—was to be found in nineteenth-century Europe. It was the Prussian army engaged in Bismarck’s service.

This should not have surprised Mr. Rosenberg had he not deliberately shut his eyes to a crucial element in Carlyle’s intellectual make-up. He writes:

If the idea of god was important to Thomas Carlyle so be it; for us it is only a distraction, for from the moment he asserted the transcendental identity of god and the forces at work in the natural, historical world, his theology became a redundancy which we can well afford to ignore.

We ignore it at our peril. Carlyle discarded Christianity because it opposed the doctrine that might was right; but he remained a Calvinist to the end. In his hands the predestined scheme of salvation became historical necessity. Carlyle’s notion of the seventh hero which Mr. Rosenberg so perceptively spots—the heroic appearing in ourselves—is nothing more than God calling his saints to him, the elect who are chosen by His grace.

It is characteristic of Carlyle’s theology that he does not allow the usual Christian devices of restoring freedom and chance to history through God’s miraculous interventions or judgment upon mankind. No; the full Augustinian canon is required. Augustine declared that Divine choice is inaccessible to the human mind: so in Carlyle is the working out of the historical process. Man has been given the gift of final perseverance which means that, if elected by God, he will gain both grace and glory: so in Carlyle man saves himself not through debate but through belief and makes his choice by intuition not logic. The seventeenth of the thirty-nine Articles of the Anglican Church refers to the doctrine of predestination as being of “sweet, pleasant and unspeakable comfort.” Carlyle’s sardonic humor and determination to spell out how harsh historical necessity is reminds one of a Calvinist preacher. Sages such as Carlyle jettison the dogmas in which they were brought up, but something of the temper, the tone, the framework nearly always remains.

I recoil, therefore, from the picture of Carlyle as the author of a quasi-revolutionary theory and the holder of a place in the pantheon of radicals in politics. I admire Mr. Rosenberg’s energy and intelligence and, above all, the fortitude with which he moves from position to position like an eighteenth-century general capturing or neutralizing fortresses. He has amplified and corrected at a number of points the contention first made of points the contention first made by Eric Bentley that Caryle was an exceptionally original thinker and dazzling critic of the politics and historiography of his times, whose ideas reached out to the twentieth century. But he should not have denigrated Bentley.

He is right to remind us how near Carlyle was at one time to accepting that revolution was perhaps the only hope of shifting the intolerable evils and falsehoods engendered by industrialism and the rise of indolent aristocrats and grasping businessmen. But he is wrong not to analyze the implications of hero-worship as a form of government or to inquire whether the reason Carlyle lost his faith in the theory of revolution was that there was a fundamental and hopeless flaw in his analysis of politics. As Carlyle was no political theorist that would hardly be a surprise; but then it is Mr. Rosenberg who insists on treating him as a political theorist.

As regards Carlyle and the present, I share Mr. Rosenberg’s conviction that leadership and stature are more necessary than ever on the left today and his concern that the process of government, the style of communication, and the ethos of mass society make both far less likely to emerge than when Carlyle lived. But Carlyle as the progenitor of consumer or student participation, or of workers’ control, or of cooperative, power-sharing government—no, that is beyond credibility. It is even further fetched than Carlyle as the proto-Nazi.

Carlyle believed in aristocracy—not the aristocracy of birth or the bureaucratic meritocracy—but the aristocracy of men who were consciously leaders not unlike the Indian military and civil servants whom Kipling lauded. He would have had no sympathy with the present distaste on the left for anything that suggests an order, hierarchy, or a system in which some men command others. He remains an extraordinary writer, the master of the most idiosyncratic style of his century, grotesque, symbolic, grim, and withering, a Jeremiah whom nobody understood, a seer whose prophetic device for curing society fractured in the process of becoming a historical reality and assumed in our times the most horrible shape.

This Issue

June 27, 1974