Thomas Carlyle: On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and The Heroic in History

Seen as a product of a poetical mind it’s not so bad. The way the author thinks he knows what was happening in the minds of people he never knew is now and then even amusing. He’s so sure how Odin was invented, what persons as different as the prophet Mahomet, the priest Luther and the poet Burns thought, one occasionally can’t help grinning at his arrogance . . .

As a philosophical treatise, however, it’s crap. Mr Carlyle is right in maintaining that human tendency to look for somebody to admire, and human inclination to admire the successful, are often uncritical. Unfortunately, he demonstrates it by admiring, often uncritically, the successful himself. The final lecture, comparing the (ultimately successful) Cromwell and (ultimately unsuccessful) Napoleon, is almost sickeningly biased.

Nevertheless, as a lifelong bookworm I was myself biased in favour of the following words, admiring the invention of the [runic] alphabet from the first lecture.

It is the greatest invention man has ever made! this of marking down the unseen thought that is in him by written characters. It is a kind of second speech, almost as miraculous as the first.

 

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