Making a Difference

A friend and intellectual ally of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Carlyle was a social critic who endorsed the themes of the Romantic Period. His most famous work was a history of the French Revolution (1837), an event which he viewed as divine retribution for the folly of the nobility and monarchy. “On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History”(1841) showed that Carlyle, like Nietzsche, respected the strong man, whatever his profession, while having contempt for weak, ordinary men. While critical of conditions for workers, he favored feudalism and opposed democracy due to his lack of faith in the judgment of the average person. His religion, influenced by his Calvinist upbringing, was strong but negative, characterized more by a hatred of evil than a love of good.

The eldest son of his father’s second marriage, Carlyle always had strong ties to both his parents as well as his eight siblings. His father, a mason and small farmer, wanted Carlyle to become a minister, but Thomas choose to study mathematics instead. He taught math for a while, then, in 1819, returned to Edinburgh University where he unhappily studied law while trying to figure out what to do. He earned money as a tutor, and in 1826 married Jane Welsh, one of his students that he had known for five years.

His first book, “Sartor Resartus” (1833-1834), eventually had great popular success, although initially he had a very difficult time finding a publisher. His next and most important book, “The French Revolution”, suffered a serious setback when he sent a partial draft to John Stuart Mill, who accidentally burnt it, wasting months of Carlyle’s work. Without money, and with a wife to support, Carlyle worked furiously to finish the book, which was published in 1837 to popular acclaim, solving Carlyle’s financial problems. In the 1850s he began a massive study of one of his heroes, Frederick the Great, which was published between 1858 and 1865. His later years as rector of Edinburgh University were not happy; his wife died soon after he became rector, and he spent his final years writing little, generally weary, and living reclusively.

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