On Heroes, Hero-worship, and the Heroic in History is a collection of lectures Thomas Carlyle gave in 1840, on the theory and practice of Great Men – Napoleon, obviously, but also religious figures like Mohammed, Luther, and Odin(!?), and writers like Shakespeare and Rousseau. The lectures were enormously successful, greatly increasing Carlyle’s reputation and cash flow.
It is very hard for me to imagine what they were like. Based on the page count, they must have been at least an hour and a half long. And they were difficult. Complicated, sometimes obscure, always pure Carlyle. For example, in the lecture on Luther, Carlyle describes the efforts of Pope Leo X to suppress Luther’s teachings, which leads him to digress on the earlier religious reformer Jan Huss:
“He [Leo X] dooms the Monk’s writings to be burnt by the hangman, and his body to be sent bound to Rome,- probably for a similar purpose. It was the way they had ended with Huss, with Jerome the century before. A short argument, fire. Poor Huss: he came to that Constance Council, with all imaginable promises and safe-conducts; an earnest, not rebellious kind of man: they laid him instantly in a stone dungeon ‘three-feet wide, six-feet high, seven-feet long;’ burnt the true voice of him out of this world; choked it in smoke and fire. That was not well done!” (p. 363)
This gives an idea why Carlyle’s history of the French Revolution is still read – his history writing is vivid, opinionated, original. “A short argument, fire”. There’s a lot of information packed in that sentence. I think it’s a great passage. But hearing it an hour into a lecture, I might think “Wait, who burned Luther?”
And how about this one:
“In this point of view, I consider that, for the last hundred years, by far the notablest of all Literary Men is Fichte’s countryman, Goethe. To that man too, in a strange way, there was given what we may call a life in the Divine Idea of the World; vision of the inward divine mystery; and strangely, out of his Books, the world rises imaged once more as godlike, the workmanship and temple of a God. Illuminated all, not in fierce impure fire-splendour as of Mahomet, but in mild celestial radiance;” and on like that, unstoppably. (p. 386)
Sorry, that’s terrible. Call in a chemist to identify the exact composition of the gas. How many people were really able to follow this? I’ve wondered the same thing about Coleridge’s muddled lectures on Shakespeare, or Ralph Waldo Emerson’s lectures on anything, or even William Hazlitt’s lectures, which have a much more straightforward style. What were these events really like? What did their audiences understand? What would I have understood? Carlyle’s lectures are not as high on my time-traveling list as seeing Dickens perform his seventy-minute reading of A Christmas Carol, but I’m curious.
Bonus book-related epigrams from On Heroes:
“The true University of these days is a Collection of Books.” (p. 390)
“All that Mankind has done, thought, gained or been: it is lying as in magic preservation in the pages of Books. They are the chosen possessions of men.” (p. 388)
All references are to the old Everyman’s Library edition of On Heroes.