Gather round Clio’s footstool!

As promised, the first chapter of my thesis (of the bits I feel comfortable publishing here). I will revise other chapters before publication as they are simply too long. This one is a bit long as well but I just went with it anyways. I feel the need to spread the word on Carlyle more as he is unknown to so many people (including those who think they love/know 19th century literature). As George Eliot highlights in the magazine The Leader (1855):

there is hardly a superior or active mind of this generation that has not been modified by Carlyle’s writings; there has hardly been an English book written for the last ten or twelve years that would not have been different if Carlyle had not lived.

Appreciation for Carlyle’s work usually suffers from the fact that Hitler read him in the Bunker and also from the fact that his views are superficially & anachronistically read as a belief in totalitarian systems. I don’t agree with these views, they only distort any proper reading of Carlyle, which is a great shame because there is so much to gain from his writings. Even Emerson continued to be his friend in spite of the scandals surrounding some of Carlyle’s later remarks. So, there must be something to this man if Emerson considered him a friend, don’t you think?

Following you will find my analysis of his essay “On History”:

Thomas Carlyle initialises his essay “On History” (1830) with the heartfelt belief that history “lies at the root of all science” (219 I), the author is convinced that it “is also the first distinct product of man’s spiritual nature; his earliest expression of what can be called Thought” (OH 219 I). This early statement shows how history is held in high esteem. History is not only the most rudimentary human need, but also, according to Carlyle’s understanding, strongly tinged by Calvinist predestination theory, a unifying and driving element of time which is “unseen, yet definitely shaped, predetermined, and inevitable” (OH 219 I).  Paul Kerry and Marylu Hill define Carlyle’s high regard for history as follows:

His hope was in history – not the dead mountain of decaying artefacts beloved by Dryasdust the historian, but the living organic fabric of words and ideas that weaves together past, present, and future. (20)

Man has forever been living “between two eternities, and warring against Oblivion” (OH 220 I), history prevents him from vanishing into oblivion, history is the anchorage, “conscious relation, as in dim unconscious relation he is already united, with the whole Future and the whole Past” (OH 220 I). Logically, “[a] talent for History may be said to be born with us” and this is why “[i]n a certain sense all men are historians” (OH 220 I). Man needs to utter what he has experienced or seen; man without narrative is more or less impossible. Without narrative even “the wisest” (220 I) men would have almost nothing left to fuel conversation. Based on our connection to history, our reliance on history as a means against oblivion, and man’s naturally historical speech,

we do nothing but enact History, we say little but recite it; nay, rather, in that widest sense, our whole spiritual life is built thereof […] what is all Knowledge […] but recorded Experience, and a product of History (220 I)

Carlyle continues by claiming that proper history must be seen as the art par excellence. Clio, who started as a raconteur, “has now farther become a School-Mistress, and professes to instruct in gratifying” (OH 220 I). He describes history as the fountain of knowledge which every department of life consults. In order to further specify his idea on history, he borrows a quote by Dionysius of Halicarnassus, which was altered by Henry St. John Viscount Bolingbroke: “[e]xamine History, for it is ‘Philosophy teaching by experience’” (OH 220 I). Hereinafter, Carlyle at first rejects to tolerate any scruple considering history and her value, when he says: “[f]ar be it from us to disparage such teaching, the very attempt at which must be precious. Neither shall we too rigidly inquire, how much It has to hitherto profited?” (OH 220 I). For the remainder of the essay, he actually does exactly that – question the value of history, at least the kind of history that is traditionally practiced. “Before philosophy can teach by Experience, the Philosophy has to be in readiness, the Experience must be gathered and intelligibly recorded” (220 II); this first task however must be accomplished with the knowledge in mind “that recorded evidence about the past is both an asset and a liability for a historian” (Taylor 30).

One reason for historical evidence being a liability is that it feigns reality and thus creates a certain feeling of dependability. But can life and its manifold aspects be truly recorded? One approach to a solution could be writing only a history of society as “[s]ocial Life is the aggregate of all the individual men’s Lives who constitute society; History is the essence of innumerable Biographies.” (OH 220 II) But if our own life “remains in so many points unintelligible to us” (OH 220 II), how can we fathom the sum total of mankind’s biographies? Lowell T. Frye in his essay “History as Biography, Biography as History” states that Carlyle’s “claim is also and strikingly a lament for the near impossibility of writing history, for Carlyle in 1830 is stressing primarily the innumerability of people, not the people themselves, and those numberless human beings create enormous problems for the would-be historian” (133). It becomes even more complicated, when the individuality of every single age (as Carlyle claims it to exist) is taken into consideration:

The inward condition of life, it may rather be affirmed the conscious or half-conscious aim of mankind, so far as men are not mere digesting machines, it the same in no two ages; neither are the more important outward variations easy to fix on, or always well capable of representation. (OH 220 II)

Carlyle’s understanding of the uniqueness of every age is a rejection of “Enlightenment suppositions of a constant, universal human nature as the foundation for deductive generalizations about human lives in the past” (Frye 134). Another complicated factor in the study of the past is to retrospectively figure out which events, personalities or groups from the past were the most influential for the then present and the future; that were the triggers of change. The reader does not even know whether the records show what really mattered at the time because “[w]hen the oak tree is felled, the whole forest echoes with it; but a hundred acorns are planted silently by some unnoticed breeze” (OH 220 II). Entailed in the question of what to record is the sense of foreboding that the essentials of an epoch may be lost, unrecorded. If so, can history still teach us something? “Of the facts that are collected, how many are collected poorly, inaccurate, or drenched in bias?” (Hill 126) Does objectivity even exist in those documents? What lesson is there to learn if the events chosen for tradition where not the pivotal, epochal events?

Well may we say that of our History the more important part is lost without recovery […] So imperfect is that same Experience, by which Philosophy is to teach. […] is not our understanding of them altogether incomplete; it is even possible to represent them as they were? […] it [choice of events for heritage] is settled, by a majority of votes […] Suppose, however that the majority of votes was all wrong […] (OH 221 I)

Carlyle elaborates further on the inadequacy of recorded history with regard to the reality it is supposed to impart, when he claims that this recorded history is no “real historical Transaction, but only some more or less plausible scheme and theory of Transaction, or the harmonized result of many such schemes, each varying from the other, and all varying from Truth, that we can ever hope to behold” (OH 221 II). Another such difference between recorded and actual past is that historical events are not “simply related to each other as parent and offspring” (OH 221 II). Past events are linked and shaped by all preceding and all concurrent events. To be more precise, historical events are not isolated occurrences that happened in a strict chronological order; recorded history “must be successive, while the things done were often simultaneous” (OH 221 II). Carlyle extends his criticism on the shortcomings of historiography when he claims that actual history

is an ever-living, ever-working Chaos of being […] And this Chaos, boundless as the habitation and duration of man, unfathomable as the soul and destiny of man, is what the historian will depict, and scientifically gauge, we may say, by threading it with single lines of a few ells length. (OH 221 II)

The approach of delivering the past to posterity by using narrative is moribund due to the fact that “all Narrative is, by its nature, of only one dimension” (221 II). Marylu Hill notes that “As a result nothing from the past comes whole and clear-cut” (126). Recorded history fails to accurately hand-down the three-dimensional action of man: “Truly, if History is Philosophy teaching by Experience, the writer fitted to compose history is hitherto an unknown man” (OH 221 II). Richard W. Schoch in his essay on Carlyle’s use of theatricality in his works sums this aspect up as follows:

As Carlyle asserted […] the observations of most historians were unreliable […] The historian’s challenge, as Carlyle saw all too clearly, was to capture the solidity of action […] in a linear narrative. (29)

As history by its nature would require an omniscient historian, the historian is doomed to fall short of the ideal. Thus, the impossibility of fathoming the past in its entirety leaves a gap that is easily filled with the ineffability of God(’s work). According to Carlyle, God is revealed in history, but only in all the history of eternity, which in its infinitude can never be registered by something as finite as writing,

Better were it that mere earthly Historians should lower such pretensions, more suitable for Omniscience than for human science; and aiming only at some picture of the things acted, which picture itself will at best be a poor approximation, leave the inscrutable purport of them an acknowledged secret; or, at most, in reverent Faith, far different from that teaching of Philosophy, pause over the mysterious vestiges of Him, whose path is in the great deep of Time, whom History indeed reveals, but only all History, and in Eternity will clearly reveal. (OH 221 II)

However, the realisation of these aspects, should not keep us from studying and practicing history. A genuine modesty towards true history and an understanding of our own shortcomings as interpreters and producers of so-called history is, admittedly advisable but it should never “abate our esteem for them, or discourage us from unweariedly prosecuting them” (OH 221 II). According to Marylu Hill, “[t]his is precisely the point where faith, exposed through Carlyle’s use of scepticism, can find its grounding in a new definition of the divine-in-history” (128). Carlyle justifies, why despite the inscrutability of history, it still should be written, studied, and taught:

yet in that complex Manuscript, covered over with formless, inextricably entangled, unknown characters […] some letters, some words, may be deciphered; and if no complete Philosophy, here and there and intelligible precept, available in practice, be gathered […]. (OH 222 I)

Still, it should always be kept in mind “that history is a real prophetic Manuscript, and can be fully interpreted by no man” (OH 222 I).

Historians, Carlyle claims, must be differentiated into two kinds of historians, namely, the “Artist in History” and the “Artisan in History”; men, who either “labour mechanically” or “inform and ennoble the humblest department” (OH 222 I). Whereas the artisans are “without eye for the Whole, not feeling that there is a Whole”, the artists have “an Idea of the Whole, and habitually know that only in the Whole is the Partial to be truly discerned” (OH 222 I). As adequate as specialisation for common people (craftsmen) might be, it can be fatal, when it narrows the historian’s perspective and turns him into a blinkered specialist, or – to use Carlyle’s words – an artisan, who “fancies that the properties, discovered or discoverable, exhaust the matter, and sees not at every step that it is inexhaustible” (OH 222 I). The author warns the reader of the negative effects of blind source-deference, when he asserts that these “cause-and-effect speculators, with whom no wonder would remain wonderful” (OH 222 I) risk losing the lessons, which history has to teach, by confusing reality and its representation with each other: “He who reads the inscrutable Book of Nature, as if it were a Merchant’s Ledger, is justly suspected of having never seen that Book, but only some school Synopsis thereof; from which, if taken for the real Bool, more error than insight is to be derived” (OH 222 I-II).

The next point of criticism, Carlyle utters, is the application of division of labour onto the study of history, although understandable considering its unfathomability, might at first glance be a solution for the apparent problem but is liable of causing more harm than good due to its tendency to insularity and bias:

To Carlyle, the Dryasdust historian ultimately accumulated so many facts that he could not discern the larger patterns of truth, being rather like the blind man who examines the tail of an elephant and then confidently judges that the beast closely resembles a snake. (Taylor 30 I).

Carlyle specifies his criticism by listing various departments of history, in the sense of place of manufacture as well as field of study, and by explaining their shortcomings. The first on his list is “The political Historian”, who “dwelt with disproportionate fondness in Senate-houses, in Battle-fields, nay, even in King’s Antechambers” (OH 222 II). If the political historian remains someone, “who sees no world but that of courts and camps […] will pass for a more or less instructive Gazetteer, but will no longer be called an Historian” (OH 222 II). Ecclesiastical History, though superior to political history, when it helps the reader “understand how man’s moral well-being had been and might be promoted” (OH 222 II) and which “did it speak wisely, would have momentous secrets to teach us” (OH 223 I), suffers from diseases similar to those of political history as its “inquiries turn rather on outward mechanism, the mere hulls and superficial accidents of the object, than on the object itself” (OH 223 I)

The following paragraph is focussed on the “less ambitious” (OH 223 I) areas of history, such as Science, Literature, and Philosophy. According to Carlyle, the “Highest in dignity and difficulty […] would be our histories of Philosophy, of man’s opinions and theories respecting the nature of his Being”, which if correctly studied and understood, “would be a province of Church History” as philosopher and priest are simply two sides of the same coin (OH 223 I). Thus, the historians of philosophy, who ignore the crucial fact of philosophy’s relation to religion, turn into nothing but

barren reporters, often unintelligent and unintelligible reporters, of the doctrine uttered, without force to discover how the doctrine originated, or what reference it bore to its time and country, to the spiritual position of mankind there and then (OH 223 II).

This connection to religion holds true for two other departments of history, namely, Art and Literature, departments of history which “are intimately blended with Religion” (OH 223 II). Unfortunately, even such luminaries of the field as Eichhorn and Warton cannot fulfil Carlyle’s high standards as “He who should write a proper History of Poetry, would depict for us the successive Revelations which man had obtained of the Spirit of Nature” (OH 223 II). Even though the standards appear to be too high to ever be achieved and a true history rather elusive, meaning can still be extracted from history and excellence should still be reached for. By constantly keeping the ideal in mind and by hoping to one day be able to fulfil this ideal, is the only way to advance as “for thereby alone have we even a chance to reach it” (OH 223 II).

In the last paragraph of his essay, Carlyle manages to let a little spark of hope shine through his rather harsh criticism of prevailing history practices and overall gloomy outlook on its future, when he concludes:

In this manner, though, as above remarked, all Action is extended three ways, and the general sum of human Action is a whole Universe, with all limits of it unknown, does History strive by running path after path, through the Impassable, in manifold directions and intersections, to secure for us some oversight of the Whole; in which endeavour, if each Historian look well around him from his path, tracking it out with the eye, not, as is more common, with the nose, he may at last prove not altogether unsuccessful. Praying only that increased division of labour do not here, as elsewhere, aggravate our already strong Mechanical tendencies, so that in the manual dexterity for parts we lose all command over the whole; and the hope of any Philosophy of History be farther off than ever; let us all wish her great, and greater success. (OH 223 II)

Frye claims that Carlyle’s expectations on history and especially on the historian are almost unrealisable, which is recognisable in his own struggle to accomplish the kind of history that is able “both to re-create historical personages and their actions, and then to explain their meaning” (134). In other words “By presenting historical writings as the vehicle of cultural and cosmic understanding, Carlyle posed a strenuous challenge to historians”, which is why the “universal failure of other writers to live up to his understanding of the requirements of the discipline” (Morrow 162) has been endemic and will continue to be inevitable as long as traditional approaches remain uncontested.

I don’t know how the rules are regarding stealing from yourself if the work hasn’t been published. So I hope it will suffice that I say that I wrote this and give a shortened citation for my thesis: D.P.P, ““- anything but history.” – Emerson and Carlyle on Meaning, Relevance and (Ab)Use of History”, 2015. Fingers crossed that my profs won’t stumble across this entry. I am pretty sure I am only gonna have one reader who actually reads this but one happy reader is enough –> you know who I am talking about 😉

Frye, Lowell T. “History as Biography, Biography as History”; Thomas Carlyle Resartus: Reappraising Carlyle’s Contribution to the Philosophy of History, Political Thinking, and Cultural Criticism. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2010. Print.

Hill, Marylu. “‘History is a Real Prophetic Manuscript’: Reason and Revelation in Thomas Carlyle’s Historical Essays”, Literature and Belief Vol. 25 Iss. 1. Provo (UT): Center for the Study of Christian Values in Literature, Brigham Young University, 2005. 123-138. Print.

Kerry, Paul and Marylu Hill. “Introduction”; Thomas Carlyle Resartus, Reaapraising Carlyle’s Contribution to the Philosophy of History, Political Theory, and Cultural Critcism. Eds. Paul Kerry and Marylu Hill eds. Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2010. 13-29. Print.

Morrow, John. Thomas Carlyle. London: Hambledon Continuum, 2006. Print.

Schoch, Richard W. “‘We do Nothing but Enact History’: Thomas Carlyle Stages the Past”, Nineteenth-Century Literature Vol. 54 No. 1. Oakland CA: University of California Press, 1999. 27-52. Print.

Taylor, Beverly. “Carlyle’s Historical Imagination: Untrue Facts and Unfactual Truths”; Victorian Newsletter Iss. 61. Bowling Green: Western Kentucky University, 1982. 29-31. Print.


4 Comments Add yours

  1. Megan says:

    Hurray! The long-awaited Carlyle post! Amazeballs, made my day. It’s a pleasure to read your thesis, so beautiful constructed and astutely argued. I’m surprised by how forward thinking Carlyle was; some of his ideas about historiography seem to anticipate Paul Ricoeur’s History and Truth (but way better expressed IMHO 😉 no offence to Ricoeur devotees). Did Carlyle ever name a historian that he thought came close to the Artist Historian ideal? The form of comprehensive history writing he had articulated does seem to exceed human capabilities; reminds me of that much quoted Beckett line: Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Debra says:

      Aye, his views in his early essays are very modern and forward thinking. The funny thing is that they are so close to what Emerson thought about history as well. Their relationship is one of the most interesting ones in 19th c literary history, I think. Well Carlyle mentions people here and there but they all fail at some point. He probably considered himself an artist historian, cause lets face it he was a bit full of himself. His main issue with past historians is that they usually had a personal agenda, working for kings, popes etc However, considering that History as a science was just in her baby-shoes at the time, still considered a dependent subject of other studies like philosophy and law etc means that his choice is limited, at least his choice of historians that we would consider historians. This was actually another aspect of my thesis: I compared their views on history with the early historicism movement. A lot of scholars consider both Emerson and even Carlyle to be opposed to historicism but this only works when you look at the sec half of the century. Early historicist (incl Ranke’s early views) match their views quite well. Esp the history as art bit. I thought it was fascinating how much E & C have in common incl their views on history, only with time and Carlyle becoming more cynical do they start to drift apart. Their different views at the end are then again applied anachronistically and they are forever the odd couple. How can Emerson be friends with him? They don’t have anything in common. Emerson never did history etc etc etc And aye your Beckett quote is extremely fitting. If you cannot actually reach the ideal, it is still better to aim for it than to abandon it.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Megan says:

    Did Emerson and Carlyle draw on the philosophy of Hegel? I know Emerson loved Goethe, but I’m not sure how popular Hegel was among English readers in nineteenth cent. given how challenging his works are to read and translate.


    1. Debra says:

      I remember Richardson describing Emerson’s approach to history from 1860s onwards as his hegelian phase. He also describes his early views as Kantian (“Goose Pond Manifesto”). Emerson is then less interested in social, political or religious history. Not interested in chronology but the laws of history. His third phase can be described as subjective historicism: history needs to be validated by the individual. His and various other articles assert the importance of German thought on Emerson’s thinking. Translations of works were available even back then and some people like Carlyle learnt German to be able to read writers like Goethe in the original. Emerson actually first thought Carlyle was a German thinker and described him as “this Great Germanick mind”. Carlyle translated works by Schiller etc and was one but not the only driving force behind the widespread appreciation of German literature.

      Liked by 1 person

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