The Letter of Instructions – Carlyle’s “On History Again”

Ok, so I thought about shortening my term paper chapters but I can’t. I am unable to do this. They are already very short compared to what they are about. They are already the essence of all the things I meant to write about after doing my research on the topic. However, I realised that even the most dedicated readers don’t want to read 10 pages long chapters copied into a blog. This is why, I decided not to included the chapter on Carlyle’s “On Biography” although it is a very fascinating essay and worth reading. I will publish my chapter on On Heroes in installments which should be easy enough as it is a lecture series published in bookform. Without further ado, here is my analysis of “On History Again”:

Lowell T. Frye asserts that in contrast to his earlier essay “On Biography” in this essay “Carlyle has found new hope for successful historiography” (Frye 134). This is why, after a fictional editorial note that accredits the essay to the main character of Sartor Resartus Diogenes Teufelsdröckh, he begins his essay with the exclamation:

HISTORY recommends itself as the most profitable of all studies: and truly, for such a being as Man, who is born, and has to learn and to work, and then after a measured term of years to depart, leaving descendants and performances, and so, in all ways, to vindicate himself as vital portion of Mankind, no study could be fitter. (OHA 422 II)

This “Letter of Instructions” is the only valid communication between past and present; it is “the Message […] which all Mankind delivers to every man” (OHA 422 II – 423 I). Carlyle maintains that every type of book, be it on science or art, is in fact a historical document, left by the past to be inherited by the future. The person, “who understood, and saw and knew within himself, all that the whole Family of Adam had hitherto been and hitherto done” does not have to study anymore, he only has to be someone and do something that “others might make History of it” (OHA 423 I). However great such an achievement would be compared to any other, it is very much unlikely to happen as “Perfection in any kind is well known not to be the lot of man” (423 I). Here, at the very beginning, Carlyle’s alleged new-found hope is caught up by his bad faith in human abilities, as well as by his substantiated criticism of historiography:

Of the thing now gone silent, named Past, which was once Present, and loud enough, how much do we know? Our ‘Letter of Instructions’ comes to us in the saddest state; falsified, blotted out, torn, lost, and but a shred of it in existence; this too so difficult to read or spell. (OHA 423 I)

This “Letter of Instructions”, the past, helps the reader, who understands it correctly, to be able to know “what should be and will be” (OHA 432 I). Though, as Wellek points out, this statement should neither be identified nor harmonised with the Saint-Simonian understanding of history, “He never thought of a detailed prediction of the future, he had no concept of the aim of history” (57). Wellek further refuses any claim of any direct influence or tradition of Saint-Simonians in Carlyle’s thinking (65-67). Carlyle’s interest in and consulting with history has more to do with the fact that the past is more or less the only thing enduring in this “River of Existence so wild-flowing, wasteful” (OHA 423 II):

The most important fact about us as human beings is that we are mortal. We stand as between two eternities on the thin edge of the present, our brief moment of consciousness of inestimable importance to us precisely because it is so short. The future lies dark before us and remains dark, no matter how intently we peer into it. But the past is dimly visible, and more than dimly visible if the historian/biographer illuminates it with the power of research and imagination. (Frye 140)

Hereinafter, Carlyle feels the need to assure that for this absent perfection “[n]ature, in regard to such historic want, is nowise blamable” (sic, OHA 423 II), quite to the contrary, nature does all that is ‘naturally’ possible to outfit man with the necessary faculties: speech and script. Carlyle’s description quickly turns into an aside on the relations between speech and writing, the latter being “perhaps the more furious of the two” (OHA 423 II). Due to its rather private, mulled over character, “the Pen” is more powerful, independent and unrestrained than speech (423 II). This opinion is similar to Emerson’s thought on that matter, he, too, preferred written texts and speeches over unscripted remarks, “[w]ritten composition can surpass any unwritten effusion of however profound a genius” (POH 64). “Such are the means wherewith Nature, and Art the daughter of Nature, have equipped their favourite, man, for publishing himself to man” (OHA 423 II). Unfortunately, as the author afterwards ascertains, the multitude of works on history, which are daily produced, cannot simply be attributed to our innate historically curious nature because “[t]he truth is, if Universal History is such a miserable defective ‘shred’[1] as we have named it, the fault lies not in our historic organs, but wholly in our misuse of these […]” (OHA 424 I). Carlyle continues in his criticism of the already dealt with ‘froth literature’ by denying it any usefulness:

what can be done with it, except abolish it and annihilate it? […] Without Understanding, Belief itself will profit little: and how can your publishing avail, when there was no vision in it, but mere blindness! […] Truly, in these times, the quantity of printed Publication that will need to be consumed with fire, before the smallest permanent advantage can be drawn with is might fill us with astonishment, almost apprehension. (OHA 424 I)

This criticism of early 19th century literary practices goes hand in hand with reiterated frustration with the inadequacy of all historical documents, which leave the question unanswered if their contents are actually the events and personages most noteworthy:

For us in political appointments, the man you appoint is not he who was ablest to discharge the duty, but only he who was ablest to be appointed; so too, in all historic elections and selections, the maddest work goes on. The even worthiest to be known is perhaps of all others the least spoken of […]. (OHA 242 I)

In the next paragraph of his essay, Carlyle indicates to the reader something close to a method for writing history. The only other advice before this one was “the open and loving heart” as the rather cryptic prerequisite of a good historian or biographer. History, according to Carlyle, “before it can become Universal History, needs of all things to be compressed” (OHA 424 II). This suppression of the collected facts has to happen because man is torn between two crucial characteristics, namely, his irremediable dualistic faculties of “Memory and Oblivion” (OHA 424 II). In the same way, as in any other department of life, where masses of information have to be compressed and subdivided in order to be obtainable and not forgotten, history has to be chopped or shrivelled into easily digestible nibbles:

what cannot be kept in mind will even go out of mind; History contracts itself into readable extent; and at last, in the hands of some Bossuet or Müller, the whole printed History of the World, from the Creation downwards, has grown shorter than that of the Ward of Portsoken[2] for one solar day. (OHA 424)

Beverly Taylor, in her essay “Carlyle’s Historical Imagination: Untrue Facts and Unfactual Truths”, describes Carlyle’s understanding of the proper method for writing history as follows:

In general, Carlyle’s approach to writing history is, first, to study the facts supplied by documents [as unreliable as they may be]; then to suppress such facts as inhibited an organized overview of the abstracted patterns of  ‘truth’; and finally, to supply imagined details to endow figures with life. This procedure involved some rather startling use of historical documents. (30 II, interjection mine)

Even this attempt at a more explicit instruction on how to write history, cannot be left unquestioned. As sound as criticism usually is, especially when dealing with historical documents, his criticism seems increasingly built solely on his distrust in any decision-making abilities of fellows or predecessors and becomes steadily more patronising[3]:

Scandalous Cleopatras and Messalinas, Caligulas and Commoduses, in unprofitable proportion, survive for memory; while a scientific Pancirollus must write his Book of Arts Lost; and a moral Pancirollus (were the vision lent him) might write a still mournful Book of Virtues Lost […] (OHA 424 II – 425 I).

The author lessens the harshness of his criticism by ascribing those passed-on events, in spite of their accidental nature, “a certain fitness of selection” ( OHA 425 I). Selection is based on an anticipated relevance for the future or as Morrow claims,

In ‘On History Again’, Carlyle suggested that of all the events that might possibly have survived in the minds of men, those that are ‘great and valid’, those that have produced ‘fruit’, were more likely to be recorded and subsequently written about. (164)

With time, the things chosen fit for memory lose their connection to or relevance for the present/future and eventually cease to be remembered, “[t]hus does Accident correct Accident; and in the wondrous boundless jostle of things […] a result comes out that may be put up with” (OHA 425 I). Referencing John Morrow again:

The test of ‘reality’ was what had ‘meaning’ for the present. That was to be determined by reference to the moral and spiritual status of humanity in relation to the particular requirements of a given time and place. Truths were universal, but the distinctive needs of the contemporary audience determined which past expressions of them were most appropriate subjects for the historian to address. (164)

In addition to these statements summarised by Morrow, Carlyle on page 425 I-II of “On History Again” not only describes how historians in accord with the zeitgeist decide what makes events or persons worth remembering, but also claims that we need the historian to help us “re-produce for this century what, thirty centuries ago, was of plainly infinite significance to all” (OHA 425 II).

Marylu Hill claims that after the extraction of truth from the historical evidence seen fit for heritage by the historian,

This Truth gains its meaning from it emanation from a divine source, and yet it can be apprehended through largely rational methods because one can see its visible presence in the world. What is more, in Carlyle’s historicism[4], only with the acknowledgement of the intersection of God and history can meaning emerge for present and future. (128)

Carlyle finishes his essay in an analogous manner to his beginning with an affirmation of the merit of history, quoting[5] himself he asserts that

In essence and significance it has been called ‘the true Epic Poem, and universal Divine Scripture, whose ‘plenary inspiration’ no man (out of Bedlam or in it) shall bring in question”. (OHA 425 II)

Hill synthesises Carlyle’s final theories of his essay by claiming that

history and the sense of the divine become largely untangled to the point where history itself becomes a divine force with a mysterious yet definite telos. History is for Carlyle a force, divine in nature, which actively shapes the future. What is radical here is that history moves from being something divinely controlled to being something divine in its own right, as the embodiment of God. (128)

Oh wow, I must have done something different to last time as I actually managed to get the footnotes in. The other chapter should have had footnotes, too.

[1] “Alas, all Universal History is but a sort of Parish History; which the ‘P.P. Clerk of this Parish,’ member of ‘our Alehouse Club’ […] puts together, – in such sort as his fellow-members will praise.” (OHA 423 I).

[2] District of London.

[3] Defining Carlyle’s criticism as patronising is not intended as a revocation of what is commonly mourned (esp. by modern historians) as a limited documentation of the past. Any historian knows that all the survived documents put together could only culminate in a very restricted approximation of the past. However substantiated his criticism is, it increasingly appears less to be an expression of his actual frustration with this fact but rather as a platform for his general discontent with mankind.

[4] A term, which will not be used to describe Carlyle’s understanding or practicing of history in order to be able to highlight any differences to German historicism.

[5] “Although not an exact quotation from his writings, this is a statement frequently expressed by Carlyle” in: “Notes” Thomas Carlyle Historical Essays 470.

As mentioned before, I wrote this paper and I only give a shortened citation for my thesis: D.P.P, ““- anything but history.” – Emerson and Carlyle on Meaning, Relevance and (Ab)Use of History”, D 2015.

Carlyle, Thomas. “On History Again”; The Modern British Essayists Vol. V Thomas Carlyle. Philadelphia: A. Hart, Late Carey & Hart, 1852. 422-424. Print.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Philosophy of History; The Early Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson Vol. II 1836-1838. Eds. Stephen Whicher and Robert Spiller. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1964. 7-900. Print.

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.

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

Wellek, René. “Carlyle and the Philosophy of History”; Philological Quarterly Vol. 23. Iowa City: University of Iowa, 1944. 55-76. Print.

13 Comments Add yours

  1. Megan says:

    Excellent and insightful post as always! If Carlyle were alive today, I think he would change his mind about the value of text over speech once he goes on Twitter 😉 Is there a role for God/divine telos in Carlyle’s theory of history? Sometimes I think he saw history as a jumbo of random of records compiled partly by philosophical insight and mostly by indolent neglect where the most useful events (i.e. events that can help us make decisions for the future) will eventually get sifted out over time, kind of like Darwin’s theory of evolution for species. But there’s really no higher aim for anything despite his high rhetorics at the end of the article.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Debra says:

      I need to give this a thinky before I can answer your question. Their is definitely a role of the divine in everything he wrote, I would claim. Same with Emerson. You can call it truth or the oversoul, the divine, God – it doesn’t matter. But as I said I need to collect my thoughts – muss mein Gehirn anschmeißen – on this to give you a more thorough answer. Too late in the eve for this – too close to bedtime. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Megan says:

        Danke schön! My question is solely based on what I read from Carlyle’s On History Again. I defer to your astonishing knowledge of his oeuvre, of course. Darwin happened to be on my mind because I just finished a book about the reception of his works in America, especially within the Transcendentalist community. I’m off to unload my mind of abstract theory by watching Donna Hay. Gute Nacht! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Debra says:

        Pretty sure you will like her videos and recipes. Thursday is Ecclefechan day – we might go an see Craigenputtock as well. That’s were Emerson went to meet Carlyle. It is not open to the public and as I am not sure if we actually gonna drive all the way (it is another 1hour drive), I haven’t arranged for a viewing. Outside has to be enough if we make it to Craigenputtock. Excitement!

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Megan says:

        I get major kitchen envy when I watch Donna Hay. The beautiful scenery outside the windows, beautiful utensils, and gorgeous setting. Sigh. Hope you have a good trip on Thursday! These places really need to market themselves better to literary tourists 😉

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Debra says:

        I know her kitchen is amazing. Have you watched a video yet where she uses her BBQ? It will kill you!

        Liked by 1 person

      5. Megan says:

        I did watch it, and now I think my life is just not complete with such a divine beauty. Goddamn Warenfetischismus 😉

        Liked by 1 person

      6. Debra says:

        I live in a messy hobbit hole which means that my house gets hardly any sunlight (at least downstairs where my kitchen is), so watching her videos makes me even more depressed once I come downstairs to do some Frustfressen. But I am getting a new kitchentop next week, finally no more drying the dishes on a mouldy top. After moving to the UK I realised how the German living standard has completely spoilt me. If I wasn’t paying racking rent, I would get crafty and just renovate and modernise but not this way. What am I paying the money for, the view? Although I have to say it is an amazing view. My friends call it the Shire.

        Liked by 1 person

      7. Megan says:

        The rent is really getting ridiculous. We need a global Mietpreisbremse. The view around your house seems awesome judging from the nature pics. Every time I hear the Shire, I think about the flute opening to the Shire theme from the movies and it gets stuck in my ear for the whole day (but in a good way, a most welcome Ohrwurm)


      8. Debra says:

        You mean the Ginger song?

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Megan says:

    I mean the Shire theme from Lord of the Rings Soundtrack. Hope this link works:

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Megan says:

        Love this one too 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

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