200 years ago, a 25-year-old Scottish school teacher wrote a letter predicting his future rise to prominence as a famous philosopher. Indeed, he also went onto become a noted writer, mathematician and historian. What he did not predict, however, was his fall from grace. Soul City Wanderer briefs on Thomas Carlyle.
Thomas Carlyle was born in 1795 in Ecclefechan, a Dumfriesshire village near the Scottish border between Gretna Green and Lockerbie. A good education was determined by his Calvinist parents. He studied the classics, maths and German at Edinburgh University, and became a school teacher in Annan and Kirkcaldy.
In 1819, Carlyle returned to work at the University, but he shortly suffered an intense crisis of faith and conversion. However, in the midst of a deeply depressive mood, he had an almost evangelical conversion when he suddenly decided to square up to the negatives in his life and make a commitment to survival and self-respect. His quotes (especially in the light of the current world situation), are quite inspiring: “Death? Let it come, then; I will meet it and defy it!” “Not fear or whining sorrow, but indignation and grim fire-eyed defiance.”
Reflecting his new positive attitude, on August 5th 1820, Carlyle wrote a letter to his friend and fellow teacher John Fergusson (1792–1859). In it, was the following prediction: “Mark only — if fortune do not mend, it is not certain but I may become a roaring philosopher.”
Heavily influenced by German idealism, he began translating German works, notably by the romantic writer Goethe. He also wrote a biography of the German philosopher Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805) whom he seemed to identify with and model himself on. In 1826, he married fellow intellectual Jane Welsh, and for a while, he moved into her house in Dumfriesshire. Here, he began corresponding with the American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson.
In 1831, the Carlyle’s moved to London. Thomas published Sartor Resartus (“The Tailor Re-tailored”), which brought him to the public’s notice. The material was provided by his evangelical conversion. On the back of its success, they moved to Cheyne Row, Chelsea.
Here, Thomas wrote a number of radical-progressive essays that formed the backdrop to the great social and political reforms of 1830’s Britain. In the later part of that decade, he wrote his famous history The French Revolution, a book that was immediately successful, and followed it with Chartism. With visitors such as Leigh Hunt and John Stuart Mill, Thomas was very well respected in literary circles. Indeed, he became known as the ‘Sage of Chelsea’. He was also one of the chief founders of the London Library in 1841.
Sometime in the mid-1840s, Thomas Carlyle’s philosophy seemed to take an about-turn. It’s almost the definitive study in how someone once so radical in outlook can turn so illiberal. As a Londoner might say: “he went wight the other way.”
Perhaps it was his research into the autocratic historical figures of Oliver Cromwell and Frederick the Great that turned him. Perhaps it was his increasing accommodation of rising Germanic authoritarianism. Certainly, by the 1860s he was openly advocating the forces of oppression.
And during his later years he became even more intolerant and narrow-minded. In his essay Discourse on the Negro Question, he called for the reintroduction of slavery in the British Caribbean colonies. He also developed staunchly anti-semitic views.
Thomas Carlyle died in 1885 aged 81 and was buried in his home village of Ecclefechan. As he was so widely admired for his earlier work, his respected status was remarkably preserved during his lifetime. After his death, however, his reputation was tarnished to the extent that he was seen as a proto-fascist. It was some fall from grace.
What became Carlyle’s obsessive devotion to ‘definitiveness’ and ‘order’ tied in with later political extremism: everything a mechanical process of good or bad, right or wrong. And it doesn’t matter how complicated the process is to arrive at a solution, that process must be undertaken. And if the result does prove to be erroneous, there is rarely any opportunity to go back to correct it. Carlyle’s new-found philosophy went against some integral elements of the British national psyche: compromise, a sense of fair play, and bullishness in the face of adversity. In modern studies he is increasingly seen as a crank.
If ever a life should be subtitled The Rise and Fall… this is it.
Recommended biography: Thomas Carlyle by Ian Campbell (Kennedy & Boyd, 2011).
Main image: Thomas Carlyle’s statue in Chelsea by Edgar Boehm (mira66 CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)