Thomas Carlyle.

Sartor resartus; and, On heroes, hero-worship and the heroic in history online

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would _we_ believe, and take with us as our life-guidance, an
allegory, a poetic sport? Not sport but earnest is what we should
require. It is a most earnest thing to be alive in this world; to die
is not sport for a man. Man's life never was a sport to him; it was a
stern reality, altogether a serious matter to be alive!

I find, therefore, that though these Allegory theorists are on the way
towards truth in this matter, they have not reached it either. Pagan
Religion is indeed an Allegory, a Symbol of what men felt and knew
about the Universe; and all Religions are Symbols of that, altering
always as that alters: but it seems to me a radical perversion, and
even _in_version, of the business, to put that forward as the origin
and moving cause, when it was rather the result and termination. To
get beautiful allegories, a perfect poetic symbol, was not the want of
men; but to know what they were to believe about this Universe, what
course they were to steer in it; what, in this mysterious Life of
theirs, they had to hope and to fear, to do and to forbear doing. The
_Pilgrim's Progress_ is an Allegory, and a beautiful, just and serious
one: but consider whether Bunyan's Allegory could have _preceded_ the
Faith it symbolises! The Faith had to be already there, standing
believed by everybody; - of which the Allegory could _then_ become a
shadow; and, with all its seriousness, we may say a _sportful_ shadow,
a mere play of the Fancy, in comparison with that awful Fact and
scientific certainty which it poetically strives to emblem. The
Allegory is the product of the certainty, not the producer of it; not
in Bunyan's, nor in any other case. For Paganism, therefore, we have
still to inquire, Whence came that scientific certainty, the parent of
such a bewildered heap of allegories, errors and confusions? How was
it, what was it?

Surely it were a foolish attempt to pretend 'explaining,' in this
place, or in any place, such a phenomenon as that far-distant
distracted cloudy imbroglio of Paganism, - more like a cloudfield than
a distant continent of firm land and facts! It is no longer a reality,
yet it was one. We ought to understand that this seeming cloudfield
was once a reality; that not poetic allegory, least of all that dupery
and deception was the origin of it. Men, I say, never did believe idle
songs, never risked their soul's life on allegories; men in all times,
especially in early earnest times, have had an instinct for detecting
quacks, for detesting quacks. Let us try if, leaving out both the
quack theory and the allegory one, and listening with affectionate
attention to that far-off confused rumour of the Pagan ages, we cannot
ascertain so much as this at least, That there was a kind of fact at
the heart of them; that they too were not mendacious and distracted,
but in their own poor way true and sane!

You remember that fancy of Plato's, of a man who had grown to maturity
in some dark distance, and was brought on a sudden into the upper air
to see the sun rise. What would his wonder be, his rapt astonishment
at the sight we daily witness with indifference! With the free open
sense of a child, yet with the ripe faculty of a man, his whole heart
would be kindled by that sight, he would discern it well to be
Godlike, his soul would fall down in worship before it. Now, just such
a childlike greatness was in the primitive nations. The first Pagan
Thinker among rude men, the first man that began to think, was
precisely this child-man of Plato's. Simple, open as a child, yet with
the depth and strength of a man. Nature had as yet no name to him; he
had not yet united under a name the infinite variety of sights,
sounds, shapes and motions, which we now collectively name Universe,
Nature, or the like, - and so with a name dismiss it from us. To the
wild deep-hearted man all was yet new, not veiled under names or
formulas; it stood naked, flashing-in on him there, beautiful, awful,
unspeakable. Nature was to this man, what to the Thinker and Prophet
it forever is, _preter_natural. This green flowery rock-built earth,
the trees, the mountains, rivers, many-sounding seas; - that great deep
sea of azure that swims overhead; the winds sweeping through it; the
black cloud fashioning itself together, now pouring out fire, now hail
and rain; what _is_ it? Ay, what? At bottom we do not yet know; we can
never know at all. It is not by our superior insight that we escape
the difficulty; it is by our superior levity, our inattention, our
_want_ of insight. It is by _not_ thinking that we cease to wonder at
it. Hardened round us, encasing wholly every notion we form, is a
wrappage of traditions, hearsays, mere _words_. We call that fire of
the black thundercloud 'electricity,' and lecture learnedly about it,
and grind the like of it out of glass and silk: but _what_ is it? What
made it? Whence comes it? Whither goes it? Science has done much for
us; but it is a poor science that would hide from us the great deep
sacred infinitude of Nescience, whither we can never penetrate, on
which all science swims as a mere superficial film. This world, after
all our science and sciences, is still a miracle; wonderful,
inscrutable, _magical_ and more, to whosoever will _think_ of it.

That great mystery of TIME, were there no other: the illimitable,
silent, never-resting thing called Time, rolling, rushing on, swift,
silent, like an all-embracing ocean-tide, on which we and all the
Universe swim like exhalations, like apparitions which _are_, and then
_are not_: this is forever very literally a miracle; a thing to strike
us dumb, - for we have no word to speak about it. This Universe, ah
me - what could the wild man know of it; what can we yet know? That it
is a Force, and thousandfold Complexity of Forces; a Force which is
_not we_. That is all; it is not we, it is altogether different from
_us_. Force, Force, everywhere Force; we ourselves a mysterious Force
in the centre of that. 'There is not a leaf rotting on the highway but
has Force in it: how else could it rot?' Nay surely, to the Atheistic
Thinker, if such a one were possible, it must be a miracle too, this
huge illimitable whirlwind of Force, which envelops us here;
never-resting whirlwind, high as Immensity, old as Eternity. What is
it? God's creation, the religious people answer; it is the Almighty
God's! Atheistic science babbles poorly of it, with scientific
nomenclatures, experiments and what-not, as if it were a poor dead
thing, to be bottled up in Leyden jars and sold over counters: but the
natural sense of man, in all times, if he will honestly apply his
sense, proclaims it to be a living thing, - ah, an unspeakable, godlike
thing; towards which the best attitude for us, after never so much
science, is awe, devout prostration and humility of soul; worship if
not in words, then in silence.

But now I remark farther: What in such a time as ours it requires a
Prophet or Poet to teach us, namely, the stripping-off of those poor
undevout wrappages, nomenclatures and scientific hearsays, - -this, the
ancient earnest soul, as yet unencumbered with these things, did for
itself. The world, which is now divine only to the gifted, was then
divine to whosoever would turn his eye upon it. He stood bare before
it face to face. 'All was Godlike or God:' - Jean Paul still finds it
so; the giant Jean Paul, who has power to escape out of hearsays: but
there then were no hearsays. Canopus shining-down over the desert,
with its blue diamond brightness (that wild blue spirit-like
brightness, far brighter than we ever witness here), would pierce into
the heart of the wild Ishmaelitish man, whom it was guiding through
the solitary waste there. To his wild heart, with all feelings in it,
with no _speech_ for any feeling, it may seem a little eye, that
Canopus, glancing-out on him from the great deep Eternity; revealing
the inner Splendour to him. Cannot we understand how these men
_worshipped_ Canopus; became what we call Sabeans, worshipping the
stars? Such is to me the secret of all forms of Paganism. Worship is
transcendent wonder; wonder for which there is now no limit or
measure; that is worship. To these primeval men, all things and
everything they saw exist beside them were an emblem of the Godlike,
of some God.

And look what perennial fibre of truth was in that. To us also,
through every star, through every blade of grass, is not a God made
visible, if we will open our minds and eyes? We do not worship in that
way now: but is it not reckoned still a merit, proof of what we call a
'poetic nature,' that we recognise how every object has a divine
beauty in it; how every object still verily is 'a window through which
we may look into Infinitude itself'? He that can discern the
loveliness of things, we call him Poet, Painter, Man of Genius,
gifted, lovable. These poor Sabeans did even what he does, - in their
own fashion. That they did it, in what fashion soever, was a merit:
better than what the entirely stupid man did, what the horse and camel
did, - namely, nothing!

But now if all things whatsoever that we look upon are emblems to us
of the Highest God, I add that more so than any of them is man such an
emblem. You have heard of St. Chrysostom's celebrated saying in
reference to the Shekinah, or Ark of Testimony, visible Revelation of
God, among the Hebrews: "The true Shekinah is Man!" Yes, it is even
so: this is no vain phrase; it is veritably so. The essence of our
being, the mystery in us that calls itself "I," - ah, what words have
we for such things? - is a breath of Heaven; the Highest Being reveals
himself in _man_. This body, these faculties, this life of ours, is it
not all as a vesture for that Unnamed? 'There is but one Temple in the
Universe,' says the devout Novalis, 'and that is the Body of Man.
Nothing is holier than that high form. Bending before men is a
reverence done to this Revelation in the Flesh. We touch Heaven when
we lay our hand on a human body!' This sounds much like a mere
flourish of rhetoric; but it is not so. If well meditated, it will
turn out to be a scientific fact; the expression, in such words as can
be had, of the actual truth of the thing. _We_ are the miracle of
miracles, - the great inscrutable mystery of God. We cannot understand
it, we know not how to speak of it; but we may feel and know, if we
like, that it is verily so.

Well; these truths were once more readily felt than now. The young
generations of the world, who had in them the freshness of young
children, and yet the depth of earnest men, who did not think that
they had finished-off all things in Heaven and Earth by merely giving
them scientific names, but had to gaze direct at them there, with awe
and wonder: they felt better what of divinity is in man and
Nature; - they, without being mad, could _worship_ Nature, and man more
than anything else in Nature. Worship, that is, as I said above,
admire without limit: this, in the full use of their faculties, with
all sincerity of heart, they could do. I consider Hero-worship to be
the grand modifying element in that ancient system of thought. What I
called the perplexed jungle of Paganism sprang, we may say, out of
many roots: every admiration, adoration of a star or natural object,
was a root or fibre of a root; but Hero-worship is the deepest root of
all; the tap-root, from which in a great degree all the rest were
nourished and grown.

And now if worship even of a star had some meaning in it, how much
more might that of a Hero! Worship of a Hero is transcendent
admiration of a Great Man. I say great men are still admirable; I say
there is, at bottom, nothing else admirable! No nobler feeling than
this of admiration for one higher than himself dwells in the breast of
man. It is to this hour, and at all hours, the vivifying influence in
man's life. Religion I find stand upon it; not Paganism only, but far
higher and truer religions, - all religion hitherto known.
Hero-worship, heartfelt prostrate admiration, submission, burning,
boundless, for a noblest godlike Form of Man, - is not that the germ of
Christianity itself? The greatest of all Heroes is One - whom we do not
name here! Let sacred silence meditate that sacred matter; you will
find it the ultimate perfection of a principle extant throughout man's
whole history on earth.

Or coming into lower, less _un_speakable provinces, is not all Loyalty
akin to religious Faith also? Faith is loyalty to some inspired
Teacher, some spiritual Hero. And what therefore is loyalty proper,
the life-breath of all society, but an effluence of Hero-worship,
submissive admiration for the truly great? Society is founded on
Hero-worship. All dignities of rank, on which human association rests,
are what we may call a _Hero_archy (Government of Heroes), - or a
Hierarchy, for it is 'sacred' enough withal! The Duke means _Dux_,
Leader; King is _Kön-ning_, _Kan-ning_, Man that _knows_ or _cans_.
Society everywhere is some representation, not _in_supportably
inaccurate, of a graduated Worship of Heroes; - reverence and obedience
done to men really great and wise. Not _in_supportably inaccurate, I
say! They are all as bank-notes, these social dignitaries, all
representing gold; - and several of them, alas, always are _forged_
notes. We can do with some forged false notes; with a good many even;
but not with all, or the most of them forged! No: there have to come
revolutions then; cries of Democracy, Liberty, and Equality, and I
know not what: - the notes being all false, and no gold to be had for
_them_, people take to crying in their despair that there is no gold,
that there never was any! - 'Gold,' Hero-worship, _is_ nevertheless, as
it was always and everywhere, and cannot cease till man himself

I am well aware that in these days Hero-worship, the thing I call
Hero-worship, professes to have gone out, and finally ceased. This,
for reasons which it will be worth while some time to inquire into, is
an age that as it were denies the existence of great men; denies the
desirableness of great men. Show our critics a great man, a Luther for
example, they begin to what they call 'account' for him; not to
worship him, but take the dimensions of him, - and bring him out to be
a little kind of man! He was the 'creature of the Time,' they say; the
Time called him forth, the Time did everything, he nothing - but what
we the little critic could have done too! This seems to me but
melancholy work. The Time call forth? Alas, we have known Times _call_
loudly enough for their great man; but not find him when they called!
He was not there; Providence had not sent him; the Time, _calling_ its
loudest, had to go down to confusion and wreck because he would not
come when called.

For if we will think of it, no Time need have gone to ruin, could it
have _found_ a man great enough, a man wise and good enough: wisdom to
discern truly what the Time wanted, valour to lead it on the right
road thither; these are the salvation of any Time. But I liken common
languid Times, with their unbelief, distress, perplexity, with their
languid doubting characters and embarrassed circumstances, impotently
crumbling-down into ever worse distress towards final ruin; - all this
I liken to dry dead fuel, waiting for the lightning out of Heaven that
shall kindle it. The great man, with his free force direct out of
God's own hand, is the lightning. His word is the wise healing word
which all can believe in. All blazes round him now, when he has once
struck on it, into fire like his own. The dry mouldering sticks are
thought to have called him forth. They did want him greatly; but as to
calling him forth - ! - Those are critics of small vision, I think, who
cry: "See, is it not the sticks that made the fire?" No sadder proof
can be given by a man of his own littleness than disbelief in great
men. There is no sadder symptom of a generation than such general
blindness to the spiritual lightning, with faith only in the heap of
barren dead fuel. It is the last consummation of unbelief. In all
epochs of the world's history, we shall find the Great Man to have
been the indispensable saviour of his epoch; - the lightning, without
which the fuel never would have burnt. The History of the World, I
said already, was the Biography of Great Men.

Such small critics do what they can to promote unbelief and universal
spiritual paralysis; but happily they cannot always completely
succeed. In all times it is possible for a man to arise great enough
to feel that they and their doctrines are chimeras and cobwebs. And
what is notable, in no time whatever can they entirely eradicate out
of living men's hearts a certain altogether peculiar reverence for
Great Men; genuine admiration, loyalty, adoration, however dim and
perverted it may be. Hero-worship endures for ever while man endures.
Boswell venerates his Johnson, right truly even in the Eighteenth
century. The unbelieving French believe in their Voltaire; and
burst-out round him into very curious Hero-worship, in that last act
of his life when they 'stifle him under roses.' It has always seemed
to me extremely curious this of Voltaire. Truly, if Christianity be
the highest instance of Hero-worship, then we may find here in
Voltaireism one of the lowest! He whose life was that of a kind of
Antichrist, does again on this side exhibit a curious contrast. No
people ever were so little prone to admire at all as those French of
Voltaire. _Persiflage_ was the character of their whole mind;
adoration had nowhere a place in it. Yet see! The old man of Ferney
comes up to Paris; an old, tottering, infirm man of eighty-four years.
They feel that he too is a kind of Hero; that he has spent his life in
opposing error and injustice, delivering Calases, unmasking hypocrites
in high places; - in short that _he_ too, though in a strange way, has
fought like a valiant man. They feel withal that, if _persiflage_ be
the great thing, there never was such a _persifleur_. He is the
realised ideal of every one of them; the thing they are all wanting to
be; of all Frenchmen the most French. _He_ is properly their
god, - such god as they are fit for. Accordingly all persons, from the
Queen Antoinette to the Douanier at the Porte St. Denis, do they not
worship him? People of quality disguise themselves as tavern-waiters.
The Maître de Poste, with a broad oath, orders his Postillion, "_Va
bon train_; thou art driving M. de Voltaire." At Paris his carriage is
'the nucleus of a comet, whose train fills whole streets.' The ladies
pluck a hair or two from his fur, to keep it as a sacred relic. There
was nothing highest, beautifulest, noblest in all France, that did not
feel this man to be higher, beautifuler, nobler.

Yes, from Norse Odin to English Samuel Johnson, from the divine
Founder of Christianity to the withered Pontiff of Encyclopedism, in
all times and places, the Hero has been worshipped. It will ever be
so. We all love great men; love, venerate, and bow down submissive
before great men: nay can we honestly bow down to anything else? Ah,
does not every true man feel that he is himself made higher by doing
reverence to what is really above him? No nobler or more blessed
feeling dwells in man's heart. And to me it is very cheering to
consider that no sceptical logic, or general triviality, insincerity
and aridity of any Time and its influences can destroy this noble
inborn loyalty and worship that is in man. In times of unbelief, which
soon have to become times of revolution, much down-rushing, sorrowful
decay and ruin is visible to everybody. For myself in these days, I
seem to see in this indestructibility of Hero-worship the everlasting
adamant lower than which the confused wreck of revolutionary things
cannot fall. The confused wreck of things crumbling and even crashing
and tumbling all round us in these revolutionary ages, will get down
so far; _no_ farther. It is an eternal corner-stone, from which they
can begin to build themselves up again. That man, in some sense or
other, worships Heroes; that we all of us reverence and must ever
reverence Great Men: this is, to me, the living rock amid all
rushings-down whatsoever; - the one fixed point in modern revolutionary
history, otherwise as if bottomless and shoreless.

* * * * *

So much of truth, only under an ancient obsolete vesture, but the
spirit of it still true, do I find in the Paganism of old nations.
Nature is still divine, the revelation of the workings of God; the
Hero is still worshipable: this, under poor cramped incipient forms,
is what all Pagan religions have struggled, as they could, to set
forth. I think Scandinavian Paganism, to us here, is more interesting
than any other. It is, for one thing, the latest; it continued in
these regions of Europe till the eleventh century: eight-hundred years
ago the Norwegians were still worshippers of Odin. It is interesting
also as the creed of our fathers; the men whose blood still runs in
our veins, whom doubtless we still resemble in so many ways. Strange:
they did believe that, while we believe so differently. Let us look a
little at this poor Norse creed, for many reasons. We have tolerable
means to do it; for there is another point of interest in these
Scandinavian mythologies: that they have been preserved so well.

In that strange island Iceland, - burst-up, the geologists say, by fire
from the bottom of the sea; a wild land of barrenness and lava;
swallowed many months of every year in black tempests, yet with a wild
gleaming beauty in summer-time; towering up there, stern and grim, in
the North Ocean; with its snow jokuls, roaring geysers, sulphur-pools
and horrid volcanic chasms, like the waste chaotic battle-field of
Frost and Fire; - where of all places we least looked for Literature or
written memorials, the record of these things was written down. On the
seaboard of this wild land is a rim of grassy country, where cattle
can subsist, and men by means of them and of what the sea yields; and
it seems they were poetic men these, men who had deep thoughts in
them, and uttered musically their thoughts. Much would be lost, had
Iceland not been burst-up from the sea, not been discovered by the
Northmen! The old Norse Poets were many of them natives of Iceland.

Sæmund, one of the early Christian Priests there, who perhaps had a
lingering fondness for Paganism, collected certain of their old Pagan
songs, just about becoming obsolete then, - Poems or Chants of a
mythic, prophetic, mostly all of a religious character: that is what
Norse critics call the _Elder_ or Poetic _Edda_. _Edda_, a word of
uncertain etymology, is thought to signify _Ancestress_. Snorro
Sturleson, an Iceland gentleman, an extremely notable personage,
educated by this Sæmund's grandson, took in hand next, near a century
afterwards, to put together, among several other books he wrote, a
kind of Prose Synopsis of the whole Mythology; elucidated by new
fragments of traditionary verse. A work constructed really with great
ingenuity, native talent, what one might call unconscious art;
altogether a perspicuous clear work, pleasant reading still: this is
the _Younger_ or Prose _Edda_. By these and the numerous other
_Sagas_, mostly Icelandic, with the commentaries, Icelandic or not,
which go on zealously in the North to this day, it is possible to gain
some direct insight even yet; and see that old Norse system of Belief,
as it were, face to face. Let us forget that it is erroneous Religion;
let us look at it as old Thought, and try if we cannot sympathise with
it somewhat.

The primary characteristic of this old Northland Mythology I find to
be Impersonation of the visible workings of Nature. Earnest simple
recognition of the workings of Physical Nature, as a thing wholly
miraculous, stupendous and divine. What we now lecture of as Science,
they wondered at, and fell down in awe before, as Religion. The dark
hostile powers of Nature they figure to themselves as '_Jötuns_,'
Giants, huge shaggy beings of a demonic character. Frost, Fire,
Sea-tempest; these are Jötuns. The friendly powers again, as
Summer-heat, the Sun, are Gods. The empire of this Universe is divided
between these two; they dwell apart, in perennial internecine feud.
The Gods dwell above in Asgard, the Garden of the Asen, or Divinities;
Jötunheim, a distant dark chaotic land, is the home of the Jötuns.

Curious all this; and not idle or inane, if we will look at the
foundation of it! The power of _Fire_, or _Flame_, for instance, which
we designate by some trivial chemical name, thereby hiding from
ourselves the essential character of wonder that dwells in it as in

Online LibraryThomas CarlyleSartor resartus; and, On heroes, hero-worship and the heroic in history → online text (page 23 of 43)