Thomas Carlyle.

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

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Better to know them all than misknow them. "To which of these Three
Religions do you specially adhere?" inquires Meister of his Teacher.
"To all the Three!" answers the other: "To all the Three: for they by
their union first constitute the True Religion."



[_Friday, 8th May 1840_]

From the first rude times of Paganism among the Scandinavians in the
North, we advance to a very different epoch of religion, among a very
different people: Mahometanism among the Arabs. A great change; what a
change and progress is indicated here, in the universal condition and
thoughts of men!

The Hero is not now regarded as a God among his fellowmen; but as one
God-inspired, as a prophet. It is the second phasis of Hero-worship;
the first or oldest, we may say, has passed away without return; in
the history of the world there will not again be any man, never so
great, whom his fellowmen will take for a god. Nay we might rationally
ask, Did any set of human beings ever really think the man they _saw_
there standing beside them a god, the maker of this world? Perhaps
not: it was usually some man they remembered, or _had_ seen. But
neither can this any more be. The Great Man is not recognised
henceforth as a god any more.

It was a rude gross error, that of counting the Great Man a god. Yet
let us say that it is at all times difficult to know _what_ he is, or
how to account of him and receive him! The most significant feature in
the history of an epoch is the manner it has of welcoming a Great Man.
Ever, to the true instincts of men, there is something godlike in him.
Whether they shall take him to be a god, to be a prophet, or what they
shall take him to be? that is ever a grand question; by their way of
answering that, we shall see, as through a little window, into the
very heart of these men's spiritual condition. For at bottom the Great
Man, as he comes from the hand of nature, is ever the same kind of
thing: Odin, Luther, Johnson, Burns; I hope to make it appear that
these are all originally of one stuff; that only by the world's
reception of them, and the shapes they assume, are they so
immeasurably diverse. The worship of Odin astonishes us - to fall
prostrate before the Great Man, into _deliquium_ of love and wonder
over him, and feel in their hearts that he was a denizen of the skies,
a god! This was imperfect enough: but to welcome, for example, a Burns
as we did, was that what we can call perfect? The most precious gift
that Heaven can give to the Earth; a man of 'genius' as we call it:
the Soul of a Man actually sent down from the skies with a
God's-message to us - this we waste away as an idle artificial
firework, sent to amuse us a little, and sink it into ashes, wreck and
ineffectuality: _such_ reception of a Great Man I do not call very
perfect either! Looking into the heart of the thing, one may perhaps
call that of Burns a still uglier phenomenon, betokening still sadder
imperfections in mankind's ways, than the Scandinavian method itself!
To fall into mere unreasoning _deliquium_ of love and admiration, was
not good; but such unreasoning, nay irrational supercilious no-love at
all is perhaps still worse! - It is a thing forever changing, this of
Hero-worship: different in each age, difficult to do well in any age.
Indeed, the heart of the whole business of the age, one may say, is to
do it well.

We have chosen Mahomet not as the most eminent Prophet, but as the one
we are freest to speak of. He is by no means the truest of Prophets;
but I do esteem him a true one. Farther, as there is no danger of our
becoming, any of us, Mahometans, I mean to say all the good of him I
justly can. It is the way to get at his secret: let us try to
understand what _he_ meant with the world; what the world meant and
means with him, will then be a more answerable question. Our current
hypotheses about Mahomet, that he was a scheming Impostor, a Falsehood
incarnate, that his religion is a mere mass of quackery and fatuity,
begins really to be now untenable to any one. The lies, which
well-meaning zeal has heaped round this man, are disgraceful to
ourselves only. When Pococke inquired of Grotius, Where the proof was
of that story of the pigeon, trained to pick peas from Mahomet's ear,
and pass for an angel dictating to him? Grotius answered that there
was no proof! It is really time to dismiss all that. The word this man
spoke has been the life-guidance now of a hundred-and-eighty millions
of men these twelve-hundred years. These hundred-and-eighty millions
were made by God as well as we. A greater number of God's creatures
believe in Mahomet's word at this hour than in any other word
whatever. Are we to suppose that it was a miserable piece of spiritual
legerdemain, this which so many creatures of the Almighty have lived
by and died by? I, for my part, cannot form any such supposition. I
will believe most things sooner than that. One would be entirely at a
loss what to think of this world at all, if quackery so grew and were
sanctioned here.

Alas, such theories are very lamentable. If we would attain to
knowledge of anything in God's true Creation, let us disbelieve them
wholly! They are the product of an Age of Scepticism; they indicate
the saddest spiritual paralysis, and mere death-life of the souls of
men: more godless theory, I think, was never promulgated in this
Earth. A false man found a religion? Why, a false man cannot build a
brick house! If he do not know and follow _truly_ the properties of
mortar, burnt clay and what else he works in, it is no house that he
makes, but a rubbish-heap. It will not stand for twelve centuries, to
lodge a hundred-and-eighty millions; it will fall straightway. A man
must conform himself to Nature's laws, _be_ verily in communion with
Nature and the truth of things, or Nature will answer him, No, not at
all! Speciosities are specious - ah, me! - a Cagliostro, many
Cagliostros, prominent world-leaders, do prosper by their quackery,
for a day. It is like a forged bank-note; they get it passed out of
_their_ worthless hands: others, not they, have to smart for it.
Nature bursts-up in fire-flame, French Revolutions and suchlike,
proclaiming with terrible veracity that forged notes are forged.

But of a Great Man especially, of him I will venture to assert that it
is incredible he should have been other than true. It seems to me the
primary foundation of him, and of all that can lie in him, this. No
Mirabeau, Napoleon, Burns, Cromwell, no man adequate to do anything,
but is first of all in right earnest about it; what I call a sincere
man. I should say _sincerity_, a deep, great, genuine sincerity, is
the first characteristic of all men in any way heroic. Not the
sincerity that calls itself sincere; ah, no, that is a very poor
matter indeed; - a shallow braggart conscious sincerity; oftenest
self-conceit mainly. The Great Man's sincerity is of the kind he
cannot speak of, is not conscious of: nay, I suppose, he is conscious
rather of _in_sincerity; for what man can walk accurately by the law
of truth for one day? No, the Great Man does not boast himself
sincere, far from that; perhaps does not ask himself if he is so: I
would say rather, his sincerity does not depend on himself; he cannot
help being sincere! The great Fact of Existence is great to him. Fly
as he will, he cannot get out of the awful presence of this Reality.
His mind is so made; he is great by that, first of all. Fearful and
wonderful, real as Life, real as death, is this Universe to him.
Though all men should forget its truth, and walk in a vain show, he
cannot. At all moments the Flame-image glares-in upon him; undeniable,
there, there! - I wish you to take this as my primary definition of a
Great Man. A little man may have this, it is competent to all men that
God has made: but a Great Man cannot be without it.

Such a man is what we call an _original_ man: he comes to us at
first-hand. A messenger he, sent from the Infinite Unknown with
tidings to us. We may call him Poet, Prophet, God; - in one way or
other, we all feel that the words he utters are as no other man's
words. Direct from the Inner Fact of things; - he lives, and has to
live, in daily communion with that. Hearsays cannot hide it from him;
he is blind, homeless, miserable, following hearsays; _it_ glares-in
upon him. Really his utterances, are they not a kind of
'revelation;' - what we must call such for want of some other name? It
is from the heart of the world that he comes; he is portion of the
primal reality of things. God has made many revelations: but this man
too, has not God made him, the latest and newest of all? The
'inspiration of the Almighty giveth _him_ understanding:' we must
listen before all to him.

This Mahomet, then, we will in no wise consider as an Inanity and
Theatricality, a poor conscious ambitious schemer; we cannot conceive
him so. The rude message he delivered was a real one withal; an
earnest confused voice from the unknown Deep. The man's words were not
false, nor his workings here below; no Inanity and Simulacrum; a fiery
mass of Life cast-up from the great bosom of Nature herself. To
_kindle_ the world; the world's Maker had ordered it so. Neither can
the faults, imperfections, insincerities even, of Mahomet, if such
were never so well proved against him, shake this primary fact about

On the whole, we make too much of faults; the details of the business
hide the real centre of it. Faults? The greatest of faults, I should
say, is to be conscious of none. Readers of the Bible above all, one
would think, might know better. Who is called there 'the man according
to God's own heart'? David, the Hebrew King, had fallen into sins
enough; blackest crimes; there was no want of sins. And thereupon the
unbelievers sneer and ask, Is this your man according to God's own
heart? The sneer, I must say, seems to me but a shallow one. What are
faults, what are the outward details of a life; if the inner secret of
it, the remorse, temptations, true, often-baffled, never-ended
struggle of it, be forgotten? 'It is not in man that walketh to direct
his steps.' Of all acts, is not, for a man, _repentance_ the most
divine? The deadliest sin, I say, were that same supercilious
consciousness of no sin; - that is death; the heart so conscious is
divorced from sincerity, humility and fact; is dead: it is 'pure' as
dead dry sand is pure. David's life and history, as written for us in
those Psalms of his, I consider to be the truest emblem ever given of
a man's moral progress and warfare here below. All earnest souls will
ever discern in it the faithful struggle of an earnest human soul
towards what is good and best. Struggle often baffled, sore baffled,
down as into entire wreck; yet a struggle never ended; ever, with
tears, repentance, true unconquerable purpose, begun anew. Poor human
nature! Is not a man's walking, in truth, always that: 'a succession
of falls'? Man can do no other. In this wild element of a Life, he has
to struggle onwards; now fallen, deep-abased; and ever, with tears,
repentance, with bleeding heart, he has to rise again, struggle again
still onwards. That his struggle _be_ a faithful unconquerable one:
that is the question of questions. We will put-up with many sad
details, if the soul of it were true. Details by themselves will never
teach us what it is. I believe we misestimate Mahomet's faults even as
faults: but the secret of him will never be got by dwelling there. We
will leave all this behind us; and assuring ourselves that he did mean
some true thing, ask candidly what it was or might be.

* * * * *

These Arabs Mahomet was born among are certainly a notable people.
Their country itself is notable; the fit habitation for such a race.
Savage inaccessible rock-mountains, great grim deserts, alternating
with beautiful strips of verdure: wherever water is, there is
greenness, beauty; odoriferous balm-shrubs, date-trees,
frankincense-trees. Consider that wide waste horizon of sand, empty,
silent, like a sand-sea, dividing habitable place from habitable. You
are all alone there, left alone with the Universe; by day a fierce sun
blazing down on it with intolerable radiance; by night the great deep
Heaven with its stars. Such a country is fit for a swift-handed,
deep-hearted race of men. There is something most agile, active, and
yet most meditative, enthusiastic in the Arab character. The Persians
are called the French of the East, we will call the Arabs Oriental
Italians. A gifted noble people; a people of wild strong feelings, and
of iron restraint over these: the characteristic of noblemindedness,
of genius. The wild Bedouin welcomes the stranger to his tent, as one
having right to all that is there; were it his worst enemy, he will
slay his foal to treat him, will serve him with sacred hospitality for
three days, will set him fairly on his way; - and then, by another law
as sacred, kill him if he can. In words too, as in action. They are
not a loquacious people, taciturn rather; but eloquent, gifted when
they do speak. An earnest truthful kind of men. They are, as we know,
of Jewish kindred: but with that deadly terrible earnestness of the
Jews they seem to combine something graceful, brilliant, which is not
Jewish. They had 'Poetic contests' among them before the time of
Mahomet. Sale says, at Ocadh, in the South of Arabia, there were
yearly fairs, and there, when the merchandising was done, Poets sang
for prizes: - the wild people gathered to hear that.

One Jewish quality these Arabs manifest; the outcome of many or of all
high qualities; what we may call religiosity. From of old they had
been zealous workers, according to their light. They worshipped the
stars, as Sabeans; worshipped many natural objects, - recognised them
as symbols, immediate manifestations, of the Maker of Nature. It was
wrong; and yet not wholly wrong. All God's works are still in a sense
symbols of God. Do we not, as I urged, still account it a merit to
recognise a certain inexhaustible significance, 'poetic beauty' as we
name it, in all natural objects whatsoever? A man is a poet, and
honoured, for doing that, and speaking or singing it, - a kind of
diluted worship. They had many Prophets, these Arabs; Teachers each to
his tribe, each according to the light he had. But indeed, have we not
from of old the noblest of proofs, still palpable to every one of us,
of what devoutness and noblemindedness had dwelt in these rustic
thoughtful peoples? Biblical critics seem agreed that our own _Book of
Job_ was written in that region of the world. I call that, apart from
all theories about it, one of the grandest things ever written with
pen. One feels, indeed, as if it were not Hebrew; such a noble
universality, different from noble patriotism or sectarianism, reigns
in it. A noble Book; all men's Book! It is our first, oldest statement
of the never-ending Problem, - man's destiny, and God's ways with him
here in this earth. And all in such free flowing outlines; grand in
its sincerity, in its simplicity; in its epic melody, and repose of
reconcilement. There is the seeing eye, the mildly understanding
heart. So _true_ everywhere; true eyesight and vision for all things;
material things no less than spiritual; the Horse, - 'hast thou clothed
his neck with _thunder_?' - he '_laughs_ at the shaking of the spear!'
Such living likenesses were never since drawn. Sublime sorrow, sublime
reconciliation: oldest choral melody as of the heart of mankind; - so
soft, and great; as the summer midnight, as the world with its seas
and stars! There is nothing written, I think, in the Bible or out of
it, of equal literary merit. -

To the idolatrous Arabs one of the most ancient universal objects of
worship was that Black Stone, still kept in the building called Caabah
at Mecca. Diodorus Siculus mentions this Caabah in a way not to be
mistaken, as the oldest, most honoured temple in his time; that is,
some half-century before our Era. Silvestre de Sacy says there is some
likelihood that the Black Stone is an aerolite. In that case, some one
might _see_ it fall out of Heaven! It stands now beside the Well
Zemzem; the Caabah is built over both. A Well is in all places a
beautiful affecting object, gushing out like life from the hard
earth; - still more so in these hot dry countries, where it is the
first condition of being. The Well Zemzem has its name from the
bubbling sound of the waters, _zem-zem_; they think it is the Well
which Hagar found with her little Ishmael in the wilderness: the
aerolite and it have been sacred now, and had a Caabah over them, for
thousands of years. A curious object, that Caabah! There it stands at
this hour, in the black cloth-covering the Sultan sends it yearly;
'twenty-seven cubits high;' with circuit, with double circuit of
pillars, with festoon-rows of lamps and quaint ornaments: the lamps
will be lighted again _this_ night, - to glitter again under the stars.
An authentic fragment of the oldest Past. It is the _Keblah_ of all
Moslem: from Delhi all onwards to Morocco, the eyes of innumerable
praying men are turned towards _it_, five times, this day and all
days: one of the notablest centres in the Habitation of Men.

It had been from the sacredness attached to this Caabah Stone and
Hagar's Well, from the pilgrimings of all tribes of Arabs thither,
that Mecca took its rise as a Town. A great town once, though much
decayed now. It has no natural advantage for a town; stands in a sandy
hollow amid bare barren hills, at a distance from the sea; its
provisions, its very bread, have to be imported. But so many pilgrims
needed lodgings: and then all places of pilgrimage do, from the first,
become places of trade. The first day pilgrims meet, merchants have
also met: where men see themselves assembled for one object, they find
that they can accomplish other objects which depend on meeting
together. Mecca became the Fair of all Arabia. And thereby indeed the
chief staple and warehouse of whatever Commerce there was between the
Indian and Western countries, Syria, Egypt, even Italy. It had at one
time a population of 100,000; buyers, forwarders of those Eastern and
Western products; importers for their own behoof of provisions and
corn. The government was a kind of irregular aristocratic republic,
not without a touch of theocracy. Ten Men of a chief tribe, chosen in
some rough way, were Governors of Mecca, and Keepers of the Caabah.
The Koreish were the chief tribe in Mahomet's time; his own family was
of that tribe. The rest of the Nation, fractioned and cut-asunder by
deserts, lived under similar rude patriarchal governments by one or
several: herdsmen, carriers, traders, generally robbers too; being
oftenest at war one with another, or with all: held together by no
open bond, if it were not this meeting at the Caabah, where all forms
of Arab Idolatry assembled in common adoration; - held mainly by the
_inward_ indissoluble bond of a common blood and language. In this way
had the Arabs lived for long ages, unnoticed by the world: a people of
great qualities, unconsciously waiting for the day when they should
become notable to all the world. Their Idolatries appear to have been
in a tottering state; much was getting into confusion and fermentation
among them. Obscure tidings of the most important Event ever
transacted in this world, the Life and Death of the Divine Man in
Judea, at once the symptom and cause of immeasurable change to all
people in the world, had in the course of centuries reached into
Arabia too; and could not but, of itself, have produced fermentation

* * * * *

It was among this Arab people, so circumstanced, in the year 570 of
our Era, that the man Mahomet was born. He was of the family of
Hashem, of the Koreish tribe as we said; though poor, connected with
the chief persons of his country.

Almost at his birth he lost his Father; at the age of six years his
Mother too, a woman noted for her beauty, her worth and sense: he fell
to the charge of his Grandfather, an old man, a hundred years old. A
good old man: Mahomet's Father, Abdallah, had been his youngest
favourite son. He saw in Mahomet, with his old life-worn eyes, a
century old, the lost Abdallah come back again, all that was left of
Abdallah. He loved the little orphan Boy greatly; used to say, They
must take care of that beautiful little Boy, nothing in their kindred
was more precious than he. At his death, while the boy was still but
two years old, he left him in charge to Abu Thaleb the eldest of the
Uncles, as to him that now was head of the house. By this Uncle, a
just and rational man as everything betokens, Mahomet was brought-up
in the best Arab way.

Mahomet, as he grew up, accompanied his Uncle on trading journeys and
suchlike; in his eighteenth year one finds him a fighter following his
Uncle in war. But perhaps the most significant of all his journeys is
one we find noted as of some years' earlier date: a journey to the
Fairs of Syria. The young man here first came in contact with a quite
foreign world, - with one foreign element of endless moment to him: the
Christian Religion. I know not what to make of that 'Sergius, the
Nestorian Monk,' whom Abu Thaleb and he are said to have lodged with;
or how much any monk could have taught one still so young. Probably
enough it is greatly exaggerated, this of the Nestorian Monk. Mahomet
was only fourteen; had no language but his own: much in Syria must
have been a strange unintelligible whirlpool to him. But the eyes of
the lad were open; glimpses of many things would doubtless be
taken-in, and lie very enigmatic as yet, which were to ripen in a
strange way into views, into beliefs and insights one day. These
journeys to Syria were probably the beginning of much to Mahomet.

One other circumstance we must not forget: that he had no
school-learning; of the thing we call school-learning none at all. The
art of writing was but just introduced into Arabia; it seems to be the
true opinion that Mahomet never could write! Life in the Desert, with
its experiences, was all his education. What of this infinite Universe
he, from his dim place, with his own eyes and thoughts, could take in,
so much and no more of it was he to know. Curious, if we will reflect
on it, this of having no books. Except by what he could see for
himself, or hear of by uncertain rumour of speech in the obscure
Arabian Desert, he could know nothing. The wisdom that had been before
him or at a distance from him in the world, was in a manner as good as
not there for him. Of the great brother souls, flame-beacons through
so many lands and times, no one directly communicates with this great
soul. He is alone there, deep down in the bosom of the Wilderness; has
to grow up so, - alone with Nature and his own Thoughts.

But, from an early age, he had been remarked as a thoughtful man. His
companions named him '_Al Amin_, The Faithful.' A man of truth and
fidelity; true in what he did, in what he spake and thought. They
noted that _he_ always meant something. A man rather taciturn in
speech; silent when there was nothing to be said; but pertinent, wise,
sincere, when he did speak; always throwing light on the matter. This
is the only sort of speech _worth_ speaking! Through life we find him
to have been regarded as an altogether solid, brotherly, genuine man.
A serious, sincere character; yet amiable, cordial, companionable,
jocose even; - a good laugh in him withal: there are men whose laugh is
as untrue as anything about them; who cannot laugh. One hears of
Mahomet's beauty: his fine sagacious honest face, brown florid
complexion, beaming black eyes; - I somehow like too that vein on the
brow, which swelled-up black when he was in anger: like the
'_horse-shoe_ vein' in Scott's _Redgauntlet_. It was a kind of feature
in the Hashem family, this black swelling vein in the brow; Mahomet
had it prominent, as would appear. A spontaneous, passionate, yet
just, true-meaning man! Full of wild faculty, fire and light: of wild
worth, all uncultured; working out his life-task in the depths of the
Desert there.

How he was placed with Kadijah, a rich Widow, as her Steward, and
travelled in her business, again to the Fairs of Syria; how he managed
all, as one can well understand, with fidelity, adroitness; how her
gratitude, her regard for him grew: the story of their marriage is
altogether a graceful intelligible one, as told us by the Arab
authors. He was twenty-five; she forty, though still beautiful. He

Online LibraryThomas CarlyleSartor resartus; and, On heroes, hero-worship and the heroic in history → online text (page 26 of 43)