In the May of 1840 Thomas Carlyle delivered a series of six lectures under the general title, 'On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History'. * Taken together, these lectures provide us with what is perhaps the nineteenth century's most striking response to individualism. Unhappy with his period's materialist zeitgeist, disturbed by society's unhealthy self-consciousness, and antipathetic to projects of social amelioration by political legislation, Carlyle conceived history as a matter of individual strength and greatness. Far from being the product of his age, the hero produces the age, fashioning it by sheer force of character and vision, and as ordinary, unheroic people, it is our responsibility to recognize, follow and obey the great man once he declares himself. Moral culture is thus to be valued over political action; the 'mechanical' needs of economic man should be subverted by his unseen 'dynamical' needs.
We see here an extreme reaction against not only scientific models of explanation but also all expressions of democracy. For the first four lectures we view a world where power properly resides only in certain privileged individuals, conferred, it often seems, by an inscrutable divine will. So it is with some relief that in the fifth lecture we hear that 'Hero-gods, Prophets, Poets, Priests are forms of Heroism that belong to the old ages' and that 'some of them have ceased to be possible long since'. And it is with considerable surprise that we learn that the new, perfectly possible model of the hero is the 'man of letters', an Enlightenment phenomenon which provides various models in Dr Johnson, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Robert Bums. The circumstance which has allowed this new kind of hero to emerge turns out to be 'the wondrous art of Writing, or of Ready-writing which we call Printing', and as long as writing can be easily disseminated, the hero as the man of letters 'may be expected to continue, as one of the main forms of Heroism for all future ages', vying for pride of place only with that other exemplary hero, the king. (1)
Before discussing Johnson, Rousseau and Burns, Carlyle addresses the importance of writing in more general terms. To begin with, he makes it quite clear that printing is a mere appurtenance of writing--'a simple, an inevitable and apparently insignificant corollary'--so it is writing, rather than printing, which has ushered in 'the true reign of miracles' and changed all things for all men, in 'teaching, preaching, governing, and all else'. (2) Little surprise then, that Carlyle turns to consider an institution which, while it looked askance at Burns and Rousseau and condescended to Johnson, had many years earlier precipitated his own crisis of faith--the university. Although it is impossible to imagine a university without writing, it is just possible to conceive a university without books or, at any rate, with very few books. Such was the situation at the first university, namely the University of Paris, which Carlyle calls 'the model of all subsequent Universities'. It is possible to think...
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