Thomas Carlyle and His Works

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Thomas Carlyle and His Works is an essay written by Henry David Thoreau that praises the writings of Thomas Carlyle.

It demonstrates a few themes that show up elsewhere in Thoreau’s writings. First of these is Thoreau’s eagerness to find a hero. Carlyle wrote the book On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History, which Thoreau considered his crowning achievement.

While Thoreau as a young man is still looking for a hero to model himself after, he knows that ultimately he will have to cast models aside. He felt that the problem with religion was that when a Christ or a Buddha discovered something magnificent and important, people then spent their lives celebrating (or arguing about) the discovery but never bothering to try and discover it themselves. He wrote in his journal:

It is remarkable that the highest intellectual mood which the world tolerates is the perception of truth of the most ancient revelations, now in some respects out of date; but any direct revelation, any original thoughts, it hates like virtue. The fathers and the mothers of the town would rather hear the young man or young woman at their tables express reverence for some old statement of the truth than utter a direct revelation themselves. They don’t want to have any prophets born into their families – damn them! So far as thinking is concerned, surely original thinking is the divinest thing. Rather we should reverently watch for the least motions, the least scintillations, of thought in this sluggish world, and men should run to and fro on the occasion more than at an earthquake. We check and repress the divinity that stirs within us, to fall down and worship the divinity that is dead without us. I go to see many a good man or good woman, so called, and utter freely that thought which alone it was given to me to utter; but there was a man who lived a long, long time ago, and his name was Moses, and another whose name was Christ, and if your thought does not, or does not appear to, coincide with what they said, the good man or the good woman has no ears to hear you. They think they love God! It is only his old clothes, of which they make scarecrows for the children. Where will they come nearer to God than in those very children?

So he appreciated the attitude of people who didn’t merely want to drink from the stream, but wanted to find its source. In Carlyle’s case, Thoreau used this same appreciation to praise the “Carlylisms” that others found to be ostentatious: “He does not go to the dictionary, the word-book, but to the word-manufactory itself, and has made endless work for the lexicographers.”

“The end of man is an action and not a thought, though it be the noblest,” Carlyle wrote, and Thoreau sums up Carlyle’s philosophy in this way:

One thing is certain – that we had best be doing something in good earnest henceforth forever; that’s an indispensable philosophy.

What Carlyle did, in good earnest henceforth forever, contributed to humanity:

In his writings, we should say that he, as conspicuously as any, though with little enough expressed or even conscious sympathy, represents the Reformer class, and all the better for not being the acknowledged leader of any. In him the universal plaint is most settled, unappeasable, and serious. Until a thousand named and nameless grievances are righted, there will be no repose for him in the lap of nature, or the seclusion of science and literature. By foreseeing it, he hastens the crisis in the affairs of England, and is as good as many years added to her history.

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