Book Review

  • Issue 48 / October - December 2004

    Thomas Carlyle's On Heroes and Hero-Worship and Heroic in History

    Nuri Delen

    Carlyle was Scottish and lived in England, but he had close relations with the “New World” and had readers in the United States. He had a lifelong friendship with the influential American philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson. At his time, there were not many philosophers who had witnessed the industrial revolution, yet who were still able to maintain a transcendental, not a materialistic view of the world. In the nineteenth century, Materialism was in full swing, and the people in the West, mesmerized by the scientific technological advances of the times, were running away from God like herds of cattle, just as the intellectuals in the East did a century later. Carlyle, Emerson, Thoreau, and a few others were the only exceptions in the West; they still tried to keep what is beyond the “apparent” in focus, or at least tried to search for it. Said Nursi tried to do the same with the voice of the Qur’an, calling the people to what is beyond the apparent in the face of the materialism that was experienced in the East in the twentieth century. One interesting observation I would like to make is that one common theme among these Western philosophers is that many were influenced by Emanuel Swedenborg, the famous eighteenth-century Swedish philosopher.

    In Heroes and Hero Worship Thomas Carlyle attempts to draw a picture of the development of the human intellect by using historical figures as coordinates. Some scholars take a perspective of history in terms of “the environment” or “the times” and “causes,” while others, like Carlyle, have the view that human advancement was not continuous, discrete and rather being made up of a series of jumps; these jumps were caused for the most part by specific individuals whom Carlyle calls “Heroes.” This is like the wave/particle duality of the “nature of light.” In some phenomena light behaves like a wave, while in others it behaves like a particle. One can write a history based on the ideas, cultures, and mediums in which people lived; or the same history can be written by focusing on certain individuals and following them and their actions.

    The writings of Carlyle and those of many other authors of that time, of course, are very perceptive. Carlyle is not really trying to be objective on the matter. He has an idea, and he wants to tell us about this idea; while telling you what this idea is about he uses whatever his hands and mind can take hold of. Being so passionate about what is being said is probably a good thing. But if one is over-passionate, there cannot help but be wild swings in the appreciation of the historical person in question. If we use an analogy of a drawing, the historical person is no longer a point on the painting, but rather a hair of the brush. But that should not prevent us from benefiting from writing of Thomas Carlyle.

    Publisher: Book Surge Classics ISBN: 1594565155 Paperback 316 pages
    Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, has a special place in the book under the chapter title “Hero as a Prophet.” In the book, Carlyle declares his admiration of God’s Messenger, “… The word of such a man (Muhammad) is a Voice direct from Nature’s own Heart. Men do and must listen to that as to nothing else; all else is wind in comparison.” Carlyle’s answers to pointed questions on Islam and the Prophet show interesting similarities to Said Nursi’s line of answers to similar questions. “…For a wretched Simulacrum, a hungry Imposter without eyes or heart, practicing for a mess of pottage such blasphemous swindlery, forgery of celestial documents, continual high-treason against his Maker and Self, we will not and cannot take him” reads very much like Said Nursi’s “The Addendum to the Fifteenth Word,” where he makes a long imaginary discussion with Satan and shows how people are inclined to unbelief, thinking that they are evaluating divine revelation from a neutral perspective “…O Satan! Objective reasoning means impartial judgment or not taking sides, but the objective reasoning which you and your disciples suggest is, in fact, taking the part of those in opposition to the Qur’an; not impartiality but an attitude of temporary unbelief. This is really so because to suppose the Qur’an the work of a human being and to build an argument on this supposition is to side with unbelief or falsehood…”

    Considering the fact that at that time the West and the East were at odds with one another, and that the means of communications were quite inferior to our times, Carlyle having such an open mind to the “other” puts him in a category of his own with thinkers like Swedenborg, Emerson and Thoreau. I think when we are trying to build bridges between the peoples of the West and the East we should not overlook these early historical representatives of dialogue; this is something that Nursi has foreseen in his writings.


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