Thomas Carlyle (4 December 1795 – 5 February 1881) was a Scottish philosopher, satirical writer, essayist, historian and teacher. Considered one of the most important social commentators of his time, he presented many lectures during his lifetime with certain acclaim in the Victorian era.
One of those conferences resulted in his famous work On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and The Heroic in History where he explains that the key role in history lies in the actions of the “Great Man”, claiming that “History is nothing but the biography of the Great Man”.
A respected historian in his day, his 1837 book The French Revolution: A History was the inspiration for Dickens’ 1859 novel A Tale of Two Cities, and remains popular today. Carlyle’s 1836 novel Sartor Resartus is considered one of the finest works of the nineteenth century.
A great polemicist, Carlyle coined the term “the dismal science” for economics.
He also wrote articles for the Edinburgh Encyclopedia, and his Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question (1849) remains controversial.
Once a Christian, Carlyle lost his faith while attending the University of Edinburgh, later adopting a form of Deism.
His philosophy, combined with his appreciation of the German culture, the Norse mythology and his anti-democratic views, is considered by some a prelude for fascism.
In mathematics, he is known for the Carlyle circle,a method used in quadratic equations and for developing ruler-and-compass constructions of regular polygons.
Carlyle was born in Ecclefechan in Dumfriesshire. His parents determinedly afforded him an education at Annan Academy, Annan, where he was bullied and tormented so much that he left after three years.
His father was a member of the Burgher secession church. In early life, his family’s (and nation’s) strong Calvinist beliefs powerfully influenced the young man.
After attending the University of Edinburgh, Carlyle became a mathematics teacher, first in Annan and then in Kirkcaldy, where he became close friends with the mystic Edward Irving. (Confusingly, there is another Scottish Thomas Carlyle, born a few years later, connected to Irving via work with the Catholic Apostolic Church.)
In 1819–1821, Carlyle returned to the University of Edinburgh, where he suffered an intense crisis of faith and a conversion, which provided the material for Sartor Resartus (“The Tailor Retailored”), which first brought him to the public’s notice.
Carlyle developed a painful stomach ailment, possibly gastric ulcers, that remained throughout his life and likely contributed to his reputation as a crotchety, argumentative, somewhat disagreeable personality. His prose style, famously cranky and occasionally savage, helped cement an air of irascibility.
Carlyle’s thinking became heavily influenced by German idealism, in particular the work of Johann Gottlieb Fichte. He established himself as an expert on German literature in a series of essays for Fraser’s Magazine, and by translating German works, notably Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre. He also wrote a Life of Schiller (1825).
In 1826, Thomas Carlyle married fellow intellectual Jane Baillie Welsh, whom he had met through Edmund Irving during his period of German studies. In 1827, he applied for the Chair of Moral Philosophy at St Andrews University but was not appointed. A residence provided by Jane’s estate was a house on Craigenputtock, a farm in Dumfrieshire, Scotland.
He often wrote about his life at Craigenputtock – in particular: “It is certain that for living and thinking in I have never since found in the world a place so favourable.” Here Carlyle wrote some of his most distinguished essays, and began a lifelong friendship with the American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson.
In 1831, the Carlyles moved to London, settling initially in lodgings at 4 (now 33) Ampton Street, Kings Cross. In 1834, they moved to 5 (now 24) Cheyne Row, Chelsea, which has since been preserved as a museum to Carlyle’s memory. He became known as the “Sage of Chelsea”, and a member of a literary circle which included the essayists Leigh Hunt and John Stuart Mill.
Here Carlyle wrote The French Revolution: A History (3 volumes, 1837), a historical study concentrating both on the oppression of the poor of France and on the horrors of the mob unleashed. The book was immediately successful.
Carlyle married Jane Welsh in 1826. He met Welsh through his friend and her tutor Edward Irving, with whom she came to have a mutual romantic (although not intimate) attraction. Welsh was the subject of Leigh Hunt’s charming poem, Jenny Kissed Me.
Their marriage proved to be one of the most famous, well documented, and unhappy of literary unions. Over 9000 letters between Carlyle and his wife have been published showing the couple had an affection for each other marred by frequent and angry quarrels.
It was very good of God to let Carlyle and Mrs Carlyle marry one another, and so make only two people miserable and not four.
— Samuel Butler
Carlyle became increasingly alienated from his wife. Carlyle’s biographer James Anthony Froude published (posthumously) his opinion that the marriage remained unconsummated.
Although she had been an invalid for some time, his wife’s sudden death in 1866 was unexpected and it greatly distressed Carlyle who was moved to write his highly self-critical “Reminiscences of Jane Welsh Carlyle”, published posthumously.
After Jane Carlyle’s death in 1866, Thomas Carlyle partly retired from active society.
He was appointed rector of the University of Edinburgh. His last years were spent at 24 Cheyne Row (then numbered 5), Chelsea, London SW3 (which is now a National Trust property commemorating his life and works) but he always wished to return to Craigenputtock.
Upon Carlyle’s death on 5 February 1881 in London interment in Westminster Abbey was offered but rejected due to his explicit wish to be buried beside his parents in Ecclefechan.
His final words were, “So, this is death. Well!”