The wisdom of Thomas Carlyle

The wisdom of Thomas Carlyle

A comment by my esteemed colleague Aquinas wired on my previous post drove me to look at Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations for information about what he meant when he mentioned British essayist Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881).

I’m not alone in letting my knowledge of Carlyle’s work get rusty. Here’s a famous excerpt from “A Study in Scarlet” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It comes from Chapter 2, in which Dr. John Watson has only recently met Sherlock Holmes and is trying to find out more about his new roommate. Watson is describing Holmes here:

“His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge. Of contemporary literature, philosophy and politics he appeared to know next to nothing. Upon my quoting Thomas Carlyle, he inquired in the naivest way who he might be and what he had done. My surprise reached a climax, however, when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System. That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to be to me such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.”

So don’t feel so bad about not knowing Carlyle — but do enjoy these wise quotations, which deserve to be familiar even to those who aren’t consulting detectives. (Mentions of other writers in quotation marks are titles; Carlyle was writing about them.)

“In every man’s writings, the character of the writer must lie recorded.” — “Goethe” (1828)

“How does the poet speak to men, with power, but by being still more a man than they?” — “Burns” (1828)

“Alas! the fearful Unbelief is unbelief in yourself.” — “Sartor Resartus” (1833-34)

“There is a great discovery still to be made in Literature, that of paying literary men for the quantity they do not write.” —
“Sir Walter Scott” (1838)

“Blessed is he who has found his work; let him ask no other blessedness.” — “Past and Present,” Book III, Chapter 11 (1843)

“Be not the slave of Words.” — “Sartor Resartus” (1833-34)

Considering my recent post, I was disappointed to find a mention of “Heroes and Hero-Worship” (1841) only in a footnote in Bartlett’s; it’s not clear there whether it refers to Carlyle himself or to Macaulay, who is also mentioned in the same footnote.

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  • "Be not the slave of words." That reminded me of the following conversation:

    "When I use a word," Humpty-Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean---neither more nor less."

    "The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

    "The question is," said Humpty-Dumpty, "which is to be master---that's all."

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    Thank you for another apposite comment. I would say that the world is often afflicted with Humpty-Dumpty-itis -- but then I'm defining what that is, aren't I?

  • Well, thank you for re-animating Thomas Caryle in this way. It's been some decades since knowing who he was was mandatory and, well, the coursework seemed so fusty-dusty, then....!

  • In reply to folkloric:

    You're welcome. Re-animating is a great word for why I like doing the "Browsing through Bartlett's" posts. I like them to be educational, but much of the time, I'm presenting things I've learned myself through my browsing. (One reason Google bothers me is that it prevents looking at something next to what you thought you wanted and getting something even more interesting.)

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