Thomas Carlyle

Thomas Carlyle

Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881) was a Scottish philosopher, satirical writer, essayist, historian, and teacher during the Victorian era. Known for his sharp critique of democracy, industrialization, and the spiritual malaise of his time, Carlyle became one of the most influential thinkers of the 19th century. His work is characterized by a profound, often pessimistic, reflection on society and a strong advocacy for heroic leadership and individual moral integrity.

Carlyle’s significant contributions include his essay “Sartor Resartus” (1833-1834), a satirical work that presents a philosophy of clothes as a metaphor for the human condition and societal values. His magnum opus, “The French Revolution: A History” (1837), is a dramatic and detailed account of the French Revolution, showcasing his unique narrative style. Carlyle also coined the term “the dismal science” to describe economics, highlighting his disdain for the discipline’s focus on material wealth over human well-being.

Ralph Waldo Emerson and Thomas Carlyle

Influence of Emerson on Carlyle:

The relationship between Ralph Waldo Emerson and Thomas Carlyle was one of mutual admiration and influence. However, given the physical distance between America and Britain, it was more intellectual and correspondence-based. Despite never meeting as frequently in person as Emerson did with Thoreau, the two maintained a prolific and impactful exchange of letters over several decades.

  • Philosophical Exchange: Emerson and Carlyle shared a deep philosophical dialogue through their correspondence, discussing their views on society, religion, philosophy, and literature. This exchange helped shape their respective philosophies, with Emerson introducing Carlyle to Transcendentalist ideas and Carlyle sharing his views on historical inevitability and moral force.
  • Promotion of Carlyle’s Work in America: Emerson played a crucial role in introducing Carlyle’s work to the American audience. He helped publish Carlyle’s “Sartor Resartus” in the United States, significantly boosting Carlyle’s international reputation.
  • Shared Critique of Materialism: Both thinkers criticized their societies’ materialism and moral decline. Carlyle’s critique of economic determinism and his call for spiritual and moral regeneration resonated with Emerson’s Transcendentalist ideals, emphasizing the importance of individual conscience and integrity.
  • Influence on American Thought: Through Emerson, Carlyle’s ideas influenced American thought, contributing to the broader intellectual discourse on democracy, individualism, and the role of the hero in history.
  • Mutual Respect and Influence: Despite their differences, such as Carlyle’s more pessimistic worldview compared to Emerson’s more optimistic transcendentalism, both men respected each other’s intellect and influence. Their correspondence is a testament to a deep intellectual friendship transcending geographical and cultural boundaries.

Thomas Carlyle was a towering figure in Victorian literature and thought, known for his critiques of society and his call for moral and spiritual renewal. His interaction with Ralph Waldo Emerson represented a significant intellectual exchange that influenced their works and their respective countries’ broader cultural and philosophical landscapes.