Friday, February 22, 2013

Carlyle: Heroes and Hero Worship Part 1

While I was on the road trip, rather than write, rather than edit, rather than read a pleasure book I had with me, rather than read to research for my next non-fiction book, rather than study my Life Group lessons, I read for research into Thomas Carlyle, specifically his 1840 book On Heroes, Hero Worship, and the Heroic in History. The language and sentence structure is a bit old-fashioned, but actually the reading wasn't too difficult. I don't yet know what I want to do with Carlyle over the remaining years of my writing career, but until I do I'm reading him.

The term "hero worship" has always grated on me, because I believe our only object of worship should be God. However, if I think of the term more as admiration I can deal with it and absorb it into my brain.

First, or course, is to come up with a definition of a hero. I read deep into Heroes without understanding Carlyle's definition. In fact, I think it was chapter 4, corresponding to the fourth of his six lectures, before I figured it out. However, going back and re-reading from the beginning, I find this a little way into Chapter 2, with it also stated (thought less clearly) in Chapter 1.

But of a Great Man especially, of him I will venture to assert that it is incredible he should have been other than true. It seems to me the primary foundation of him, and of all that can lie in him, this. No Mirabeau, Napoleon, Burns, Cromwell, no man adequate to do anything, but is first of all in right earnest about it; what I call a sincere man. I should say sincerity, a deep, great, genuine sincerity, is the first characteristic of all men in any way heroic.

So to Carlyle, the most important thing for a man to be considered heroic is that he be sincere in his pursuits. The opposite, in his term is a quack: someone who practices quackery. By this he means someone who is trying to hoodwink those he interacts with, perhaps trying to appear sincere but knowing none of what he says or does is based on truth. While the term quack is nowadays applied to medical charlatans, Carlyle would apply the term to someone like Bernie Madoff, who bilked investors out of billions, because Madoff knew he was conning people. I suppose, had Madoff sincerely thought the type of investments he was making for his clients would have paid off, if he really believed what he was doing was right, he would be a candidate to be a hero even if his clients lost billions.

I find this a strange definition. Or maybe I find that Carlyle overstates it. In his mind, and in his lectures and book, if a man is sincere and does great things then he is a hero. He doesn't need to be right—just sincere. He doesn't need to help people as opposed to hurt them—he just needs to be sincere as he goes about his work. If his work is riddled with errors, or if he actually hurts people as a result of what he produces, so long as he did this sincerely he can be a hero. So Mohammad, who Carlyle says was in error in his doctrines and approach to spreading them, was a hero because he sincerely believed he received those doctrines from God. Rousseau, who he pans as having few accomplishments other than spurring the intellectual foundation for the French Revolution, was a hero because he was sincere in what he did.

I'm sorry, but for me that's not enough. Sincerity may be one component of being a hero, but accomplishment for good is of greater importance in my opinion. The sincere man who hurts people, such as Rousseau, is no hero. The prophet who leads a billion people into theological error, thought he sincerely believes what he preaches, is no hero.

I'm going to take a few posts to give my impressions of this book. At the end I hope to say a few things about heroes in our own generation, and to give some examples. Of course, I've planned such series at this blog before, and often fall short of my own expectations. I'm currently in the last chapter of the book, with about 90 e-book pages to read. We'll see how this series goes.

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