Saturday, March 16, 2013

Carlyle: The Hero as Prophet

Some time back, I guess a couple of weeks ago now, I did the first part of my review of Thomas Carlyle's Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History. Here's a link to that review.

The second lecture was "The Hero as Prophet. Again, it seems to me the title would make more sense as "The Prophet as Here", but, as I wrote before, it was Carlyle's lecture so he was free to pick his title. And he was free to pick his prophet for this lecture, which was Mohammed, prophet to Islam. Ths lecture begins:
From the first rude times of Paganism among the Scandinavians in the North, we advance to a very different epoch of religion, among a very different people: Mahometanism among the Arabs. A great change; what a change and progress is indicated here, in the universal condition and thoughts of men!
Man had evolved in his intellect so that man was no longer considered a god. Now he was merely a spokesman for God, or a god. The older way of thinking was an error, though we can understand why primitive man made the error given his limited development.

Why Mohammed? And why would he be considered a hero to a non-Moslem? Carlyle explains.
We have chosen Mahomet not as the most eminent Prophet; but as the one we are freest to speak of. He is by no means the truest of Prophets; but I do esteem him a true one. Farther, as there is no danger of our becoming, any of us, Mahometans, I mean to say all the good of him I justly can.
As the lecture unwinds, Carlyle keeps hitting home that Mohammed was no quack: He was sincere in his beliefs and teachings. We see that this is the most important thing to Carlyle as he defines who is and who is not a hero. It's either the first or second cut to get on the short list for hero consideration. Was he a great man was the first criteria, great in the sense was he a leader of men, a shaper of events? Certainly Mohammed qualifies. Second, was he sincere in his belief, not just trying to lead men astray with teaching he knew was erroneous but which he spread to mankind for profit or prestiege or for sadistic self-enjoyment. Mohammed, says Carlyle, was sincere. He makes the cut.

Later Carlyle disparages the Prophet's agenda, his method of spreading it (or more correctly the method his early followers used to spread it), his personal life (to a lesser extent). He speaks ill of the Koran, saying it is a jumbled mess, mostly out of order, that has no great place in literature. Despite living for five years in Moslem lands, I've never read the Koran. It's on the reading list, but not high at the moment. He also speaks negatively about the Arab culture in which Islam first flourished. He calls them "the Oriental Italians," to contrast with the Persians, who were "the French of the East."

I have trouble with Carlyle's reasoning here, though it's difficult to say, given Carlyle's definition of a hero, that Mohammed shouldn't make the cut. Was he sincere? Did he really believe Allah had spoken to him? Given all the difficulty the residents of Mecca gave him in the earliest days, you'd have to think he was sincere; otherwise he surely would have given up.

I'm not sure sincerity is a good criteria, and I guess that's my problem. So long as we are leaving out the ordinary man and woman from the ranks of heroes, wouldn't correctness of results by the great man have something to do with it? How can we believe someone to be a hero when we also believe them to have been guilty of gross error in their thinking and practices? I cannot.

This was a clearly written chapter. It gave me a lot to think about. I actually want to go back and re-read it, as a fair amount I read in a semi-distracted state. Perhaps I'll come a little closer to Carlyle's way of thinking if I can apply focused gray cells to his words. If I ever manage to do that, perhaps I'll come back and modify this. My conclusion at present: This is a chapter well worth reading, even though I disagree with its conclusions.

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