Thomas Carlyle: Past and Present
Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881) was second only to Coleridge as a spokesman for German Romanticism, introducing English intellectuals to the new German thought,—in Carlyle’s case, the introduction was to German culture as a whole. Carlyle’s devotion to things German is clear in his first major work—the verbose, often confusing, yet powerful Sartor Resartus (1833–34)—and in his later History of Frederick the Great (1858–65). He knew the idealist philosophers, though less preceptively than Coleridge did. But it would be a mistake to view Carlyle as a mere imitator or popularizer. While not a very profound thinker and certainly unsystematic, he served as one of England’s greatest social critics of the age—in the earlier part of his life as a kind of conscience, who wrote in the tones of Hebrew prophecy. He had been trained for the Calvinist ministry, but lost his faith and his oratorical prose is a finer version of the hortatory sermons his countrymen relished. His Past and Present (from which a selection follows) and Chartism were tracts attacking the egoism and materialism of an age that allowed the poor to suffer; and these texts bespoke his typically Romantic demand for a heroic faith and for faith in natural heroes and leaders, for discipline and an ethic of work to replace the moral atrophy he saw around him.
KeywordsFrench Revolution Historical View German Culture Idealist Philosopher Oratorical Prose
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