“The History of the World is But the Biography of Great Men”

Discuss. 

If this were really a final exam, you would not be allowed to use Google; and obviously part of the test would be to see if you can attribute the quote to its proper source. But since this isn’t a test, here’s the passage in question, from Carlyle:

Thus if the man Odin himself have vanished utterly, there is this huge Shadow of him which still projects itself over the whole History of his People. For this Odin once admitted to be God, we can understand well that the whole Scandinavian Scheme of Nature, or dim No-scheme, whatever it might before have been, would now begin to develop itself altogether differently, and grow thenceforth in a new manner. What this Odin saw into, and taught with his runes and his rhymes, the whole Teutonic People laid to heart and carried forward. His way of thought became their way of thought:–such, under new conditions, is the history of every great thinker still. In gigantic confused lineaments, like some enormous camera-obscure shadow thrown upwards from the dead deeps of the Past, and covering the whole Northern Heaven, is not that Scandinavian Mythology in some sort the Portraiture of this man Odin? The gigantic image of his natural face, legible or not legible there, expanded and confused in that manner! Ah, Thought, I say, is always Thought. No great man lives in vain. The History of the world is but the Biography of great men.

To me there is something very touching in this primeval figure of Heroism; in such artless, helpless, but hearty entire reception of a Hero by his fellow-men. Never so helpless in shape, it is the noblest of feelings, and a feeling in some shape or other perennial as man himself. If I could show in any measure, what I feel deeply for a long time now, That it is the vital element of manhood, the soul of man’s history here in our world,–it would be the chief use of this discoursing at present. We do not now call our great men Gods, nor admire without limit; ah no, with limit enough! But if we have no great men, or do not admire at all,–that were a still worse case.

  1. Robert Lux

    My exam answer, though admittedly most likely yielding a failing grade: Pseudo-Hegelian treacle. 

    I had to suffer through Sartor Resartus in an otherwise extremely memorable undergraduate course on English Literature Since Wordsworth.  Carlyle is an insufferable windbag. 

    Rather amused and elated was I, years later, upon discovering Nietzsche’s assessment: “[T]hat semi-actor and rhetorician, the insipid muddleheaded Carlyle, who tried to conceal behind passionate grimaces what he knew of himself –namely, what was lacking in Carlyle: real power of spirituality, real profundity of spiritual perception; in brief, philosophy.”

  2. Ed G.

    And Tolstoy seems to take the opposite view. Both are compelling and offer arguments that appeal to intuition and experience. Has anyone attempted a unified theory?

  3. Bill Gonch

    No, it is not. 

    Carlyle must posit a historical proto-Odin (I know of no evidence for such a man) to argue that a group of stories, assembled over centuries from Norse tradition, ‘really’ followed lines laid down by some grand ancestor.  This is false.  The discrete actions of millions of men and women make up history; battles are won not only by generals, but by the men who fight. . . and by their fathers, who taught them not to run.  And sometimes, history is dictated by pure accident – the cigar wrapper at Antietam, for example. 

    Great men exist – and are actually great.  At particular moments they tip the world.  But we exaggerate their influence when we write books because we must condense history, eliding the actions of millions, in order to make sense of a period or event.  Real history is the biography of all men, and it is known only to the mind of God.  

  4. Claire Berlinski
    C
    Robert Lux: Carlyle is an insufferable windbag. 

    Man, I’m glad you said that. It’s true, isn’t it.

  5. Aaron Miller

    “To see a world in a grain of sand…”

    People need to witness their greatest aspirations realized, to see persons willing to strive for more than they are certain they can achieve. Every age needs heroes.

    And every age needs poets and writers, like Carlyle. Not everyone has the gift of fully recognizing beauty and excellence for what they are.

    A hero without a bard is like General Patton as described by The New York Times.

  6. Pseudodionysius
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.

    Robert Lux: Carlyle is an insufferable windbag. 

    Man, I’m glad you said that. It’s true, isn’t it. ยท May 24 at 9:23am

    Right when I try and get some work done I find myself, instead, thumbing through a worn copy of Historians’ Fallacies by David Hackett Fischer. Curse you Ricochet!

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