Nietzsche and Carlyle

by Mark Wallace

Nietzsche and Carlyle’s critical reputations have taken opposing trajectories: Carlyle was feted and hugely influential in his lifetime, but soon afterwards dismissed and never since rehabilitated; Nietzsche was an outcast and almost readerless during his writing career, before becoming one of the great influences on 20th century thought. They are sometimes name-checked together as the primary advocates of hero-worship in western letters. They had a lot more in common than just that, though, in their ideals and opinions, and in their temperaments.

Nietzsche, like all well-read individuals of his era, was familiar with Carlyle’s work, and mentions it in his works a few times, most notably in Twilight of the Idols:

Carlyle, a man of strong words and attitudes, a rhetorician by necessity, who seems ever to be tormented by the desire of finding some kind of strong faith, and by his inability to do so (in this respect  a true Romanticist!). To yearn for a strong faith is not the proof of a strong faith, but rather the reverse. if a man have a strong faith he can indulge in the luxury of scepticism; he is strong enough, firm enough, well-knit enough for such a luxury. Carlyle stupifies something in himself by means of the fortissimo of his reverence for men of a strong faith, and his rage over those who are less foolish: he is in sore need of noise. An attitude of constant and passionate dishonesty against himself – this is his proprium; by virtue of this he is and remains interesting.

Not a fan, then, though he does admit that Carlyle is interesting, which is praise by Nietzsche’s standards. Given how scornful Nietzsche was of his fellow philosophers, an “interesting” should not be underestimated, but rather seen as a demonstration that Nietzsche could not dismiss Carlyle quite as completely as he would like to.

Many of Nietzsche’s main themes in Idols are indeed similar to Carlyle’s. When Nietzsche asks “Art thou genuine or art thou only an actor? Art thou a representative or the thing represented, itself?” (maxim 38) we are getting very close to Carlyle’s central preoccupation. Carlyle rarely used the term “actor”, but when he did it was in the same sense as Nietzsche, as when he castigates his implied reader, calling him “a cowardly play-actor in God’s universe” (“New Downing Street”, Latter-Day Pamphlets). This points up a concern Nietzsche and Carlyle shared. Rather than actor, Carlyle would usually talk about a “sham”, but it was his constant preoccupation to tell the actor/sham from the true that was central to the clothes metaphor in his early meisterwerk Sartor Resartus, and revisited often and at great length in his later career. Contemporary life, for Carlyle, was all sham; ruled by sham, and ruled by shams, that is, leaders, who “were not ruling at all; they had merely got the attributes and clothes of rulers” (“The Present Time”, Latter-Day Pamphlets). They were not the thing represented, but a sham in the clothes of the thing represented, and for both Nietzsche and Carlyle this disengagement from truth and instinct symptomatized a degenerate society, a society slavish rather than truly aristocratic, without real leaders, a society that said “no” to life. Compare Carlyle’s “Everlasting Yea” in Sartor to Neitzsche’s “aristocratic affirmation” in Genealogy of Morals, I, 10.


Thomas Carlyle and Friedrich Nietzsche – separated at birth? 

Similarly, when Nietzsche says “I distrust all systematizers, and avoid them. The will to a system shows a lack of honesty”, he’s hitting another Carlylean keynote. Again, of course, there’s the obsession with honesty, integrity, being-the-thing-itself, that the two writers shared, but also the hatred of system. Carlyle had famously decried what he called The Mechanical Age in the early essay “Signs of the Times” (1829); he showed how the will to a system had infected every aspect of human existence, for example with regard to government. He remarked with bitter sarcasm on the mood of the age:

A good structure of legislation, a proper check upon the executive, a wise arrangement of the judiciary, is all that is wanting for human happiness. […] our happiness depends entirely on external circumstances.

This state of affairs bothered Carlyle because it left the individual with no choice but “to unite to a party, or to make one.” Systems didn’t work for humans because they operated on mechanical principles, but people, whether they knew it or not, operated on dynamic principles, and thus: “one man that has a higher wisdom, a hitherto unknown spiritual Truth in him, is stronger, not than ten men that have it not, or than ten thousand, but than all men that have it not” (“Sing of the Times”). Why should such a man of wisdom join a party, mechanize his intellect? For both Nietzsche and Carlyle, the seed of the cult of the hero was the hatred of systematization, and a mechanical society was one that baulked the superior individual at every turn. With the hatred of system, came also a hatred of rationality, which was thinking by system, and which failed to account for the deepest human drives. At bottom of every organism was the Will to Power, as Nietzsche saw it; Carlyle, too, had notoriously been interpreted as holding that “mights make rights”, i.e. that morality (“rights”) was to be determined by the power (“mights”) of the party concerned. One had the right only to what one had the power to take and keep. (See the “Mights and Rights” chapter in Carlyle’s Chartism – his attitude is more complex [or perhaps simply more self-contradictory] than an open power-worship, but he does seem close to it at times).

One could go on: their tendency to racial heirarchization, their attitudes to violence and war, their attitude to pity and charity, etc. – they had far more in common than Nietzsche suggested. There are also similarities of tone: confrontational, oppositional, scornful of those who held opposing views. There is perhaps most of all a sense of two passionate, intelligent and deeply frustrated individuals lashing out against a society they feel has not allowed them the proper avenues of self-expression or a satisfactory way of life. In both cases, they don’t admit to this: Carlyle projects everything outwards. Rather than talking about his own difficulties with faith and engagement in society he furiously castigates society at large for its lack of faith and lack of real human relations, implicitly positing himself as implied author as having surmounted such difficulties (and living in the Everlasting Yea of faith and optimism). Incidentally, that’s why, when Carlyle’s private papers came out after his death, they dealt a huge blow to his reputation: it became obvious he didn’t live by his own stated principles, in any degree, and his writings suddenly read like self-hatred turned into sadistic authoritarianism and (as we might say in post-Freudian times) superego violence. Nietzsche insists on his own transcendence, but in tones of increasing desperation, the more grandiose his self-celebration, the more obviously false it was. Nietzsche was able to see Carlyle’s passionate dishonesty against himself, but never admitted to his own.

Finally, both Carlyle and Nietzsche unwittingly documented their own mental disturbance through their writings. Anthony Trollope said when he read the Latter-Day Pamphlets: “I look on him as a man who was always in danger of going mad through literature and who has now done so.” Nietzsche, meanwhile, really did suffer the complete mental breakdown that is presaged in late works (Ecce Homo, in particular), and wrote not a word after the age of 45. Carlyle went on for much longer, but perhaps he shouldn’t have. If he had stopped at around Neitzsche’s age, before he wrote the Pamphlets, et al., his reputation might have survived.

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