Carlyle’s “On History” (1830)

by Mark Wallace

An early prefiguration of Carlyle’s theory of history as it was to be practiced in The French Revolution, et al. came in the essay “On History“, written when he was still an unknown and financially struggling translater and journalist. “On History” starts by noting that history is the most important form of writing, because only through studying and observing the past can we at all know the present, or indeed the future: “The coming Time already waits, unseen, yet definitely shaped, predetermined and inevitable, in the Time come”. This is very similar to the famous opening lines of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present

The similarity is perhaps worth looking into. Eliot was certainly quite familiar with Carlyle.

So, to read the past is to read the future. But reading the past is not really possible for Carlyle: only certain large public events are recorded, but what of “the nameless boor who first hammered out for himself an iron spade?” He, and his like, the nameless drudges, “the long-forgotten train of artists and artisans” are the real history-makers in many respects but all extant histories are, Carlyle notes, political histories, and as he notes elsewhere, ““Acts of Parliament are small, notwithstanding the noise they make” (On Heroes, Lecture III). Further, those events which are recorded are not recorded in their essential character:

It is in no case, the real historical Transaction, but only some more or less plausible scheme and theory of the Transaction, or the harmonised resut of many such schemes, each varying from the other and all varying from truth, that we can ever hope to behold.

Ultimately, Carlyle calls history an “ever-living, ever-working Chaos of Being, wherein shape after shape bodies itself forth from innumerable elements.” So far, we may say, so postmodern, yet if we know anything of Carlyle we know that he cannot allow such a state of uncertainty to stand.

Edging towards a definite reading of history, Carlyle introduces the notion of the palimpsest – again,  this is a surprisingly modern view, but at the deepest level of the palimpsest is “prophetic writing, still dimly legible there”. The mere artisan of history can not reach this faded prophecy, but the Artist can go some way towards deciphering it, and thereby getting an “Idea of the Whole”. The Artist works, it appears from Carlyle’s somewhat vague account here, by intuition, while the Artisan, though not without his uses, is a mechanical worker, who “reads the inscrutable book of Nature as though it were a Merchant’s Ledger”, and thinks all facts can be “computed and ‘accounted for'”. Carlyle’s Artist/ Historian works not by agglomerating facts, but by leaving aside, or at least de-prioritizing, political history, and concentrating on Ecclesiastical History – not the history of churches, exactly, but of man’s inward and spiritual life, his moral well-being. Of how religion first arose in man’s soul and then “embodied itself in his external life”. Such a focus is posited as an antidote to the mechanical tendencies so prevalent to Carlyle’s contemporaries, as he saw it.

This essay is unusual among Carlyle’s works because it nowhere invokes his Hero-doctrine in any form, or even implies it. Later he would see history more as a collection of biographies of great men, who he would consider as being motivated by ideas of divine duty. This allowed him to greatly simplify his own theories of history. As it is set forth in the early pages of “On History”, it is broad-minded but probably unworkably large in scope. The introduction of rather simplistic and ad hoc notions of divine duty and Eternal Laws of the Universe that can be read by the seer or Hero made Carlyle’s practical excursions into historical writing very different, filled with a moral certainty and stridency that certainly makes for committed and passionate writing, but not always for real engagement with the complexities of history. Not that Carlyle couldn’t appreciate such complexity: “On History” makes it clear he understood it very well; but he couldn’t live with it, couldn’t handle his own depth of critical perception, and as his career went on, he fled more and more towards the certainties of a divine order, and the heaven-inspired Hero, trying to forget the unsettling proto-postmodernism of his own insights.