The Sage and the Man of Letters

by Mark Wallace

In Victorian England, the class of person we would probably call a public intellectual went by other names. Two such names were Sage and Man of Letters. Both of these terms are, of course, heavily associated with Thomas Carlyle. John Holloway’s study The Victorian Sage (1953) takes Carlyle as its first case study, contending that Carlyle’s aim is the standard one of the sage, “to state, and to clinch, the basic tenets of a ‘Life-Philosophy'” (excerpted in H. Bloom, ed., Thomas Carlyle [Chelsea House, 1986], p. 17); with the term Man of Letters Carlyle is still more closely associated, for did he not write the classic 19th-century investigation into the concept, “The Hero as Man of Letters” in On Heroes? The titular personage of this  lecture-cum-essay was, said Carlyle, “altogether a product of these new ages.” He was, moreover, “sent hither specially that he may discern for himself, and make manifest to us, this same Divine Idea: in every new generation it will manifest itself in a new dialect; and he is there for the purpose of doing that.” Of course, there is some self-reference here, and Carlyle did himself become associated with the figure of the Man of Letters, see for example John Gross’ The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters (1969). So we can see that there is some quite significant overlap between these two categories, Sage and Man of Letters. What, then, is the distinction?

I’ve been reading Terry Eagleton’s The Function of Criticism (1984), and he attempts a distinction. The Sage, he says,

[R]epresents […] an attempt to rescue criticism and literature from […] squalid political infighting […], constituting them instead as transcendental forms of knowledge […]. Literature will fulfill its ideological functions most effectively only if it sheds all political instrumentality to become the repository of a common human wisdom beyond the sordidly historical. (39-40)

I’m not sure if “ideological” and “common human wisdom” really belong in the same sentence, unless there’s a shift in viewpoint halfway through the sentence. If one accepts the notion of “common human wisdom” one can’t consider it to pertain to anything ideological – which is, by definition, partial and biased. But, certainly, the notion of common human wisdom is one that is central to the Sage and particularly to Carlyle, and it did not pertain to political parties. As early as the French Revolution, this element of Carlyle’s writing was noted and appreciated:

He is not a party historian like Scott, who could not, in his benevolent respect for rank and royalty, see duly the faults of either: he is as impartial as Thiers, but with a far loftier and nobler impartiality.


It is better to view it loftily from afar, like our mystic poet Mr Carlyle, than too nearly with sharp-sighted and prosaic Thiers. (Thackeray, qtd. in Seigel, ed., Thomas Carlyle The Critical Heritage (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971), p. 71.

Carlyle undoubtedly is a sage in Eagleton’s sense then. But what, then, of the Man of Letters. Eagleton defines this personage thusly:

[T]he bearer and dispenser of a generalized ideological wisdom rather than the exponent of a specialist intellectual skill. one whose synoptic vision, undimmed by any narrowly technical interest, is able to survey the whole cultural and intellectual landscape of his age.

Once again, “ideological” appears out of place here, jarring, for similar reasons to those outlined above, with the notion of the “synoptic vision, undimmed by any narrowly technical interest” – how can such a vision, if it is accepted as such, produce an ideological wisdom? (How, indeed, can wisdom, if one accepts that it is wisdom, be ideological?). Eagleton has written on the concept of ideology as much as almost any living author,so his usage of it is perhaps worth investigating. In the Eagleton passage I happen to have close to hand, he writes thusly:

[Ideology] refers more precisely to the process whereby interests of a certain kind become masked, rationalized, naturalized, universalized, legitimated in the name of certain forms of political power. Ideology, Verso, 2007, p. 202)

If this is representative of his view, then it’s a fairly classic Marxist take on the concept . For my purposes, it’s a little narrow – the idea that political power is behind ideology rules out various other motivations for the masking, rationalizing, etc., of interests. Perhaps social power would be better? Social is almost synonymous with the most extended meaning of political, but it does not  bear the same narrow meanings which give some ambivalence to Eagleton’s formulation. Both seem to contain the key point that ideology is of the collective, rather than of the individual. This, I would suggest is a more useful way to view it: to allow that a worldview, say, may be individual, but an ideology is individual consciousness inflected by the social (to keep it unfeasibly broad for the moment) – then, as you work towards a definition, the notion of falsity has to come in: the masking, naturalizing, the false consciousness (as Engels would have it), something along these lines. But not, at any rate, to be considered compatible with “common human wisdom” (a concept most contemporary academic critics would not accept, would, perhaps, laugh at, or even be embarrassed by), but which I, being partial to the outlook of the Victorian Sage (as the name of the blog suggests), find at least an attractive concept, if not one that is practically attainable or definable in a pure sense – that doesn’t, I frankly admit, exist in a pure sense, but is not therefore to be unceremoniously flung out of window (as Carlyle might say).

Detour over: after defining the MoL, Eagleton goes on to helpfully distinguish him from the aforedefined Sage:

Such comprehensive authority links the man of letters on one side with the sage; but whereas the sage’s synopticism is a function of transcendental detachment, the man of letters sees as widely as he does because material necessity compels him to be a bricoleur, dilettante, jack-of-all-trades, deeply embroiled for survival in the very commercial literary world from which Carlyle beat such a hasty retreat. (45)

This is a neat distinction, and one that fits with the connotations of the terms. An early meaning of sage is, according to the OED:

A man of profound wisdom; esp. one of those persons of ancient history or legend who were traditionally famous as the wisest of mankind

Thus the notion of transcendentalism fits well with a personage with mythic associations, while the more matter-of-fact man of letters has in Eagleton’s analysis, more down-to-earth connotations. Yet it is only at an abstract level that the distinction holds up: in reality, the 19th-century writers to whom those terms were applied (and Eagleton is using it in describing 19th-century criticism) were almost generally both. In historical terms, the categorization is unhelpful, and really speaks to the love of taxonimizing that afflicts many critics. To analyze is, to a large extent, to taxonomize, but history tends to break such distinctions down. Thus, my point simply is that though Eagleton’s analysis is somewhat interesting, it’s not one I will be trying to apply.

Nevertheless, I’m interested in the undisciplinary nature of the learning that the man of letters accrues. From a 21st-century academic point of view, this seems to me the most interesting element. The academic sees narrowly, methodologically, where the man of letters saw synoptically. The academic structures in place do not now allow for such a mode of vision. No, for that we have to close our Foucaults and open our Sartors, the opening chapter of which is one of the great paeans to intellectual freedom. In my humble opinion.

[W]ould Criticism erect not only finger-posts and turnpikes, but spiked gates and impassable barriers, for the mind of man? It is written, “Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased.” Surely the plain rule is, Let each considerate person have his way, and see what it will lead to. For not this man and that man, but all men make up mankind, and their united tasks the task of mankind.  (Sartor, Ch. 1)