I have sometimes liked to suggest that the central idea in Carlyle is that of the symbol as engine of social progress, citing a few old reliable quotes from Sartor and French Revolution. The locus classicus being, perhaps, the chapter “Symbols” from Sartor:
Have not I myself known five hundred living soldiers sabred into crows’-meat for a piece of glazed cotton, which they called their Flag; which, had you sold it at any market-cross, would not have brought above three groschen? Did not the whole Hungarian Nation rise, like some tumultuous moon-stirred Atlantic, when Kaiser Joseph pocketed their Iron Crown; an implement, as was sagaciously observed, in size and commercial value little differing from a horse-shoe? It is in and through Symbols that man, consciously or unconsciously, lives, works, and has his being: those ages, moreover, are accounted the noblest which can the best recognize symbolical worth, and prize it the highest. (Sartor, III, 3)
Man works through symbols, Carlyle said. This is not wholly implausible, as any attempt to apply a rational basis to the description of human activity falls slightly short. The “enlightened self-interest” that Adam Smith saw as being the basis in humans on which the capitalist system was built doesn’t account for much of the behaviour of actual capitalists. So if we realize that a supra-rational symbol must always be at play we can bring in religion (source of some of Carlyle’s favorite dynamic symbols [dynamic referring here to the fact that these symbols produce an effect unpredictable, irrational and of potentially great force]) as well as culture, the arts, political movements and so on.
But Carlyle will only take us so far in his analysis of symbols. As is well known, he wasn’t always the most systematic of thinkers. In trying to work with symbols in a 21st-century context, one has to trace the evolution of the concept post-Carlyle. A major contributor here is Carl Gustav Jung. While Carlyle tended to talk of symbols in their socio-political roles, Jung’s analyses started from the point of view of the individual psyche – he was a psychologist, after all. But for Jung, the individual psyche has elements of the collective unconscious, so there isn’t an absolute divide between individual and group, in any case.
In Man and his Symbols, Jung states that “a word or an image is symbolic when it implies something more than its obvious and immediate meaning” (4). What this “more” consists of cannot be stated without reference to the particularities of the case. A symbol means something different to each individual whose psyche brings it forth in a dream or otherwise. Jung is rather different from his erstwhile mentor Freud in this: he’s a lot more ready to acknowledge the limitations of systematization or scientization in psychology. Essentially, it depends a great deal on the individual, and not only the individual patient but also the individual analyst:
[Dream analysis] is not so much a technique that can be learned and applied according to the rules as it is a dialectical exchange between two personalities. (44)
This is the type of admission Freud, insistent on seeing the analyst as a vessel of pure science, one who can hardly be contraverted, would never have made. Indeed, Jung mentions Freud in this passage, and it is clear how the more moderate theoreticism of Jung would not have been amenable to Freud’s visions of psychoanalysis. This passage is interesting as it shows Jung as a less totalizing and more flexible thinker than Freud.
But to return to symbols. To integrate Jung with Carlyle’s approach to dynamic socio-political symbols, we have to see how they work on the wider scale, not on the individual level. Here we come up against Jung’s archetypes:
The archetype is a tendency to form […] representations of a motif – representations that can vary a great deal in detail without losing their basic pattern.
[Archetypes] reproduce themselves in any time or in any part of the world – even where transmission by direct descent or “cross fertilization” through migration must be ruled out. (58)
So the archetype is very vaguely conceptualized, having no formal characteristic that crosses representations; all that is common is the tendency. Jung’s actual example illustrates this vagueness. It is, simply, the Hero. This seems inarguable: surely the Hero does cross cultural borders even where direct descent can be ruled out. Therefore a study of its place in the psyche is clearly warranted. And it is another point of accord with Carlyle, who, in his later career, was interested in the Hero, too: not as archetype, though, but as agent of social change and social cohesion. As the prime mover of history, essentially.
With Carlyle there is perhaps some confusion about the Hero. Is the Hero a Hero because of what he is, or of what he symbolizes. It would be naive to think that they were the same thing, as people can often be misguided as to others’ true natures: the difference is the difficult one between essence and perception. This is something that has to be dealt with carefully when discussing Carlyle, but I won’t go into it for now. Jung, on the other hand, doesn’t give any historical examples of Heroes at all in Man and his Symbols, just mythical ones, so his contention appears to be that we should tell stories about heroes, and try to embody their traits, but not identify actual empirical individuals with Heroes. The archetypes are “pieces of life” (87), but only pieces – as an empirical person you can’t become absolutely identified with a single archetype, and you shouldn’t identify others with one, either.
The question one might ask Jung is: can we divorce our way of thinking from our way of thinking about empirical others? If we centralize the concept of the Hero, won’t we inevitably start applying it to someone (perhaps ourselves)? Here we should recall Carlyle: in the early Sartor he’s a theorist of symbols; in On Heroes and all his work thereafter, he’s invested in reading real historical people as symbols: a few heroes, the rest either loyal drudges or expendable layabouts or scoundrels. Once the practice of thinking symbolically becomes second nature to us, we cannot help but simplify our fellow humans into symbols. The problems of that approach can be serious, and some of Carlyle’s writings illustrate them quite starkly. But by illustrating these dangers, Carlyle exemplifies the fact that symbolical thinking is central to how people see the world.
Carl G. Jung and others, Man and his Symbols, Dell [Random House], 1968.