In the mid-19th century, the Scottish man of letters Thomas Carlyle coined the term “Hero-worship,” by which he meant the high regard, entirely proper in his view, that ordinary people have for the great figures of their history. His project in Lectures on Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History (1841) was to restore greatness to dignity in an age he believed had come to belittle the very possibility of exceptional human achievement. Carlyle claimed, on the contrary, “Universal History, the history of what man has accomplished in this world, is at bottom the History of the Great Men who have worked here. . . . All things that we see standing accomplished in the world are properly the outer material result, the practical realization and embodiment, of Thoughts that dwelt in the Great Men sent into the world.”
Each of the Lectures takes up one of the “six classes of heroes” Carlyle identifies: the hero as divinity, prophet, poet, priest, man of letters, and king. He suggests that the times in which one lives have some bearing on the type of hero who steps forward: the hero-divinity seems to be a figure belonging to the pagan past and is unlikely to resurface. Nevertheless, Carlyle argues vehemently against the proposition that the times make the man. He asks: What about the numerous manifest historical instances in which a people were in desperate need of a hero and didn’t get one—to their ruin? Heroes appear on their own schedule.
Carlyle seems to regard heroism as an essential property: The greatness of the heroic type will always express itself, but it manifests itself in a form appropriate to its times. One age’s prophet is another age’s playwright is another’s king. A young person destined for greatness will find a proper avenue for its expression and travel down it. What distinguished Muhammad and Samuel Johnson from their respective contemporaries was greatness or heroism. What distinguished them from each other was that the 7th century was ripe for a prophet, the 18th for a literary lion.
Carlyle professed himself to be certain of the ultimate success of his project to rehabilitate greatness, veneration of which he considered innate to mankind. He refers to the “indestructibility of Hero-worship”:
We all love great men; love, venerate, and bow down submissive before great men: nay can we honestly bow down to anything else? Ah, does not every true man feel that he is himself made higher by doing reverence to what is really above him? . . . And to me it is very cheering to consider that no sceptical logic, or general triviality, insincerity and aridity of any Time and its influences can destroy this noble inborn loyalty and worship that is in man. In times of unbelief, which soon have to become times of revolution, much down-rushing, sorrowful decay and ruin is visible to everybody. For myself in these days, I seem to see in this indestructibility of Hero-worship the everlasting adamant lower than which the confused wreck of revolutionary things cannot fall.
Carlyle was a romantic; he was not a systematic thinker, and in keeping with both his romanticism and his theme, praise for hero worship, he had a tendency to gush. But he had genuine hold of a serious problem of his time and ours—the modern world’s egalitarian distrust of claims of greatness and heroism.
Carlyle was not antimodern. There is certainly a large helping of Enlightenment modernity in his proposition that the figure “we all” properly “love, venerate, and bow down submissive before” is not God or the king, but a certain type of human being. Yet Carlyle clearly has a foot in both the piety of the ancient world and the humanism of the modern. He wants to retain the qualities of reverence (“love, venerate, and bow down”) historically associated with belief in God. But he seeks to abstract them into a generic “Hero-worship” characteristic of all times and places. He does so in an effort to counter the ascendant “sceptical logic,” “unbelief,” and decadent “revolution” swirling all around him. He wants to save the modern world from its leveling tendencies, to keep a place in it for due regard for greatness, or the heroic. Clearly, he refers to “every true man” (emphasis added) feeling himself “made higher by doing reverence to what is really above him” in order to evade the manifest fact that many of his contemporaries and ours, in the egalitarian spirit of the age, flatly rejected the proposition that there was or is anyone (or anything) “above” them before whom they should “bow down submissive.”