Thomas Carlyle, 1795 - 1881

Thomas Carlyle was a British essayist and biographer whose reputation and influence were immense in the New England Transcendentalist circle.  His attraction to the Transcendentalists stemmed from his essays in the Edinburgh Review, especially "State of German Literature" (1827), "Signs of the Times" (1829), and "Characteristics" (1831), as well as several in the Foreign Review.  These essays introduced Americans to German writers and philosophers such as Immanuel Kant, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Friedrich Schiller, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Jean Paul Richter, and Novalis.  Carlyle's ideas, borrowed from German idealism, spurred James Freeman Clarke and Margaret Fuller to study German, and they caused George Ripley to excitedly announce his discovery of "the untold treasures of German thought."  Ralph Waldo Emerson, too, found a congenial spirit in Carlyle and arranged for the first publication of his Sartor Resartus in 1836.
Carlyle has been written about as follows by Octavius Brooks Frothingham, the first historian of American Transcendentalism.
Thomas Carlyle . . . explained at some length and with considerable frequency, as well as much eloquence, the distinction between "understanding," the faculty that observed, generalized, inferred, argued, concluded, and "reason," the faculty that saw the ideal forms of truth face to face, and beheld the inmost reality of things.  He dilated with a disciple's enthusiasm on the principles of the transcendental philosophy, painted in gorgeous colors the promises it held forth, prophesied earnestly respecting the better time for literature, art, social ethics and religious faith it would bring in, preached tempestuously against shams in church and state, from the mount of vision that it disclosed. . . .  Carlyle was the high priest of the new philosophy.  Emerson edited his miscellanies, and the dregs of his ink-bottle were welcomed as the precious sediment of the fountain of inspiration.  In 1827 he defended the "Kritik of Pure Reason" against stupid objectors from the sensational side, as, in the opinion of the most competent judges, "distinctly the greatest intellectual achievement of the century in which it came to light," and affirmed as by authority, that the seeker for pure truth must begin with intuition and proceed outward by the light of the revelation thence derived.  In 1831 he carried this principle to the extreme of maintaining that a complete surrender to the informing genius, a surrender so entire as to amount to the abandonment of definite purpose and will, was evidence of perfect wisdom; for such is the interpretation we give to the paradoxical doctrine of "unconsciousness" which implied that in order to save the soul it must be forgotten; that consciousness was a disease; that in much wisdom was much grief.
Had Carlyle been more of a philosopher and less of a preacher, more a thinker and less a character, more a patient toiler after truth, and less a man of letters, his first intellectual impulse might have lasted.  As it was, the reaction came precisely in middle life, and the apostle of transcendental ideas became the champion of Force.  His Transcendentalism seems to have been a thing of sentiment rather than of conviction.  A man of tremendous strength of feeling, his youth, as is the case with men of feeling, was romantic, enthusiastic, hopeful, exuberant; his manhood, as is also the case with men of feeling, was wilful and overbearing, with sadness deepening into moroseness and unhopefulness verging towards despair.
The era of despair had not set in at the period when the mind of New England was fermenting with the ideas of the new philosophy.  Then all was brave, humane, aspiring.  The denunciations of materialism in philosophy, formalism in religion and utilitarianism in personal and social ethics, rang through the land; the superb vindications of soul against sense, spirit against letter, faith against rite, heroism and nobleness against the petty expediencies of the market, kindled all earnest hearts.  The emphatic declarations that "wonder and reverence are the conditions of insight and the source of strength; that faith is prior to knowledge and deeper too; that empirical science can but play on the surface of unfathomable mysteries; that in the order of reality the ideal and invisible are the world's true adamant, and the laws of material appearance only its alluvial growths; that in the inmost thought of men there is a thirst to which the springs of nature are a mere mirage, and which presses on to the waters of eternity," fell like refreshing gales from the hills on the children of men imprisoned in custom and suffocated by tradition.  The infinitely varied illustrations of the worth of beauty, the grandeur of truth, the excellence of simple, devout sincerity in nature, literature, character; the burning insistence on the need of fresh inspiration from the region of serene ideas, seemed to proceed from a soul newly awakened, if not especially endowed with the seer's vision.  It was better than philosophy; it was philosophy made vital with sentiment and purpose.
Carlyle early learned the German language, as Coleridge did, and drank deep from the fountains of its best literature.  To him it opened a new world of thought, which the ordinary Englishman had no conception of.  Coleridge found himself at home there by virtue of his natural genius, and also by the introduction given him by William Law, John Pordage, Richard Saumarez, and Jacob Behmen, so that the suddenly discovered continent broke on him with less surprise; but Carlyle was as one taken wholly unawares, fascinated, charmed, intoxicated with the sights and sounds about him. . . .