Today marks the birthday of Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881,) the great-yet-controversial Scottish historian, philosopher, and essayist from the Victorian era.

Known for his incisive critique of British society, Carlyle was one of the most significant thinkers of the nineteenth century. However, since the early 1900s, his work has been censured for his belief that powerful, heroic individuals can transform the course of humanity and for his veneration of the Germanic spirit—both of which invigorated Nazi ideologues.

Carlyle studied and translated German literature in his early years. Some of his earliest writings describe a polarity between the “sacrificial seriousness” of the German culture and the “superficial, pleasure-seeking” British culture. In Signs of the Times (1829), he described the chasm between the material advancements of the machine age and the soulless mediocrity of “modern man.”

Carlyle’s first truly successful book was the three-volume The French Revolution (1837.) Legend has it that after months of hard work, Carlyle lent his completed manuscript of the first volume to his friend, the political philosopher John Stuart Mill. A friend of Mill read the manuscript and left the pages in an untidy heap at his home. Mill’s maid mistook it for trash and threw it in the fire. Carlyle refused to let the loss get him down and rewrote it after finishing the second and third volumes. The French Revolution became one of his most respected works and is considered a reliable account of the early course of the Revolution. Charles Dickens referred to it while writing his A Tale of Two Cities (1859.)

At the core of Carlyle’s political philosophy was his attribution of all historical progress solely to mighty heroes who served as role models for how people should live. He wrote, “No great man lives in vain. The history of the world is but the biography of great men.” He expounded these beliefs in The French Revolution, On Heroes and Hero Worship (1841), and History of Frederick the Great (1858–1865, 6 volumes.) These books profoundly influenced German and Italian fascism and painted Carlyle as a progenitor of the concept of totalitarian regimes.

Inspirational Quotations by Thomas Carlyle

The block of granite which was an obstacle in the pathway of the weak becomes a stepping-stone in the pathway of the strong.
—Thomas Carlyle

In every man’s writings, the character of the writer must lie recorded.
—Thomas Carlyle

Only the person of worth can recognize the worth in others.
—Thomas Carlyle

Nothing is more terrible than activity without insight.
—Thomas Carlyle

Of all acts of man repentance is the most divine. The greatest of all faults is to be conscious of none.
—Thomas Carlyle

A man willing to work, and unable to find work, is perhaps the saddest sight that fortune’s inequality exhibits under this sun.
—Thomas Carlyle

Our grand business undoubtedly is, not to see what lies dimly at a distance, but to do what lies clearly at hand.
—Thomas Carlyle

The wealth of man is the number of things which he loves and blesses, which he is loved and blessed by.
—Thomas Carlyle

The man who cannot laugh is not only fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils, but his whole life is already a treason and a stratagem.
—Thomas Carlyle

No great man lives in vain. The history of the world is but the biography of great men.
—Thomas Carlyle

We are firm believers in the maxim that for all right judgment of any man or thing it is useful, nay, essential, to see his good qualities before pronouncing on his bad.
—Thomas Carlyle

A man’s honest, earnest opinion is the most precious of all he possesses: let him communicate this, if he is to communicate anything.
—Thomas Carlyle

In every phenomenon the beginning remains always the most notable moment.
—Thomas Carlyle

The great law of culture is: Let each become all that he was created capable of being.
—Thomas Carlyle

A well-written Life is almost as rare as a well-spent one.
—Thomas Carlyle

All greatness is unconscious, or it is little and naught.
—Thomas Carlyle

All work, even cotton spinning, is noble; work is alone noble … A life of ease is not for any man, nor for any god.
—Thomas Carlyle

Obstructions are never wanting: the very things that were once indispensable furtherances become obstructions; and need to be shaken off, and left behind us,—a business often of enormous difficulty.
—Thomas Carlyle

All work is as seed sown; it grows and spreads, and sows itself anew.
—Thomas Carlyle

Originality is a thing we constantly clamour for, and constantly quarrel with.
—Thomas Carlyle

What you see, yet can not see over, is as good as infinite.
—Thomas Carlyle

No nobler feeling than this of admiration for one higher than himself dwells in the breast of man. It is to this hour, and at all hours, the vivifying influence in man’s life.
—Thomas Carlyle

The first duty of man is to conquer fear; he must get rid of it, he cannot act till then.
—Thomas Carlyle

Adversity is sometimes hard upon a man; but for one man who can stand prosperity, there are a hundred that will stand adversity.
—Thomas Carlyle

Today is not yesterday. We ourselves change. How can our works and thoughts, if they are always to be the fittest, continue always the same? Change, indeed, is painful, yet ever needful; and if memory has its force and worth, so also has hope.
—Thomas Carlyle

The depth of our despair measures what capability and height of claim we have to hope.
—Thomas Carlyle

There is endless merit in a man’s knowing when to have done.
—Thomas Carlyle

Everywhere in life the true question is, not what we have gained, but what we do.
—Thomas Carlyle

Experience is the best of schoolmasters, only the school fees are heavy.
—Thomas Carlyle

Enjoying things which are pleasant; that is not the evil: it is the reducing of our moral self to slavery by them that is.
—Thomas Carlyle

All human things do require to have an ideal in them; to have some soul in them.
—Thomas Carlyle

Imperfection clings to a person, and if they wait till they are brushed off entirely, they would spin for ever on their axis, advancing nowhere.
—Thomas Carlyle

Man is a tool-using animal…Without tools he is nothing, with tools he is all.
—Thomas Carlyle

A loving heart is the beginning of all knowledge.
—Thomas Carlyle

The man of Humor sees common life, even mean life, under the new light of sportfulness and love; whatever has existence has a charm for him. Humor has justly been regarded as the finest perfection of poetic genius.
—Thomas Carlyle

A great man shows his greatness by the way he treats little men.
—Thomas Carlyle

There are depths in man that go to the lowest hell, and heights that reach the highest heaven, for are not both heaven and hell made out of him, everlasting miracle and mystery that he is.
—Thomas Carlyle

Tell a person they are brave and you help them become so.
—Thomas Carlyle

With stupidity and sound digestion man may front much.
—Thomas Carlyle

No man lives without jostling and being jostled; in all ways he has to elbow himself through the world, giving and receiving offense.
—Thomas Carlyle

Adversity is the diamond dust Heaven polishes its jewels with.
—Thomas Carlyle

Misery which, through long ages, had no spokesman, no helper, will now be its own helper and speak for itself.
—Thomas Carlyle

Men do less than they ought, unless they do all that they can.
—Thomas Carlyle

Man’s unhappiness, as I construe, comes of his greatness; it is because there is an Infinite in him, which with all his cunning he cannot quite bury under the Finite.
—Thomas Carlyle

The weakest living creature, by concentrating his powers on a single object, can accomplish something. The strongest, by dispensing his over many, may fail to accomplish anything.
—Thomas Carlyle



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