Thursday, December 4, 2008

Carlyle and a theory of history

Thomas Carlyle, *4 December 1795, †1881, was a calvinist, who lost his christianity, but retained a moralism and certain prejudices. He studied at the University of Edinburgh, first for mathematics, and later german philosophy. After this, he is of interest, to me at least, as a passionate historian. Carlyle valued the importance of the spirit, individually and communally, over material values.

One of his arguments: The history of the world is but the biography of great men, is the point of my interest here. Many of us, especially in grade school, were taught of the great accomplishments of the american inventors — Bell, Edison, Ford the Wright Brothers, et alia. It was taught to us in such a way, that, as these men alone gave the world these devices, with an implied, though not stated, suggestion, that, without them nothing. And they were all americans. So the syllogism was implicated. A mixture of national triumphalism and inevitability; after all the space race was going to be won. Well, not all the men, who, garnered the credit, and the profit, were the real, or sole, or first inventor; and furthermore, such technology was being explored and worked with by many others. So if individual A was not there, an individual B, or C, or even Z would place the feather in his cap. Sometimes the circumstances necessitate the event.

Well, there are other instances, where, the actor involved does create a different history than another individual. Certainly, Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt were greater than their predecessors and successors. The unique qualities of these men shaped american history, as de Gaulle or Bismarck did their countries. Now, could another such contemporaneous individual have had the same effects? Or even if they did not, would that country’s history and society’s form be virtually the same an hundred years hence? Is there a sort of inevitable determinism of progression? Perhaps, the great man alters history, as in delaying something for a time, and not course. Well, all that involves a great deal of wild speculation.

Are significant
(good or bad) individuals, heroes to Carlyle, akin to turning points in history? Were their particular presence enough to alter the course of mankind onto a different path? Or was their struggle with time and events historic in of itself?

Either way there are other historical contentions that are still true. I will refer to a few of the ancients.
Aristotle stated that poetry spoke in universals, while history in particulars. History has many lessons, if people are willing to learn.
The principle office of history I take to be this: to prevent virtuous actions from being forgotten, and that evil words and deeds should fear an infamous reputation with posterity.—Tacitus

Not to know what happened before one was born is always to be a child.— Cicero

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