Modern Hero Worship: Our Egalitarian Society Distrusts Claims of Greatness and Heroism
In the mid-nineteenth 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 Carlyle’s lectures takes up one of the “Six classes of Heroes” he 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 points to the numerous manifest historical instances in which a people was in desperate need of a hero and didn’t get one—to their ruin. Heroes, he insists, 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 time. 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 seventh century was ripe for a prophet, the eighteenth for a literary lion.
Carlyle professed himself to be certain of the ultimate success of his project to rehabilitate greatness, the veneration of which he considered innate to mankind. He refers to the “indestructibility of Hero-worship”…