Carlyle: His Character and Philosophy

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

Carlyle: His Character and Philosophy is a letter written by Arthur Conan Doyle first published in The Hampshire Post and Sussex Observer (Portsmouth) on 29 january 1886.

Carlyle: His Character and Philosophy

The Hampshire Post and Sussex Observer (29 january 1886, p. 5)

To the Editor of the "Hampshire Post."

Sir, — I do not know whether your editorial columns are a final tribunal, beyond which there is no appeal, or whether you will have the courtesy to allow me to say a few words in reply to your remarks upon Carlyle. The cold douche of criticism which you have directed against my views is most bracing and invigorating; and, as you justly observed, a little more dissension at the meetings of our Society would add a piquancy to the proceedings which is at present wanting. The remarks upon Carlyle's character, however, which appeared in your article seem to me to show such a misapprehension of the man, and such a false view of his philosophy, that it would be hardly fair to allow them to pass unchallenged.

I know of no incident in literary history which is more petty, and at the same time more pitiable, than the onslaught made upon Carlyle's character and memory after his death. As long as he was alive, who cared to breathe a word against him? The moment that the old lion lay still and silent, however, there was no jackal too small to take a snap or pinch at him. Had it been clearly established that he had broken every commandment in the Decalogue, there could not have been a greater yelping and outcry. No more bitter words could be found to describe the private life of Goethe or a Byron than have been applied to that of Carlyle. Had he combined the licentiousness of Heine, the intemperance of Coleridge, and the vindictiveness of Landor, what harder terms could have been used? And yet, after all, what was the head and front of his offending? When the whole 85 years of his life are examined with the uttermost minuteness of criticism, the flaws in it are so small that it seems almost ludicrous to enumerate them. Let us examine Froude's Life, Mrs. Carlyle's Letters, the Journal of Caroline Fox, and the leading article of the Hampshire Post. Having sifted these authorities, let us see what the enormities are of which the man has been guilty, and which invalidate his teaching.

The first and most prominent indictment is a grave one. He abominated the crowing of cocks, and became irritable when his work was interrupted by it. This is sad indeed! The second charge is almost as bad. He disliked the jingling of his neighbour's piano and the playing of street organs. After this, of course, it is impossible to accept him as a moral reformer.

But there are other and more insidious crimes to be considered. He judged some of his contemporaries hardly, and wrote his convictions in his private journal, which was afterwards published without these passages being erased. In it he describes Charles Lamb as a drunkard; Leigh Hunt as a sloven; and Coleridge as a dreamer. It is true that Lamb was a drunkard, Hunt a sloven, and Coleridge a dreamer; and that Carlyle said so openly and in the light of day, besides writing it in his journal. But this, in the eyes of the critics, is no extenuation but rather an aggravation, of his offence. He has committed the unpardonable crime of speaking the truth; and of all errors, that is the last to be forgiven in this world. You wrong him, however, when you insinuate that he depreciated the majority of his contemporaries. His admiration for Tennyson, Ruskin, Owen, Sterling, Emerson, and others was sincere, and expressed with characteristic energy.

Then there is the terrible question of his temper. If a man ever existed who had at the same time a highly strung nervous system, chronic dyspepsia, and a sweet temper, that man was a psychological monstrosity. To say that the philosopher had not such is simply to admit that he was human. His irritability, however, was a very superficial and transient trait in his character. We have his letters to his wife, written when they were both grey-headed, and breathing as much passion and tenderness as though she was still the Haddington lass of 41 years before. This temper, of which so much has been said, could not have been such a terrible thing if, after enduring it for four decades, his wife and he could still correspond in such a strain. There is no man who has not, somewhere in his composition, what the American humourist described as his "redeeming vices." Assuredly, however there is no one of whom we have any record who possessed them in so infinitesimal a degree as Carlyle. I leave it to any unbiased mind whether it would not be ludicrous, were it not humiliating, that, on such charges as these, this great man's character should be gravely stated to have suffered by the publication of the volumes mentioned in your leading article.

If I take exception to your remarks on Carlyle's character, I do so even more emphatically in the case of your exposition of his philosophy. His was no Gospel of Despair. To point out and bewail evil is not to despair of it. No philosopher, ancient or modern, has even taken so broad and so hopeful a view of the universe. This is wrong, and that is wrong, according to him: but all things are directed to an ultimate good end, which they Will surely and infallibly attain. Here is one passage out of a hundred similar ones:—

"One way or another all the light, energy and order, and genuine thatkraft, or available virtue, we have does come out of us, and goes very infallibly into God's treasury, living and working through eternities there. We are not lost, not a single atom of us — of one of us."

Is that a cry of "despair?" Might not the Gospel of Optimism be a better name for such a creed?

It is hard within a limited space to answer so sweeping and trenchant an attack as that which appeared in your columns, I have touched upon a few points; but there are many which I have neglected, not because they are impregnable (for all are equally weak), but because I feel that your space must not be trespassed upon too much. You remark that Carlyle's lament was monotonous, and always the same. Consistency, I admit, is not a crime. Again, you say that his influence is on the decrease. Anything further from the fact I can hardly imagine. Not only is it on the increase, but it has become the only modern influence among the younger generations. In 300 years Carlyle will stand out above the writers of the Victorian era as Shakespeare does among those of the Elizabethan.

The mere question of the merits of his teaching is one which time will settle. What concerned me more particularly in writing this letter was the defence of his private character. As flies settle upon the least sound portion of the meat, so critics love to dwell upon the weaker side of a great mind. By reading their strictures, those who have not examined the question for themselves might go away with a false impression. In the hope of lessening that possibility I have troubled you with this long letter. — Faithfully yours,


Southsea, January 26th, 1886

[Though we do not regard our columns as "a final tribunal, beyond which there is no appeal," we do not, as a rule, and unless we have unintentionally misrepresented a speaker or a correspondent, insert replies to our articles — not because we fear criticism, but because, as must be obvious, if we inserted answers to the various arguments we adduce, we should be engaged in interminable controversy, for which we have no space, or with which our readers would have, we fear, but little patience. With many of our opinions, in all probability, some of our readers may disagree. But the articles must be taken for what they are worth, and accepted or rejected, without, as Dr. Conan Doyle terms it, "appeal" — at any rate to us. But the present case appears to us exceptional. The discussion on the paper of Dr. Conan Doyle, at the Literary and Scientific Society's meeting, last week, was, as we thought, somewhat prematurely closed, but for which circumstance some such opinions as those advanced in the article to which Dr. Doyle takes exception might have been expressed, and opportunity have thus been afforded for a viva voce reply. On this ground — and on this ground alone — we have placed our columns at the service of Dr. Conan Doyle. — Ed. H.P.]