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Perspectives victoriennes

“Natural Supernaturalism”: Carlyle’s Redemption of the Past in The French Revolution

« Supernaturalisme naturel » : la rédemption du passé dans The French Revolution deCarlyle
David R. Sorensen
p. 442-451


Le déclin de la réputation de Carlyle en tant qu’historien est d’autant plus ironique que c’est à lui, plus qu’à tout autre penseur victorien, que l’on doit la création et la défense de la relation au passé propre aux Romantiques. Il n’est pas exagéré d’affirmer qu’il réhabilita l’histoire en tant que discipline au moment où celle-ci se trouvait menacée par de nombreuses forces convergentes, dont le dogmatisme religieux, le relativisme, l’utilitarisme, la pensée de Saint-Simon et celle d’Auguste Comte. Dans le sillage des philosophes allemands, de Goethe et des Saint-Simoniens, Carlyle sut apprécier la spécificité de chaque époque historique, mais il rejeta les présupposés relativistes selon lesquels le passé pourrait être totalement séparé du présent. À ses yeux, l’histoire était un dialogue entre les vivants et les morts, et leurs voix communiquaient par delà les siècles. Dans ce vacarme issu des interprétations discordantes, il incombait à l’historien de chercher l’objectivité non pas dans une réorganisation ordonnée et progressive des différences, mais dans une dynamique qui tenait compte à la fois du passé en tant que passé et du présent en tant que présent.

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1In his long and distinguished career as a scholar and writer, René Gallet has consistently focused on an expression that was central to the life and thought of Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881)—“Natural Supernaturalism.” For Gallet, the title of the climactic Chapter VIII, Book III of Sartor Resartus (1833-34) embodies a vital tension that is inherent in Romantic philosophy. In the preface to Romantisme et Postromantisme de Coleridge à Hardy (1996), he explains, “En effet, la formule, empruntée à Carlyle, paraît sous-tendue par une conception particulière, mal explicitée ou reconnue, des rapports entre ‘nature’ et ‘surnature,’ derrière laquelle se profilent des fractures théologiques et philosophiques lointaines, mais encore actives à travers leurs conséquences. […] Dans la tension instable des deux termes, on ne peut non plus exclure que la surnature l’emporte et fournisse le fond des choses, même si l’auteur suggère sans doute davantage la résorption d’une surnature, implicitement étrangère, extrinsèque dans une nature en train de devenir moniste” (7-8). Though Gallet is primarily interested in exploring this complex interplay of the “Natural Supernatural” in poetry and fiction, his dualistic approach is also relevant to Romantic historiography, and especially to the historical writings of Carlyle.

2At the Malthusian natural feast of 21st-century Victorian studies—a rich and varied diet of race and gender, post-colonial, new-historicist, and hegemonic sweetmeats—Carlyle is a peculiarly unwelcome guest. His reputation seems permanently compromised by his sexist and racist views, and his identification with authoritarian and even totalitarian social and political doctrines. Since the publication of James Anthony Froude’s sensational and mendacious biography in 1882, it has been easier to recognize Carlyle as Mr. Hyde rather than as Dr. Jekyll. The ogre who emerged from the pages of Froude’s skillfully stage-managed classical tragedy was a violently disposed and embittered prophet, whose callous and insensitive treatment of his wife was matched by an equally contemptuous vision of humanity. Froude himself archly played the role of Fortune, punishing Œdipus eternally for his self-willed blindness by undermining his prophetic status. In the opening decade of the 21st century, Carlyle’s image may have improved slightly, thanks largely to the ongoing publication of the Duke-Edinburgh edition of the Collected Letters,the California Strouse edition of his essential works, and the Carlyle Studies Annual. But for many readers, Carlyle remains an outcast, the author of the biography of a Prussian autocrat that Goebbels chose to read to Hitler in the bunker during the final days of the Third Reich. Indelibly, Carlyle is stigmatized by the horrifying consequences of 20th-century despots bending history in the direction of warped and inhuman final solutions.

3Yet modern historians and historiographers owe a debt to him that few are prepared to acknowledge, and Gallet’s remarks on “Natural Supernaturalism” provide a useful and important starting-point for resuscitating Carlyle’s reputation as a clairvoyant poet of the historical imagination. If Carlyle escapes extinction, it will be due to his achievements as a historian rather than as a moralist, philosopher, or prophet. It is one of the central ironies of his decline that, more than any other Victorian thinker, he was responsible for the creation and preservation of a spiritual sense of the past that resisted rationalist schemes to classify and codify human experience. It is no exaggeration to affirm that he redeemed the study of history at a moment when it was being threatened by a host of convergent forces, including religious dogmatism, relativism, utilitarianism, Saint-Simonianism and Comtism. In England, Bentham and his utilitarian disciples had rendered history a science of progress, philosophy a justification of self-interest, and faith a matter of social convenience. The “infinite celestial Soul of Man” had been reduced to “a kind of Hay-balance for weighing hay and thistles on, pleasures and pains on” (Heroes, 65). In his major histories—The French Revolution (1837), Oliver Cromwell’s Letters and Speeches (1845), and The History of Frederick the Great (1858-65)—Carlyle defended the miraculous dimension of the past, which could never be reduced to simplistic rational equations. He knew from personal experience how soul-destroying such “Formulas” could be. In every sphere of life in the 19th century, abstract “mechanisms” were becoming dominant. Whether the topic of debate was Ireland, France, parliament or the poor law reforms, partisans blindly clung to fixed systems of thought. George Eliot indirectly explained Carlyle’s approach when she remarked in Middlemarch (1871-2) that there “is no general doctrine which is not capable of eating out our morality if unchecked by the deep-seated habit of direct fellow-feeling with individual fellow-men” (582). Fittingly, in the final paragraph of his first and greatest history, The French Revolution, Carlyle thanks his readers for the relationship that he has established with them—the living—as well as with the dead: “To thee I was but as a Voice. Yet was our relation a kind of sacred one […] For whatsoever once sacred things become hollow jargons, yet while the Voice of Man speaks with Man, hast thou not there the living fountain out of which all sacrednesses sprang, and will yet spring?” (Works, 4:323). It is “fellow feeling,” together with a keen sense of the sacred, that fires Carlyle’s passion to immerse himself in his sources in order to resurrect the past.

4Carlyle openly acknowledged that he had been spiritually transformed by his study of the “French Explosion” (Works, 2:61). He later told Froude, “I should not have known what to make of this world at all […] if it had not been for the French Revolution” (Life of Carlyle, 2:18). It was, he observed, an “instantaneous change of the whole body-politic, the soul-politic being all changed; such a change as few bodies, politic or other, can experience in this world” (Works, 4:66). His use of the expression “soul-politic” indicates the uniqueness of his conception. Historians moored to Enlightenment notions of their discipline dismissed the event as an unfortunate but necessary phase in a long movement towards social and material progress. His friend, and later his nemesis, John Stuart Mill commented in 1833 that “it must be the shallowest view of the French Revolution, which can now consider it as any thing but a mere incident in a great change in man himself, in his belief, in his principles of conduct and therefore in the outward arrangements of society; a change which is but half completed, and which is now in a state of more rapid progress here in England” (French History, Works, 20:118). From Carlyle’s perspective, such an “incredible hypothesis,” which treated the past as a thinly disguised homage to the present, revealed the peculiar parochialism of 19th-century liberalism. As he witheringly remarks in On Heroes and Hero-Worship (1841), “[a]ll men, in all countries and times except our own, as having spent their life in blind condemnable error […] only that we might have the true ultimate knowledge! All generations of men were lost and wrong, only that this present little section of a generation might be saved an right” (Heroes,103). The “cause-and-effect speculators” of his day had already “computed and accounted for” the French Revolution, which to Carlyle was a divine phenomenon. The defining element of this “new Political Evangel” (Works, 2:128) was its promise of a future free of tyranny and injustice, which was celebrated and sanctified by the masses in popular public rituals, symbols, and liturgies. In his 1906 edition of Carlyle’s history, John Holland Rose shrewdly distinguished the author’s achievement: “[He] asserted that no visible and finite object had ever spurred men on to truly great and far-reaching movements. Only the invisible and the infinite could do that” (1:xiv). Carlyle’s understanding of the past was shaped by his perception of what René Gallet has called the “tension unstable” between the “Natural” and the “Supernatural” elements manifested in the “Prophetic Manuscript” of history (“On History” [1830], Essays, 8).

5Carlyle’s reverence for the “invisible” was not simply confined to the thematic aspect of his study. In The French Revolution, his narrative power springs from his deep intellectual and empathetic engagement with the form, content, and spirit of his sources. The metaphor he chose to describe the work — a “Flame-Picture” (Works, 4:243) — is as pertinent to his psychological state as it is to his style and his method, and it suggests his proximity to the debates that swirled round the French Revolution in 1789, and continued to echo and re-echo in the 1830s.Historians have rightly observed that he judged the Revolution in an English context and treated the upheaval as a prophetic warning to those who ignored the “Condition of England” question. But it is equally true that his French and, to a lesser extent, his English and German primary material, helped to shape his judgment of events at home, and to strengthen his faith in history as a means of understanding them. The French Revolution compelled him to test his conviction that “the only Poetry is History, could we tell it right” (to Ralph Waldo Emerson, 12 Aug. 1834; Letters, 7:266). Earlier in “On History”, he defined the connection between intellect and imagination in the recovery of the past. His aims were ambitious. On the one hand, he intended to save history from poets and novelists, who in popularizing the subject had trivialized its importance as a record of the truth. On the other, he challenged the conventional view of the discipline as “Philosophy teaching by Experience” (“On History,” Essays, 4). This Enlightenment prescription had been given new impetus by thinkers such as Mill, who sought to develop a “science of history” that catalogued the fixed laws of human progress.

6Carlyle knew that the popular success of Sir Walter Scott’s novels and the generally moribund state of “official” history had led many commentators to dismiss the discipline as irrelevant. Thomas Doubleday (1790-1870), dramatist, economist, and disciple of William Cobbett, asserted in Blackwood’sEdinburgh Magazine in 1826, “The value of Fact lies not in its being what it is, but in the effect it produces. A historical series is valuable, not because it is true, but because, being true, it, in consequence, produces certain effects upon the human mind. Could that same effect be produced by a fictitious narrative, it would be just as good” (682). Carlyle respected these arguments. While writing the third volume of The French Revolution in 1836, he read and enjoyed Julius and Augustus Hare’s Guesses at Truth (1827), in which the two clergymen and Germanophiles boldly declared that “no fact can be a truth […] a fact is only the outward form and sign of a truth” (226-27). Using language that Carlyle seemed to echo in “On History,” the Hares stressed the indeterminacy of historical knowledge: “[T]he scene of operation is boundless; so much of it is under the black cloak of night, while other large portions are wrapt in mists, and some few spots are even dazzling, if not dark, with excessive brightness; the events are so intertwisted and conglomerated, sometimes thrown all together in a heap […] the statements of events […] are at such variance with each other; the actors are so numerous and promiscuous; so many indistinguishable passions, so many tangled opinions, so many prejudices at work […] seeing that the history of the world is one of God’s own great poems: how can any man aim at doing more than reciting a few brief passages from it?” (235-36). In his essay “On History,” Carlyle questions the supposed stability of historical knowledge in similar terms. The “fatal discrepancy” in human perception between “linear” narrative, which is “successive,” and “solid” action, which is “simultaneous,” would seem to undermine the possibility of knowledge. Furthermore, objectivity itself is a chimera: “The real leading features of a historical Transaction, those movements that essentially characterise it […] are nowise the foremost to be noted.” The “Transaction” itself is “only some more or less plausible scheme and theory of the Transaction, or the harmonized result of many such schemes, each varying from the other, and all varying from Truth” (“On History,” Essays, 6-7). Consequently, history is a barely comprehensible process, an ineffable “[c]haos, boundless as the habitation and duration of man, unfathomable as the soul and destiny and destiny of man.”  

7While Carlyle agreed that history must employ the “effects” of art, he did not accept that its aims are primarily aesthetic. He insists throughout “On History” that historical knowledge is unique, and he stresses that a crucial connection exists between narrative and experience. For him, narrative is a basic method of thought that is imbricated in the pattern of experience itself: “A talent for History may be said to be born with us, as our chief inheritance.” Story-telling is not an embellishment or a distortion of reality, but an “inheritance” prompted by the natural human desire to shape random experience. History and narrative are mysteriously interwoven: “Cut us off from Narrative, how would the stream of conversation, even among the wisest, languish into detached handfuls, and among the foolish utterly evaporate! Thus, as we do nothing but enact History, we say little but recite it nay, rather, in that widest sense, our whole spiritual life is built thereon” (“On History,” Essays, 3-4). It follows that history is not merely self-reflexive, but public, in that every individual’s memory discloses “an Idea of the Whole.” In spite of its provisional and contingent nature, history remains a legitimate and instructive study, a “true fountain of knowledge; by whose light alone, consciously or unconsciously employed, can the Present and the Future be interpreted or guessed at.” Historical narratives differ from fictional ones in that they grow out of a real set of circumstances and, in tenuous yet legitimate ways, mirror the essential qualities of that experience. From the sacred “Palimpsest” of history, “some letters, some words may be deciphered; and if no complete Philosophy, here and there an intelligible precept.” The imperfect nature of this knowledge does not disqualify it from being “practically valuable” (“On History,” Essays, 9, 8).

8By upbringing and temperament, Carlyle was ideally suited to comprehend the French Revolution. In Sartor Resartus, he had celebrated the release of religious speculation from the grip of dogma and literalism and, without sentimentality or regret, he had acknowledged the obsolescence of the “Mythus of the Christian Religion” (Sartor, 144).  A religious skeptic who venerated spirituality, Carlyle sympathized with those who hungered for a faith shorn of doctrinal imperatives in an increasingly mechanistic world. But if he was alert to the transcendental possibilities of a political religion, he was also profoundly aware of its descendental dangers. History may have been a “Prophetic Manuscript,” but those who claimed a monistic “All-knowledge” (“On History,” Essays, 8) of its contents gravely abused their responsibilities as truth-seekers and denied the tension that lay at the core of his “Natural Supernatural” dualistic vision. Carlyle had witnessed the baneful effects of religious fanaticism on his friend Edward Irving (1792-1834), who had “cast his own great faculty” into the “hopeless quagmire” (Reminiscences, 317) of prophecy. Significantly, Carlyle linked the latter’s disastrous belief in the “Gift of Tongues” (Reminiscences, 326) with Mill’s “science of history.” In his essay “Signs of the Times” (1829), Carlyle comically envisages a competition between “Millenarians” and “Millites,” with each group rewriting history according to their respective prophecies: “The Fifth–monarchy men prophesy from the Bible, and the Utilitarians from Bentham. The one announces that the last of the seals is to be opened, positively, in the year 1860; and the other assures us that ‘the greatest–happiness principle’ is to make a heaven of earth, in a still shorter time” (Works, 27:58). Reflecting on Irving’s disastrous career, Carlyle tartly commented to Mill in 1832 that the “Enthusiast nowise excludes the Quack; nay, rather (especially in such times as these) presupposes him” (16 Oct. 1832; Letters, 6:239).  It was an observation that Carlyle himself failed to heed later in his life, in his misguided support of those strong men who based their actions on the “All-knowledge” that history could never yield.

9From German philosophy and Goethe, and from the Saint-Simonians, Carlyle learnt to appreciate the distinctiveness of each historical epoch, and the importance of inquiring into the “inward condition of Life” (“On History,” Essays, 5). Yet he rejected the relativist assumption that the past could be divorced completely from the present. History was a dialogue between the dead and the living, in which voices could be heard communicating across time. This hubbub involved competing interpretations, and the historian attains objectivity not by trying to arrange the disputes in an orderly or progressive sequence, but by maintaining simultaneously a dynamic conception of the past as past, and the past as present. Carlyle’s ideal historians were Boswell and Johnson, whose terrestrial notion of history was grounded in a Grub-Street veneration of story-telling. In his essay on “Boswell’s Life of Johnson” (1832), he refers to Boswell and Johnson’s keen interest in “Gossip, Egoism, Personal Narrative […] Scandal, Raillery, Slander, and suchlike; the sum-total of which […] constitutes [the] grand phenomenon […] called ‘Conversation’” (Works, 28:45). Listening to these voices, Boswell and Johnson caught the peculiarities of both their external and internal environment. Carlyle’s rival Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-59) —the leading advocate of the progressive Whig view of history—had criticized Dr. Johnson’s narrowness of experience, limited as it was to “the forms of life and all the shades of moral and intellectual character which were to be seen from Islington to the Thames, and from Hyde-Park corner to Mile-end green.” Johnson, Macaulay complained, “studied not the genus man, but the species Londoner” (Misc. Works, 1:621).

10From Carlyle’s vantage point, Johnson’s contact with a “species” rather than a “genus” accounted for his superior insight and wisdom. His detailed knowledge of real narratives composed in actual places gave him a visceral feeling of how “men lived and had their being; were it but economically, as, what wages they got, and what they bought with these” (Works, 28:81). In his famous description in A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775) of his landing with Boswell at Icolmkill in October 1773, Johnson remarks, “To abstract the mind from all local emotion would be impossible, if it were endeavoured, and would be foolish, if it were possible. […] That man is little to be envied, whose patriotism would not gain force upon the plain of Marathon” (9:148). Carlyle had only to consider the example of Coleridge, a fellow Germaniser and opponent of Utilitarianism, to witness the shortcomings of a philosophy of history detached from “all local emotion.” While re-writing the first volume of The French Revolution in May 1835, Carlyle read Coleridge’s Table Talk (1835). In these published ruminations, Coleridge is critical of Johnson— “[he] had neither eye nor ear” — and of his view of history. Contradicting him, Coleridge concedes that “I really believe I should walk over the plain of Marathon without taking more interest in it than any other plain of similar features.” In an earlier entry, he admits that his sole interest in reading history “was the principles to be evolved from and illustrated by the Facts; after I had gotten my Principle, I pretty generally left the Facts to take care of themselves” (16 Aug. 1833,1:423; 4 Aug. 1833, 1:412; and 7 July 1832, 1:304). Carlyle may have recalled these passages when he composed his satirical portrait of the Highgate philosopher in The Life of John Sterling (1851), who  renounces “the inanity of life’s battle” and sits “girt in mystery and enigma [...] whispering strange things, uncertain whether oracles or jargon” (Works 9:53). For the “Poetry of History” to flourish, its ideal elements could never be separated from the actuality of circumstance and physical location.

11In The Idea of History (1946), R. G. Collingwood outlined a model of historical practice that was peculiarly appropriate to Carlyle’s use of sources in TheFrench Revolution and in his later histories.Rejecting the “science of history,” Collingwood defined the essential conditions of historical knowledge. To understand the past, the historian “must re-enact [it] in his own mind.” If his goal is objectivity, then the historian must respond to his evidence subjectively: “When a man thinks historically, he has before him certain documents or relics of the past. His business is to discover what the past was which has left these relics behind it. […] This means discovering the thought […] which he expressed by them. To discover what this thought was, the historian must think it again for himself” (282-83). With much less deliberation, Carlyle adopts a similar procedure. To a correspondent inquiring about his  methods of research in 1845, he responds, “Only what you at last have living in your own memory and heart is worth putting down to be printed; this alone has much chance to get into the living heart and memory of other men. And here indeed, I believe, is the essence of all the rules I have ever been able to devise for myself. […] My paper-bags (filled with little scraps all in pencil) have often enough come to little for me; and indeed in general when writing, I am surrounded with a rubbish of papers that have come to little:—this only will come to much for all of us, To keep the thing you are elaborating as much as possible actually in your own living mind; in order that this same mind, as much awake as possible, may have a chance to make something of it!” (to Alexander Scott, 5 Dec. 1845; Letters 20:72). In each of his great histories, Carlyle interlocks with his sources, not simply to challenge or contradict them, but also to represent the world from their particular viewpoint. He establishes a balance between past and present by re-living in himself their ideologies, descriptions, experiences and biases. For Carlyle, historical re-creation is intrinsically a spiritual act. In a period in which the autonomy of history is again threatened by blueprints of various designs—whether in the guise of global rationalization or Islamist messianism—Carlyle’s relevance as a poet of what Gallet has called “the unstable tension” of “Natural Supernaturalism” needs to be reasserted. Paradoxically, it is the Victorian ogre who continues to redeem Victorianism.

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Carlyle Thomas, Historical Essays, Chris R. Vanden Bossche (ed.), Strouse Edition, Berkeley, CA: U of California P, 2002.

-----, On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History, Michael K. Goldberg (ed.), Strouse Edition, Berkeley, CA: U of California P, 1999.  

-----, Reminiscences, K. J. Fielding & Ian Campbell (eds.), World’s Classics Edition, Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997.

-----, Sartor Resartus, Rodger L. Tarr (ed.), Berkeley, CA: U of California P, 2000.

-----, Works, H. D. Traill (ed.), Centenary Edition, 30 vols., London: Chapman and Hall, 1896-99.

Carlyle Thomas & Jane Welsh Carlyle, The Collected Letters, Ian Campbell, Aileen Christianson, David R. Sorensen et al. (eds.), Duke-Edinburgh Edition, 36 vols., Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1970-  .

Coleridge Samuel Taylor, Table Talk, Carl Woodring (ed.), Vol. 14, Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1990.

Collingwood R. G., The Idea of History, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1946.

Doubleday Thomas, “Fact and Fiction”, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine 20 (1826): 681-85.

Eliot George, Middlemarch, David Carroll (ed.), World’s Classics Edition, Oxford: Oxford UP, 1996.

FROUDE James Anthony, Life of Carlyle, Columbus : Ohio State University Press, [1882-1884] 1979.

Gallet René, Romantisme et Postromantisme de Coleridge à Hardy: Nature et Surnature, Paris: L’Harmattan, 1996.

Hare Augustus William & Julius Charles, Guesses at Truth, London: Taylor, Duncan, 1827.

Johnson Samuel, A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, Mary Lascelles (ed.),  Yale Edition, Vol. 9, New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1971.

Mill John Stuart, Essays on French History and Historians, Intro. John C. Cairns, John M. Robson (ed.), Vol. 20, Collected Works, Toronto: U of Toronto P; London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1985.  

Trevelyan Hannah More Macaulay (ed.), Miscellaneous Works of Lord Macaulay, 5 vols., New York: Harper, 1880.

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David R. Sorensen, « “Natural Supernaturalism”: Carlyle’s Redemption of the Past in The French Revolution », Revue LISA/LISA e-journal, Vol. VII – n°3 | 2009, 442-451.

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David R. Sorensen

Professor, (Philadelphia, United States)
David R. Sorensen is Professor of English at Saint Joseph’s University, Philadelphia. Since 1998 he has been one of the senior editors of the Duke–Edinburgh Collected Letters of Thomas and Jane Welsh Carlyle (Duke University Press, 1970–to present, 36 vols.). He has co–edited, with K.J. Fielding, Carlyle’s French Revolution (Oxford, 1989) and The Newly Selected Letters of Jane Welsh Carlyle (Ashgate, 2004), as well as (with Rodger L. Tarr) a collection of essays, The Carlyles At Home and Abroad (Ashgate, 2004). He is presently co-editing a variorum edition of Carlyle’s The French Revolution for the Strouse edition of Carlyle’s works, published by the University of California Press. He is also preparing a paperback edition for Yale University Press of Carlyle’s Heroes and Hero-Worship. Since 2006, he has also served as co-editor of Carlyle Studies Annual, published by Saint Joseph’s University Press.

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