Thomas Carlyle And Writing The French Revolution

• Live large. Take your mission seriously and choose to be a hero in your own epic saga of triumph and overcoming.

• Endless resilience is possible when you tap into your deepest convictions and beliefs. Find that thing you are most passionate and resolute about and allow it to animate all your efforts. That way, any obstacle is perceived as a minor inconvenience, just a trifle on the bigger, more important path you’re on.

• Read. Educate yourself and absorb knowledge wherever you can. Carlyle built a complex and sophisticated worldview because he was able to read widely, and this view would forever act as a buffer against adversity and a source of strength during dark times.

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Have you ever spent time carefully crafting a text message only to backspace too aggressively and accidentally delete everything you’ve written? Well, this is broadly the story of Carlyle’s life… multiplied by about a million.

To tell the story of Carlyle, though, we need to tell a few of the stories that formed the historical background in which he was working. During the years of the French Revolution and for some time afterwards, political, economic, and social upheaval was so intense people must have believed they were in the end times. The heads of noble men and women were chopped off, stuck onto pikes, and paraded around town by raucous mobs. There was a spirit of liberty, fraternity, and equality in the air but also mass public violence, chaos, and disorder in the streets and general mayhem the likes of which would shock even those of us who’ve lived through the last five years!

Let’s introduce a few key characters: Maximilien de Robespierre was a lawyer and statesman and widely regarded as a key figure in the French Revolution, campaigning all his life for woman’s suffrage, the abolition of slavery, and the principles of democracy. His role as a “public accuser” led to him agitating for the fall of the French monarchy and, ultimately, to 40,000 people being sentenced to death by guillotine. His days were limited, though, and eventually Robespierre would die by the sword, so to speak. In the chaos that ensued after he was beheaded, general Napoleon Bonaparte appeared on the scene, and gradually, order was restored.

The story that unfolded was one that inspired Charles Dickens to write A Tale of Two Cities – which is a novel that sheds light on the difficult, tragic, and sometimes horrific aspects of the revolution. But Dickens himself was inspired by another great author: Thomas Carlyle. After reading Carlyle’s historic trilogy on this incredibly complex episode in history, Dickens was moved to create his own contribution.

Carlyle was born in:

The way Carlyle wrote about history had a dramatic effect on the way historians spoke about and documented the past. The impact of this shift is difficult to comprehend for those of us living in an ideological world he arguably helped to create. His study of leadership and the theory it produced arose from Carlyle’s interest in Napoleon’s stabilization of a revolution-ravaged France. Carlyle was interested in how often great men were, in fact, quite complex individuals, and he was concerned with the way that this complex history was written. He would frequently argue that historical figures should not be judged on trivial mistakes but rather their larger, genuine displays of heroism. The fact that notable figures had small flaws or the occasional unfashionable opinion should not, he felt, distract from their overarching achievements. It’s likely his passion for this project stemmed from his own colorful history as a person unafraid of digging for “the real story.”

Despite calling economics a “dismal science,” Carlyle had a close friend and economist, John Stuart Mill, who believed enormously in Carlyle’s talents and urged him to consider writing about the French Revolution, with his help. Carlyle agreed and labored for four months over a manuscript that would tell the story of the French Revolution, paying respectful and careful attention to nuance, paradox, and complexity, not to mention the complicated figures involved, such as Napoleon. And here’s where our main story begins.

le worked by hand because, in:

The next day, an understandably sheepish Mill turned up at Carlyle’s house with a pile of heavily charred pages packed into a satchel. He could say nothing as he presented the tragedy to his friend, filled with pity and regret. Could you imagine what it was like to see the fruits of four months’ labor literally reduced to smithereens?

Perhaps Carlyle, who had made the study of leadership his life’s work, had learnt something about dignity and composure during adversity. He instantly forgave Mill and refused his offer of payment and apology. In fact, he later wrote how he endeavored to hide from his friend his disappointment, to spare him from feeling worse.

But he was disappointed – devastated, even. Carlyle was broke. He hadn’t made any money from writing for over a year at that point and was burning through his savings. He had battled depression and many other personal demons for years. He needed that manuscript. He had worked hard, and it had all come to precisely nothing. He had done the thing he knew in his heart would bring honor and meaning to his life: identify a goal and work with everything in him until that goal was achieved. He had done that, and admirably. Yet he was faced with a crushing realization: all of that was gone now. He was back at square one.

That night, Carlyle had a dream where his deceased father and brother came to him and urged him not to give up his work, even though all appeared lost. In the morning, he contacted Mill to tell him he’d accept the money after all – so that he could buy enough paper to start over again.

Revolution were published in:

If Carlyle had not found the courage that day to dust himself off and start over again, the book would never have been published and Dickens would never have been inspired to write A Tale of Two Cities. And who knows what other works were then inspired by Dickens and so on? When Carlyle was urged in a dream not to abandon his mission, perhaps he wasn’t aware of the repercussions of his choice to carry on – or, perhaps, it was precisely because he knew how important a story it was that he found energy to carry on.

Like so many of the great leaders that fascinated Carlyle, he was a complex and melancholic individual, who threw himself into his work, often choosing subjects that had a flavor of “divine drama” about them. In fact, Carlyle came to see history as “divine scripture” and his narrative of the unfolding of the French Revolution has now become the dominant one. If you believe that the French Revolution was an epic tale of retribution and punishment meted out on the foolish and greedy nobility of the day, then you have already partaken of Carlyle’s massively influential perspective, perhaps without even knowing it.

Carlyle turned against his religious upbringing, but his work was forever colored by his own sense of the epic universal battle between good and evil, the drama of order versus chaos, overseen by powerful, larger-than-life heroes and villains – such as General Lafayette and Robespierre. Unlike many of the historians of his time, Carlyle wrote passionately and with fearsome moral conviction. Take a look at one paragraph from the book in question:

“But figure his thought, when Death is now clutching at his own heart-strings, unlooked for, inexorable! Yes, poor Louis, Death has found thee. No palace walls or life-guards, gorgeous tapestries or gilt buckram of stiffest ceremonial could keep him out; but he is here, here at thy very life-breath, and will extinguish it. Thou, whose whole existence hitherto was a chimera and scenic show, at length becomest a reality: sumptuous Versailles bursts asunder, like a dream, into void Immensity; Time is done, and all the scaffolding of Time falls wrecked with hideous clangour round thy soul: the pale Kingdoms yawn open; there must thou enter, naked, all unking'd, and await what is appointed thee! Unhappy man, there as thou turnest, in dull agony, on thy bed of weariness, what a thought is thine! Purgatory and Hell-fire, now all-too possible, in the prospect; in the retrospect,--alas, what thing didst thou do that were not better undone; what mortal didst thou generously help; what sorrow hadst thou mercy on? Do the 'five hundred thousand' ghosts, who sank shamefully on so many battle-fields from Rossbach to Quebec, that thy Harlot might take revenge for an epigram,--crowd round thee in this hour? Thy foul Harem; the curses of mothers, the tears and infamy of daughters? Miserable man! thou 'hast done evil as thou couldst:' thy whole existence seems one hideous abortion and mistake of Nature; the use and meaning of thee not yet known. Wert thou a fabulous Griffin, devouring the works of men; daily dragging virgins to thy cave;--clad also in scales that no spear would pierce: no spear but Death's? A Griffin not fabulous but real! Frightful, O Louis, seem these moments for thee.--We will pry no further into the horrors of a sinner's death-bed.”

Carlyle saw what unfolded in France as a divine judgment against the selfishness of the upper classes, and he saw his role as a faithful documentarian and story-teller of these classical epics. Let’s be honest for a moment: most of us can hardly imagine the life of Thomas Carlyle or make much sense of his vision of history, now confined to history himself. But if we dwell for a moment on his story, we can appreciate that his life was one of conviction, achievement, and hard work – not to mention resilience.

What can we learn from a man like Carlyle? If we could travel back in time and ask him directly, what advice would he give those people wishing to live a life of meaning, purpose, and value?

Carlyle once said, “What we become depends on what we read after all of the professors have finished with us. The greatest university of all is a collection of books.” The man adored books and was widely read. In fact, he believed that “All that mankind has done, thought, gained, or been; it is lying as in magic preservation in the pages of books.”

It was no secret that Carlyle held the virtues of reading, self-learning, and authorship in the highest esteem. For him, the only thing more epic than being a man of great historical significance was learning, reading, and writing about such men.

The story about Carlyle starting his life’s work all over again after his first attempt was burnt to ash is a nice, neat anecdote. But if we dig deeper, we can see why he felt so driven to keep on writing, no matter what. Though a little big-headed, Carlyle took his duty as a record keeper of the divine saga of his time very, very seriously. He didn’t merely continue his manuscript because he felt like it – he did so because of the unwavering conviction that he had been visited by his deceased family from beyond the grave, exhorting him to push on.

Now, whether you agree with Carlyle’s take on history, whether you like his style, or whether you consider the loss of four months’ work a life-altering tragedy is irrelevant. What Carlyle teaches us – along with many other great leaders and heroes in history – is what “greatness” is. Have you ever thought about it, really? What sets apart these larger-than-life personages that seem to be etched in the human record?

Carlyle gives us a hint: it’s a sense of one’s own grandness, the power of sincerity and self-belief, and the willingness to bring a little of the otherworldly into one’s own life. Carlyle loved drama, and he took his life and his work seriously. This is where his resilience came from. Like Ernest Shackleton, he was able to do what he did because he had a vision of his life as somehow bigger and grander than the barest, most immediate details of his existence. Carlyle once claimed his life’s ambition was to die of exhaustion rather than boredom. He resented mediocrity, cowardice, and slovenliness. Being a hero, then, is about playing large!

Finally, something that makes Carlyle stand out as a historical figure is his keen intuition about the power of narrative. He understood the magic hidden in words and knew that style, intention, and context made meaning. He knew that the hero’s journey was one that was best documented in mankind’s earliest incarnation of history: the epic tale. From him, we can learn that much strength and resilience are possible if you only know the right perspective to take!

If you are a hero on a divine mission, then losing your life’s work in one day is not the end of the road – it’s merely one episode in the grand story, one battle in the war. In fact, you could write it so that your adversity is a profound teacher, your trouble an opportunity to cultivate greatness, and your adversities your greatest friends, since they teach you all the ways you are actually better than you previously allowed yourself to believe.

Real world example


The art department completely lost a complicated and expensive forest scene that had taken hundreds of man hours to build. Though a gargantuan tragedy by anyone’s standards, director Ridley Scott quickly set to work adapting the schedule, moving people to a new set, and making sure workers doubled down to rebuild the set. It was a bitter, bitter loss, but as they say, the show must go on. And it did.

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