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S.A. Bent, comp. Familiar Short Sayings of Great Men. 1887.

Thomas Carlyle

  • [Born at Ecclefechan, Scotland, 1795; educated at Edinburgh University; began his literary career, 1823; removed to London, and published “Sartor Resartus,” 1834; “The French Revolution,” 1837; “Oliver Cromwell,” 1845; “Frederick the Great,” 1858–64; died Feb. 5, 1881.]

God has put into every white man’s hand a whip to flog the black.

  • On meeting Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1848. Emerson called him “a trip-hammer, with an Æolian attachment.”
  • In his address as Lord Rector of Edinburgh University in 1866, Carlyle made use of the following expressions: “Beautiful is young enthusiasm; keep it to the end, and be more and more correct in fixing on the object of it. It is a terrible thing to be wrong in that,—the source of all our miseries and confusions whatever.”
  • “The deepest depth of vulgarism is that of setting up money as the ark of the covenant.”
  • “Can there be a more horrible object in existence than an eloquent man not speaking the truth?”
  • “New truths are not the gifts which the old offer to the young: the lesson we learn last is but the fulness of the meaning of what was only partially apprehended before.”

Give your life royally.

Great men are not born among fools.

The unspeakable Turk.

  • In a letter to a meeting at St. James’s Hall, London, in 1876, called to discuss the Eastern question, and the part that Europe should take in it, Mr. Carlyle wrote: “The unspeakable Turk should be immediately struck out of the question, and the country be left to honest European guidance.”
  • In a discussion of the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays, Carlyle said, “Lord Bacon could as easily have created the planets as he could have written ‘Hamlet.’”
  • Towards the close of his life, he bitterly remarked, “They will not understand that it is death I want.”
  • Arthur Hugh Clough, the poet (1819–61), said of Carlyle in 1849, “He has taken us into the desert; and he has left us there.” De Quincey remarked to the great iconoclast, after the publication of “Latter-Day Pamphlets,” in 1850, “You’ve shown, or you’ve made, another hole in the tin kettle of society: how do you propose to tinker it?”
  • Of Carlyle’s critical powers Goethe said, “Criticism is our weak point. We shall have to wait a long time before we meet with such a man as Carlyle.”

Thirty millions, mostly fools.

  • When asked the population of England. Thus Mrs. Carlyle thought it likely that her husband would begin his first lecture in London with the words: “Fool creatures, come hither for diversion.” Casimir Delavigne declared that fools are in the majority, in a line of his L’étude fait-elle le bonheur?
  • “Les sots depuis Adam sont en majorité.”
  • But Horace expressed the same contempt of the people in an opposite sense: Populus me sibilat, et mihi plaudo (“The people hiss me, I can therefore applaud myself”) (Satires, I. i. 66); and the most hideous man, according to Jules Janin, that ever lived, the Marquis de Sade, was said to be the author of the distich that “all men are fools, and he who will not see them should stay at home and break his mirror;” but this is as old as the Discours Satiriques of Claude le Petit (Rouen, 1686), and an engraving of the seventeenth century, representing the chariot de la Mère Folle at Dijon, of which the motto reads:—
  • “Le monde est plein de fous, et qui n’en veut pas voir
  • Doit se tenir tout seul et casser son miroir.”
  • Prosper Mérimée, whom Carlyle called “a wooden pedant not without conciseness,” when made senator of France in 1853, felt uneasy when about to make his first speech; “but I soon took courage, remembering I was only addressing a hundred and fifty fools.” Trevelyan, in his “Early Life of C. J. Fox,” records “the celebrated apothegm” of Sir Fletcher Norton, that a judge “who did his duty would regard a resolution of the House of Commons no more than the bluster of so many drunken porters.”

The splendid bridge from the Old World to the New.

  • To Emerson, of Gibbon. Certain comments, often unjust, of Carlyle upon contemporaries and others are here given.
  • Byron: A dandy of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.—Journal, Oct. 28, 1830. (Some one said to Rogers, “At least you will admit that there was fire in Byron.”—“Oh, yes,” he replied, “there was fire, and plenty of it; but it was hell-fire.” Carlyle called Rogers “an elegant, politely malignant, old lady;” but again, “a good old man, pathetic to look upon.”)
  • Moore: “A lascivious triviality of great name.”
  • Harriet Martineau: Broken into utter wearisomeness, a mind reduced to these three elements: Imbecility, Dogmatism, and unlimited Hope. (Douglas Jerrold being asked what idea lay at the foundation of a book of Harriet Martineau’s, which was accused of being atheistical, replied: “There is no God, and Harriet is his prophet.”)
  • James Mill: The nearest approach to a real man that I find here. (Letter from London, to John Carlyle, Feb. 16, 1835. In the same letter he says that “it is next to an impossibility that a London-born man should not be a stunted one.”)
  • Wordsworth: A genuine kind of man, but intrinsically and extrinsically a small one; and, again, in 1839, “A garrulous, rather watery, not wearisome, old man;” and at another time, “An honest rustic fiddle, good and well handled, but wanting two or more strings, and not capable of much.”
  • Sydney Smith: A man of fat and muscularity,… seemingly without soul altogether.—Journal, 1835.
  • Leigh Hunt: Dwarfed and dislocated into the merest imbecility.
  • Coleridge: A helpless Psyche overspun with Church-of-England cobwebs; a weak diffusive, weltering, ineffectual man.—Do. (Carlyle, “Life of Sterling,” said of Coleridge’s eternal monologue, “To sit as a passive bucket, and be pumped into, whether one like it or not, can in the end be exhilarating to no creature.” “Did you ever hear me preach?” said Coleridge to Lamb. “I never heard you do any thing else,” was the reply.)
  • Taglioni: Elastic as India-rubber, but as meaningless too, poor soul.
  • Bulwer: Is there aught more in him than a dandiacal philosophist? (in 1832; and again in a letter to Emerson, April 17, 1839): One of the wretchedest phantasms, it seemed to me, I had yet fallen in with.
  • R. M. Milnes (Lord Houghton): A most bland, smiling, semi-quizzical, affectionate, high-bred, Italianized little man (to Emerson, June 6, 1840). (He called Milnes’s “Life of Keats” an attempt to make us eat dead dog by exquisite currying and cooking.—Journal, Dec. 29, 1848. Sydney Smith called Milnes “Dick Modest Milnes,” and “The Cool of the Evening.” (vide.)
  • John Sterling: Aurora-borealis and sheet-lightning.—Do., July 9, 1842.
  • Macaulay: Has more force and emphasis in him than any other of my contemporaries. Wants the root of belief, however. (This was in 1839. In 1832 Carlyle had called him “an emphatic, hottish, really forcible person, but unhappily without divine idea.” But in his journal, in 1840, he spoke of him as “a poor creature, with his dictionary literature and erudition, his saloon arrogance. He has no vision in him,… a poor Holland House unbeliever, with spectacles instead of eyes.” In 1848 he spoke of Macaulay’s “Niagara of eloquent commonplace; all that was in him now gone to the tongue;” and he said of his History, that “it has no depth of sense in it at all, and a very great quantity of rhetorical wind and other temporary ingredients which are the reverse of sense.” Macaulay wrote in his diary, January, 1850: “Many readers give credit for profundity to whatever is obscure, and call all that is perspicuous shallow. But coragio! and think of A.D. 2850. Where will your Emersons be then?” This was in reply to Emerson’s criticism, in English Traits, of the materialistic character of Macaulay. The story is told of young Macaulay, that during a “Town and Gown” riot at Cambridge, a dead cat came full in his face. The man who had thrown it came up to him, and said, “I didn’t mean it for you, but for Mr. Adeane.”—“Oh, very well, my good friend,” replied Macaulay, “but I wish you had meant it for me and hit Mr. Adeane.” Thus King Archelaus of Macedon had some dirty water thrown over him. His courtiers would have the offender punished. “No,” said Archelaus, “he didn’t throw it at me, but at the man he thought I was.” The same king was asked by his barber how he would have his hair cut. “In silence,” was the reply.)
  • Charles Sumner: Inoffensive, like a worn sixpence that has no physiognomy left (Letter to Emerson, April 13, 1839).
  • Margaret Fuller: A strange, lilting, lean old maid, not nearly such a bore as I expected (Journal, Oct. 8, 1846. But in 1847: “Margaret is an excellent soul, in real regard with both of us here;… [her book] the undeniable utterances of a true heroic mind”).
  • E. Rockwood Hoar (afterward justice of the Supreme Court of Massachusetts, and attorney-general of the United States): A solid, sensible, effectual-looking man. There was something really pleasant to me in this Mr. Hoar. (Judge Hoar, being asked if he should attend Mr. Wendell Phillips’s funeral, replied, “No, I am not invited, but I approve of it nevertheless.” The judge was thinking of Phillips’s attacks on public men, such as his calling Lincoln “the slave-hound of Illinois.” Judge Hoar disclaimed having said, when told that Phillips had gone over to the majority, “It is the first time he was ever there.” When the Treaty of Washington was being signed in 1871, Lord Tenterden of the British Foreign Office, having affixed his signature and seal to it, said to Judge Hoar, one of the American Commissioners, “Have you not a seal or family crest that you will affix to this document?” Judge Hoar, recalling Sydney Smith’s remark that “the Smiths never had any arms, and have invariably sealed their letters with their thumbs” (vide), replied, “I have a sleeve-button that may answer the purpose, but thus far my family has been destitute of any other insignia.”)
  • Professor Hedge: One of the sturdiest little fellows I have come across for many a day (Aug. 31, 1847).
  • Washington: Another of your perfect characters; to me, a most limited, uninteresting sort. (He once said to an American, “There is another countryman of yours that needs taking down a peg,—George Washington.” The late Baron Martin had an equally poor opinion of Shakespeare; for, finding him with a volume of the dramatist’s works in his hands, a brother judge said, “Why, I didn’t know you were a student of Shakespeare.”—“No,” replied the baron, “I never read him before; but I’ve been reading him for the last twenty minutes, and from what I have seen of him, I think him a very over-estimated man.”)
  • Thiers: A little, lively, Provençal figure, not dislikable, very far from estimable in any sense.
  • Mazzini: A beautiful little man, full of sensibilities, of melodies, of clear intelligence, and noble virtues.
  • Louis Napoleon: A swindler, who found people ready to be swindled. (He said to Charles Eliot Norton, of Napoleon in England, “His mind was a kind of extinct sulphur-pit, and gave out nothing but a smell of rotten sulphur … a tragi-comedian, or comic tragedian.” The Duc de Morny was one of the chief instruments in carrying out the coup d’état, Dec. 2, 1851. He was told by a lady that she had heard it was intended to make a clean sweep of the Assembly (un coup de balai); she asked him on which side of the “broom” he meant to be. “On the side of the handle” [Du coté du manche], was the reply. Carlyle called Napoleon I. “the great highwayman of history.” Wellington called him “Jonathan Wild the Great.” To illustrate this epithet, the story is told, that at a ball at Milan, shortly after his coronation as king of Italy, Napoleon noticed a lady who wore in her corsage a beautiful bouquet. He snatched it from her, saying, in a clumsy effort to be affable, “All Italians are thieves.”—“No, maestà,” replied the lady, with a profound courtesy, “not all,—ma buona parte.” Thus Major Schill, the partisan leader, to whom the Emperor had sent a communication addressed, “Schill, chef des brigands,” replied, “Bonaparte, chef de tous les brigands.”)
  • George Sand: In the world there are few sadder, sicklier phenomena for me than George Sand, and the response she meets with.
  • John Keble: A little ape.
  • O’Connell: A wretched, blustering quack.
  • Joseph II.: A grandly attempting man, who could succeed in nothing. (Napoleon said of him that “he went mad before his time;” i.e., before the outburst of the French Revolution, the era of social and political reforms.)
  • Palmerston (after his death in 1865): I shall perhaps live, at any rate England will live, long enough to see many uglier men occupying your place.
  • Thackeray: A big, fierce, weeping, hungry man; not a strong one (Sept. 9, 1853). (A young gentleman asked Thackeray when in America many questions about English literary celebrities, ending with, “What do they think of Tupper?”—“They don’t think of Tupper,” was the reply. Hawthorne, who visited him, called Tupper “the ass of asses,” saying that “he is so entirely satisfied with himself that he takes the admiration of all the world for granted.”—Life of Hawthorne, ii. 111. Thackeray was discussing the right of the editor of a magazine to change the “copy” of his contributors, and maintained that no such right existed, except as regarded errors of grammar. “I once told an editor so,” he said, “and he did not like it. I have no objection to your putting your hoofs on my paragraphs, but I decidedly object to your sticking your ears through them.” Of William Palmer Hale, a lawyer and burlesque writer, addicted to beer, Thackeray said when he heard of his death, “Take him for half-and-half, we ne’er shall look upon his like again.” Mr. Yates, who tells these stories in his “Recollections,” records in the same volumes the answer made by Francis S. Murphy, a barrister, when Samuel Warren, author of “Ten Thousand a Year,” expressed his surprise at having seen no fish when dining at a certain ducal mansion: “What, had it all been eaten up-stairs?” Seeing a little book with patched and mended back, labelled “Homer’s Iliad,” “Yes,” said Shirley Brooks, “Homer’s Iliad, I believe, is the best!” “‘Mont Blanc is the monarch of mountains,’” cried one, in presence of Douglas Jerrold. “Yes,” replied the latter, “and Albert Smith half-crowned him long ago,” alluding to Smith’s lecture on Mont Blanc at the Egyptian Hall. At a party given by Benjamin Webster, to celebrate the birthday of his daughter, some one asked Jerrold who the man was dancing with Mrs. Jerrold. “God knows, my dear boy,” was the reply. “Some member of the Humane Society, I suppose.”—YATES: Recollections and Experiences, i. 292.)

Let a man know rightly how to hold his peace.

  • Letter to Emerson, Dec. 8, 1837. (Other remarks in favor of silence date from as early as 1830: as, in his journal for September of that year, “Beware of speaking: speech is human, silence is divine;” and Nov. 17, 1831, “The highest melody dwells only in silence, the sphere melody, the melody of health.” Thus the Talmud says, “Much talk, much foolishness;” from which Corneille [Suite du Menteur, iii. 1] derives his line, Mais qui parle beaucoup, dit beaucoup de sottises; while Publius Syrus is of opinion that it is rare that the same man talk much and well [Rara est ejusdem hominis multa et opportune dicere]. Martial asserts in his “Epigrams” [iv. 80], “Res est magna tacere.” Menander, the Greek poet, had already declared that “nothing is more useful than silence.” Hannah More, in her “Thoughts on Conversation,” repeats the saying of Cicero, that “there is not only an art, but even an eloquence, in silence.” “Be silent,” said Pythagoras, “or say something better than silence.” “Speak fitly,” says George Herbert, “or be silent wisely.” “After speech,” says Lacordaire, “silence is the greatest power in the world.” And Carlyle said in his inaugural address at Edinburgh, “Silence is the eternal duty of man.” The Arabs have a proverb, which, in almost similar form, is common to the languages of Western Europe: “If speech is silver, silence is gold” [vide]. That “the silence of the people is the lesson of kings,” was indeed said by a bishop of Senez [vide], but not by Jean Soanen; rather by Jean de Beauvais, who preached a sermon at the funeral of Louis XV., at St. Denis, July 27, 1774, “The people, doubtless, have the right to murmur, but they have also the right to be silent, and their silence is the lesson of kings.”)

I do not believe that state can last in which Jesus and Judas have equal weight in public affairs.

  • To an American clergyman, who defended universal suffrage.
  • Other remarks of Carlyle in his letters and journals follow:—
  • The difference between Socrates and Jesus Christ? The great Conscious; the immeasurably great Unconscious.—Journal, Oct. 28, 1833. (Erasmus so reverenced the character of Socrates, that he said, when he considered his life and doctrines he was inclined to put him in the calendar of saints, and to exclaim, “Sancte Socrates, ora pro nobis!”)
  • The thing is not only to avoid error, but to attain immense masses of truth.—Do.
  • Virtue is like health, the harmony of the whole man.—Do., Nov. 1.
  • The Devil has his elect.—Do., Aug. 5, 1829.
  • Wonder is the basis of worship.—Do., June 8, 1830. (It was a saying of Heraclitus, six centuries before Christ, “Religion is a disease, though a noble disease.” This saying has been placed among the spuria; but Max Müller says that it has “the full, metallic, noble ring of Heraclitus. It is too great to be of doubtful origin, while so remote in its source.” Vide M. MÜLLER: “Origin of Religions;” quoted by MULFORD: “The Republic of God,” 46, note.)
  • Vain hope to make people happy by politics!—Do., Oct. 10, 1831.
  • Great in this life is the communion of man with man.—Do., March 31, 1832.
  • Biography is the only true history.—Do., Jan. 13, 1832.
  • Books are a triviality. Life alone is great; with its infinite spaces, its everlasting times, with its Death, with its Heaven and its Hell.—Do., May 29, 1839.
  • I think that little room (in the Wartburg) where Luther stood fighting God’s battle against the whole world, is the most sacred place upon earth.
  • It is a great misery for a man to lie, even unconsciously, even to himself (Letter to his wife, Nov. 2, 1835).
  • The old gloomy Gothic cathedrals were good; but the great blue Dome that hangs over all is better than any Cologne one.—Journal, Nov. 17, 1842.
  • No truly great man, from Jesus Christ down, ever founded a sect.—Do. (“Do not call yourselves Lutherans,” said Luther: “call yourselves Christians. Has Luther been crucified for the world?”)
  • Let a man try to the very uttermost to speak what he means, before singing is had recourse to.—Do., Nov. 17, 1843. (Thus Beaumarchais says, in “The Marriage of Figaro,” “Ce qui ne vaut pas la peine d’être dit, on le chante.” He had reference to singing, Carlyle to poetry.)

If it were not for the clothes, there would be little difference.

  • Quoted from a letter of Stephenson, the engineer, Sept. 3, 1848; (resembling Carlyle’s own assertion that marquises and ministers do not differ from little people, except in the clothing and mounting. “Born in the manse,” said David Wilkie, the painter, at a meeting of “the sons of the clergy of the Scotch Church,” “we have all a patent of nobility.” Gen. Skobeleff, when asked if it were true that he was descended from a Scotch emigrant to Russia, named Scobie, replied, “I believe there is something in it, but I make little account of genealogical trees. Mere family never made a man great. Thought and deed, not pedigree, are the passports to enduring fame.”—Fortnightly Review, October, 1882. Thus Iphicrates, the Athenian general, when reproached by a descendant of Harmodius with ignoble birth, his father having been a shoemaker, replied, “The nobility of my family begins with me; that of yours ends with you.” Alexander Dumas, whose grandmother was a negress, was asked if he were not descended from an ape. “Very likely,” he replied to his interlocutor; “my ancestry began where yours ends.” Gen. Skobeleff, in a speech at Warsaw shortly before his death, which attracted great attention for its bold expression of Pan-Slavic views, referring to the Poles, exclaimed, “Are we not all brothers?” It was the echo of a proposal made in the sixteenth century by Stephen Bathory, king of Poland, to the Russian ambassador: “Let us abandon vain quarrels. Are we not brothers? What matter some slight differences in religious belief? Why should we not have the same flag, the same chief?” Instancing Loyola, Skobeleff once said, “He who wants to do any thing great, should remain single;” and again, “War and the family are incompatible. Man cannot serve two masters.” Seeing a Falstaffian general, whom he had ordered to the front, fight bravely, Skobeleff exclaimed, “Rivalry begets heroes.”—Personal Reminiscences of Skobeleff, 62.)

I have no patience whatever with these gorilla damnifications of humanity.

  • Of the Darwinian theory of development.
  • Emerson told Miss Bremer, when she was in America, that Carlyle was angry with him for not believing in a Devil, and to convert him took him among all the horrors of London, the gin-shops, etc., and finally to the House of Commons, saying, “Do you believe in a Devil noo?” (Letter of George Eliot, Nov. 3, 1851.) Cross, in his “Life of George Eliot,” i. 257, says that at a dinner-party at Berlin, where Wiese and Cornelius were deploring Goethe’s want of evangelical sentiment, Carlyle was at first visibly uneasy, fumbling with his napkin, and at last broke out in German, “Gentlemen, do you know the story of the man who railed at the sun because it would not light his cigar?”