- Introduction. Heroism and Heroic Death
- Heroic argument vs. a-heroic argument
- Heroic qualities vs. equality
- God’s truth vs. Skepticism
- Idealistic voluntarism vs. determinism
- Impulse model vs. atomistic model
- Authority vs. Anarchism
- Heroic death vs. death fear
- Conclusion. ‘The balanced approach’
Introduction. Heroism and Heroic Death
This work will explore the representation of heroism and heroic death
in some works of 19th-century literature. There appear to be several
distinct critical and theoretical approaches to heroism in general, and
to heroic discourse and the characterization of heroes in
literary works. There is a typological approach, as in Laura Jepsen’s
From Achilles to Christ (1978). There is an approach that considers
heroism in terms of morality, virtue and virtuous activity – as in
Maurice Evans’s book Spenser’s Anatomy of Heroism (1970). Arnold Stein
in Heroic Knowledge (1965) views moral heroism as a “superiority of
wisdom” and ability to “reject temptations” (p.5). Leo Gurko in Ernest
Hemingway and The Pursuit of Heroism (1968) considers heroism in
more conventional terms of bravery and martial prowess, but most of all
in terms of personal struggle, “great deeds” (p.56) and “effort”
(p.64). Janet Todd in Gender, Art and Death (1993) views heroism in
terms of gender empowerment and mastery over one’s fate (heroic death
is viewed as “willed death”) (p.57). Leslie A. Fiedler in Love and
Death in the American Novel (1966) shows heroism as a form of personal
mastery: heroism as a suppression of sexual drive, “virility not
genital but heroic” (p.211). Despite the wide variety, these
approaches share a view of heroism as an individual matter: “heroism is
a lonely act” (Gurko, p. 229), “society and social structure are almost
totally absent” (Gurko, p.230).
This generalization applies also to Northrop
Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism (1957), in which he defines heroism in
terms of the hero’s “power of action” (p.33). To be sure, Frye does
discuss the relationship of a hero to his social environment (in terms
of integration or superiority), but the question of the hero’s exercise
of power and influence upon this social environment is almost not dealt
with; virtually no account of such power relations is given. My
approach in this work will be close to Frye’s, in the sense that I will
consider heroism mostly as a question of the hero’s power and “size”.
But, I will focus more on the relations of a hero with the society over
which he might be said to have influence.
In this chapter, I will present
two opposed approaches towards heroic influence over the masses: that
of Carlyle who, in On Heroes, Hero Worship and the Heroic in History
(1840), argues for its crucial importance, versus that of Tolstoy, who
in War and Peace (1869) denies its very possibility. Both approaches
appeared and achieved prominence in the wake of the so-called
Napoleonic Wars, which brought the role of an individual (hero) in
history to the forefront of both intellectual and political discussion.
The works of Carlyle and Tolstoy – the chief focus of this chapter --
in their completeness and inner coherence (though entirely
contradictory to each other), may be seen as paradigms for attitudes
toward heroism and heroic authority. Though the two works
represent the post-Napoleonic era, their principles are interesting as
exemplary treatments of heroic power in the wake of a major war. The
discussion of those principles has a special relevance to literary
studies because they provide models for understanding works of fiction,
specifically of the role and influence of a protagonist in his/her
social environment. It is also relevant because these two works are an
important link in a chain of literary works, preceding and following;
this succession will be the theme of the following chapters.
At the close of the 18th century
and the beginning of the 19th (until 1815), the Napoleonic Wars swept
over Europe. These wars involved millions of people, yet came to be
associated with a single person, Napoleon I, a man of seemingly heroic
dimensions. Scholarly and literary responses in the aftermath of such
grandiose events could not have failed to follow. Historical
analyses of the wars, of the great movement of peoples consequent on
the wars, and biographies of Napoleon proliferated. There appeared,
most famously, The Political and the Military Life of Napoleon by
Antoin Jomini (1827), The History of the French Revolution
by Adolphe Thiers (1823), Reflections on the Major Events of the French
Revolution by Mme Anne de Stael (appeared posthumously, 1818), The
History of Napoleon by Walter Scott (1825), The Life of Napoleon by
Stendhal (1837). Crucial to these and all other works on Napoleon’s
leadership and the massive upheavals called by his name were questions
about the role of an individual in history, the status of a hero (the
degree of his genius and ability, power and influence), and the status
of killing or dying of/ as/ for/ by a hero.
Two works – Thomas Carlyle’s On Heroes
(1840) and Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1863-1869) – may be considered
as paradigmatic responses to those questions. Though inspired by and
related to specific historical events (the Napoleonic wars), these
works deal with questions concerning heroes and heroism in general, and
seek (that is their own claim) patterns applicable to the whole history
of humankind. Thus, in On Heroes (OH), the case of Napoleon, “our last
hero” (p. 296), is the corollary of a comprehensive “discourse ... on
Great Men, their manner of appearance in our world’s business” (p.1).
Tolstoy’s obvious theme in War and Peace (WP) is Russia during the
Napoleonic wars. But the philosophy that underwrites the work
(explicitly stated in the epilogue) concerns first and foremost how the
concept of “a hero” or “great man” may be demythologized.
In spite of an apparent similarity
of subject matter, these two works present diametrically opposed
paradigms. Carlyle believes that there exist heroes, great “able men”
who stand above the crowd, and are superior, “worth any thousand men”
(OH, p.263). In Carlyle’s opinion, a hero shapes history and is thus
necessary: “we cannot do without great men” (OH, p. 246). Tolstoy does
not accept such an approach completely (he is well aware of it, and
attributes it to “ancient historians”) (WP, Epilogue, Part.2, Sect. 1;
vol.7 in “Tolstoy’s Collected Works,” Moscow 1974, p. 303; my
translation). Tolstoy claims that “the most important consideration for
me regards this little significance that, in my opinion, the so-called
great men have in historical events” (WP, “Some Words About War and
Peace”, vol.7, pp.356-7). Tolstoy believes that “in an historical event
the so-called great men are nothing but labels, which give names to
events, but – like labels themselves – have the least to do with the
event itself” (WP, Book 3, Part.1, Section.1, Vol.6, p.11). The
“history of Gotfrids and minnesingers”, he writes, “remains history of
Gotfrids and minnesingers, and the history of peoples remains unknown”
(WP, Epilogue, Part.2, Sect. 4, Vol. 7, p.319). Carlyle’s heroic myth
is opposed by contrary notions of Tolstoy’s that go by the names
of “private affairs” (WP, B.4, Part .1, Sect. 4, Vol.7. p.18),
the “swarming life of humankind” (WP, B.3, Part.1, Sect.1, Vol.6,
p10), and the “laws of necessity” (WP, Epilogue, Part. 2, Sect. 8, Vol.
7, p. 330 ). Each side of the dispute propounds a coherent system of
argument and counters possible objections; the question of heroic
influence becomes part of even more profound controversies.
Heroic argument vs. a-heroic argument
The major difference between Tolstoy’s and Carlyle’s models is the
value they attach to the so-called heroes in history. At the very
outset of On Heroes Carlyle states that “Universal History, the History
of what man has accomplished in this world, is at bottom the History of
the Great Men who have worked there” (OH, p. 1). “They were the leaders
of men, these great ones; the modellers, patterns, and in a wide sense
creators, of whatsoever the general mass of men contrived to do or to
attain” (OH, p. 1). Tolstoy’s notion of history is diametrically
opposite: “The movements of peoples are produced by the actions of all
people taking part in the event” (WP, Epilogue , Part 2, Sect. 7, vol.
7, p.329). The role of the hero is reduced to minimum in these
movements. By and large, the masses do not require heroes for guidance,
this guidance is ineffectual, in fact nonexistent, for the motive
forces of the masses lie in the masses themselves.
An attempt to describe history
mainly as the combined actions and thoughts of Great Men appears to
Tolstoy as ridiculous. Carlyle’s solemn, superlative ode to Heroes and
their work is opposed by Tolstoy’s caustic irony about the stereotype
of heroic influence:
“Louis XIV was a very proud and selfish man; he had such and such
lovers, and such and such ministers, and he ruled France
badly. His descendants too were weak people and also ruled France
badly. And they had such and such favorites and lovers. Besides, some
people were writing some books. At the end of the 18th century a couple
of dozens men assembled in Paris and started talking that all men are
equal and free. And because of that in all France people started
slaughtering and drowning each other. These people killed the king and
many others. At that time there was in France a genius: Napoleon. He
defeated everybody everywhere, that is killed many people, because he
was such a great genius. And he went for some reason to kill Africans
and killed them so well and was so cunning and clever, that when he
came back to France he ordered everybody to obey him. And everybody
obeyed. Having become an Emperor, he again went to kill people in
Italy, Austria, and Prussia. And he killed there many people” (WP,
Ep.2, Sect.1, vol.7, p.306).
The source of Tolstoy’s
skepticism and irony is that he fails to understand “by which power
Napoleon did this?” (WP, Ep.2, Sect.3, v.7, p.313). Such power seems to
Carlyle self-evident. Tolstoy refuses to see a cause/effect connection
between Napoleon’s orders or Rousseau’s writings and millions of people
going to war half way across the world and slaughtering each other by
hundreds of thousands. Tolstoy does not believe it possible that “the
most cruel slaughters of the French Revolution followed from the
preachings of equality, and wars and executions from the preaching of
love” (WP, Ep.2, Sect. 2, v.7, p. 310). In Carlyle, it is a matter of
fact that “[Rousseau] could not be hindered from setting the world on
fire” (OH, p.228), or that Luther’s theses brought about almost the
whole of modern Western history in its three stages: the Reformation,
“English Puritanism” and the English Civil War, and finally “the
Enormous French Revolution” (OH, p. 150). Such a grandiose effect
of these individuals on the world’s history is far from evident to
“We know that Luther was irritable and talked such and such
speeches; we know that Rousseau was suspicious and wrote such and such
books; but we do not know why after the Reformation peoples slaughtered
each other, and why during the French Revolution people executed each
other” (WP, Ep.2, Sect. 4, v.7, p. 320).
Tolstoy furthermore ridicules the supposed influence of spiritual
heroes -- the kind of influence hailed by Carlyle in Lecture 5,
“The Hero as a Man of Letters,” when he speaks of the “Miracles wrought
by Books” (OH, 194). “Histories are written by scholars,” writes
Tolstoy, “therefore it is natural and pleasant for them to think that
the activities of their class are the basis of the history of
humankind” (WP, Ep.2, Sect. 2, v. 7, p. 311). (Such an influence seems
even less likely if we remember that the greatest part of the
population was illiterate.)
The force the heroes may be said to
apply does not seem to Tolstoy equal to the “resultant action” (WP,
Ep.2, Sect.2, v.7, p.309) – i.e. the massive upheavals. The radical
step Tolstoy takes in the construction of his a-heroic model is the
dissociation of heroes from the masses; or, to be more precise, the
negation of a causal nexus between the heroes and the masses. Napoleon
is likened to “a boy sitting in a carriage and pulling toy-strings, and
imagining that he is driving” (Kandiev, p.359). (Cf. also Andrey
Krylov’s fable about a conspicuous fly sitting on a horse and imagining
that it drives it). Tolstoy claims that “the life of peoples cannot be
contained in the lives of a few men, because the connection between
these few men and the nations is not found” (WP, Ep.2, Sect.5, v.7, p.
320). While Carlyle’s model is one Great Man above many people,
Tolstoy’s model is just many people, all involved in an historical
Carlyle, unlike Tolstoy, has an
idea of what the nature of the influence of heroes over the masses
consists in: the force Carlyle sees behind the influence of Great Men
is “Inspiration.” A Hero is “inspired” (OH, p.189) by “God’s truth”
(OH, p.181), and in his turn inspires the masses into action, battle or
what have you. Such an answer (somewhat mysterious and transcendental)
to the question of heroic influence is opposed in Tolstoy by a series
of logical arguments, all based on the denial of a casual nexus between
the hero and the masses, the denial that a hero can cause massive
events. Carlyle claims:
“The Great Man, as he comes from the hand of Nature, is ever the same
kind of thing; Odin, Luther, Johnson, Burns; ... these are all
originally of one stuff; only by the world’s reception of them, and the
shapes they assume, are they so immeasurably diverse” (OH, p. 52, my
Thus the influence of Great Men depends on the masses, on their
reception or rejection. But Tolstoy counters:
“In such a case, if the motive force of peoples lies not in historical
personas, but in the peoples themselves, then what is the
significance of these historical personas?” (WP, Ep.2, Sect.4, v.7,
Carlyle likens great men to a “spark” or “lightning,” and the masses to
“dry dead fuel” (OH, p. 16), ready to ignite. In Tolstoy’s metaphor of
a locomotive (WP, Ep.2, Sect.3, v.7, p.312) – historical movement as a
result of “compressed steam,” i.e. forces inherent in the peoples
involved – “sparks” are ignored. (We may imagine the fuel, the masses,
capable of self-ignition, as happens in Diesel engines.)
When Carlyle speaks of the masses, eventually
everything revolves around heroes. Thus, when describing a possible
mechanism of Revolutions, i.e. massive upheavals (OH, pp. 246-247),
Carlyle attributes to Heroes a triple role. First of all, the masses
rise, deny authority and profess that “wise great men being impossible,
a level immensity of foolish small men would suffice” (OH, p.246),
because “Hero-Worship, reverence for [false] Authority, has proved
false, is itself a falsehood, no more of it!” (OH, p.246). That is to
say, the masses rise because the ruler, in Tolstoy’s words, “ruled
badly,” the hero proved false, caused an adverse reaction, thus
Revolutions are a hero’s fault. Second, when the masses have risen,
they are led by another hero (they could not have done without him) –
“So many of our late Heroes have worked rather as revolutionary men”
(OH, p. 247). And third, a hero, and often the very same one who
“worked in Revolutions” (OH, p.247), puts an end to chaos, subdues the
unruly masses, and reestablishes order, for “He is the Missionary of
Order” (OH, p. 247). Thus “Some Cromwell or Napoleon is the necessary
finish of Sansculottism” (OH, p.248). Such heroes as Napoleon are
brought forth by the mob, and they are those who subdue it. (This
logical sequence reminds me a little of the argument of a Yiddene who
borrowed a pan and returned it broken: first, the pan is not broken;
second, it was broken when you gave it to me; and third, I didn’t
borrow any pan from you at all.) Tolstoy believes such an argument is
“The ideas of the revolution, the general mood is what produced
Napoleon’s power. And Napoleon’s power subdued the ideas of the
revolution and the general mood. This strange contradiction is not
accidental. It not only appears at every step, but all descriptions of
universal historians are composed from such contradictions. This
contradiction happens because, having embarked on the road of analysis,
universal historians stop half-way” (WP, Ep.2, Sect.2, v.7, p.309).
To go the full way would be to accept that power and motive forces lie
in the masses, and accept that “the influence of Napoleons on the
events is only external and fictitious” (WP, Book 3, Part 2, Sect. 28,
vol. 6, p.226).
Carlyle falls several times into what
Tolstoy calls the “contradiction” of going “half way.” For example, it
is characteristic that the good that happens to the people is
attributed to the Hero, whereas the bad is the masses’ own fault:
“Great wars, contention and disunion followed out of this Reformation.
... They are lamentable, undeniable; but after all what has Luther or
his cause to do with them?” (OH, p.165).
Tolstoy’s answer would be: indeed, Luther had (almost) nothing to do
with it. But when we remember that a few lines earlier Carlyle says
that “had Luther in that moment done other, [the World’s History] had
all been otherwise” (OH, p.165) – then the heroic model seems less
consistent. The ideas of a hero (such as Knox’s “Theocracy”) are
excellent almost by definition, are “precisely the thing to struggle
for” (OH, p. 186). Alas, the environment, the masses, people on the
field hinder their implementation.
(Another minor instance of going “half way” is
when Carlyle creates an image of Russia without spiritual heroes, just
“Cossacks and cannons” (OH, p. 139). “The Nation that has a Dante is
bound together as no dumb Russia can be” (OH, p.139). No Pushkin exists
for Carlyle. But if Russia can be without spiritual heroes, why cannot
Italy or England? Is it because the writer is more aware of the
actors of his own culture?)
Tolstoy perceives several other
contradictions inherent in an heroic model:
“One historian claims that an event is produced by the power of
Napoleon, another says that the event is produced by the power of
Alexander I, the third – by the power of some third person. Besides,
historians of this kind contradict each other even in the explanation
of the force upon which the power of one and same person is based.
Thiers, the Bonapartist, says that Napoleon’s power was based on his
goodness and genius; Lanfrey, the Republican, says it was based on his
quackery and deception of people. Thus, historians of this kind
mutually cancel out the propositions of each other, and thus cancel out
the conception of a [heroic] power that produces events, and do not
give any answer to the essential question of history” (WP, Ep.2,
Sect.2, v.7, pp. 308, my italics).
One ramification of such mutual cancellation is the fact that a Hero’s
evaluation changes drastically in time: “Napoleon is given all the
honor, in spite of the fact that five years before and a year after
everybody considered him a bandit and an outlaw” (WP, Ep.2, Sect.1,
v.7, p.306). The ‘heroic factor’ thus defies objective analysis,
appears as self-contradictory, even inscrutable; therefore, Tolstoy
concludes, there might be nothing to it. No such inherent
contradiction exists for Carlyle. He devoutly distinguishes between the
“True Heroes” and the “Sham Heroes” (OH, p.240). The evaluation of the
heroes is of a permanent, unchanging nature, or – to be more precise –
their value for Carlyle is of such a perennial and absolute nature:
“The Hero is he who lives in the inward sphere of things, in the True,
Divine and Eternal, which exists always, unseen to most, under the
Temporary, Trivial: his being is in that; he declares that abroad ...
His life is a piece of the everlasting heart of Nature itself; ... the
strong few are strong, heroic, perennial, because it cannot be hidden
from them” (OH, p.189).
When a hero has such credentials as “The Divine and Eternal” truth, not
given to controversy, we should better accept his supremacy and
(I have to note that when I said at the outset
that both systems are internally coherent, I did not mean they were
both unquestionable. Carlyle’s argument in itself is very cogent. It is
just that Tolstoy’s arguments help find breaches in it; without them
Carlyle’s logic would have seemed impeccable. And vice versa, when
Carlyle attacks the argument which “formally abnegated” heroism (OH, p.
207) as “mechanical” (OH, p.208), “skeptical” (OH, p.207),
“unbelieving” (OH, p.214) – to many of these accusations Tolstoy must
Probably the most significant form of
heroic influence is the hero’s power of command over the subordinates.
Carlyle finds such power both undoubtedly existing and beneficial to
the greatest extent:
“[King], the Commander over men; he to whose will our wills are to be
subordinated, and loyally surrender themselves, and find their welfare
in doing so, may be reckoned the most important of Great Men. He is
practically the summary for us of all the various figures of Heroism;
Priest, Teacher, whatsoever of earthly or of spiritual dignity we can
fancy to reside in a man, embodies itself here, to command over us, to
furnish us with constant Practical Teaching, to tell us for the day and
hour what we are to do” (OH, p.238).
“What he tells us to do must be precisely the wisest, fittest, that we
could anywhere or anyhow learn” (OH, p. 239).
The Hero commands and the people do. Tolstoy does not think that such a
process is possible:
“The false concept of ours that a command preceding an event is the
cause of the event appears because when the event has happened, and one
out of a thousand commands gets implemented, we forget about those
commands which were not, because could not be implemented” (WP, Ep.2,
Sect.6, v.7, p.324).
Tolstoy argues, perhaps tautologically, that only those commands that
could be implemented are implemented in the complex interactive network
of people. Since in any event every participant says some thing or
other, often contradictory things, one of their sayings is bound to fit
the reality, to coincide with the event that takes place.
“When some event happens, people express their opinions, desires about
the event, and insofar as the event is a result of collective actions
of many people, one of these opinions or wills is bound to be executed.
And when one of the expressed opinions is fulfilled, this opinion
becomes linked with the event as a command preceding the event” (WP,
Ep.2, Sec.7, v.7, p.326).
Tolstoy’s metaphor for this phenomenon is a “stencil” (WP, Ep.2,
Sect.6, v.7, p.324). Paint is thrown in all directions, and only the
paint that is consistent with the general pattern creates a picture.
When one says ‘do this,’ and the other says ‘do that,’ someone is going
to seem ‘obeyed.’
Heroes, according to Tolstoy, are in principle
incapable of commanding “what we are to do.” His examples are many.
Thus, regarding the crusades:
“It is not understood, this movement of peoples from West to East,
without any purpose, without leadership, a mob of vagabonds. And it is
even less understood why this movement stopped. ... Popes, kings and
knights incited people to free the Holy Land, but people did not go,
because the unknown cause that moved them before did not exist any
longer” (WP, Ep.2, Sect.4, v.7, p.319).
Tolstoy says, “Napoleon could not order the invasion of Russia, and
never ordered it” (WP, Ep.2, Sect.6, v.7, p.323). It is just that a
series of events that brought the French to Russia coincided with some
things Napoleon said (and not those opposed things that he said as
“The soldiers of the French army went to kill Russian soldiers at
Borodino not because of Napoleon’s orders, but by their own will. The
whole army: the French, the Italians, the Germans, the Poles – hungry,
ragged, tired by the march – in view of the Russian army that blocked
their pass to Moscow, all felt that le vin est tire et qu’il faut le
boire [the wine is open, and must be drunk]. Had Napoleon prohibited
them now to fight with the Russians, they would have killed him and
would have gone to fight the Russians, because it was necessary for
them” (WP, Book 3, Part 2, Sect.28, v.6, p.227).
The fact that the troops shout “Vive l’Empereur!” does not prove
Napoleon’s power of command:
“They would have shouted ‘Vive l’Empereur!’ to every nonsense they are
told. They had nothing left to do but shout ‘Vive l’Empereur!’ and go
to fight in order to find food and rest as conquerors in Moscow” (WP,
Book 3, Part 2, Sect. 28, v.6, p.227).
Carlyle views the possibility of command in
the conventional terms of a chain or pyramid of command. There are, in
Carlyle’s system, “the general of an army,” “captains,” and “every
corporal and private” (OH, p. 269). The king or general knows most and
has the most power of command or power of influence -- working through
a chain of command to the lowest level. Tolstoy does not think it could
work this way. First of all, there seems to be what we would call the
effect of a ‘broken phone’ and field-constraints, therefore “during a
battle the execution of the Chief-Commander’s orders is impossible”
(WP, Some Words about War and Peace, v.7, p.354). And also, even if the
hero may be seen as the head of a human pyramid, or “conus” (WP, Ep.2,
Sect.6, v.7, p.325) – the conclusion Tolstoy draws from the image is
quite different from the common one. Those at the top “are the fewest
and have the least direct participation in the collective action” (WP,
Ep.2, Sect.6, v.7, p.325). Their function is restricted to “giving
orders” (WP, Ep.2, Sect.6, v.7, p.326), which are – as Tolstoy shows –
ineffectual; and “taking moral responsibility” (WP, Ep.2, Sect.7, v.7,
p.327) for something they haven’t caused. Those at the top are the most
constrained by the environment. Their position entails not power, but
rather total dependence:
“The most strong, unbreakable, heavy and constant connection with
other people is the so-called power over other people, which – in its
true meaning – is just the greatest dependence on them” (WP, “Some
Words about War and Peace”, v.7, p.359).
Heroic qualities vs. equality
Carlyle’s heroic model seems to be largely based on the concept of
human inequality. At the bottom, the notions of “Liberty and Equality,”
with the faith that “wise great men being impossible, a level immensity
of foolish small men would suffice” (OH, p.246) – are hateful to him.
Inequality in Carlyle is magnified into really heroic proportions. The
hero is “a man worth any thousand men” (OH, p.236); nay, he may be
bigger than an entire nation, “Will you give-up your Indian Empire or
your Shakespeare?” (OH, p.138); nay, the entire world, “Napoleon
trampled on the world” (OH, p.295), Rousseau “set[s] the world on fire”
(OH, p.228). A whole country, the whole world is a setting for a hero,
so it is “possible for him to do priceless, divine work for his country
and the whole world” (OH, p.274). He is much more rare, precious, and
indispensable than the rest of humanity. Carlyle’s basic statement of
inequality is that “The Great Man [is] more a man than we” (OH, p.247).
Tolstoy does not accept this tenet: “Human dignity tells me that every
one of us, if not more, then is in no way less a human than the great
Napoleon” (WP, Book 3, Part 2, Sect. 28, v. 6, p.227). Thus one of the
greatest distinctions between Tolstoy’s and Carlyle’s models is that
Tolstoy presents his protagonists (both historical and fictional) as
ordinary men, equal and life-size, in the world of the ordinary;
whereas Carlyle perceives in his heroes qualities well above the
average, beyond the ordinary, the “Trivial” (OH, p.189), reaching out
to the high realm of “The True, Divine, and Eternal” (OH, p.189).
Tolstoy denies the possibility of a heroic
power deriving from the hero’s special qualities: physical,
intellectual, or moral. Physical strength, according to Tolstoy, cannot
be a basis for imposing power. (Indeed, one man cannot be much stronger
than another; and two men, if they want, can take down the strongest,
if he tried to impose his authority against their will.) Neither can
moral or intellectual superiority be the basis of such power. Again,
Tolstoy does not believe that heroes are endowed with qualities like
strength and moral fortitude to a much greater extent than others; and
also, the opposite is often the case, that people who are said to wield
power are less moral and intelligent than the rest of the people. In
“This power cannot be the power of physical domination of a stronger
creature over a weaker one, the domination based on an application or a
threat of application of physical force – as the power of Hercules. It
also cannot be based on the domination of moral force, as some
historians simplemindedly think when they say that historical actors
are in essence heroes, that is people endowed with special powers of
soul and mind, what is called ‘genius.’ This power cannot be based on
the domination of moral force, because – not mentioning such
hero-figures as Napoleon whose moral virtues are very controversial –
history shows that such people as Louis XI or Metternich had no special
qualities of soul; but, on the contrary, were mostly weaker morally
than any one of the millions of people whom they ruled” (WP, Ep.2,
Sect.4, v.7, p.314).
Carlyle, on the other hand, sees his heroes as
morally superior, endowed with special heroic traits and abilities.
Heroes are not just good men – though they certainly are that for him –
endowed with “tenderness”, “sympathy”, etc. (OH, p.264). Representing
them as good is part of a general design to show that heroes, for all
their greatness, are human after all, and that nothing human is foreign
to them. There are, however, some traits more specific to heroes. Two
are for Carlyle most important: “Ability” (OH, p. 238), and “Sincerity”
(OH, p.54). These two qualities, in fact, give names to two large
clusters of heroic qualities. The heroes’ superior ability, also named
“genius” and “mastery” (OH, p.264), is the basis of (their) power and
authority, the basis of all government, all kingship, for “King,
Konning, means Can-ning, Able-man” (OH, p.238). Carlyle says:
“I say here, that the finding of your Ableman and getting him invested
with the symbols of ability, with dignity, worship (worth-ship),
royalty, kinghood, or whatever we call it, so that he may actually have
room to guide according to his faculty of doing it, -- is the business,
well or ill accomplished, of all social procedure whatsoever in this
world!” (OH, pp.238-239).
“Find in any country the Ablest Man that exists there; raise him to the
supreme place, and loyally reverence him; you have a perfect government
for that country” (OH, p.239).
The second quality, “sincerity,” is even
more profound, related to heavy philosophical, metaphysical issues:
“No Mirabeau, Napoleon, Burns, Cromwell, no man adequate to do
anything, but is first of all in right earnest about it; what I call a
sincere man. I should say sincerity, a deep, great, genial sincerity,
is the first characteristic of all men in any way heroic” (OH, p.54).
Sincerity, in Carlyle, means zealous adherence to one’s beliefs, to
what one thinks is true. That definition implies a certainty about what
is true, and the rejection of everything that is false. Heroes are
capable of distinguishing between the two, capable of penetrating into
“God’s truth” (OH, p.181) beyond the vesture of displays and
“They have penetrated ... into the Sacred Mystery of the Universe; what
Goethe calls ‘the open secret.’ ... That divine mystery, everywhere in
all Beings, ‘the Divine Idea of the World, that which lies at the
Bottom of Appearance’” (OH, p.97).
And having penetrated into it, they are bound to “adherence to God’s
truth” (OH, p.181), to sincerity, and therefore they “do not ‘tolerate’
Falsehoods and put an end to them” (OH, p.183). Insincerity itself
should be obliterated, and idols must be broken (OH, p.148). Having
reached “God’s truth,” and being full earnest and certain about it,
they propagate this truth in the ignorant masses: “A messenger he, sent
from the Infinite Unknown with tidings to us” (OH, p.55). Thus Carlyle
links heroism as a personal matter with heroism as a social influence,
in what I would like to call ‘an heroic package’: a hero, “able” and
“sincere,” attains to “God’s truth,” and then spreads this
knowledge/faith among the masses; he is “a spark” to the “fuel.” The
entire heroic ‘package’ is summarized by Carlyle in the following few
“[The Hero] is uttering forth, in such a way as he has, the inspired
soul of him; ... . I say inspired; for what we call ‘originality,’
‘sincerity,’ ‘genius,’ the heroic quality we have no good name for,
signifies that. The Hero is he who lives in the inward sphere of
things, in the True, Divine and Eternal, which exists always, unseen to
most, under the Temporary, Trivial: his being is in that; he declares
that abroad, by act or speech as it may be, in declaring himself
abroad. ... The weak many know not the fact, and are untrue to it, in
most times; the strong few are strong, heroic, perennial, because it
cannot be hidden from them. The man of Letters, like every Hero, is
there to proclaim this in such sort as he can. Intrinsically it is the
same function which the old generations named a man Prophet, Priest,
Divinity for doing; which all manner of Heroes, by speech or act, are
sent into the world to do” (OH, p.189).
God’s truth vs. Skepticism
The necessity of “adherence to God’s truth” is, evidently, what makes
Carlyle consistently furious with skepticism and skeptics. Skepticism
is called “the spiritual paralysis” (OH, p.207). Skeptics are despised:
he calls their “ways of thinking” “mean” and “dwarfish” (OH, p.208);
Carlyle is one step short of calling them infidels, kaffirs. This
conclusion is logical, for if people do not believe, or doubt, the
God’s truth that the hero has attained and brought them, then the very
basis of his power is destroyed. Not surprisingly, Tolstoy’s
philosophical system has a strong element of skepticism (though he does
believe in universal laws of necessity discoverable by reason).
Tolstoy’s epistemological model in short is: “Reason gives expression
to the laws of necessity; Consciousness gives expression to the essence
of freedom” (WP, Ep.2, Sect.10, v.7, p.343). And a major skeptical
element in it is the following:
“As far as our knowledge of the conditions constraining a human being
may increase, this knowledge cannot be full. ... Because not all
conditions are determined, there is no full necessity, but a certain
degree of freedom” (WP, Ep.2, Sect.10, v.7, p.342).
He also holds that “the essence of force is indeterminable” (WP, Ep.2,
Sect.10, v.7, p.344). These statements regard the limitations of
knowledge. Moreover, no proposition of historians seems to Tolstoy
“perennial” or a “fact,” no evaluation of heroes is indubitable, and
nothing that the “strong few” may know is certain:
“Even if we suppose that Alexander I, 50 years ago, was wrong in his
views about what is the good for the peoples, we must suppose that an
historian judging Alexander, similarly, in some time will appear as
wrong in his views as to what is the good for humanity. Such
supposition seems even more natural and necessary when we see, while
watching the development of history, that every year, in every writer,
the views of what is the good of humanity change. So what appeared as
good – in ten years will appear as bad, and vice versa. Moreover, we
find in history absolutely opposite views as to what was good and what
was bad” (WP, Ep.1, Sect.1, v.7, p.243).
This seems a more humble, a-heroic view of the human ability to know
truths about the world than Carlyle’s view of unchanging heroic essence
and absolute heroic knowledge.
Carlyle’s talk of “God’s truth,” of the hero
being “sent” to us, and about his “divine right” – “I say, Find me the
true Konning, King or Able-man, and he has a divine right over me” (OH,
p.242) – seems to imply some sort of direct and preferential
participation by God in the hero’s business, a divine authorization of
the hero. Tolstoy, in his way a deeply religious man, does not believe
in such direct and preferential intervention of the Almighty:
“To the questions about how single individuals made peoples act
according to their will, and what governed the will of those
individuals, the ancients answered: to the first question – by
accepting God’s will which made peoples subject to a chosen individual;
and to the second – by accepting the same Godhead as guiding the will
of the chosen one to an appointed end. For the ancients such questions
were solved by direct participation of Godhead in human affairs. New
history in its theory rejected both these premises (WP, Ep.2, Sect.1,
“Science does not accept the views of the ancients about direct
participation of the Godhead in human affairs, and therefore it must
give other answers” (WP, Ep.2, Sect.1, v.7, p.305).
“What power moves nations? In answer to this question the new history
tells us that Napoleon was a genius, and Louis XIV was proud, and that
some people wrote some books. ... All this may be interesting if
we accepted divine power, based on itself and always the same,
ruling the nations through Napoleons, Louis-es, and writers; but we do
not accept such a power” (WP, Ep.2, Sect.1, v.7, p.307).
This point might be the major controversy between Carlyle’s and
Tolstoy’s philosophical systems, between the heroic vs. the a-heroic
model. (Tolstoy was excommunicated in 1901). But philosophical
distinctions do not end here.
Idealistic voluntarism vs. determinism
According to Tolstoy, every human being is constrained by “laws of
necessity,” and a “hero” at the top of human pyramid is so constrained
even more. In Tolstoy’s system, we cannot speak of the hero’s power, or
will, or originality, because he is not free; his actions are
constrained by all his connections with other human beings, and with
“the external world” (WP, Ep.2, Sect.9, v.7, p.336); he is also
constrained in time and by “the causes that produce an action” (WP,
Ep.2, Sect.9, v.7, p.336). Tolstoy writes, “a founder of a sect, or of
a party, an inventor, surprise us less when we know how and by what his
activity was predetermined” (WP, Ep.2, Sect.9, v.7, p.339). Thus
Tolstoy again contradicts Carlyle, who claims that “an inventor was
needed” (OH, p.219). Even the most collective and interactive of all
activities, language, requires – according to Carlyle – an inventor:
“Odin [the man] invented Poetry” (OH, p.34), we owe to Ulfila the
Mesogoth most of our language (even though “the word I speak to you
today is borrowed not from Ulfila the Mesogoth only”) (OH, p.25).
Carlyle’s heroes are “original” (OH, p.189), that is to say they appear
largely outside the constraining and determining environment, outside
the historical context – unlike Tolstoy’s heroes, whose actions are
It is a curious thing, this determinism of
Tolstoy, probably the most controversial in his entire philosophical
system. (It too reminds a little of the argument about the pan.) First
of all, it is a peculiar blend of causal and teleological determinism.
Thus, sometimes Tolstoy speaks of an “infinite nexus of causes” (WP,
Ep.2, Sect.9, v.7, p.338), i.e. things in the past; and sometimes he
speaks of infinite “purposes” or “functions” (WP, Ep.1, Sect.4, v.7,
p.252) of living beings (e.g. “bees,” “people”)(ibid, p.253) as the
basis of “laws of necessity.” He also allows for a “chance” event (WP,
Ep.1, Sect.4, v.7, p.251) – as an event whose laws we are incapable of
But, probably, the most interesting element in
Tolstoy’s determinism is the epistemological relation of “necessity”
and “freedom.” Necessity is valorized, human beings are subject to it,
to the innumerable causal constraints. But human beings, according to
Tolstoy, cannot help imagining themselves free. Our mind cannot grasp
all the causes that operate on us, and therefore it must leave room for
the consciousness of freedom, which is or seems to be “the essence of
life” (WP, Ep.2, Sect.8, v.7, p.331). Tolstoy’s imaginary freedom feels
exactly like existential freedom, and his fictional protagonists seem
to exhibit as much free will as probably in any ‘voluntarist’ writer.
But the point is that this sense of freedom is still illusory. War and
“[In case of the Copernican system] it was necessary to reject the
consciousness of non-existing immobility in space, and accept the
movement that we do not feel. So in the present case, it is necessary
to give up the non-existing freedom and accept necessity which we do
not feel” (WP, Ep.2, Sect.9, v.7, p.348).
This “conjunction of freedom and necessity”
(WP, Ep.2, Sect.9, v.7, p.335) might seem mind-baffling. Even such
orthodox Soviet critics of Tolstoy as Boris Kandiev and L. Opulsky
cannot reconcile with this conjunction. Tolstoy’s “fatalistic
conclusions” (Opulsky, p.378) disturb them. “Tolstoy’s ideas of
predetermined laws of historical development ... are unquestionably
wrong and reactionary” (Kandiev, p.323, my transl.). The “conjunction
of freedom and necessity” seems to them “contradictory” (Opulsky,
p.378). Kandiev says, “Tolstoy speaks of ‘predetermination,’ of
‘fatum,’ and at the same time depicts vivid and convincing pictures of
the heroic struggle of the Russian people with the invaders” (Kandiev,
p.361) – for Kandiev “the heroic struggle of the Russian people”
must have meant an act of collective free will. It is hard to
accept determinism, and – as Tolstoy himself says – we never
consciously accept it. Lars Ahnebrink in “Naturalism: Zola, Tolstoy,
and Crane” goes into another extreme. He states: “On the whole, both
[Tolstoy and Crane] looked upon man as devoid of free will” (Ahnebrink,
p.160). And therefore, logically, the protagonists must be presented as
unfeeling, unthinking pegs in a wheel, while “things happened because
incomprehensible forces were at work over which man had no control”
(Ahnebrink, p.154). I believe it would be true to say that Tolstoy’s
protagonists are no pegs, but feeling and thinking individuals.
Tolstoy’s determinism is very controversial, and it
is not a problem I can solve here. Tolstoy leaves the discussion of
determinism to the very end of War and Peace. Up to that point his
a-heroic argument proceeded successfully through diverse and ingenious
reasoning. Determinism is just the final stone in the building, and – I
would argue – not the foundation stone. The bottom line of Tolstoy’s
discussion would be still the valorization of laws of necessity and the
little significance the “so-called great men” have, being constrained
by these laws and the whole array of the surrounding environment.
Carlyle too speaks of “Laws” (OH, p.241), “God’s
laws” – to be precise. He perceives of the laws as extant ideals, that
are to be approximated by human beings:
“Ideals can never be completely embodied in practice” (OH, p.239).
“Ideals do exist; if they be not approximated to at all, the whole
matter goes to wreck” (OH, p.239)
(It seems that when the implementation of the laws of nature depends on
human beings, the whole system might be referred to as
‘voluntaristic.’) According to Carlyle, the major ideal to be
approximated to is the ideal of the Hero, every human society has to
seek the closest approximation to this ideal and put him above them as
their governor; and the major law of human life is “Hero Worship” (OH,
pp.238-240). If people fail to find the best approximation to the
heroic ideal, and fail to comply with the ‘law’ of hero worship, –
“Nature’s laws do none of them forget to act ... The miserable millions
burst-forth into Sansculottism, or some other sort of madness” (OH,
Again, everything in Carlyle’s idealistic world-view revolves around
Impulse model vs. atomistic model
Tolstoy perceives the world as an interactive network, human beings are
linked in “close connection with other people” (WP, Ep.2, Sect.9, v.7,
p.336), and they are mutually constraining. Carlyle’s heroes are less
constrained, yet Carlyle seems to accept the concept of
interconnectedness when he speaks of the World-Tree “Igdrasil” (OH,
p.25). Everything in the world is interrelated and inter-linked: “Human
things circulate, each inextricably in communion with all” (OH, p.25) –
through time and space. There is a subtle difference, though. Tolstoy
sees human interconnectedness as an interaction of innumerable human
atoms, all involved in a system, and no atom is much bigger or more
powerful than another. Whereas in Carlyle’s metaphor of communion,
“Igdrasil,” heroes have a privileged place, a special influence in the
system: they are “roots” or “twigs” (OH, p.44), not “leaves,” they
constitute special ducts of life-force. This difference might be the
key to the distinction of the a-heroic vs. the heroic model. The former
presents an atomistic model of interaction. And the latter model of
interaction I would like to call ‘an impulse model’: when heroic
influence is a single, powerful, channeled impulse directed toward a
large system consisting of the masses. This basic distinction seems to
manifest itself in the metaphors of power and human interactions that
the two authors employ. And the origin of these metaphors, I will
argue, lies in the science contemporaneous with them.
Both Carlyle and Tolstoy were well-versed in
the science of their time. Both received a thorough scientific
education. Tolstoy in his autobiographical Childhood. Adolescence.
Youth (1852-1857) describes a wide variety of scientific issues he had
to study. War and Peace, especially the Epilogue, is imbued with
excursions into science: physics (WP, Ep.2, Sect.8, v.7, p.331),
biology (WP, Ep.1, Sect.4, v.7, p.252), physiology (WP, Ep.2, Sect.8,
v.7, pp.333-334), and other branches. Most importantly, Tolstoy models
his historical “laws of necessity” after the laws of natural science of
his time (WP, Ep.2, 8, v.7, p.331). As for Carlyle, Carlisle Moore in
“Carlyle and Goethe as Scientist” tells that “by his twenties [Carlyle]
was expert in mathematics, spent a good portion of five years
(1817-1822) studying physics, astronomy, geology, and mineralogy, and
as late as 1827 was seriously considering a scientific career” (Moore,
p.21). This scientific education manifests itself in his work: “As
Tyndall noted, all [Carlyle’s] work is rich in scientific metaphor”
(Moore, p.32). In “Signs of the Times” (1829) Carlyle gives a
comprehensive overview of his contemporary science. He attacks what he
calls “the Mechanical province” (ST, p.234), “the machinery” (ST,
p.228) of science, of culture in general; and proposes a “Dynamical”
approach (ST, p. 234). Carlyle’s general thesis in that essay is that
culture should not be governed by “mechanical” considerations, such as
“motives” (ST, p.234), weights and balances – but rather by
“Dynamical”: the “inward primary powers of man” (ST, p.234), the
“forces and energies of man” (ST, p.234). Science provided him with
vocabulary for this thesis. This “Dynamical” approach seems consistent
with Carlyle’s heroic system, as it asserts the inward, somewhat
idealistic powers inherent in great heroic men – the kind of powers we
find in the characters of On Heroes.
Carlyle continues his attack on “machinery” in
“I declare the world to be no machine! I say that it does not go by
wheel-and-pinion ‘motives,’ self-interests, checks, balances, that
there is something far other in it than the clank of spinning-jennies,
and parliamentary majorities” (OH, p.208).
This statement is part of a more general onslaught on Utilitarianism,
Skepticism, and Mechanism (as these are present in Bentham’s teachings)
– all these are seen as enemies to the heroic, as destroying its
ideological basis of faith and spirituality, creating “an effete world,
wherein Wonder, Greatness, Godhood could not now dwell” (OH, p.208).
The invention of the steam-engine
(by James Watt, 1774-1784; or by Ivan Polsunov in 1763, as Russians are
fond of thinking; Tolstoy would not believe that inventors are
important); and the invention of the first locomotives (by Richard
Trevithick, 1803; George Stephenson, 1814; or Michail Cherepanov, 1833)
– made a great impression on both Carlyle and Tolstoy. But these
inventions inspired them differently. For Carlyle, the steam engine is
a horrible image of “mechanism,” an end to heroic spirituality: “I call
this gross, steam-engine Utilitarianism ...” (OH, p.210). The
mechanistic argument – “Well then, this world is a dead iron machine;
the god of it Gravitation and selfish Hunger” (OH, p.210) – is hateful
to Carlyle. But at the same time, I may suggest, these inventions may
have made tangible such concepts as “impulse” (OH, p.219), “dynamics”
(ST, p.234), “energy” (ST, p.234), “power” (OH, p.193), “force” (OH,
p.193), “momentum” (OH, p.193) – all these terms that Carlyle uses when
describing heroic action, the impact of a hero on a large system. Even
the primary metaphor of heroic influence, “a spark” to “dry dead fuel”
(OH, p.16) may have appeared because of the steam-engine.
Tolstoy, on the other hand, seems satisfied
with mechanism. The fact that human beings are subject to Gravitation
or Hunger, for example, is accepted as one of the building blocks of
his a-heroic, deterministic system:
“A human being submits to and never struggles with the once learned law
of gravitation or impermeability. Each action of his depends on his
organization, character and motives operating on him” (WP, Ep.2,
Sect.8, v.7, p.331).
According to Tolstoy, there is in society an immense interplay of
atomistic, mechanistic forces, and there is not much a hero can do.
“The resultant force must be equal to the sum of component forces” (WP,
Ep.2, SEct.2, v.7, p.309) – says Tolstoy. To accept heroic influence,
according to Tolstoy, would mean to accept that “the resultant force”
is not equal to “the sum of components,” accept some mysterious,
“unexplainable force acting on the resultant” (WP, Ep.2, Sect.2, v.7,
p.309), some sort of Carlylean mysterious “Inspiration.” The
steam-engine or locomotive furnishes Tolstoy with an excellent metaphor
for the movement of people. Tolstoy argues that to accept a hero’s
influence would be the same as to think that the locomotive moves
because “a devil” or “a German” (WP, Ep.2, Sect.3, v.7, p.312) sits in
it. The source of the movement lies in the people themselves, “the
steam compressed in the engine” (WP, Ep.2, Sect.3, v.7, p.312).
Related to the properties of steam
is the law of ideal gas set down by Emil Clapeyron in 1834 (also known
as the Clapeyron-Mendeleev equation). This equation relates the
pressure, the volume, and the temperature of gas, based on the premise
that the gas is ideal, i.e. all atoms of it are approximately of the
same mass and energy. This, as also the positing of Brownian movement
(Robert Brown, 1827), and the chemical atomism of John Dalton (1803),
brought the atomistic theory to new heights. Atomism – together with
cyclicality and transformation – is one of the foundations of Tolstoy’s
“laws of necessity”: “The eternal cycle ... Electricity produces heat,
and heat produces electricity. Atoms are attracted, atoms are repelled”
(WP, Ep.2, Sect.7, v.7, p.329). The atomistic metaphor is the basis of
Tolstoy’s model of human interaction:
“As the Sun and every atom of ether is a sphere, complete in itself and
at the same time only an atom of the whole, incomprehensible to man
immensity; so is every personality carries in itself its purposes and
at the same time it carries them in order to serve general purposes,
incomprehensible to man” (WP, Ep.1, Sect.4, v.7, p.252).
A somewhat similar development occurred in
biology, with the advent of the cell theory of Robert Brown (1831),
Jacob Schleiden (1834), and Theodor Schwann (1839). An organism came to
be viewed as a composition of cells, as their cohesion. A similar
metaphor occurs in Tolstoy regarding human society:
“Different groups of human cohesions were composed and decomposed” (WP,
Ep.1, Sect.1, v.7, p.241).
“There happened a cohesion of people into groups of immense dimensions”
(WP, Ep.1, sect.3, v.7, p.250).
It seems that a good biological analogy to atomism in physics is the
life of swarming insects. (We may mention Alfred Brehm’s Life of
Animals, 1863; though this was probably common knowledge.) Tolstoy
speaks recurrently of the “swarming life of humankind” (WP, Book 3,
Part 1, Sect.1, v.7, p.10). In such swarming life, the collective
action is produced by all the innumerable participants, without much
impact on the part of a single individual. A swarm is a self-organized,
holistic enterprise. A single bee is very insignificant. (The queen-bee
is not the mastermind either, its brain being even smaller than that of
a working bee.) Thus the a-heroic model is summarized by Tolstoy using
“Such an event, where millions of people were killing each other and
killed half a million, cannot have as its cause a will of one man: as
one man cannot dig down a mountain, so one man cannot make five hundred
thousand people die ... Why did millions of people kill each other, if
from the creation of the world it is known that this is physically and
morally evil? Because it was unavoidably necessary; because people
doing this were implementing that spontaneous, zoological law which
bees implement, when they exterminate each other toward the autumn, the
law by which male animals exterminate each other. Another answer cannot
be made to this horrible question” (WP, “Some Words about War and
Peace, v.7, p.357).
Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) had come to Tolstoy’s
attention by that time (1869) – (see Tolstoy and Dostoevsky by Dmitry
Merezhkovsky , 1901, p.108). The passage just quoted seems to imply a
sort of zoology where the developments are the business of the entire
species, not of some special individual. Surprisingly, however, “the
survival of the fittest” principle is closer to Carlyle’s model in On
Heroes, almost 20 years before The Origin ! When Carlyle says, “I do
not make much of ‘Progress of the Species’ as handled in these times of
ours” (OH, p.143), he refers, with all probability, to the works that –
according to Carlisle Moore – he knew well: “Lyell’s Geology  and
Chambers’ Vestiges” (Moore, 22), and “Erasmus Darwin of Zoonomia
” (Moore, 23), or perhaps to the most famous work of Jean
Baptiste Lamarck (1802). Without quoting any of these in On Heroes,
Carlyle creates his own model of progress and evolution of the human
species. First of all, it is for him a positive, accumulative process:
every generation and system contains a “God’s truth,” a piece of
certain absolute knowledge, and this knowledge “enlarges somewhat” (OH,
p.143) in every generation. (Thus there was some truth, “God’s truth,”
in Scandinavian Paganism, Islam and other systems, which later
developed. It is quite difficult to define what this ‘certain’ truth
exactly means for Carlyle.) But, most interestingly, Carlyle presents
the way these truths and systems survive, a true “survival of the
“I will allow a thing to struggle for itself in this world, with any
sword or tongue or implement it has, or can lay hold of. We will let it
preach, and pamphleteer, and fight, and to the uttermost bestir itself,
and do, beak and claws, whatsoever is in it; very sure that it will, in
the long-run, conquer nothing which does not deserve to be conquered.
What is better than itself, it cannot put away, but what is worse. In
this great Duel, Nature herself is umpire, and can do no wrong: the
thing which is deepest-rooted in Nature, what we call truest, that
thing and not the other will be found growing at last” (OH, p.75).
In short, let the systems struggle, let them fight, and the strongest,
the truest, the fittest will eventually win. And this selection is not
just about ideas and philosophical systems, but about the very physical
survival of the strongest, of the heroic stock, in short:
“Nor was it altogether nothing, even that wild sea-roving and battling,
through so many generations. It needed to be ascertained which was the
strongest kind of men; who were to be ruler over whom” (OH, p.40).
Other important developments in biology
of that time were in the works of Luigi Galvani (1737-1798) on “animal
electricity,” and Franz Mesmer (1733-1815) on “animal magnetism.” In
Galvani’s studies, a single electric impulse was shown to produce a
powerful effect on a large system, e.g. momentarily animating a dead
frog. This discovery is related to later breakthroughs in the studies
of electricity: electric excitation, conductivity, impedance
(resistance). Similarly, Mesmer in his experiments attempted to
transmit his ‘magnetism’ to a large group of recipients. This work
boosted later research on magnetism and electromagnetism (Michael
Faraday, 1831). Carlyle sounds a little contemptuous of the
contemporary studies of electricity:
“We call that fire of the black thundercloud ‘electricity,’ and lecture
learnedly about it, and grind the like of it out of glass and silk: but
what is it? What made it? Whence comes it? Whither goes it? (OH, p.10).
Science, according to Carlyle, cannot answer these questions; such a
phenomenon as electricity is “a miracle, wonderful, inscrutable,
magical and more” (OH, p.10). However, Carlyle uses metaphors of
electricity to describe heroic action: a hero is a bolt of “lightning”
(OH, pp. 16, 235). Most importantly, when Carlyle speaks of “the
world’s reception of [Great Men]” (OH, p.52), the terms of acceptance
or rejection by the masses are parallel to the terms of either
excitation or impedance of a system responding to a stimulus. A
‘heroic’ impulse/stimulus is either resisted or conducted by a large
system; the system either becomes excited or remains stable. (To be
precise, resistance and conductivity are interrelated: the more
resistance – the less conductivity and current.) Carlyle also describes
the phenomena of impact vs. impedance in purely mechanical terms.
Cromwell was “rending his rough way through actual true work” (OH,
p.277). When a hero fails to rend through or move the inert masses, the
heroic “strength is gone” (OH, p.277), no visible impact is produced.
Carlyle’s metaphor of a hero (“the Man of Letters”) as a “heart” (OH,
p.193) is especially interesting, as it involves both mechanical and
electric center/system interaction: impulse vs. impedance. Carlyle also
describes these phenomena in optical terms. A hero, in Carlyle, is
always a “light” (OH, p.235): varying in manifestation from “Sunshine”
(OH, 235) to a “Fire-Fly” (OH, p.237); whereas the social environment
is the light’s “medium” (OH, p.32). The light spreads in the medium,
which may be conductive, refractive or impermeable:
“The ray as of pure starlight and fire, working in such an element of
boundless hypochondria, unformed black of darkness’ (OH, p.264).
“How such light will then shine out, and with wondrous thousandfold
expansion spread itself, in forms and colours, depends not on it, so
much as on the National Mind recipient of it. The colours and forms of
your light will be those of the cut-glass it has to shine through” (OH,
Thus, in Carlyle, the masses, the system, are important, but the heroic
impulse, the light, the hero’s effect on this system, is still
decisive. In Tolstoy’s atomistic immensity, on the other hand, a heroic
impulse is either nonexistent or almost totally ineffectual.
The “wondrous thousandfold expansion”
(OH, p.32) is part of Carlyle’s constant concern with magnifications,
e.g. “what an enormous camera-obscura magnifier is Tradition (OH,
p.31), “they [the heroes] were men of such magnitude that they could
not live on unrealities” (OH, p.216). A hero is seen as a magnified,
amplified, enhanced human being, well above the ordinary. He is seen as
a sort of a lens, focusing all the past influences, and projecting his
own great light on all humanity: his “word or act ... has sprung withal
out of all men, and works sooner or later, recognisably or
irrecognisably, on all men!” (OH, p.124).
(Still in the realm of optics, it is interesting to
consider how the advent of photography – Louis Daguerre (1839), William
Talbot (1840) – might have affected Tolstoy’s atomistic model. When a
photograph is printed, the large picture represents itself as an
historical event or as a picture of a hero; but when looking closer,
the picture is composed of innumerable participants, small atoms – gray
Both Tolstoy and Carlyle speak of the law of
gravitation as the archetype of scientific laws; but they understand it
differently, consistently with their respective models. For Carlyle,
this law is an ideal, and we should better comply with it (e.g. when
laying bricks, OH, p.239). A large element of freedom is implied; we
may or may not comply. For Tolstoy, this law is a paradigm of
determinism (WP, Ep.2, Sect.8, v.7, p.331), there is nothing we can do
about it, we have no choice but to comply – a subtle twist of
understanding. Related to which, the Copernican system is understood
differently as well. For Tolstoy, here again is a model of
deterministic laws that always work, even though unfelt directly by
human beings (WP, Ep.2, Sect.12, v.7, p.348). But, more interestingly,
planetary movements give a suggestion of relativity, and of the
inter-relatedness of everything with everything; every planet or atom
is related to the “immense whole” (WP, Ep.1, Sect.4, v.7, p.252). In
Carlyle, the Copernican system furnishes metaphors for the centrality
of heroes: the hero is the “Sun” (OH, p.235); everything revolves
around Heroes: “No chaos but it seeks a centre to revolve round” (OH,
Even mathematics is employed differently by
these two writers. To Carlyle mathematics suggested the world of
ideals, “a symbol of imperishable truth” (Moore, p.26). In this vein,
the Hero is one such ideal, “Hero-Worship” is one such truth (OH,
p.239). More to the point, Moore tells that Carlyle had a special
interest in proportions, he even wrote an “Essay on Proportion” (Moore,
p.27). This interest of his seems to manifest itself in On Heroes. For
Carlyle, heroism is largely a question of proportions and
magnifications: a hero vs. a “thousand men,” “a handful” vs. “armies”
(OH, p.279), “one man” vs. a “million zealous men” (OH, p.279) – these
are Carlyle’s heroic proportions. Tolstoy has his own way with
“Every science went this way. Having arrived at infinitesimals,
mathematics, the most exact of sciences, leaves the process of analysis
[division] and starts a process of integration [summation] of unknown
infinitely small values. Having abandoned the concept of cause,
mathematics seeks a law, that is the properties common to all the
unknown, infinitely small elements” (WP, Ep.2, Sect.11, v.7, p.346).
This excursion into Integral Calculus shows, first of all, what Tolstoy
means by “laws of necessity”: a sort of function, a common property.
But it also emphasizes Tolstoy’s atomistic world-view: infinitely small
values (like atoms) combine and produce a large event (they sum up into
the area beneath the curve).
I would like to mention two more
metaphors, unrelated to science, seemingly similar but at the bottom
perceived absolutely differently by the two authors. One regards moving
mountains (as if they bothered someone). Tolstoy says: “one man cannot
dig down a mountain” (WP, “Some Words about War and Peace,” v.7, p.
357). And Carlyle says: “there are the mountains which they [heroes]
hurled abroad in their confused War of the Giants” (OH, p.216). A clear
difference as to the perception of individual powers may be observed.
Another metaphor regards gold vs. paper
money. Carlyle associates gold with heroes, and “forgeries” or “base
plated coin” (OH, p.246) with “False Heroes”, and with the denial
that Heroism is at all possible, with the assertion that “wise great
men being impossible, a level immensity of foolish small men would
suffice” (OH, p.246) – the assertion, at bottom, that “no gold any
longer exists” (OH, p.246). Tolstoy, on the contrary, associates paper
money with Heroes, with the assertion that heroes cause historical
events: “Biographical and private histories [i.e. those histories that
only describe heroes] are like bank notes” (WP, Ep.2, Sect.3, v.7,
p.313). Their descriptions, according to Tolstoy, are not redeemable in
gold, i.e. in the “true conception” (WP, Ep.2, Sect.3, v.7, p.313) of
historical developments (which is, of course, the conception of forces
inherent in the masses). One and the same metaphor is taken two
opposite ways. It may be understood that, structurally, each author
sees his system as true, as gold; and still this opposition is
baffling. Carlyle could have associated heroes with gold because gold
is more rare, has special qualities etc. But why did Tolstoy associate
heroes with paper money? First, if the “so-called great men” have no
special qualities or power – then they are not gold. But the answer may
also lie in the bad history Russia had with paper money. Napoleon in
1812 flooded Russia with forgeries. Tolstoy mentions this fact in his
afterword to War and Peace, “Napoleon brought with him a lot of
counterfeit bank notes” (WP, “Some words about War and Peace,” v.7,
p.356). And Nikolay I issued so much fiat-money (so-called
“assignations”) that it had to be annulled in 1849. Thus, it was only
natural for Tolstoy to associate heroes/rulers with paper money;
whereas gold was the kind of capital everyone kept at home in a safe
box. This seems one of the possible social implications of the heroic
and the a-heroic models. Whereas Carlyle, in his gold metaphor, seems
to say: trust in heroes; Tolstoy seems to say: do not dare!
Authority vs. Anarchism
Many critics consider Carlyle as profoundly anti-democratic; and
Tolstoy is regarded by many as democratic, or even anarchistic. Thus
George H. Ford says about Carlyle:
“Because of his insistence on strong and heroic leadership, Carlyle
appears to be a violent conservative or, as some have argued, virtually
a fascist. That some aspects of his political position are similar to
fascism is beyond dispute. The theory of democracy seemed to him to be
based on an unrealistic premise about the basic needs of humanity, and
he had no confidence that democratic institutions could work
efficiently. A few individuals in every age are, in his view, leaders,
the rest are followers and are happy only as followers. Society should
be organized so that these gifted leaders can have scope to govern
effectively. Such leaders are, for Carlyle, heroes” (Ford, 912).
Salwyn Schapiro is even more outspoken and categorical in his “Thomas
Carlyle, Prophet of Fascism” (1945):
“[Carlyle’s] ‘hero’ is none other than the Fascist ‘Duce’ and the Nazi
‘Fuehrer,’ dressed in moral garments tailored for him by the Puritan
Carlyle. His hatreds, no less than his loves, proclaim him the prophet
of fascism” (Schapiro, p.110).
Tolstoy, on the other hand, is firmly associated with the democratic
world-view created “under Russian Aristocracy” (J.P. Mackenzie, “The
Dangers of Democracy,” p.130). Thomas Greer points out Tolstoy’s
“Some, like the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy and the American essayist,
Henry David Thoreau, were anarchists only in philosophical sense; they
firmly opposed the use of violence as a means of realizing their ideas”
There is much in On Heroes and War and
Peace to justify such a distinction. An obvious implication of
Carlyle’s model is the supremacy of Heroic authority. Carlyle feels
“how necessary a strong Authority is” (OH, p.292). It is necessary to
“restrain this rabble” (OH, p.292).
“Without sovereigns, true sovereigns, temporal and spiritual, I see
nothing possible but an anarchy: the hatefulest of things” (OH, p.151).
“It is in weight and force, not by counting of heads, that we are the
majority” (OH, p.282).
“Parliaments having failed, there remained nothing but the way of
Despotism” (OH, p.286).
Tolstoy’s message, on the other hand, is
properly anarchistic (rather than properly democratic). He does not
just say that authority should be abolished – he argues it is already
abolished in practice, nonexistent, inconsequential. In his “Second
Epilogue,” Tolstoy discusses various theories of power: from divine
right to “the total of the masses’ wills projected by agreement onto
the ruler” (WP, Ep.2, Sect.4, v.7, p.315). None of these theories,
according to Tolstoy, holds water. He finds no evidence either of
divine right or the “projection of the masses’ wills.”
At the first glance, Carlyle’s model seems
individualistic. He seems to value the individual’s ability to judge
Truth from “Falsehood,” and take care of one’s affairs – what he calls
“private judgment” (OH, p.151). But the bottom line is that his
admiration is really still reserved for the heroic few, their
personality is of real importance. And the rest, “the rabble,” are
bound to follow the hero’s lead; a common person is bound to “love,
with a right gratitude and genuine loyalty of soul, the Hero-Teacher
who has delivered him out of darkness into light” (OH, p.154). The
“private judgment” of common people depends on a great man’s guidance.
Their very freedom depends on the Hero: “Free us, it rests with thee;
desert us not” (OH, p.164).
Tolstoy, on the other hand, in his
collectivist, atomistic vision of the “swarming life of humankind” –
places a great emphasis on the “private interests and affairs” (WP,
Book 4, Part 1, Sect.4, v.7, p.18) of common people, of every
representative of the masses. Independent of heroes/leaders, these
“private affairs” combine into large-scale social events, such as war.
People, in Tolstoy’s view, mostly mind their own business, unconcerned
about the great general picture:
“Stories about that time, without exception, tell about the
self-sacrifice, love of the Fatherland, despair, suffering and heroism
of the Russians. In reality it was not so” (WP, Book 4, Part 1, Sect.4,
“In reality, the private interests and affairs are in such an extent
more significant than general interests, that the general interests are
never felt (completely unnoticeable). Most of the people of that time
did not pay any attention to the general way of affairs, but were
guided only by private interests of the present. And those people were
the most useful actors of that time” (WP, Book 4, Part 1, Sect.4, v.7,
“In the army retreating from Moscow, there was almost no talk or
thought of Moscow; looking at Moscow’s conflagration, nobody swore to
take revenge on the French, but they were thinking about the next
payment of wages, their next quarters, about Matreshka from the
Canteen, and the like matters” (WP, Book 4, Part 1, Sect.4, v.7, p.18).
Tolstoy depicts his protagonists as involved in this sort of “private
affairs.” From the outset of War and Peace, he depicts them in “small
circles” of participants (WP, Book 1, Part 1, Sect.2, v.4, p.16). And
it is through the agency/sampling of such individuals – life-size, more
or less equal in power, involved in “private affairs,” interactive in
“small circles” – that Tolstoy creates his panoramic view of great
Out of this kind of representation of the
individual comes what I may call ‘the humility and pride of an atom.’ A
protagonist is humble, because he is only a small part of the whole,
and cannot have much impact on or knowledge of the whole. Dmitry
Merezhkovsky in Tolstoy and Dostoevsky (1901) conveys the sense of
humility in Tolstoy (never mind Russian nationalist undertones):
“Life had meaning only as a particle of the whole, ... in the
roundness of a molecule” (Merezhkovsky, 241-242, my transl.).
“Such is the quality of Russian true heroes or ‘anti-heroes’ in
contrast to Western, untrue heroes” (Merezhkovsky, p.242).
“When a drop wants to expand, conquer the most space, engulfing other
drops, wants to become a center of a sphere, become God – to Tolstoy
this tendency appears as evil, not Christian, not Russian”
“Abbakum [the Hero as Priest], Suvorov [the Hero as Military Chief],
Pushkin [the Hero as Poet] are not Russian heroes, are not Russian at
all” (Merezhkovsky, p.242).
But this representation is also proud, for “human dignity tells me that
every one of us, if not more, than is in no way less a human than the
great Napoleon” (WP, Book 3, Part 2, Sect.28, v.6, p.227). The
so-called great man does not have much more power than any other
person, nor has he much power over the other person – this principle
seems to be the quintessence of the a-heroic paradigm.
In this connection, it is interesting to note
that both Tolstoy and Carlyle see the opposite view as the philosophy
of a “valet” (OH, p.223) or a “lackey” (WP, Book 4, Part 4, Sect. 5,
v.7, p.193). Thus Tolstoy: “For a lackey there could be no great men,
because a lackey has his own conception of greatness” (WP, Book 4, Part
4, Sect.5, v.7, p.193). And Carlyle: “The Valet does not know a Hero
when he sees him!” (OH, p.223). Carlyle seems to imply here that
“a mean valet soul” (OH, p.223) refuses to accept greatness above his
own level; a valet requires some “stage-trappings” and “trumpets,” some
inessential shows as a proof of greatness; and, in general, he blocks
the hero’s path in this world. The kind of greatness Tolstoy seems to
imply here is that of an ordinary human being. From Tolstoy’s point of
view, thus, Carlyle’s vision of greatness is that of a “lackey”, i.e.
an act of intellectual submission to someone much higher than oneself,
a denial of equality and of life-size heroism. Again, the same metaphor
is taken two opposite ways: pride and humility are understood
differently, the psychology of a lackey is understood differently. The
mean valet, in Carlyle, denies greatness. The servile lackey, in
Tolstoy, denies equality. In Carlyle, the great personality of the few
eclipses that of the “foolish small” many. In Tolstoy, the personality
of everyone is of equal importance, and the heroic dimensions of any
must be abandoned.
Heroic death vs. death fear
Probably the most important implication of the two models regards their
attitudes toward death. Carlyle justifies fighting for a heroic cause
and under the leadership of a hero. He speaks with great heroic pathos
about such fighting:
“They have brought it to the calling-forth of War; horrid internecine
fight, man grappling with man in fire-eyed rage. ... Do that therefore;
since that is the thing to be done” (OH, p.262).
“[The hero] worked there; he fought and strove, like a strong true
giant of a man, through cannon-tumult and all else, -- on and on, till
the Cause triumphed, its once so formidable enemies all swept from
before it, and the dawn of hope had become clear light of victory
and certainty” (OH, p.275).
The heroic cause, thus, brings forth and justifies fighting and dying.
Cromwell’s heroic cause, according to Carlyle, was that “The law of
Christ’s Gospel could now establish itself in the world!” (OH, p.275).
To Tolstoy such a connection seems a total absurdity:
“We cannot accept that the most cruel slaughters of the French
Revolution followed from the preachings of equality, and wars and
executions from the preaching of love” (WP, Ep.2, Sect.2, v.7, p.310).
Tolstoy wonders how Luther’s preaching could have caused that “after
the Reformation people were slaughtering each other” (WP, Ep.2, Sect.4,
v.7, p.320). This astonishment of Tolstoy is probably the major basis
of his a-heroic model. Not being able to accept a connection between a
supposedly good cause and massive slaughter – he seeks other
explanations, and ultimately rejects the very possibility of a heroic
cause (both in the sense that the hero causes great events, and in the
sense that great events, wars, massive upheavals, happen because of
some glorious heroic idea). For Carlyle, however, the connection
between ideals and wars is very clear: a hero attains to a “God’s
truth,” he has to propagate it by various means, including violence,
“propagating his Religion by the sword” (OH, p.74). People, thus, go to
fight with the oldest battle-cry ‘God is with us!’ “Nature as umpire”
(OH, p.75) will judge, and the truest cause will eventually triumph.
Carlyle is a good advertiser. While
justifying fighting, he makes sure not to mention any gory details, the
very dying in battle is almost never mentioned. Heroic fighting appears
almost attractive. This is not the way Tolstoy represents war and
death. War and Peace abounds with horrible descriptions of death,
corpses, mutilation on the battlefield.
For Carlyle “valour is value” (OH, p.39). People not
afraid to die are esteemed as heroes. Carlyle speaks of “the duty of
being brave” (OH, p.39). “The first duty of a man is still that of
subduing Fear” (OH, p.39). “A man shall and must be valiant: he must
march forward, and quit himself like a man” (OH, p.39). Carlyle
admiringly tells about the brave Norse heroes:
“they thought it a shame and misery not to die in battle; and if
natural death seemed to be coming on, they would cut wounds in their
flesh, that Odin might receive them as warriors slain. Old kings, about
to die, had their body laid into a ship; the ship sent forth, with
sails set and slow fire burning it; that, once out at sea, it might
blaze up in flame, and in such manner bury worthily the old hero” (OH,
This short passage may provide a clue to the understanding of Carlyle’s
concept of heroic death. Valor, not being afraid to die, may be
seen as a means of becoming distinguished, esteemed in society, even a
means of acquiring power; thus a connection between the conventional
understanding of heroism as bravery and heroism as social influence
might be established. There is a glory in death, especially death in
battle – a mark of distinction from the cowardly rabble. A heroic
mastery is extended to the mastery over one’s death: a master over
people is also a master over death, others’ or one’s own. Killing
others or oneself – in a kind of suicide or euthanasia, “cut[ting]
wounds in their flesh” – is a heroic prerogative. The hero’s death and
burial matches his life; powerful in life, the hero exercises influence
also after his death; a magnificent funeral crowns a magnificent life,
people admire the hero in his life and reverence him in his death:
“bury worthily the old hero.” Moreover, a (valiant) death can make one
a hero in the general esteem, and help propagate a martyr’s system (as
in the case of “canonized Puritans”) (OH, p.252). In Carlyle’s view,
death is actually good for something: either for the triumph of a
heroic cause, or for personal honor. Another thing that Carlyle finds
Death is good for is stimulation to heroic action: contemplation of
Death makes a hero arrive at high truths and moves him into action
(often around the age of 40), as in the cases of Mahomet (OH, p.65),
Luther (OH, p.171), Knox (OH, p.179), and Cromwell (OH, p.271). There
is something to die for, some values and truths are beyond and above
the fear of death.
Paradoxically, with all this
glorification and justification of dying, there is in the heroic
paradigm a promise of immortality. The truths the hero arrives at are
of an “Eternal” nature (OH, p.189). The heroes’ immortality is secured
in people’s memory: “this Shakespeare does not go, he lasts forever
with us” (OH, p.138). There also seems to be a promise of afterlife for
a hero: “a splendour of Heaven itself” (OH, p.271). Carlyle perceives a
good deal of truth in Scandinavian Paganism:
“Who knows to what unnamable subtleties of spiritual law all these
Pagan Fables owe their shape!” (OH, p.32).
“True is the sum of all these” (OH, p.50).
“Odin’s creed, if we disentangle the real kernel of it, is true to this
hour” (OH, p.39).
Therefore, there must be some truth in the stories about the
half-physical afterlife of Norse Heroes, in the stories of how “the
Choosers lead the brave to a heavenly Hall of Odin” (OH, p.39), or in
the story of Thor’s fight with “The Old Woman” (Death/Old Age) (OH,
p.47). The truth Carlyle seems to see here is “that the one thing
needful for a man was to be brave” (OH, p.38); the Hero may thereby in
some way overcome death, become the master of it.
In Tolstoy, on the contrary, death is never
glorious, never good, never attractive. Napoleon’s exclamation “Voila
une belle mort” (“Here is a beautiful death”) is ridiculed: “a buzz of
a fly,” Tolstoy calls it (WP, Book 1, Part 3, Sect.19, v.4, p.357).
Death, in Tolstoy, is feared. Soldiers before the Austerlitz battle
“’I say, if it were possible to know what comes after Death, then none
of us would fear it.’ Another, younger voice interrupted, ‘Fear or no
Fear, all the same, it is unavoidable.’ ‘Still, you fear. Ah, you
learned people ...’ – said a third manly voice. ‘Still, you fear,’
continued the first familiar voice, ‘you fear the unknown, that’s what.
Whatever they say about the soul going to Heaven ... we know, there is
no heaven, only the atmosphere’” (WP, Book 1, Part 2, Sect.16, v.4,
Individual death is fearful, horrid, and rather inconsequential on a
large scale. There is no knowledge of what lies beyond; and, most
likely, there lies nothing at all. The fear of death is combined with a
‘there is nothing I can do about it’ kind of reconciliation.
Merezhkovsky speaks of this fear of death in Tolstoy:
“If in our time people fear death, with such shameful shudder as never
was ... to a great extent we owe all this to Tolstoy” (Merezhkovsky,
In spite of Merezhkovsky attributing super-heroic influence to Tolstoy,
and despite some exaggeration, the sense of death-fear in Tolstoy’s
work seems well captured.
Unlike the profound, existential, essential fear of
the soldiers looking death in the face, Natasha’s and Nikolay’s
discussion of immortality in War and Peace could be interesting, but is
shown as nothing more than the table-talk of bored teenagers, forgotten
in a moment:
“... ‘You know,’ said Natasha, ... ‘sometimes you start to recall, and
recall, until you remember even what was before you were born.’ ‘This
is metempsychosis,’ said Sonia, who always studied well and remembered
everything, ‘Egyptians believed that our souls were in animals, and
will be in animals again.’ ‘No, you know, I don’t believe that we were
in animals,’ said Natasha, ‘I know for sure that we were angels
somewhere, and we were here, that’s why we remember everything.’ ‘If we
were angels, why did we get lower?’ – said Nikolay – ‘No, this can’t
be.’ ‘Not lower, who told you it is lower? How do I know what I was
before,’ Natasha continued with conviction, ‘the Soul is immortal, ...
so if I live forever, then I lived before, the whole eternity.’
‘Yes, but it is difficult for us to imagine eternity,’ said Dimmler.
‘Why is it difficult to imagine eternity?’ – said Natasha – ‘Now it is,
tomorrow it will be, always will be, and yesterday it was, and two days
ago was.’ ‘Natasha! Sing something,’ the countess was heard.
‘Mom! I don’t want to.’ Yet she rose...” (WP, Book 2, Part 4,
Sect. 10, v.5, p.283).
This is nice, but not what Tolstoy’s own vision of death is about. As
the bottom line, one’s death in War and Peace is fearful, bad,
inglorious, and – in line with the atomistic world-view –
inconsequential when taken in perspective. Tolstoy’s model is a-heroic
also with respect to the conventional meaning of the word ‘heroism’ –
it is not brave, it fears death. And Carlyle’s model is heroic not only
in the sense of the hero’s great influence and magnitude, in life and
postmortem, but also in the pretense to brave, master, and overcome
Tolstoy’s and Carlyle’s models are not totally impermeable and opposed.
When Carlyle speaks of the masses or “private judgment” he sometimes
sounds a little like Tolstoy. And Tolstoy occasionally slips into the
language of the heroic paradigm – for example, when he says, “millions
of French people submitted to Bourbons” (WP, Ep.2, Sect.2, v.7, p.309).
Evidence of whether Tolstoy knew about Carlyle’s work was not to be
found. Tolstoy, in his diary, does not call Carlyle’s work “an immense
influence,” in the way that he calls, for example, Dickens’s David
Copperfield. Neither does Tolstoy write about Carlyle’s work, “I am
totally baffled how such books could be published and read” (WP, “Some
Words about War and Peace,” v.7, p.355) as he writes about books by
Thiers and Michaylovsky-Danilevsky. But since Tolstoy admits that his
research materials for the Napoleonic period comprised “an entire
library of books” (ibid. p.356), it is likely that in his library there
was a book by Carlyle. It is also likely that Carlyle (1795-1881) later
in his life heard about Tolstoy (1828-1910). What really matters,
however, is that both paradigms are internally consistent while
contradictory to each other (despite some occasional slips) and that
both models are aware of the opposite view, indeed predicated on an
argument with the opposite view. This awareness of the opposite view
derives from the fact that both views are part of long-established
Neither paradigm was an unheard-of
novelty in Carlyle’s and Tolstoy’s time. Carlyle’s view might be traced
back to Thomas Hobbes (1651):
“I authorize and give up my right of governing myself, to this man, or
to this assembly of men, on this condition, that you give up your right
to him, and authorize all his actions in like manner. ... This is the
generation of that great Leviathan, or rather (to speak more
reverently) of that Mortal God to which we owe under the Immortal God,
our peace and defense” (Leviathan, Part 2, Ch.17, p.112).
This view is echoed in Carlyle’s On Heroes:
“Find in any country the Ablest Man that exists there; raise him to the
supreme place, and loyally reverence him: you have a perfect government
for that country” (p.239).
“I say, Find me the true Konning, King, or Able-man, and he has a
divine right over me” (p.242)
“[The Great Man] is the missionary of Order” (p. 247).
Conceivably, such reverence for heroic authority could be traced even
further back to the ancient epics.
Tolstoy’s notions of the “swarming
life of humankind,” of society viewed as a collection of “private
affairs” governed by “laws of reason” (WP, Epilogue, Part. 2, Sect. 10,
Vol. 7, p. 343), also have a long ancestry. They can be traced back to
Locke’s social “atomism” (1690), and yet further back to the literature
of ancient Roman “natural law”. John Locke is recognized as a
philosopher who, “building on the ancient Roman ideas of ‘natural
rights’ and ‘natural law’” (Greer, 448), viewed society, in terms
similar to Tolstoy’s, as “a collection of self serving individuals”
(Greer, 448), and Locke stated that “men living together according to
reason, without a common superior on earth with authority to judge
between them, is properly the state of nature” (The Second Treatise of
Civil Government, 3, 19; quoted in A History of Philosophy by Frederick
Copleston vol.5, p. 128).
It is interesting to note
that Tolstoy’s reaction comes at a greater time distance from the
upheavals of the Napoleonic Wars than that of Carlyle; and, similarly,
Locke’s work (1690) comes much later than Hobbes’s (1651), which
appears immediately after the upheavals of the English Civil War and
the execution of Charles I (1649). This pattern may suggest that the
heroic paradigm loses its persuasiveness as the memory of specific
heroes and upheavals fades.
To speak of a more recent ancestry, Carlyle’s
indebtedness to German Romanticism is widely acknowledged. Thus Charles
Frederick Harold in Carlyle and German Thought points out that:
“All great men seemed to [Carlyle] to be made of the same stuff, to be
called from the same sphere of Reality, and to be commissioned in the
service of man. Goethe embodied this thought; Fichte conceptualized it;
Novalis and Schiller added illuminating phrases; and Carlyle himself,
with his wide knowledge of history, his eagerness to discern revelation
in the world of fact, and his natural reverence for greatness, rounded
out a doctrine which became the most popular of his teachings” (Harold,
to French Realism, especially to Stendhal, is also recognized. Tolstoy
was a great reader of Stendhal (The Charterhouse of Parma, in
particular): an influence admitted by Tolstoy (“I had learned from
Stendhal how to describe war”) and expounded on by critics (Roger
Pearson, John Bayley, and others). But Stendhal’s attitude towards
heroism was not uniform. In his The Life of Napoleon (1837), in spite
of sharp criticism, the Emperor is still recognized as a hero, capable
of shaping history almost single-handedly: “Napoleon defeated Prussia”
(Ch. 33, p.373), “Napoleon established order” (Ch. 27, p. 363), etc.
Such an approach appears to be close to that of Carlyle.
However, Stendhal’s The
Charterhouse of Parma (1839) presents an outlook (especially in
chapters 3 and 4, titled “Waterloo” and “War”) that directly
anticipated and shaped the Tolstoyan a-heroic paradigm. What Tolstoy
admired were the swarming atomic interactions in The Charterhouse where
heroic powers play almost no part, where randomness of movement and
futility of command determine a shift of focus from the leaders toward
common participants. Stendhal was “bidding farewell” to the heroic
qualities and powers “as existed among the heroes in Jerusalem
Delivered” (The Charterhouse of Parma, Ch.3, p.54). The stories about
Napoleon imperiously sparing (or taking) lives, stories of men
nobly laying down their lives for the cause of the Empire, so frequent
in Stendhal’s Life of Napoleon, are superseded in The
Charterhouse by pictures of random, inconsequential, and
inglorious, yet humanly sad and horrifying deaths in the chaos of
Thus Stendhal may be viewed as a figure of
transition: while preserving in The Life of Napoleon the vestiges of a
heroic model, he could be considered (with reference to The
Charterhouse) the forerunner of the Tolstoyan a-heroic atomistic
philosophy and literary structure (even though, unlike Tolstoy,
Stendhal does not formulate the philosophy explicitly). Stendhal seems
to display “the principles not so much of Romanticism as of gradually
crystallizing Realism in 19th-century literature” (Sergei Velikovsky,
“The Truth of Stendhal”, p.8, In Stendhal The Red and the Black.
Pravda. Moscow. 1984. my transl.) – a direct influence on Tolstoy.
As to the question of influences and
camps, here is a brief disposition of forces. Carlyle’s pantheon of
heroes, model great men, includes: Odin, Mahomet, Dante, Shakespeare,
Luther, Knox, Goethe, Johnson, Rousseau, Burns, Cromwell, Napoleon.
Among the people Carlyle agrees with on different points, he lists:
Fichte (OH, p.191), Goethe (OH, p.191), Novalis (OH, p.247) – on the
“Divine Idea” in Man (OH, p.191); Adam Smith and Grimm – on questions
of language/etymology (OH, pp.29-30); Burke (OH, p.238) – on
government; Gibbon (OH, p.274) – on history; Walter Scott (OH, p.228),
and partly Madame de Stael (OH, p.228) – on heroic representation in
literature. Carlyle’s major argument is with Bentham (OH, pp.93,
209-210), with his “Skepticism,” “Utilitarianism,” “Mechanism” (OH,
p.210). (It is important to add that, according to Greer, Bentham “took
an atomistic view of human society”) (Greer, p.494). Tolstoy, on the
other hand, argues pretty much with every historian imaginable, with
“all the ancient historians” (WP, Ep.2, Sect.1, v.7, p.303); with “all
the modern historians from Gibbon to Buckle” (WP, Ep.2, Sect.1, v.7,
p.304); with Thiers, Lanfrey, Gervinus, Schlosser (WP, Ep.2, Sect.2,
v.7, p.308). All, according to Tolstoy, speak of heroes, instead of
true causes of massive events. In Tolstoy’s list of non-entities, those
– even though famous – who had almost no effect on massive events,
include “Stein, Metternich, Madame de Stael, Talleyrand, Fichte,
Chateaubriand, and others” (WP, Ep.2, Sect.2, v.7, p.309). (Fichte,
Madame de Stael and Gibbon are on Carlyle’s honors list. In Tolstoy,
Gibbon is wrong, and de Stael and Fichte are unimportant.) In this
disposition of forces, Tolstoy seems outnumbered, a kind of lonely
warrior – even though he enlists some help from contemporary science.
But he is by no means alone; as I have tried to show, his camp is
Salwyn Schapiro says about Carlyle: “He was
without British progeny, as he was without British ancestors”
(Schapiro, p.114). I would like to counter this claim. Tolstoy, I would
like to suggest, had some English-speaking ancestry and progeny as
well. In the second chapter, I will discuss a work of English
literature of the immediate post-Napoleonic period: Ivanhoe (UK, 1819)
by Sir Walter Scott. I will argue that Scott’s work suggestibly
affected Carlyle’s heroic paradigm in On Heroes – and thus may have
contributed to the formation of a heroic romantic trend in the period
1815-1840. In the third chapter, I will consider Charles
Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities (UK, 1859). Dickens’s work, I will
argue, had an influence on Tolstoy’s paradigm – and thus contributed to
the a-heroic, more realistic trend of mid-19th-century literature. In
my last chapter, I will show that the polarization of paradigms
continued well into the Fin-de-Siecle, and even later. Rudyard
Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill (UK, 1906) may be well considered
Carlyle’s progeny, and Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage (US,
1895) – Tolstoy’s. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (UK, 1901) could
be considered a kind of cross between the two. In conclusion, I would
like also to speculate as to the possible nature (historical,
psychological and philosophical) of such polarized paradigms.
Conclusion. ‘The balanced approach’
The polarization of the paradigms has continued throughout the
twentieth century. Thus, for example, Sidney Hook’s The Hero in History
(1943) appeared at the height of World War II. Hook seems to
suggest a “balanced” approach towards the question of the role of an
individual (hero) in history. Hook proposes that history should study
concrete situations, and determine “in what types of situation it is
legitimate to say that leadership does redetermine the historical
trends” (Hook, p.8). He suggests that history should study the “general
conditions under which these factors [“the great men” or “the social
environment”] acquire determining significance” (Hook, p.19). Hook
discusses the views of the “extreme proponents of the heroic
interpretation of history” (Hook, p.42) such as Carlyle and Frederick
Adams Wood, and the opposed, a-heroic, views of the “social
determinists,” “the Spenserians, the Hegelians, and the Marxists of
every political persuasion” (Hook, p.15). Hook professes a balanced
approach, and he declares Carlyle’s On Heroes to be “contradictory,
exaggerated, and impressionistic” (Hook, p.14). Yet, ultimately, he
seems to come down on the side of Carlyle. Throughout the book, Hook
argues against the a-heroic “social determinism” and provides examples
of how, “had it not been for the work of one man [e.g. Lenin] we should
be living in a vastly different world today” (Hook, p.184). Hook
believes it is a balanced approach to study the ways “the social
environment served as a selective agency in providing them [great men]
with the opportunities to get their work done” (Hook, p.15). But
Carlyle himself saw the social environment as a setting for great men,
as a medium that may resist or conduct the heroic impulse. Like
Carlyle, Hook believes that “the Hero ... is marked off in a
qualitatively unique way from other men in the sphere of his activity”
(Hook, p.26). Hook speaks of Tolstoy’s “saintliness” (Hook, p.23), but
he never mentions Tolstoy’s a-heroic system, Tolstoy’s atomism. I think
this omission is significant. Hook identifies the a-heroic model with
“social determinism.” As I have tried to argue, in the construction of
Tolstoy’s a-heroic model, atomism is more important than determinism.
When society is composed of approximately equal (in size and power)
human atoms – there is no place for a hero. On the other hand, in the
Carlylean heroic system, the heroic impulse is more important than
voluntarism. When the hero is quantitatively and qualitatively greater,
more powerful, possessed of much greater genius and knowledge than the
rest of the people – then he may drive them where he pleases. Hook’s
book appeared in a time of world war, when great leaders, the ‘new
Napoleons’ (Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, Roosevelt, Churchill), were
centers of public attention. Hook’s predominantly heroic views may,
thus, have been consistent with the needs and trends of the period.
Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of
Criticism – which appeared in 1957, after those leaders went off the
stage, and in particular after Stalin’s de-glamorization – is an
attempt to classify all the possible kinds and degrees of heroic power
as a possible basis of fictional modes. (To be precise, in Frye, the
“hero’s power of action” seems to refer mainly to the hero’s personal
abilities, physical strength and intellectual endowments, yet the
hero’s power of command might be also implied.) Based upon “the hero’s
power of action, which may be greater than ours, less, or roughly the
same” (Frye, p.33), the modes range, according to the heroes’ powers,
from “myth” (where the hero is divine) to “romance” (where the hero is
marvelous yet human) through the “high mimetic mode” (where the hero is
“superior in degree to other men ... the hero is a leader”) to the “low
mimetic mode” (where the hero is “superior neither to other men nor to
his environment,” is “one of us” – Frye identifies this mode with
“realism”). Finally, “if inferior in power or intelligence to ourselves
... the hero belongs to the ironic mode” (Frye, p.34). Frye says that
“Apocalyptic imagery [of a Heaven-like, desirable world] is appropriate
to the mythical mode, and demonic imagery [of a Hell-like, undesirable
world] to the ironic mode in the late phase in which it returns to
myth” (Frye, p.151). Frye suggests the circularity of modes: “our five
modes evidently go around in a circle” – there is a “reappearance of
myth [great powers] in the ironic [featuring inferior characters]”
(Frye, p.42). The negative power of influence over the masses of the
demonic, ironic, mode turns positive in the apocalyptic, mythical mode,
and vice versa. Such an oscillation seems to reflect the oscillation
that happened in public opinion (at least in the USSR) regarding the
figure of Stalin: the greatest leader, “the Sun of the nations” turned
in the public mind over the course of a few years into a tyrant and a
mass murderer. Frye’s model seems to be more balanced than that of
Hook, and even tends towards the a-heroic paradigm – due to the fact
that Frye considers the “low mimetic” (i.e. a-heroic and egalitarian)
mode as realistic, unlike the myths of heroic leadership. This
tendency, too, might have been a sign of the time: Frye’s model
appeared at a longer time distance from the war, and after the
“personality cult” (of Hitler and especially Stalin) was
discredited. This may even essentially reflect the transition
from immediate traumatic and post-traumatic experience, during and
immediately after the war, requiring greater empowerment (or transfer
of responsibility to “a great man”) towards a lessening of such needs
in calmer times. The less significant a person feels (in times of
cataclysm and immediately after), the greater is the power he invests
“a hero” with; and with the return of one’s feeling of personal
significance, the hero’s value diminishes. In the construction of his
classification of heroes and fictional modes, Frye uses the works of
Tolstoy and Carlyle: “the treatment of Napoleon in War and Peace” is
for Frye an example of the low mimetic tending toward the ironic mode
(Frye, p.237), and “the philosophy of Carlyle” is for him an example of
“Romantic reaction” (Frye, p.306).
The works of Hook and Frye seem to
testify that the discrepancy in the visions of power has continued
through the 1940s and 1950s into our time. Both thinkers suggest some
sort of “balanced” approach to the question of heroic influence, yet
with a perceptible leaning towards one of the paradigms. Thus the
pattern that we have come to expect reappears again: the a-heroic trend
follows the heroic. Both thinkers extensively use (tap, so to speak)
the previous works of either the heroic or the a-heroic traditions, and
in the first place those of the 19th century. Both works seem to
indicate that the controversy over heroism has expanded beyond
manifestos (as in Carlyle and Tolstoy) and works of fiction (as in
Scott and Dickens) into the academic world, and has become an important
topic of sociological and historiographical studies, as well as of
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