Very few writers either merit or can withstand comparison with William Shakespeare. The only two I would dare to suggest are Edward Gibbon and Thomas Carlyle.
The first, in his Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, demonstrated a perfection in writing that has never been (and may never be) surpassed. The second, in his history of the French Revolution and his essays on Heroism, exposed the wilder possibilities of language, blurring the boundaries of thought and emotion, poetry and prose.
So in the past few months of frantic intra-national diplomacy, it’s been saddening to hear so little about Scotland’s greatest writer. Andrew Marr’s ‘Great Scots’ BBC series surveyed in detail the likes of Hugh Mcdiarmand and James Boswell, but had nothing to say of a man who influenced history in a greater and more dynamic way than either of them.
War leaders and men of power are particularly drawn to Carlyle’s thrilling voice. When the meth-addicted dictator Adolf Hitler lived out his last few days in the Fuhrerbunker, the book at his bedside (which – I’m pleased to say – he never got the chance to finish) was Carlyle’s history of Frederick the Great. On the other side, Sartor Resartus (Carlyle’s satirical novel) was referenced approvingly by the allied commander in the Pacific.
Carlyle’s writing is in some ways alike Wagnerian music. It makes the reader want to become something better than himself. Through its chaotic poetry, it breeds an orderly ambition.
Consider the beauty of the following paragraph:
“Behold therefore, the England of the Year 1200 was no chimerical vacuity or dreamland, peopled with mere vaporous Fantasms, Rymer’s Foedera, and Doctrines of the Constitution, but a green solid place, that grew corn and several other things. The Sun shone on it; the vicissitude of seasons and human fortunes. Cloth was woven and worn; ditches were dug, furrowfields ploughed, and houses built. Day by day all men and cattle rose to labour, and night by night returned home weary to their several lairs. In wondrous Dualism, then as now, lived nations of breathing men; alternating, in all ways, between Light and Dark; between joy and sorrow, between rest and toil, between hope, hope reaching high as Heaven, and fear deep as very Hell.”
Alongside the connection with Hitler, you may have also heard Carlyle’s name associated with that of the Prophet Muhammad. Muslims are known to bring him up because of the author’s portrait of the prophet in ‘Heroes, Heroism and the Heroic in History’ – a book advancing the Great Man Theory of history.
The following quote is taken from that work:
“Mahomet himself, after all that can be said about him, was not a sensual man. We shall err widely if we consider this man as a common voluptuary, intent mainly on base enjoyments, — nay on enjoyments of any kind. His household was of the frugalest; his common diet barley-bread and water: sometimes for months there was not a fire once lighted on his hearth. They record with just pride that he would mend his own shoes, patch his own cloak. A poor, hard-toiling, ill-provided man; careless of what vulgar men toil for.”
Other positive comments are forthcoming from the same work. This use (or rather misuse) of Carlyle is typical of Muslim dishonesty. Carlyle, though he admired the impact of any great figure of world-history, retained a more exact part of his intellect for comparative judgement.
“Only a sense of duty could carry a European through the Qur’an.” he wrote in a section of the same book quoted less often by Muslim observers. In that same paragraph, he pronounces the book in general to be a “wearisome confused jumble” and Islam to be greatly lacking relative to his own (fiercely held) Protestant faith.
The same dishonesty that allows Muslims to make use of Carlyle also permits mistreatment of the reputation of Goethe. Regarded by Germans to be the equal of Shakespeare, the polymath Goethe was a notably cosmopolitan figure, run through with a very optimistic kind of xenophilia. His poems took elements from numerous foreign traditions, including in his ‘West-Eastern Divan’ volume, the traditions of the Middle East. That book contains poems which glorify the Prophet of Islam, sometimes comparing him to the giants of Greek and Roman mythologies and more or less (unlike Carlyle) maintaining a positive tone throughout.
However, the truth of the matter is that Goethe (writing in a less-informed age than Carlyle) had very little knowledge of the Middle East and Islam as they actually were (and still are). Indeed, his kindly impressions of the culture of Islam were drawn almost exclusively from the poetry of the Persian (pantheist) Hafiz. This is hardly valid.
More generally, the Muslim longing to find in Western thought a validation for their own historical glories is really quite revealing. Do they concede (even if just inwardly) that the West has the clearer mind and the intellectual upper-hand?