I invoke a word which aptly describes those rare minds that have been the very source of our precious Western Civilization. I use it to describe such thinkers as Thomas Carlyle to whom I have referred from time to time; and I ask the reader to recall my plea, expressed many times, that we ask our young people to walk, albeit briefly, in the company of genius. It cannot but help them grow and develop perspective on the day’s comings and goings. In this case I will quote several passages from Carlyle’s French Revolution: A History — a book of some 775 pages —  in the expectation that few of my readers have time to read a book of this length. But these selections will give a taste of what they are missing. I will add only that the original manuscript of this monumental work was burned by mistake while in the possession of Carlyle’s friend John Stuart Mill. Carlyle than rewrote the entire thing from memory!

Carlyle, toward the end of the history, is reflecting on the terribly bloody revolution and its many horrors. Speaking of revolutions generally:

‘”This is the way of Revolutions, which spring up as the French one has done; when the social bonds of Society snap asunder; and all Laws that are not Laws of Nature become naught but empty Formulas.”

Of the possible source of wars:

“So, however, are men made. Creatures who live in confusion; who, once thrown together can readily fall into that confusion of confusions which quarrel is, simply because their confusions differ from one another; still more because they seem to differ! Men’s words are a poor exponent of their thought; nay, their thought itself is a poor exponent of the inward unnamed Mystery wherefrom both thought and action have their birth. No man can explain himself, can get himself explained; men see not one another, but distorted phantasms which they call one another; which they hate and go to battle with: for all battle is well said to be misunderstanding.”

And toward the end of this remarkable book, as Carlyle reflects on the carnage he has written about:

“Wherefore we will, at all events, call this Reign of Terror a very strange one. Dominant Sansculottism [power of the people] makes, as it were, a free arena; one of the strangest temporary states Humanity has ever been in. A nation of men, full of wants and void of habits! The old habits are gone to wreck because they were old: men, driven forward by Necessity and fierce Pythian Madness have, on the spur of the instant, to devise a way of satisfying it . . . . .”

And of the fanaticism that we see around us even today:

“For a man, once committed headlong to [a cause] and fighting and fanaticizing amid a Nation of his like, becomes as it were enveloped in an ambient atmosphere of  . . . Delirium: his individual self is lost in something that is not himself, but foreign though inseparable from him. Strange to think of, the man’s cloak still seems to hold the same man: and yet the man is not there, his volition is not there; nor the source of what he will do and devise; instead of the man and his volition there is a piece of Fanaticism incarnated in the shape of him. He, the hapless incarnated Fanaticism, goes his road; no man can help him, he himself least of all. It is a wonderful, tragical predicament — such as human language, unused to deal with such things, being contrived for the uses of common life, struggles to shadow out in figures. The ambient element of material fire is not wilder than is fanaticism; nor, though visible to the eye, is it more real. Volition bursts forth involuntary-voluntary; rapt along; the movement of free human minds becomes a raging tornado. . .”

Finally, drawing his study to a close he worries about what men will commit themselves to in the future:

“The Heavens cease not their bounty; they send us generous hearts into every generation. And now what generous heart can pretend to itself, or be hoodwinked into believing, that Loyalty to Moneybags is a noble Loyalty? Mammon, cries the generous heart out of all ages and countries, is the basest of the known Gods, even the known Devils. In him what glory is there that ye should worship him?”

Truly, a remarkable mind and one it is a privilege to visit from time to time.




11 thoughts on “Genius!

  1. The silent images evoked, the screaming nuances, the slow ebb towards imperious chaos, and the underlay of impervious disaster somnolently observed…to use that timeworn cliche’ but paraphrased….”Playing it again, Sam”….puts one-more-time-’round kids…back into historical context. Carlyle had it right the first time ’round…….

  2. Hugh, I love the line “full of wants and void of habits.” Aristotle would not be pleased with the reason for this assertion. Tearing down the old without substituting good habits was unwise. There is a similarity with this and the current wrecking ball effort in the White House – institutions, relationships with allies, media – tear them all down. Keith

  3. I actually did read Carlyle’s book many, many years ago, and as I recall, it was the one that piqued my interest in the French Revolution. I was not aware of the original manuscript having been burned! His perseverance in re-writing the entire thing speaks volumes, as does the fact that he allowed John Stuart Mill to remain among the living!

    “… readily fall into that confusion of confusions which quarrel is, simply because their confusions differ from one another; still more because they seem to differ!” This could apply to most any nation in most any era, it would seem. It is as true today as it was in the 18th century.

    • Eventually Mill and Carlyle had a falling out — probably because Mill leaned left and Carlyle leaned (precariously) right. But can you imagine? The manuscript had to run well over a thousand pages! (P.S. If anyone I write these for had read Carlyle’s book I knew it would be you!)

      • The perseverance it took to re-write that … no, I cannot even begin to imagine. I’m pretty sure I would have thrown my hands up in the air and said “forget it” with a few $%&@ words thrown in for good measure. And then I would have gone on to be a brick-layer or some such thing.

        I’m honoured by you knowing it would be me … at one time I read almost nothing but Kant, Dostoevsky, and others such as Carlyle, Arendt, etc. These days, not so much. Well, it’s been nearly a year since I could read without a magnifying glass, so it became too much of a chore by the time I dropped into bed at 3:00 a.m. Thankfully, I can read again!!!

      • I gather your eyes are doing much better these days!!?? Carlyle must have had an eidetic memory. He seems to have read everything and had it readily available to him!

  4. The eyes are MUCH better … I rarely need to pick up the magnifying glass anymore! The downside is that I can now see that the windows are filthy (they looked dirty before, but I thought it was just my vision), there are cobwebs looming in the corners, and the switchplates have yellowed with age. Guess it’s time for a bit of spring cleaning, yes? 😊

    • I had cataract surgery and had the same experience. Sometimes it is better not to see clearly. (Is there a lesson there??) I’m glad you are better, though. I was worried about you!

      • Awww …. thank you, Hugh! Yes, much better … now if I can just get some energy! All the struggling and worrying, plus the 2 surgeries, has zapped my energy stockpile and all I want to do is sleep! I think warmer temps and sunshine will help a lot. 🌻🌻🌻

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