Childhood & Early Life
Thomas Carlyle was born on 4 December 1795, in Ecclefechan, a small village in Dumfriesshire. His father, James Carlyle, a stonemason and farmer, was a man of profound Calvinist convictions. His mother, Margaret nee Aitken, was his father’s second wife.
Thomas was the eldest of his parents’ nine children, having three younger brothers named Alexander, John Aitken and James, and five sisters named Janet, Margaret, Mary, Jean and Janet. From his father’s first marriage, he also had one half-brother named John.
Although his parents were not very educated, they brought up their children according to Calvinist principles, teaching them to lead a simple and well-disciplined life. Thomas, who adored his parents, was especially influenced by his father’s strength of character and the way he led his life.
Beginning his education at home, learning basic arithmetic from his father, he was enrolled at the village school in Ecclefechan at a very early age, studying there till the age of six. For four years, he studied at Hoddam parish school, concurrently studying Latin privately with a local minister.
In 1806, he was enrolled at the Annan Academy for his secondary education. Since the school was six miles away from home, ten years old Thomas Carlyle became a boarder there, staying at the boarding throughout the week, returning home only on the weekends.
Although he did well academically, initially he had to face bullying at school, mainly because his mother had told him never to use physical force even if he needed to defend himself. But soon he was fed up of the situation and started fighting back, which made the situation better to some extent.
At school, in addition to mathematics, which was always his favorite subject, he also enjoyed studying modern languages. However, he found the curriculum, designed to equip them for university education by the age of fourteen, uninspiring. He therefore studied a lot of outside books, gaining more knowledge from them.
In November 1809, Thomas Carlyle moved to Edinburgh, reaching the city after walking for three days. There he entered the University of Edinburgh, studying the general course, showing great promise in mathematics. Rather withdrawn in the first year, he started making friends from the second.
In 1813, he completed his M.A. course, but chose not to earn his degree, instead entering Divinity Hall of the Church of Scotland in Edinburgh for his religious training. Since his parents could not afford to support him for three more years, he chose to study full time for one year and then part time for six.
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In June 1814, Thomas Carlyle completed the one-year full-time course and went home to begin his career as a mathematics teacher at Annan Academy at a yearly salary of £60 or £70. He got the job on the recommendation of Sir John Leslie, his mathematics teacher at the University of Edinburgh.
During his tenure as a mathematics teacher at Annan Academy, he continued with his part-time study of divinity, going to Edinburgh to give the stipulated sermons. However, he did not seem to take his teaching career very seriously, finding solace in reading whatever books he could get.
In 1816, Thomas Carlyle moved to Kirkcaldy, a town very close to Edinburgh, where he was appointed a mathematics teacher on the recommendation of Sir Leslie. Here, he was reunited with Edward Irving, a co-student at the university, now the master of the school.
Earlier they had shared certain enmity, but this time Irving welcomed him warmly and soon they became close friends. Carlyle later wrote, "But for Irving, I had never known what the communion of man with man means."
Carlyle spent a lot of time at Irving’s library, where he read French literature along with the works of Edward Gibbon, the famed English historian. Concurrently, he continued with his mathematical studies, trying to read Newton’s ‘Principia’ on his own in 1816.
Finding ‘Principia’ rather difficult, he concentrated on Delambre's ‘Abrégé d'astronomie’. Later returning to ‘Principia,’ he found it easier to comprehend. Thereafter in 1817, he tried to read the articles on fluxions by William Wallace. This time too, he found the content difficult to understand.
By the end of 1817, he came to realize his own limitations in mathematics and began losing interest in the subject. He was also equally unhappy with teaching and therefore in 1818, he resigned from his post and returned to Edinburgh
He lived in Edinburgh for three years, attending law classes from December 1819 to 1821, supporting himself by giving tuitions in mathematics, also writing articles for ‘Edinburgh Encyclopaedia,’ then under the editorship of David Brewster. Occasionally he went home, receiving support from his family, which helped him to keep afloat.
During this period, along with acute financial trouble, he also suffered from an intense spiritual crisis. Although he abandoned his faith he could not accept atheism, thereby living in void until June 1821, when he began to feel a certain defiance in him, which helped him to go forward.
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Also in 1821, he was commissioned by David Brewster to translate ‘Eléments de géométrie’ by Adrien-Marie Legendre for a fee of £50. By now, he had developed a painful stomach ailment, suffering from it for the rest of his life. Irregular meals and sleepless nights could have contributed to it.
In 1834, Thomas Carlyle moved to London. Sometime before that, his friend John Stuart Mill had signed a contract with the publishers for writing a detailed history on the French Revolution. But he soon felt that he could not undertake it because of a prior engagement and therefore sent it to Carlyle.
Carlyle immediately started working on it, producing 'The French Revolution: A History' in three volumes. It was first published in 1837, instantly making him famous, not only in academic circles, but also among general readers. Very shortly, he began gathering a group of disciples around him.
'The French Revolution’ might have brought him fame but did little to solve his financial problems. Therefore, from 1837, at the behest of his friends, he started giving series of lectures.
Continuing with writing, he published ‘Chartism’ in 1840, opposing conventional economic theory, highlighting his radical thoughts. His very next work, 'On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and The Heroic in History', was based on five lectures given in 1840.
Published in 1841, ‘On Heroes’ reflects his hostility towards modern-day democracy, emphasizing that some men are wiser than the others, incorporating ideas like God’s will. It caused his break with Mill.
Thomas Carlyle then started working on his next historical project, writing ‘Oliver Cromwell's Letters and Speeches: With Elucidation’, publishing it in 1845. In the interlude, he also wrote ‘Past and Present’, combining medieval history with criticism of the concurrent British society, publishing the work in April 1843.
His next work, ‘Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question’ first published anonymously in ‘Fraser’s Magazine’ in 1849, sparked a debate with Mill. In it, he supported slave trade, casting doubts on black people’s wisdom. Thereafter, he published two other works: ‘Latter-Day Pamphlets’ (1850) and ‘The Life of John Sterling’ (1851).
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His last major work, ‘History of Friedrich II of Prussia’, was published in 1858. Consisting of twenty-one books, it unfolds the events of Friedrich’s life from his birth in 1712 till his death in 1786, also emphasizing how great leaders could forge a state. Thereafter, Carlyle published very few works.
Towards the end of 1865, Carlyle was appointed rector of the University of Edinburgh. Continuing to write, he published ‘Shooting Niagara: and After?’ in 1867, ‘The Early Kings of Norway’ in 1875. His ‘Reminiscences of My Irish Journey in 1849’ was published posthumously in 1882.
Family & Personal Life
On 17 October 1826, Thomas Carlyle married writer Jane Welsh. Although they loved each other and wrote 9,000 letters between themselves, the marriage was not happy and possibly not consummated. In later life, Carlyle grew increasingly alienated from her. Yet, when she suddenly died in 1866, he was greatly distressed.
Carlyle died on 5 February 1881, in London, England. Although he had been offered a burial at the Westminster Abbey, he was buried beside his parents in Ecclefechan, Scotland, in accordance with his wish.
His first home in London (33 Ampton Street) has been marked with a plaque by London County Council. His subsequent home at 24 Cheyne Row has been turned into a museum by National Trust. His birth home has also been preserved as a museum by National Trust for Scotland.
In mathematics, a circle in a coordinate plane has been named ‘Carlyle Circle’ in his honor.