That Scotch Diogenes: Thomas Carlyle and Cynicism
This article argues that Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881) stood in a long tradition of philosophical and literary Cynicism, stretching from ancient Greece, through the early modern period, and into the French and German Enlightenments. In keeping with this tradition, Carlyle consistently advocated a life in accordance with nature, which he considered to mean a life in accordance with virtue. Concomitantly, he waged an ongoing polemic against all forms of artifice, folly, luxury and vice, whether these lay in established institutions, such as the landed aristocracy or Church, or in the commercial and democratic society that was emerging around him. Adopting a fiercely independent stance modelled upon that of Diogenes the Cynic, Carlyle scorned both aristocratic patronage and ‘public opinion’, setting himself up as a rigid moral censor. In pursuing this vocation, he made abundant use of the traditional techniques of literary Cynicism, such as invective, irony, satire, parody, ridicule and burlesque. Moreover, Carlyle’s contemporaries frequently acknowledged him as the preeminent Cynic sage of their era. Thus, while Carlyle was without doubt one of the great railers of the age, he always had a positive purpose in mind, namely to draw his readers away from artifice and vice, and back towards nature and virtue.