Carlyle at His Zenith (1848-53)

By David Alec Wilson | Go to book overview

XIV
THE LIFE OF JOHN STERLING (1851)

ON 11.10.51 Carlyle was writing to a sister and telling as the day's news,--'my poor little book is coming out to-day or soon,' which fixes the date of the publication of the Life of John Sterling and raises a problem much discussed. Was this "humbug" or "cant," this constant depreciation by Carlyle of all his own works? Plainly neither, but merely a way of talking, the idea inspiring which was that modesty or self-depreciation is the duty of all men. It is a general fashion in China, appearing there an elementary rule of politeness, and surely it is a way of doing that helps to keep the peace. In Carlyle it was doubtless suggested by our own religion, and confirmed by his love of truth. As anyone can see in others, men are continually liable to mistake about themselves or anything that is their own. Self-praise or praise of anything belonging to oneself would seem as wrong to any sincere Christian as to any Confucian sage. "If I bear witness of myself, my witness is not true," said Jesus himself. "The works that I do bear witness of Me." The first duty of every teacher should be by precept and example to teach us to shun self- praise and suspect those who practise it.--Which would, at least, diminish advertising.

The book on Sterling was swiftly successful and is one of the most popular biographies in our language; but even Carlyle had not been able to make a good story out of the events of a life so humdrum as his. The only thing interesting about him was his moral evolution. Handicapped by having money enough to be idle when he liked, Sterling avoided common frivolity and grew into harmonious activity, which is the best human happiness, by dint of doing daily the duties at hand and finding guidance in the voice within. By a happy marriage he emancipated himself from sexual sentimentalities, as a disciple of Carlyle should; but he suffered all the other current ailments of intellectual

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