I was trying to read the following excerpt from On Heroes, Hero Worship, and the Heroic in Society by Thomas Carlyle, and I had a few questions. (The emboldening is mine; bolded phrases or words in a passage are followed by a question referring to it.)

It is well said, in every sense, that a man’s religion is the chief fact with regard to him. A man’s, or a nation of men’s.

By religion I do not mean here the church-creed which he professes, the articles of faith which he will sign and, in words or otherwise, assert; not this wholly, in many cases not this at all. We see men of all kinds of professed creeds attain to almost all degrees of worth or worthlessness under each or any of them. This is not what I call religion, this profession and assertion; which is often only a profession and assertion from the outworks of the man, from the mere argumentative region of him, if even so deep as that.

  1. Why are these two separate categories? Don't they both mean "entirely"?

But the thing a man does practically believe (and this is often enough without asserting it even to himself, much less to others); the thing a man does practically lay to heart, and know for certain, concerning his vital relations to this mysterious Universe, and his duty and destiny there, that is in all cases the primary thing for him, and creatively determines all the rest. That is his religion; or, it may be, his mere skepticism and no-religion: the manner it is in which he feels himself to be spiritually related to the Unseen World or No-World; and I say, if you tell me what that is, you tell me to a very great extent what the man is, what the kind of things he will do is.

Of a man or of a nation we inquire, therefore, first of all, What religion they had? Was it Heathenism,—plurality of gods, mere sensuous representation of this Mystery of Life, and for chief recognized element therein Physical Force? Was it Christianism; faith in an Invisible, not as real only, but as the only reality; Time, through every meanest moment of it, resting on Eternity; Pagan empire of Force displaced by a nobler supremacy, that of Holiness? Was it Skepticism, uncertainty and inquiry whether there was an Unseen World, any Mystery of Life except a mad one;—doubt as to all this, or perhaps unbelief and flat denial?

  1. Do the bold words comprise the set of "religions" Carlyle lists?
  2. What does Carlyle mean here: and for chief recognized element therein Physical Force?
  3. What does Carlyle mean here: not as real only, but as the only reality?
  4. What does Carlyle mean here: displaced by a nobler supremacy, that of Holiness?

Answering of this question is giving us the soul of the history of the man or nation. The thoughts they had were the parents of the actions they did; their feelings were parents of their thoughts: it was the unseen and spiritual in them that determined the outward and actual;—their religion, as I say, was the great fact about them.

  1. Does Carlyle equate feelings and the unseen and spiritual?
  • "Not wholly x" means "less than 100% x". "Not at all x" means "0% x". So the meanings are quite different.
    – user14111
    Apr 18, 2020 at 3:59

1 Answer 1


Here are the answers to your questions.

  1. As @user14111 points out in a comment to your question, "not wholly" and "not at all" are nearly opposites in their meanings. The former means "in large measure, but not entirely"; the latter means "in no measure."

  2. Yes, though whether he meant it as an exhaustive list is hard to say from this excerpt.

  3. Carlyle says that heathenism is polytheism where each deity is great because of physical power. Zeus and Hermes, for example, aren't necessarily better individuals than your average human. They are just more powerful because they can do things that average humans can't. They live forever, they're stronger, they control certain physical forces (e.g., Zeus controls the thunder), etc.

  4. The heathens think of their gods as real, but they don't think of them as the only reality; they take human existence as real too. But in Christendom, human life is not ultimately real. Its goal is to become part of the ultimate reality, which is to live in God's world after our human existence comes to an end. So the Invisible is not only real, it is in fact the only reality. The visible world is just transitory.

  5. Your emboldening obscures the meaning a bit. It's not a "Pagan empire of force" that's "displaced by a nobler supremacy"; it's a pagan empire where "force" is "displaced by a nobler supremacy." The contrast is with a heathenism where gods are worshipped for their physical force. In this pagan empire, gods are worshipped not for their power, but for their "Holiness". The gods aren't just more powerful versions of humans. They are more holy, with none of the pettinesses, lust, etc. that humans have. Take the Hindu god Rama, for example, who is celebrated not for his victory in battle, but because that victory represents a triumph of good over evil. Rama is considered the epitome of good conduct, not just of power.

  6. Not quite. Feelings lead to thoughts; and that thinking, in turn, leads to "outward and actual actions." It's the reflection on one's feelings, specifically determinative of one's actions in the world, that Carlyle equates with "the unseen and the spiritual."

Hope this helps.

  • Thank you kindly. Your answers helped a great deal. How would one learn to dissect these texts? Through more reading? And If it isn't too much too much to ask, could you (1) comment on Time, through every meanest moment of it, resting on Eternity and (2) comment on why both "each" and "any" used in the first part. Apr 21, 2020 at 2:18
  • 1
    You’re welcome. Yes, basically one learns how to understand such texts just by reading more, I think. Could you ask a separate question for your remaining points? Thanks.
    – verbose
    Apr 22, 2020 at 0:59
  • For (1), I would just like your comment on that line. I was thinking (perhaps incorrectly) those whose "religion" is Time commit to material things (wasting their life away with "due dates". But if that is the case, why does Carlyle modify the phrase with "resting on Eternity". For (2), don't We see men of all kinds of professed creeds attain to ... under each of [the faiths] and We see men of all kinds of professed creeds attain to ... under any of [the faiths] mean the same thing? Thanks again. Apr 22, 2020 at 2:01

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