From Heroes and Hero-Worship (1840):
We come now to the last form of Heroism; that which we call Kingship.
The Commander over Men; he to whose will our wills are to be subordinated, and loyally surrender themselves, and find their welfare in doing so, may be reckoned the most important of Great Men. He is practically the summary for us of all the various figures of Heroism; Priest, Teacher, whatsoever of earthly or of spiritual dignity we can fancy to reside in a man, embodies itself here, to command over us, to furnish us with constant practical teaching, to tell us for the day and hour what we are to do. He is called Rex, Regulator, Roi: our own name is still better; King, Könning, which means Can-ning, Able-man. [Carlyle’s etymology is pretty but wrong. —MM]
Numerous considerations, pointing towards deep, questionable, and indeed unfathomable regions, present themselves here: on the most of which we must resolutely for the present forbear to speak at all. As Burke said that perhaps fair Trial by Jury was the soul of Government, and that all legislation, administration, parliamentary debating, and the rest of it, went on, in “order to bring twelve impartial men into a jury-box;”—so, by much stronger reason, may I say here, that the finding of your Ableman and getting him invested with the symbols of ability, with dignity, worship (worth-ship), royalty, kinghood, or whatever we call it, so that he may actually have room to guide according to his faculty of doing it,—is the business, well or ill accomplished, of all social procedure whatsoever in this world!
Hustings-speeches, Parliamentary motions, Reform Bills, French Revolutions, all mean at heart this; or else nothing. Find in any country the Ablest Man that exists there; raise him to the supreme place, and loyally reverence him: you have a perfect government for that country; no ballot-box, parliamentary eloquence, voting, constitution-building, or other machinery whatsoever can improve it a whit. It is in the perfect state; an ideal country.
The Ablest Man; he means also the truest-hearted, justest, the Noblest Man: what he tells us to do must be precisely the wisest, fittest, that we could anywhere or anyhow learn;—the thing which it will in all ways behoove US, with right loyal thankfulness and nothing doubting, to do! Our doing and life were then, so far as government could regulate it, well regulated; that were the ideal of constitutions.
Alas, we know very well that Ideals can never be completely embodied in practice. Ideals must ever lie a very great way off; and we will right thankfully content ourselves with any not intolerable approximation thereto! Let no man, as Schiller says, too querulously “measure by a scale of perfection the meagre product of reality” in this poor world of ours. We will esteem him no wise man; we will esteem him a sickly, discontented, foolish man.
And yet, on the other hand, it is never to be forgotten that Ideals do exist; that if they be not approximated to at all, the whole matter goes to wreck! Infallibly. No bricklayer builds a wall perfectly perpendicular, mathematically this is not possible; a certain degree of perpendicularity suffices him; and he, like a good bricklayer, who must have done with his job, leaves it so. And yet if he sway too much from the perpendicular; above all, if he throw plummet and level quite away from him, and pile brick on brick heedless, just as it comes to hand—! Such bricklayer, I think, is in a bad way. He has forgotten himself: but the Law of Gravitation does not forget to act on him; he and his wall rush down into confused welter of ruin—!
This is the history of all rebellions, French Revolutions, social explosions in ancient or modern times. You have put the too Un able Man at the head of affairs! The too ignoble, unvaliant, fatuous man. You have forgotten that there is any rule, or natural necessity whatever, of putting the Able Man there. Brick must lie on brick as it may and can. Unable Simulacrum of Ability, quack, in a word, must adjust himself with quack, in all manner of administration of human things;—which accordingly lie unadministered, fermenting into unmeasured masses of failure, of indigent misery: in the outward, and in the inward or spiritual, miserable millions stretch out the hand for their due supply, and it is not there. The “law of gravitation” acts; Nature’s laws do none of them forget to act. The miserable millions burst forth into Sansculottism, or some other sort of madness: bricks and bricklayer lie as a fatal chaos—!
Much sorry stuff, written some hundred years ago or more, about the “Divine right of Kings,” moulders unread now in the Public Libraries of this country. Far be it from us to disturb the calm process by which it is disappearing harmlessly from the earth, in those repositories! At the same time, not to let the immense rubbish go without leaving us, as it ought, some soul of it behind—I will say that it did mean something; something true, which it is important for us and all men to keep in mind.
To assert that in whatever man you chose to lay hold of (by this or the other plan of clutching at him); and claps a round piece of metal on the head of, and called King,—there straightway came to reside a divine virtue, so that he became a kind of god, and a Divinity inspired him with faculty and right to rule over you to all lengths: this,—what can we do with this but leave it to rot silently in the Public Libraries? But I will say withal, and that is what these Divine-right men meant, That in Kings, and in all human Authorities, and relations that men god-created can form among each other, there is verily either a Divine Right or else a Diabolic Wrong; one or the other of these two!
For it is false altogether, what the last Sceptical Century taught us, that this world is a steam-engine. There is a God in this world; and a God’s-sanction, or else the violation of such, does look out from all ruling and obedience, from all moral acts of men. There is no act more moral between men than that of rule and obedience. Woe to him that claims obedience when it is not due; woe to him that refuses it when it is! God’s law is in that, I say, however the Parchment-laws may run: there is a Divine Right or else a Diabolic Wrong at the heart of every claim that one man makes upon another.
And when, in the third millennium, we meet an Able-man—to what work do we set him? To building toys. Gewgaws, gadgets, pretty beads for department-store Indians.
And yet—there is a God in this world. There is right, at least, and wrong. In everything. In code. In a toy. And this is our special torture: as the planet rots, as fools rule and hyenas feast, as nations lie prostrate, churches decompose, and the Devil with a knife owns London, Paris, New York after dark, fell in our hairy hands the real work of a real King, an Able-man, Ken-ning—who served God, or right at least, and could bend small armies to obey. And make—a toy. So near we are to salvation; so infinitely far away. Rest in peace, Steve.