Thomas Carlyle on What Self-Help Really Means and the Healing Power of Love in Moments of Blackest Despair
By Maria Popova
“The reasons for depression are not so interesting as the way one handles it, simply to stay alive,” the poet May Sarton wrote in contemplating the self-reliant cure for despair. A century and a half earlier, the Scottish philosopher, mathematician, and writer Thomas Carlyle (December 4, 1795–February 5, 1881) examined the question of self-salvation when one’s interior world blackens from the complementary sides — reaching in and reaching out.
In one of his intense and beautiful courtship letters to his future wife, collected in The Love Letters of Thomas Carlyle and Jane Welsh (public library | public domain), Carlyle considers what self-help really means in moments of blackest despair — those times when it feels like “the Graces cannot live under a sky so gloomy and tempestuous,” when it seems like “there is no remedy” but the remedy within.
Deploying two perfectly placed allusions to Milton’s Paradise Lost, the twenty-seven-year-old Carlyle writes in a letter from February 13 of 1822:
There are wild retreats, indeed, in which all minds may seek refuge. I know it but too well — the feeling of recklessness and stormy self-help, when friends grow cold, and the world seems to cast us off, and the heart gathers force from its own wretchedness, converting its “tortures into horrid arms.” There is strength here and dignity — “tho’ full of pain.”
In a letter penned thirteen days later, Carlyle considers the auxiliary palliation of connection, of reaching out while the devastating storms rage within — that essential complementarity of self-consolation and the curative love of a sympathetic other:
It seems to me that the chief end of Letters is to exhibit to each a picture of the other’s soul, — of all the hopes and fears that agitate us, the joys and sorrows and varied anxieties in which a heart’s-friend may be expected to sympathise: and if I may trust my own judgement, this employment is even more useful… than any other to which our imperfect means of communication can be devoted… Man’s noblest part is not his poor glimmering taper of an understanding…: it is the heart that makes us great or little; and who would not rather be the meanest creature that can love, than the highest creature that could but perceive? … Oh for a friend — a bosom-friend — the treasure which many seek and few successfully — to be our own and ours alone, to have but one soul and spirit with us, to reflect back our every feeling, to love us and be loved without measure! I declare an hour of such high and sacred communion is worth more in my eyes than a whole eternity of shallow speculation.
The Love Letters of Thomas Carlyle and Jane Welsh is a beautiful, sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes heart-buoying read in its entirety. Complement this particular fragment with Tchaikovsky on depression and finding beauty amid the wreckage of the soul, Nietzsche on the rehabilitation of hope, and Jane Kenyon’s stunning poem about life with and after depression.
Published May 1, 2018