“Carlyle was not a conservative,” wrote Simon Heffer in his excellent biography of Thomas Carlyle, Moral Desperado (1995). “What he saw of the socio-political system in the mid-nineteenth century he despised, and saw no point in conserving.” That is true, but the fact that Heffer had to say it suggests the existence of other reasonable interpretations: one wouldn’t say, for example, that Nietzsche wasn’t a conservative. Richard Reeves, by contrast, in his recent and highly competent biography of John Stuart Mill, repeatedly and without explanation calls Carlyle a “conservative,” presumably for no other reason than that Carlyle’s views diverged sharply from those of the “liberal” Mill. Indeed, the question of whether Carlyle was a conservative, a liberal, a proto-socialist, a nationalist reactionary, or something else again—that is, the question of how to...


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