William Hazlitt’s Selected Writings

Hazlitt's Selected WritingsWilliam Hazlitt was a 19th century political radical, art and theater critic, amateur philosopher and lover of literature. He is also widely considered one of the greatest essayists to ever live, a judgement that jars uncomfortably with the fact that his works are now largely out of print and difficult to come by. My own copy, published by the Oxford University Press, collects his major writings – “The Fight,” “The Indian Jugglers” and commentaries on Edmund Burke, Napoleon and Shakespeare, to name a few – but omits key essays, including his famous essay on Hamlet, in my estimation one of the best overviews of the play ever written, “On the Pleasure of Hating” and “On Cant and Hypocrisy.” Nonetheless, at almost 400 pages, this is the most comprehensive edition currently available.

The first essay, “What is the People?”, is a political tract attacking what Alexander Pope calls ‘the right Divine of kings to govern wrong’ and the pretension to inherited rule. Like Thomas Paine in “Common Sense” (which, in its day, contained anything but “common” or widely-held beliefs), Hazlitt defends the right of the people to self-governance, and does so with a righteous anger worthy of Paine: “…you [speaking about the defenders of monarchy] would make the throne every thing, and the people nothing, to be yourself less than nothing, a very slave, a reptile, a creeping, cringing sycophant, a court favorite, a pander to Legitimacy – that detestable fiction, which would make you and me and all mankind its slaves or victims…” It is difficult, in the present day, to convey how radical Hazlitt’s argument is; we have largely taken for granted those liberties – freedom of expression, representative government and the rights of the accused – for which Hazlitt is fighting, but it is on the foundations of these arguments that our society has been built, and for this we owe him and his compatriots a greater debt than we recognize.

Some of the pieces tend towards the abstract – “On Consistency of Opinion,” “On Personal Identity” and “Mind and Motive,” for example – but always they are filled with timeless pieces of wisdom or playful criticisms:

There are numbers who judge by the event, and change with fortune. They extol the hero of the day, and join the prevailing clamour whatever it is; so that the fluctuating state of public opinion regulates their feverish, restless enthusiasm, like a thermometer. They blow hot or cold, according as the wind sets favorably or otherwise. With such people the only infallible test of merit is success; and no arguments are true that have not a large or powerful majority on their side. They go by appearances. Their vanity, not the truth, is their ruling object. They are not the last to quit a falling cause, and they are the first to hail the rising sun. Their minds want sincerity, modesty, and keeping. […] The opinion of such triflers is worth nothing; it is merely an echo.

Or “The admiration of power in others is as common to man as the love of it in himself: the one makes him a tyrant, the other a slave.” In one of the most powerful sections, he inveighs against idolatry, the tendency of mankind to prostrate themselves before an ideology or belief:

The principle of an idolatry is the same: it is the want of something to admire, without knowing what or why: it is the love of an effect without a cause; it is a voluntary tribute of admiration which does not compromise our vanity: it is setting something up over all the rest of the world, to which we feel ourselves to be superior, for it is our own handy-work; so that the more perverse the homage we pay to it, the more it pampers our self-will: the meaner the object, the more magnificent and pompous the attributes we bestow upon it; the greater the lie, the more enthusiastically it is believed and greedily swallowed.

The idolatry Hazlitt most despises is the worship of monarchy and authoritarian government, which he sees as a cowardly substitute for independent thought and action, but the principles he delineates are equally applicable to fascism and communism and other modern, self-consuming ideologies.

There are included some brief biographical details, namely his first meetings with Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth, and conversations with Charles Lamb about the nature of human perception, but we gain a greater sense of his personality from his opinions and literary allusions. In his “Character of Mr. Burke,” Hazlitt defends his great rival and ideological opposite, Edmund Burke, arguing that he is, in spite of what Hazlitt perceives to be his errors, a ‘great man,’ a fact amply borne out by subsequent generations. Terry Eagleton, one of the leading figures on the political left and an incredible literary critic in his own right, paid tribute to Marx in a recent New York Review of Books essay by saying that he [Marx] was the ‘second best political writer to ever live, behind Edmund Burke.’ Thus Hazlitt avers that ‘it has always been with me a test of the sense and candor of any one belonging to the opposite party, whether he allowed Burke to be a great man.” Or take, for example, his essay “On Fashion,” a short tirade against human vanity and superficiality:

Fashion constantly begins and ends in the two things it abhors most, singularity and vulgarity. It is the perpetual setting up and disowning a certain standard of taste, elegance, and refinement, which has no other foundation or authority than that it is the prevailing distinction of the moment, which was yesterday ridiculous from its being new, and tomorrow will be odious from its being common. It is one of the most slight and insignificant of all things. It cannot be lasting, for it depends on the constant change and shifting of its own harlequin disguises; it cannot be sterling, for, if it were, it could not depend on the breath of caprice; it must be superficial, to produce its immediate effect on the gaping crowed; and frivolous, to admit of its being assumed at pleasure by the number of those who affect, by being in the fashion, to be distinguished from the rest of the world. It is not any thing in itself, nor the sign of any thing but the folly and vanity of those who rely upon it as their greatest pride and ornament. It takes the firmest hold of the most flimsy and narrow minds, of those whose emptiness conceives of nothing excellent but what is thought so by others, and whose self-conceit makes them willing to confine the opinion of all excellence to themselves and those like them.

Human vanity, it seems, has little changed in two centuries.

Hazlitt’s essays reveal an active and engaged mind, the prose rising in pitch in proportion to his commitment to the cause of its subject. Thus the essays on painting, politics and literature are triumphs of sustained energy, beginning and ending with the same fever-pitch of excitement. It is exactly this energy that Hazlitt’s contemporary Thomas Paine possesses in such abundance and that, combined with their commitment to writing in the vulgate (Hazlitt regularly speaks of his conscious swerve from the measured, studious prose of Dr. Johnson), has continued to make both men eminently readable. A collection of many of his essays can be found here.