William Hazlitt is notorious for writing criticism that doesn’t hold back. A kind of rogue who received a large number of threats for his blatant opinions concerning authorship and culture, Hazlitt ruminated about the darker aspects of human experience.
In his best-known work, The Spirit of the Age, he appears more tame than in other essays, such as “Reason and Imagination.” Although he does frequently praise his contemporaries for certain noble attributes, Hazlitt is much more in the habit of ripping them to shreds.
Yet, he rarely elevates himself above these decapitated philosophers.
In “The Pleasure of Hating,” I find Hazlitt at his best. I also ponder about the function of hating in Victorian society, and its use today.
Hazlitt values a marriage between reason and imagination, viewing neither as superior yet both absolutely necessary to happiness — if happiness can be had. When reading “The Pleasure of Hating,” I wonder if he thought such a complicated enterprise — of striking the balance between reason and imagination — was worthwhile at all. If happiness was possible.
He argues that we — humans — “cannot part with the essence or principal of hostility:” the “brute violence.” The “cure” has been sought through “fine” writing, yet somehow it continues to fail or evade writers. The natural world is against us: it is made up of “antipathies.” He posits that “without something to hate,we should lose the very spring of thought and action. Life would turn to a stagnant pool, were it not ruffled by the jarring interests, the unruly passions of men.” Hazlitt believes that we “hanker” after hatred because “hatred alone is immortal.”
What strikes me first about Hazlitt’s philosophy is, of course, how it reflects the Victorian Age. Most critical essays and books written by Victorians about their own period tend to praise it as the center of civilization and progress. So Hazlitt — and essayists like him — offers some refreshment that breaks up the common flat-liner response to such a changing world. On the other hand, he also conforms to Victorian norms, calling humans “wild beasts” that have truths that “no Jermemy Bentham Panopticons” can survey. He finds that “the pleasure of hating […] eats into the heart of religion.” At last, we “come to hate ourselves.” Hatred does, indeed, seem to be just as integral of component of civilization and progress as, say, the train. Hazlitt contextualizes it through evolution, religion, and law.
Despite his stalwart call-to arms in support of hatred, he ends his essay sounding like a wounded child: “It is because pleasure asks a greater effort of the mind to support it than pain; and we turn, after a little idle dalliance, from what we love to what we hate!”
I can almost feel Hazlitt sobbing into his cuffs.
He bawls: “What chance is there of the success of real passion? […] Have I not reason to hate and to despise myself? Indeed, I do; and chiefly for not having hated and despised the world enough.”
I mean, Hazlitt degenerates in this essay from soldier-like philosopher to scared and disappointed child hiding under the bed crying until he chokes himself.
He is disappointed. Frustrated for harboring hope.
He, tellingly, never admits that he DOES harbor hope. This is partially what makes it so apparent.
He is mad at himself for being too trusting, too hopeful, too loving. And he wants to kill these feelings through rationalizing that they do not do him good.
I think about the way that hatred functions today. Don’t you?