On the essays shelf:
On the Pleasure of Hating, by William Hazlitt
I went into William Hazlitt’s biography and background here. Growing up, as he did, in an age of world-wide revolution, he was interested in the concepts of power, tyranny, and rule. Where does power actually come from? As a British subject, he lived in a constitutional monarchy. At least the king was halted (supposedly) by things like the Bill of Rights, as well as Parliament and the Houses. Hazlitt does throw a bone in England’s direction here in the essay, but his tone is almost sarcastic:
A constitutional king, on the other hand, is a servant of the public, a representative of the people’s wants and wishes, dispensing justice and mercy according to law. Such a monarch is the King of England! Such was his late, and such is his present Majesty George IVth! [Phew!]–
Hazlitt was a big supporter of Napoleon (who also is mentioned in this essay, as a man who rose to the heights that he did through merit not heredity), and Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo was a devastating blow to Hazlitt and others like him. He had watched from across the Channel as the French Revolution descended into tyranny and horror. He had had no love for the French king and the French court (what Englishman did at that time?), and thought the absolute monarch was an abomination. He had hoped that Napoleon would counteract the travesty of power and tyranny that France had become.
Hazlitt has no love for kings. He has contempt for the worship of them. (This essay could also be seen, in our current day, as a critique of the celebrity-worship cycle: we love them and we also love to see them fall. Not our finest hour.) Hazlitt, as a thinking man, a man in the Age of Reason, could not stand the idea that what we were worshipping was perhaps unworthy of said worship. We worship the role, not the man. The man himself could be moronic, slightly retarded, or crazed with evil power lust. Didn’t matter. Heredity put him on the throne, and therefore we bow to him.
If you think about it, critically, there is nothing more evil than that.
Power corrupts absolutely, and all that. Hazlitt makes the very excellent point that those who are brought up in pomp and circumstance, knowing they are destined for the throne, are not inclined to sympathize/empathize with their subjects. More likely, they will look upon them as a “lower” breed of humanity. Much wickedness results from this impasse. (And still does. I am thinking of a certain comment from a certain current-day politician, describing the near-majority of his countrymen as moochers and lazy-bum-asses standing around with their pathetic hands out. Total lack of the cerebral/emotional ability to enter into the difficulties of people’s lives that are not padded by million dollar bills.) Hazlitt sees that problem, he calls it out, he names it. He scorns the over-identification of the subject with the master. He suggests that it is a glorified mirror we are all looking for. We want a king to be glorious and splendid, because it makes us feel good about ourselves, and we can lose ourselves in beautiful fantasies, ie: “If things were only slightly different, that could be me.”
Hazlitt’s main beef appears to be with the artifice of the whole thing, the insistence that the public buy the surface as a stand-in for a substantial interior. Well, if there IS no substance, then at least we have sceptres and capes and robes, and isn’t that enough? Hazlitt is right to call that out as wicked and contemptible. And even with the bone he throws to the constitutional monarch, his individuality is clear, his fierce independence and his refusal to “buy into” the myths being presented to him.
He makes the analogy of a little girl playing with a doll. If you tear the doll apart to show her it’s just a piece of wood with some flaxen stuff on it for hair, she will not only be devastated, but think you are rather stupid, because: she KNOWS the doll isn’t real, she already KNOWS that, but she likes to fantasize about the doll, and she likes to make the doll live out her own fantasy life, and why do you want to get in the way of that?
A sympathetic portrayal of childhood, but who wants to be compared to a little girl playing with a doll when you are bowing to a king? You can see why Hazlitt ruffled feathers.
Here is an excerpt. It’s a long essay, first published in The Liberal in 1823. Well worth seeking out the whole thing (most of these are online in their entirety.)
He discusses the ancient worship of animals, which he describes as horseshit in nature. His contempt for religion is certainly in evidence: people know they are participating in a lie, but it is not proper to say that or admit it. If you do, you could be burned as a heretic, you will be scorned, dismissed, shunned. He describes the worship of a King in the same manner as the worship of animals.
Hazlitt didn’t just take the gloves off. I don’t think he ever wore gloves in the first place.
On the Pleasure of Hating, ‘On the Spirit of Monarchy’, by William Hazlitt
The game was carried on through all the first ages of the world, and is till kept up in many parts of it; and it is impossible to describe the wars, massacres, horrors, miseries, and crimes, to which it gave colour, sanctity, and sway. The idea of a God, beneficent and just, the invisible maker of all things, was abhorrent to their gross material notions. No, they must have Gods of their own making that they could see and handle, that they knew to be nothing in themselves but senseless images, and these they daubed over with the gaudy emblems of their own pride and passions, and these they lauded to the skies, and grew fierce, obscene, frantic before them, as the representatives of their sordid ignorance and barbaric vices. TRUTH, GOOD, were idle names to them, without a meaning. They must have a lie, a palpable pernicious lie, to pamper their crude unhallowed conceptions with, and to exercise the untamable fierceness of their wills. The Jews were the only people of antiquity who were withheld form running headlong into this abomination; yet so strong was the propensity in them (from inherent frailty as well as neighbouring example) that it could only be curbed and kept back by the hands of Omnipotence.3 At length, reason prevailed over imagination so far, that these brute idols and their alters were overturned: it was thought too much to set up stocks and stones, Golden Calves and Brazen Serpents as bona fide Gods and Goddesses, which men were to fall down and worship at their peril — and Pope long after summed up the merits of the whole mythologic tribe in a handsome distich –
“Gods partial, changeful, passionate, unjust,
Whose attributes were rage, revenge, or lust.”
It was thought a bold stride to divert the course of our imaginations the overflowings of our enthusiasms, our love of the mighty and the marvelous, from the dead to the living subject, and there we stick. We have got living idols, instead of dead ones; and we fancy that they are real, and put faith in them accordingly. Oh Reason! When will thy long minority expire? It is not now the fashion to make gods of wood and stone and brass, but we make kings of common men, and are proud of our own handywork. We take a child from his birth and we agree, when he grows up to be a man, to heap the highest honours of the state upon him and to pay the most devoted homage to his will. Is there anything in the person, “any mark, any likelihood,” to warrant this sovereign awe and dread? No: he may be little better than an idiot, little short of a madman, and yet he is no less qualified for king.4 If he can contrive to pass the College of Physicians, the Heralds’ College dub him divine. Can we make any given individual taller or stronger or wiser than other men, or different in any respect from what nature intended him to be? No; but we can make a king of him. We cannot add a cubit to the stature, or instill a virtue into the minds of monarchs — but we can put a sceptre into their hands, a crown upon their heads, we can set them on an eminence, we can surround them with circumstance, we can aggrandize them with power, we can pamper their appetites we can pander to their wills. We can do everything to exalt them in external rank and station — nothing to lift them one step higher in the scale of moral or intellectual excellence. Education does not give capacity or temper; and the education of kings is not especially directed to useful knowledge or liberal sentiment. What then is the state of the case? The highest respect of the community and of every individual in it is paid and is due of right there, where perhaps not an idea can take root, or a single fixture be engrafted. Is not this to erect a standard of esteem directly opposite of that of mind and morals. The lawful monarch may be the best or the worst man in his dominions, he may be the wisest or the weakest, the wittiest of the stupidest: still he is equally entitled to our homage as king, for it is the place and power we bow to, and not the man. He may be a sublimation of all the vices and diseases of the human heart; yet we are not to say so, we dare not even think so. “Fear God and Honour the King, ” is equally a maxim at all times and seasons. The personal character of the king has nothing to do with the question. Thus the extrinsic is set up over the intrinsic by authority: wealth and interest lend their countenance to gilded vice and infamy on principle, and outward show and advantages become the symbols and standard of respect in despite of useful qualities or well-directed efforts through all ranks and gradations of society. “From the crown of the head to the sole of foot there is no soundness left.” The whole style of moral thinking, feeling, acting, is in a false tone — is hollow, spurious, meretricious. Virtue, says Montesquieu, is the principle of republics; honour, of a monarchy. But it is “honour dishonourable, sin-bred” — it is the honour of trucking a principle for a place, of exchanging our honest convictions for a ribbon or a garter. The business of life is a scramble for unmerited precedence. Is not the highest respect entailed, the highest station filled without any possible proofs or pretension to public spirit or public principle? Shall not the next places to it be secured by the sacrifice of them? It is the order of the day, the understood etiquette of courts and kingdoms. For the servants of the crown to presume on merit, when the crown itself is held as an heir-loom by prescription, is a kind of lese majeste, an indirect attainder of the title to the succession. Are not all eyes turned onto the sun of court-favour? Who would not then reflect its smile by the performance of any acts which can avail the in the eye of the great, and by the surrender of any virtue, which attracts neither notice nor applause? The stream of corruption begins at the fountain-head of court-influence. The sympathy of mankind is that on which all strong feeling and opinion floats; and this sets in full every absolute monarchy to the side of tinsel show and iron-handed power, in contempt and defiance of right and wrong. The right and the wrong are of little consequence, compared to the in and the out. The distinction between Whig and Tory is merely nominal: neither have their country one bit at heart. Pshaw! We had forgot — Our British monarchy is a mixed, and the only perfect form of government; and therefore what is here said cannot properly apply to it. But MIGHT BEFORE RIGHT is the motto blazoned on the front of unimpaired and undivided Sovereignty! –