The Books: On the Pleasure of Hating, ‘What is the People?’, by William Hazlitt

On the essays shelf:

On the Pleasure of Hating, by William Hazlitt

Originally published in 1817, ‘What is the People?’ shows William Hazlitt’s radical background, and dissenting point of view. He grew up Unitarian (his father was a minister, and it had been hoped William would follow in his footsteps), and the Unitarians had a long history of dissent. If William got anything from his schooling at a Unitarian seminary, it was this respect for dissent, and this belief in the individual goodness of man and his liberty. Born in 1778, born into dangerous tumultuous times, Hazlitt never “played well with others”. He was a political animal as well as an artistic one, and his essays are quite consistent in their philosophy and point of view. There are many reasons why was ignored posthumously and allowed to sink into obscurity (that has changed, however). The critical minds of the early 20th century dismissed him for his tastes (Milton was out of favor by then, and Hazlitt thought Milton was second only to Shakespeare). T.S. Eliot, very influential in his writings on other writers, was particularly scathing about Hazlitt. So Hazlitt sank. Hazlitt has been rising again. It is still difficult to find his work in print although a lot of his essays can be found online.

Hazlitt was not a believer, but he had respect for the tradition of belief (it had given him so much: his schooling, which was excellent). He grew up in a time of revolution and reason, when man took center stage, when it seemed all things were possible. He was not quite so cynical as Edmund Burke was about man’s ability to be good. After all, he was very influenced by Rousseau. But he had a lot to say about power, and monarchy (here is just one example).

In “What is the People?”, you can see the influence of the French Revolution on him. Edmund Burke, famously, tore the French Revolution a new one. Yes, look to the future, by all means, but pulling down the past and its traditions can only lead to ruin (which was, indeed, the case in France, whose revolution led to Napoleon, a man whom Hazlitt idolized). Hazlitt seems to be saying, at least in the final sections, that the majority (meaning, the people) will always work together towards that which is good. (I disagree entirely.) It is monarchy (divine or legitimate) that he distrusts. (I agree with him.) This is a great essay about the nature of power (so many of Hazlitt’s essays are). When one has power, it is not natural for one to say, “Okay, that’s it. I have enough power now.” The nature of power is to make one hungry for more. Therefore, anyone in power must be watched like a hawk, must be held back by checks and balances, must never ever be trusted to look out for the people’s interests. I’m with him there. His belief in the inherent goodness of the people sounds almost Marxist (in the classic sense, not in the ignorant boneheaded sense of today’s usage): If the people were in charge, we all know that they would not be tempted by power, because Man is Good, and when a bunch of men get together, filled with virtue and honor, we all know that they will want what is best. This was a common belief of the time (the Russian Revolution and the Great Terror was a century away), and had obviously been played out in the American Revolution (which Edmund Burke had famously defended). The men of the American Revolution were the elites of their own community, that cannot be denied. But neither was any of their power “inherited”. Heredity had nothing to do with who rose to the top. Meritocracy alone decided that. This changed the world. And, unlike the French Revolution, it did not proceed to feed on itself and eat its young.

Remember, that George III, when he heard that George Washington was planning to retire as Commander in Chief, said: “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”

A man walking away from power? When he already had it in his hands?

So Hazlitt’s broadside here about “the people” is really a broadside against monarchs and Lords, and those who inherit their power. Because they will always be separate from the people, and – even more deadly: they will not understand that the greater the power you have, the more it needs to be LIMITED, hemmed in, checked, balanced. Revolutionary thoughts indeed.

On the Pleasure of Hating, ‘What is the People?’, by William Hazlitt

The power of an arbitrary King or an aspiring Minster does not increase with the liberty of the subject, but must be circumscribed by it. It is aggrandized by perpetual, systematic, insidious, or violent encroachments on popular freedom and natural right, as the sea gains upon the land by swallowing it up. — What then can we expect from the mild paternal sway of absolute power, and its sleek minions? What the world has always received at its hands, an abuse of power as vexatious, cowardly, and unrelenting, as the power itself was unprincipled, preposterous, and unjust. They who get wealth and power from the people, who drive them like cattle to slaughter or to market, ‘and levy cruel wars, wasting the earth,’ they who wallow in luxury, while the people are ‘steeped in poverty to the very lips’, and bowed to the earth with unremitting labour, can have but little sympathy with those whose loss of liberty and property is their gain. What is it that the wealth of thousands is composed of? The tears, the sweat, and blood of millions. What is it that constitutes the glory of the Sovereigns of the earth? To have millions of men their slaves. Wherever the Government does not emanate (as in our own excellent Constitution) from the people, the principle of the Government, the esprit de corps, the point of honour, in all those connected with it, and raised by it to privileges above the law and above humanity, will be hatred to the people. Kings who would be thought to reign in contempt of the people, will show their contempt of them in every act of their lives. Parliaments, not chosen by the people, will only be the instruments of Kings, who do not reign in the hearts of the people, ‘to betray the cause of the people’. Ministers, not responsible to the people, will squeeze the last shilling out of them. Charity begins at home, is a maxim as true of Governments as of individuals. When the English Parliament insisted on nits right of taxing the Americans without their consent, it was not from an apprehension that the Americans would, by being left to themselves, lay such heavy duties on their own produce and manufactures, as would afflict the generosity of the mother country, and put the mild paternal sentiments of Lord North to the blush. If any future King of England should keep a wistful eye on the map of that country, it would rather be to hang it up as a trophy of legitimacy, and to ‘punish the last successful example of a democratic rebellion,’ than from any yearnings of fatherly goodwill to the American people, or from finding his ‘large heart’ and capacity for good government, ‘confined in too narrow room’ in the united kingdoms of Great Britain, Ireland, and Hanover. If Ferdinand VII refuses the South American patriots leave to plant the olive or the vine, throughout that vast continent, it is his pride, not his humanity, that steels his royal resolution.*

In 1781, the Controller-general of France, under Louis XVI, Monsieur Joly de Fleury, defined the people of France to be un peuple serf, corveable et baillable, a merci et misericorde.** When Louis XVIII as the Count de Lille, protested against his brother’s accepting the Constitution of 1792 (he has since become an accepter of Constitutions himself, if not an observer of them), as compromising the rights and privileges of the noblesse and clergy as well as of the crown, he was right in considering the Bastille, or “King’s castle’, with the picturesque episode of the Man in the Iron Mask, the fifteen thousand letters de cachet,*** issued in the mild reign of Louis XV, corvees,**** tithes, game-laws, holy water, the right of pillaging, imprisoning, massacring, persecuting, harassing, insulting, and ingeniously tormenting the minds and bodies of the whole French people at every moment of their lives, on every possible pretence, and without any check or control but their own mild paternal sentiments towards them, as among the menus plaisists, ***** the chief points of etiquette, the immemorial privileges, and favourite amusements of Kings, Priests and Nobles, from the beginning to the end of time, without which the bare title of King, Priest, or Noble, would not have been worth a goat.

*The Government of Ovando, a Spanish Grandee and Knight of Alcantara, who had been sent over to Mexico soon after its conquest, exceeded in treachery, cruelty, wanton bloodshed, and deliberate extortion, that of all those who had preceded him; and the complaints became so loud, that Queen Isabel on her death-bed requested that he might be recalled; but Ferdinand found that Ovando had sent home much gold, and he retained him in his situation. — See Capt. Burney’s History of the Buccaneers.

** A servile people, liable to forced labour and exploitation, at the mercy of others.

*** Documents permitting members of the French nobility or ministry to imprison or deport a person without trial.

**** Rent paid in labour

***** Small pleasures

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