On the essays shelf:
On the Pleasure of Hating, by William Hazlitt
Once you begin to get accustomed to Hazlitt’s style, you begin to see themes running through his work that pop up time and time again. Growing up in a culture of Unitarian dissent, he believed that man was capable of great things, if his energy and passion were activated. Energy and passion are usually a good thing, in Hazlitt’s lexicon. While he was born into the Age of Reason, he also came to maturity in the Romantic period, which valued emotion and subjective experience (sometimes to the exclusion of all else). Hazlitt was too much of a rationalist to follow in the steps of, say, Byron, but he did distrust those who distrusted emotional displays. He distrusts those who prize Rationality above all else. He sees something sinister in that (and I do, too), an unwillingness to engage not only with life, but with your fellow man. It is not rationalism that will explain why something is right or wrong: it is emotional, gut-level: human beings know murder is wrong, we don’t need someone to tell us Why. Whether or not we act correctly is up to us, but the human conscience is not based just in rationalism, but in emotion and “imagination”. In this essay, one of his great dialectical treatises, he pits Reason and Imagination against each other. He shows how those who prize Reason and dismiss Imagination are tyrants in the making, they lack empathy (and, in some cases, CHOOSE to have no empathy, which is the essence of Immorality – in Hazlitt’s opinion and in mine). Hazlitt was a dialectical thinker. He saw things in opposition to one another, but also as providing balance. Too much Imagination with no Reason leads to madness. Too much Reason with no Imagination leads to moral bankruptcy.
The essay contains a blistering critique of the institution of slavery. We don’t need to be told that slavery is wrong if we have empathy (and remember: he was writing this in the first years of the 19th century when slavery was still alive and well). If we can “imagine” what it would be like to be locked up in the hold of a ship for months at a time, then we know that slavery is wrong, because our GUT tells us it is wrong. You don’t need a pie chart to show why it is wrong. But there will always be those who distrust people who stand up in the face of injustice and scream “THIS IS WRONG.” It is thought that you need to have less passion to get things done, to see things clearly, but that is obviously not always the case. We can see some of that today in our polarized political world where people REFUSE to “imagine” what it would be like to be on the other side (and still be a good and moral person. Make no mistake: when you start demonizing the other side as less than human, you are on that “slippery slope” that the Idiots keep warning us about. That is the beginning. It is easy to tyrannize others when you have built your case that they deserve no mercy or empathy because they are less than human.) Hazlitt is so disgusted by slavery, not because he uses his Reason, and builds his case for why it is wrong, backed up with Bible passages and philosophical quotes. He is disgusted by slavery because he can put himself into the black man’s shoes and feel the horror that the black man must feel. He can imagine what it would be like to be such a man. (This is Stanislavsky’s “Magic If”, which – if all human beings could practice it – could change the world. Through the “Magic If” we can enter into ANYONE’S experience, through our Imagination.)
Hazlitt seems to propose that it is through our imagination that we know, in our guts, what is right and wrong, and in that he is a true Romantic. He has contempt for those who remain cool, rational, and philosophical in the face of an evil like slavery. He calls such people out for what they are.
This is an important essay and has a lot to do with how we live today, how we speak to one another today, how we judge one another today. For example, I remember when the Abu Ghraib story broke. I got into arguments with some of my more right-leaning friends (and I lean right, except when I lean left, that is), when I said, “What happened there is DISGUSTING.” They came back at me with what I saw as sophistry, philosophical “rational” justifications for what had happened (and they condescended to me, as though I hadn’t fully thought about the issues – which is part of Hazlitt’s critique: WHAT’S THERE TO THINK ABOUT??), but I saw their comments for the kneejerk partisan-based defense of “their side” that it was. To quote Hazlitt in his essay below:
Those evils that inflame the imagination and make the heart sick, ought not to leave the head cool.
There’s a lawsuit going down now in a church that interests me, because a friend was involved in it briefly. Horrifying abuse has gone on for years and the church covered it up. The pastors protected their own. They’re the type of Christians who distrust secular authorities anyway. The arguments come fast and furious, and the mainstream media has picked up the story now (thanks to the tireless efforts of Christian bloggers who have continued to highlight the injustice – like the two writers who helm the site I link to above), so the prospect (for the slimy pastors) does not look good. But the Christians who come racing to the defense are interesting to me. The Christians who denounce the accusers in the lawsuit and denounce the websites who dare to criticize the actions of this particular church ask, “What about forgiveness? Cannot we forgive the defendants? Are we not Christians?” But there is a deeper concern for these charlatan defenders (although few of them say it out loud): They are so NERVOUS about Christians “looking bad” to the wider secular culture (Uhm, too late) that they don’t want any of this to come to light, and so “let’s focus on forgiveness”, “let’s handle it in-house”, “let’s handle it Biblically” etc. They cannot see that they have failed to do the #1 thing any moral society should do: Protect the most innocent among them. Forgiveness without justice is meaningless, at least when it comes to a heinous crime such as child abuse. The Christians clamoring to the defense are mainly nervous that the truth coming out will make THEM look bad. And sorry, folks, but that is evil. I make the equivalency with those who raced to somehow justify the horrors of the Abu Gharib situation because they were afraid that it would make America look bad. Well, too late, guys. I love America, but I don’t love it “right or wrong”. I have enough of a moral compass to say, “This was not our finest hour.” Really look in your heart and see where your defense of evil is coming from. The whole lawsuit situation (that link above is just the tip of the iceberg) is playing out in exactly that manner. If you cannot say that child abuse and child molestation is wrong … then seriously. There is no hope for you. (This goes for the Paterno fanboys as well. You are completely lost to any morality if you cannot look at that situation and call it Evil Incarnate.)
The same goes for Abu Ghraib. Nobody could ever accuse me of being anti-military (and the fact that I have to say that shows you how flimsy the arguments on the Right side were), but if you cannot look at Abu Ghraib and say “That was wrong” then there is no hope for you, in a moral sense. (This is not to say that those MPs and guards were not in a terrible position. They were. You have only to read about that assignment to despair for anyone keeping their head and morality about them.) But look out for those, on the right and left, who always say, “But look at the other side!!” Of course it is good to “look at the other side”, in a philosophical sense, to try to understand, to try to enter into the experience of those who may disagree with you, but those who compulsively tell you to “look at the other side” are not thinking that way: they are trying to show that the “other side” (meaning: politically) is just as bad as “their side”, and so “nobody wins” and so “the sum is zero” and so “we can’t judge anyone” and “everyone is wrong so why point fingers”. But listen: no amount of wordsmithing can make the scales balance in certain situations, slavery being one of them, as Hazlitt points out below. Any economic defense, any Biblical defense, is horseshit when you sit for a second, and imagine being an African ripped away from his family and kept in the hold of a ship in chains. Don’t even try to talk about “the other side” in such a situation. (This is my main issue with the Left, if I could boil it down: they always want a Zero Sum. “Yes, this bad thing happened, and Bad Men did this Bad Thing to us, but it’s because of this other Bad Thing that WE did, so the sum is Zero, so we suck, and so let’s just sit around talking about How We Suck.” The Right does this too: “But look at how mean the Left can be!” This is why I don’t listen to anyone anymore, basically. I hole myself up with Hazlitt, and ignore ALL of those chattering partisan fools!)
Here’s Hazlitt. This is a great and humanist essay. When it comes to clear evil, distrust those who respond to it reasonably. They are up to no good. They are hiding something.
On the Pleasure of Hating, ‘On Reason and Imagination’, by William Hazlitt
Passion, in short, is the essence, the chief ingredient in moral truth; and the warmth of passion is sure to kindle the light of imagination on the objects around it. The ‘words that glow’ are almost inseparable from the ‘thoughts that burn’. Hence logical reason and practical truth are disparates. It is easy to raise an outcry against violent invectives, to talk loud against extravagance and enthusiasm, to pick a quarrel with every thing but the most calm, candid, and qualified statement of facts: but there are enormities to which no words can do adequate justice. Are we then, in order to form a complete idea of truth, to omit every circumstance of aggravation, or to suppress every feeling of impatience that arises out of the details, lest we should be accused of giving way to the influence of prejudice and passion? This would be to falsify the impression altogether, to misconstrue reason, and fly in the face of nature. Suppose, for instance, that in the discussions on the Slave-Trade, a description to the life was given of the horrors of the Middle Passage (as it was termed), that you saw the manner in which thousands of wretches, year after year, were stowed together in the hold of a slave-ship, without air, without light, without food, without hope, so that what they suffered in reality was brought home to you in imagination, till you felt in sickness of heart as one of them, could it be said that this was a prejudging of the case, that your knowing the extent of the evil disqualified you from pronouncing sentence upon it, and that your disgust and abhorrence were the effects of a heated imagination? No. Those evils that inflame the imagination and make the heart sick, ought not to leave the head cool. This is the very test and measure of the degree of the enormity, that it involuntarily staggers and appals the mind. If it were a common iniquity, if it were slight and partial, or necessary, it would not have this effect; but it very properly carries away the feelings, and (if you will) overpowers the judgment, because it is a mass of evil so monstrous and unwarranted as not to be endured, even in thought. A man on the rack does not suffer the less, because the extremity of anguish takes away his command of feeling and attention to appearances. A pang inflicted on humanity is not the less real, because it stirs up sympathy in the breast of humanity. Would you tame down the glowing language of justifiable passion into that of cold indifference, of self-complacent, sceptical reasoning, and thus take out the sting of indignation from the mind of the spectator? Not, surely, till you have removed the nuisance by the levers that strong feeling alone can set at work, and have thus taken away the pang of suffering that caused it! Or say that the question were proposed to you, whether, on some occasion, you should have thrust your hand into the flames, and were coolly told that you were not at all to consider the pain and anguish it might give you, nor suffer yourself to be led away by any such idle appeals to natural sensibility, but to refer the decision to some abstract, technical ground of propriety, would you not laugh in your adviser’s face? Oh! no; where our own interests are concerned, or where we are sincere in our profession of regard, the pretended distinction between sound judgment and lively imagination is quickly done away with. But I would not wish a better or more philosophical standard of morality, than that we should think and feel towards others as we should, if it were our own case. If we look for a higher standard than this, we shall not find it, but shall lose the substance for the shadow! Again, suppose an extreme or individual instance is brought forward in any general question, as that of the cargo of sick slaves that were thrown overboard as so much live lumber by the captain of a Guinea vessel, in the year 1775, which was one of the things that first drew the attention of the public to this nefarious traffic (See Memoirs of Granville Sharp, by Prince Hoare, Esq.), or the practice of suspending contumacious negroes in cages to have their eyes pecked out, and to be devoured alive by birds of prey — Does this form no rule, because the mischief is solitary or excessive? The rule is absolute; for we feel that nothing of the kind could take place, or be tolerated for an instant, in any system that was not rotten at the core. If such things are ever done in any circumstances with impunity, we know what must be done every day under the same sanction. It shows that there is an utter deadness to every principle of justice or feeling of humanity; and where this is the case, we may take out our tables of abstraction, and set down what is to follow through every gradation of petty, galling vexation, and wanton, unrelenting cruelty. A state of things, where a single instance of the kind can probably happen without exciting general consternation, ought not to exist for half an hour. The parent, hydra-headed injustice ought to be crushed at once with all its viper brood. Practices, the mention of which makes the flesh creep, and that affront the light of day, ought to be put down the instant they are known, without inquirty and without repeal.
There was an example of eloquent moral reasoning connected with this subject, given in the work just referred to, which was not the less solid and profound, because it was produced by a burst of strong personal and momentary feeling. It is what follows: — “The name of a person having mention mentioned in the presence of Naimbanna (a young African chieftain), who was understood by him to have publicly asserted something very degrading to the general character of Africans, he broke out into violent and vindictive language. He was immediately reminded of the Christian duty of forgiving his enemies; upon which he answered nearly in the following words: — “If a man should rob me of my money, I can forgive him; if a man should shoot me, or try to stab me, I can forgive him; if a man should sell me and all my family to a slave-ship, so that we should pass all the rest of our days in slavery in the West Indies, I can forgive him; but” (added he, rising from his seat with much emotion) “if a man takes away the character of the people of my country, I never can forgive him.” Being asked why he would not extend his forgiveness to those who took away the character of the people of his country, he answered: “If a man should try to kill me, or should sell me and my family for slaves, he would do an injury to as many as he might kill or sell; but if any one takes away the character of Black people, that man injures Black people all over the world; and when he has once taken away their character, there is nothing which he may not do to Black people ever after. That man, for instance, will beat Black men, and say, Oh, it is only a Black man, why should I not beat him? That man will make slaves of Black people; for, when he has taken away their character, he will say, Oh, they are only Black people, why should I not make them slaves? That man will take away all the people of Africa if he can catch them; and if you ask him, But why do you take away all these people? he will say, Oh! they are only Black people – they are not like White people – why should I not take them? That is the reason why I cannot forgive the man who takes away the character of the people of my country.”‘ – Memoirs of Granville Sharp.
I conceive more real light and vital heat is thrown into the argument by this struggle of natural feeling to relieve itself from the weight of a false and injurious imputation, than would be added to it by twenty volumes of tables and calculations of the pros and cons of right and wrong, of utlity and inutility, in Mr Bentham’s hand-writing. In allusion to this celebrated person’s theory of morals, I will here go a step farther, and deny that the dry calculation of consequences is the sole and unqualified test of right and wrong; for we are to take into the account (as well) the reaction of these consequences upon the mind of the individual and the community. In morals, the cultivation of a moral sense is not the last thing to be attended to – nay, it is the first. Almost the only unsophisticated or spirited remark that we meet with in Paley’s Moral Philosophy, is one which is also to be found in Tucker’s Light of Nature — namely, that in dispensing charity to common beggars we are not to consider so much the good it may do the object of it, as the harm it will do the person who refuses it. A sense of compassion is involuntarily excited by the immediate appearance of distress, and a violence and injury is done to the kindly feelings by withholding the obvious relief, the trifling pittance in our power. This is a remark, I think, worthy of the ingenious and amiable author from which Paley borrowed it. So with respect to the atrocities committed in the Slave-Trade, it could not be set up as doubtful plea in their favour, that the actual and intolerable sufferings inflicted on the individuals were compensated by certain advantages in a commercial and political point of view — in a moral sense they cannot be compensated. They hurt the public mind: they harden and sear the natural feelings. The evil is monstrous and palpable; the pretended good is remote and contingent.