The Books: On the Pleasure of Hating, ‘On the Pleasure of Hating’, by William Hazlitt

On the essays shelf:

On the Pleasure of Hating, by William Hazlitt

My favorite quote about hatred is from Rebecca West:

“A strong hatred is the best lamp to bear in our hands as we go over the dark places of life, cutting away the dead things men tell us to revere.”

It is something I keep in mind when I am reminded, repeatedly, that I must forgive, love, be soft, be open, be receptive to the other side’s point of view. I am a fan of hatred, when used sparingly. It can be quite bracing, and it can be an excellent reminder of who you are, and what you will not stand for. I think hatred has its place. Both personally and politically. Of course, when you operate solely FROM hatred, you are a lost soul, and not worth listening to. In fact, I hate people who operate solely from hatred, how’s that. And if you are in politics and you operate solely from hatred, then I hate you even more, and consider you my enemy and will work as hard as I can to keep you away from office. So like I said. Hatred has its uses. It can make things very clear. It can also poison your entire existence. So you have to keep a watchful eye on your soul and spirit.

I was originally drawn to 19th century writer William Hazlitt because of the title of this one particular essay (published in The Plain Speaker in 1826). I understand the pleasure of hating, I understand hatred’s uses, and when it is used as a “lamp” as I tread over the “dark places of life”, it becomes indispensable. (It has certainly saved much of my heart’s softness/receptivity in the past couple of months. Without hatred, I would have drowned completely. Of course, West is talking primarily politically there, but it works on a personal level as well.) People always reference this particular essay of Hazlitt’s, and it is the title of the little collection I have. I was so curious to hear his thoughts. What does he mean by “pleasure”? What is his take? Is it mine?

Suffice it to say, no, it is not my take.

Hazlitt’s essay on “hating” is really about how everything good in this life eventually goes sour (friendships deteriorate, we dislike books we once adored, etc.), and he wonders why that is. Why on earth can’t things STAY good? (Remember, he was hugely influenced by Rousseau. He really believed people were inherently good. So this essay is, in many ways, an admission of a failure of philosophy.) His conclusion is that humanity finds great pleasure in “hating” things, and the pleasure in hating is even greater than the pleasure in pleasure – so that is why things are the way they are. I wouldn’t call Hazlitt a positive individual, not really, but this is certainly one of the most sour things of his I have read. He sounds bummed out. He has thought long and hard on the topic. He clearly writes from his own personal experience, which includes a disastrous first marriage, and lots of passionate male friendships (with Coleridge, Wordsworth, and others) that were eventually destroyed (mainly through his own actions). When he was a young man, he had lots of friends. By the time he wrote this essay, that was changing. He was becoming isolated. He had dust-ups with lifelong friends. His publishing opportunities diminished. He found himself unable to continue, in many respects. A lot of this was political. He was hounded by his political opponents (so ferociously that he sued at one point, and won). So it is obvious where he might be coming from.

Humanity, according to Hazlitt, clearly PREFERS being angry and hateful. Otherwise we would stop. He also sees things dialectically, as I think I have mentioned before. Love cannot exist without hate. We only know what we love when we put in opposition to something. It is a pessimistic outlook on humanity’s prospects, which sort of stands out in Hazlitt’s work.

This is one of his most famous essays and should be read in its entirety (so much food for thought), but here is an excerpt.

On the Pleasure of Hating, ‘On the Pleasure of Hating’, by William Hazlitt

Nature seems (the more we look into it) made up of antipathies: 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. The white streak in our own fortunes is brightened (or just rendered visible) by making all around it as dark as possible; so the rainbow paints its form upon the cloud. Is it pride? Is it envy? Is it the force of contrast? Is it weakness or malice? But so it is, that there is a secret affinity, a hankering after, evil in the human mind, and that it takes a perverse, but a fortunate delight in mischief, since it is a never-failing source of satisfaction. Pure good soon grows insipid, wants variety and spirit. Pain is a bittersweet, wants variety and spirit. Love turns, with a little indulgence, to indifference or disgust: hatred alone is immortal. Do we not see this principle at work everywhere? Animals torment and worry one another without mercy: children kill flies for sport: every one reads the accidents and offences in a newspaper as the cream of the jest: a whole town runs to be present at a fire, and the spectator by no means exults to see it extinguished. It is better to have it so, but it diminishes the interest; and our feelings take part with our passions rather than with our understandings. Men assemble in crowds, with eager enthusiasm, to witness a tragedy: but if there were an execution going forward in the next street, as Mr. Burke observes, the theater would be left empty. A strange cur in a village, an idiot, a crazy woman, are set upon and baited by the whole community. Public nuisances are in the nature of public benefits. How long did the Pope, the Bourbons, and the Inquisition keep the people of England in breath, and supply them with nicknames to vent their spleen upon! Had they done us any harm of late? No: but we have always a quantity of superfluous bile upon the stomach, and we wanted an object to let it out upon. How loth were we to give up our pious belief in ghosts and witches, because we liked to persecute the one, and frighten ourselves to death with the other! It is not the quality so much as the quantity of excitement that we are anxious about: we cannot bear a state of indifference and ennui: the mind seems to abhor a vacuum as much as ever nature was supposed to do. Even when the spirit of the age (that is, the progress of intellectual refinement, warring with our natural infirmities) no longer allows us to carry our vindictive and head strong humours into effect, we try to revive them in description, and keep up the old bugbears, the phantoms of our terror and our hate, in imagination. We burn Guy Fawx in effigy, and the hooting and buffeting and maltreating that poor tattered figure of rags and straw makes a festival in every village in England once a year. Protestants and Papists do not now burn one another at the stake: but we subscribe to new editions of Fox’s Book of Martyrs; and the secret of the success of the Scotch Novels is much the same-they carry us back to the feuds, the heart-burnings, the havoc, the dismay, the wrongs, and the revenge of a barbarous age and people-to the rooted prejudices and deadly animosities of sects and parties in politics and religion, and of contending chiefs and clans in war and intrigue. We feel the full force of the spirit of hatred with all of them in turn. As we read, we throw aside the trammels of civilization, the flimsy veil of humanity. “Off, you lendings!” The wild beast resumes its sway within us, we feel like hunting animals, and as the hound starts in his sleep and rushes on the chase in fancy the heart rouses itself in its native lair, and utters a wild cry of joy, at being restored once more to freedom and lawless unrestrained impulses. Every one has his full swing, or goes to the Devil his own way. Here are no Jeremy Bentham Panopticons, none of Mr. Owen’s impassable Parallelograms (Rob Roy would have spurred and poured a thousand curses on them), no long calculations of self-interest — the will takes its instant way to its object, as the mountain-torrent flings itself over the precipice: the greatest possible good of each individual consists in doing all the mischief he can to his neighbour: that is charming, and finds a sure and sympathetic chord in every breast! So Mr. Irving, the celebrated preacher, has rekindled the old, original, almost exploded hell-fire in the aisles of the Caledonian Chapel, as they introduce the real water of the New River at Sadler’s Wells, to the delight and astonishment of his fair audience. ‘Tis pretty, though a plague, to sit and peep into the pit of Tophet, to play at snap-dragon with flames and brimstone (it gives a smart electrical shock, a lively filip to delicate constitutions), and to see Mr. Irving, like a huge Titan, looking as grim and swarthy as if he had to forge tortures for all the damned! What a strange being man is! Not content with doing all he can to vex and hurt his fellows here, “upon this bank and shoal of time,” where one would think there were heartaches, pain, disappointment, anguish, tears, sighs, and groans enough, the bigoted maniac takes him to the top of the high peak of school divinity to hurl him down the yawning gulf of penal fire; his speculative malice asks eternity to wreak its infinite spite in, and calls on the Almighty to execute its relentless doom! The cannibals burn their enemies and eat them in good-fellowship with one another: meed Christian divines cast those who differ from them but a hair’s-breadth, body and soul into hellfire for the glory of God and the good of His creatures! It is well that the power of such persons is not co-ordinate with their wills: indeed it is from the sense of their weakness and inability to control the opinions of others, that they thus “outdo termagant,” and endeavour to frighten them into conformity by big words and monstrous denunciations.

The pleasure of hating, like a poisonous mineral, eats into the heart of religion, and turns it to rankling spleen and bigotry; it makes patriotism an excuse for carrying fire, pestilence, and famine into other lands: it leaves to virtue nothing but the spirit of censoriousness, and a narrow, jealous, inquisitorial watchfulness over the actions and motives of others. What have the different sects, creeds, doctrines in religion been but so many pretexts set up for men to wrangle, to quarrel, to tear one another in pieces about, like a target as a mark to shoot at? Does any one suppose that the love of country in an Englishman implies any friendly feeling or disposition to serve another bearing the same name? No, it means only hatred to the French or the inhabitants of any other country that we happen to be at war with for the time. Does the love of virtue denote any wish to discover or amend our own faults? No, but it atones for an obstinate adherence to our own vices by the most virulent intolerance to human frailties. This principle is of a most universal application. It extends to good as well as evil: if it makes us hate folly, it makes us no less dissatisfied with distinguished merit. If it inclines us to resent the wrongs of others, it impels us to be as impatient of their prosperity. We revenge injuries: we repay benefits with ingratitude. Even our strongest partialities and likings soon take this turn. “That which was luscious as locusts, anon becomes bitter as coloquintida;” and love and friendship melt in their own fires. We hate old friends: we hate old books: we hate old opinions; and at last we come to hate ourselves.

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2 Responses to The Books: On the Pleasure of Hating, ‘On the Pleasure of Hating’, by William Hazlitt

  1. Kate says:

    I’m really glad to know about this fellow whom I’d not heard of and have been reading. I am an educator and very interested in the lives of “my” education philosophers, many of whom have their roots in Rousseau and Voltaire and this brand of secularism I see in the writings of Hazlitt and others. I’m fascinated by where in their life and times these thoughts on education and human development come from so anything I can read from the philosophy of the era is welcome. Thanks for the intro!

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