Book Report: On the Pleasure of Hating by William Hazlitt (2005)

Book coverThis book was in the Bookmarx philosophy section, and I didn’t know why when I started. I bought it because I’ve been reading some philosophical material of late, and this book is pretty thin, so it would be (I hoped) a quick read in that line.

Well, Hazlitt is an English essayist from around the turn of the nineteenth century, and the events rather capture the spirit of the immediate post-American and post-French Revolution era in England.

The book contains six essays:

  • “The Fight” which details a long trip to a boxing match out in the countryside. Hazlitt discusses his friends who like boxing, some of the people he meets, and the spectacle of his first fight. It’s not a very philosophical essay at all, but it does describe the event and the countryside in great detail.
     
  • “Indian Jugglers” which starts off discussing jugglers that he appreciates but then goes into how long it takes to learn things and how certain physical skills–like juggling–will give you immediate, concrete feedback as to whether you’re doing it wrong or not.
     
  • “On the Spirit of the Monarchy” and “What Is ‘The People’?” are both anti-aristocracy pieces. The first focuses on humans who seem to need some leader over them to enjoy the pomp and circumstance, but that the people who end up ruling by hereditary succession are less good than perhaps a random person. The second talks about styles of government (see this The Wisdom of William Hazlitt post for a taste. He’s spot on about how the self-appointed elites react to having power (or just seeking it) and how governors become self-serving, but he lionizes “the people” a bit too much, not recognizing how important it is to restrain their/its passions and mob-potentiality in government (which the structure of the early American Republic did well).
     
  • “On Reason and Imagination” talks about philosophy qua philosophy and takes to task systems built entirely on abstraction and without recognizing the role that passion plays in ethics (as well as a man’s innate sense of right and wrong). He’s retreading some Hume here, but it’s funny that he’s all Good Natured and Frans de Waal in this essay, but….
     
  • The essay whose provocative title, “On the Pleasure of Hating”, is all Dark Nature and Lyall Watson. This essay talks about the innate badness in people and how they like to do bad things and hate on people, especially former friends. It’s a bit of a whip-saw, and I get the sense he was growing disappointed in his fellow man for whom he had such high hopes.

The style is lofty, and the essays are chock full of quotations, some of which I knew but many more of which I did not. He drops them in without attribution, so he expects his contemporaries to get them.

I enjoyed it, even though it was not as quick of a read as I’d expected. I prefer Hazlitt to Montaigne, and I’d be interested in reading more, but I think most of Hazlitt is way out of print (whereas you can find Montaigne easily, especially the Classics Club edition).

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