On the Pleasure Of Hating

William Hazlitt’s On the Pleasure of Hating is a sometimes charming, sometimes  mind-bending, and always intelligent collection of essays by this free-thinking, humanistic, and very exacting nineteenth century philosopher.  He makes no big-blown arguments. Instead, all his essays build incrementally with well-drawn points (supported by his wealth of knowledge of literature, ancient and contemporary, and of history) to create a solid and convincing conclusion.

on the pleasure of hating

Hazlitt is charming and contemporary when writing about a boxing match he attends outside of London (it was like reading one of the best “About Town” pieces from the New Yorker, only longer).  He is sincere, quietly angry, and inspiring in his pieces “On the Spirit of Monarchy” and “What is the People?”.  He is thorough and sweeping, profoundly human and completely convincing (actually, I found him always convincing) in his essays “The Indian Jugglers”  (in which he dissects mechanical versus intellectual facility and defines as genius the beauty that comes when the facilities are joined, as in great painting) and “On Reason and Imagination”.  In that essay he makes a beautiful argument for the commonly shared traits in mankind being best recognized not in sweeping statements or generalizations but in a profound exposition of the individual:  “if we are imbued with a deep sense of individual weal or woe, we shall be awe-struck at the idea of humanity in general.”   A resounding argument for the importance of the novel in understanding the world at large: the novel takes a particular set of characters, puts them in a bit of the world, and from that individual experience, we learn about the powers and failings of humanity.

He is positively on point in his piece “On the Pleasure of Hating”, in which he argues that it is human nature both to hate and to identify with the badness in others (“everyone takes part with Othello against Iago…..in reading Homer, [do we] generally side with the Greeks or the Trojans?“).  It is our own self-knowledge of the undesirable lurking within us (why are we not perfectly good?) that leads us to chase and to hate what we see as bad: we are self-loathing, self-castigating, but look outwards to inflict the punishment for our own inadequacies.

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