Great Ideas Collection: Hazlitt

In the next and penultimate review of our series exploring the books of Penguin’s Great Ideas Collection, Sophie Kingham writes on William Hazlitt’s ‘On the Pleasure of Hating’.

An English writer, William Hazlitt is perhaps best known for his essays conveying his thoughts on life and the world around us. As well as writing social commentaries, he was also an art critic, drama critic and philosopher. His success was mixed during his time, and he is little read in current society, but his works make for fascinating reading.

On the Pleasure of Hating has been put together by Penguin for this Great Ideas Collection and contains six of Hazlitt’s essays from his own numerous collections. These include: The Fight, The Indian Jugglers, On the Spirit of Monarchy, What is the People? On Reason and Imagination and, finally, the titular On the Pleasure of Hating.

Originally printed in The Plain Speaker (1826), it was dubbed as the ‘key essays’ of Hazlitt. The majority of the essays in this collection take on a humanist approach, reflecting the value of human beings through critical thinking rather than through established faiths and the belief that something is governing us. On the Pleasure of Hating acts as a social commentary on why us humans not only love to hate, but need to hate something or someone. It doesn’t matter that many religions and moral values tell us to love thy neighbour and treat everyone equally; it is a part of our nature to find something that we do not like.

“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 into a stagnant pool, were it not ruffled by the jarring interests, the unruly passions of men.”

Hazlitt uses the example of a spider crawling across his floor to show how we learn to restrain from acting upon our hatred, but that we simply cannot stop hating;

“There is a spider crawling along the matted floor of the room where I sit… As he passes me, I lift up the matting to assist his escape… I bear the creature no ill-will, but still I hate the very sight of it… we learn to curb our will and keep our overt actions within the bounds of humanity… we give up the external demonstration, the brute violence, but cannot part with the essence or principle of hostility.”

For the majority of us, we do not let our hatred go beyond the realms of socially acceptable behaviour, but that doesn’t mean we want to like something or someone; we just learn to live with the hatred – sometimes taking a perverse kind of pleasure from it. Hazlitt believed that the human mind hankered after evil and took delight in mischief, and hatred was more interesting to us than anything else: “Pure good soon grows insipid, wants variety and spirit.”

He believes that, although it is often negative action, hatred is more often felt than love; “It makes patriotism an excuse for carrying fire, pestilence, and famine into other lands”. Hatred is easier to feel than love and pleasure, which is why we all love to hate something. Hatred invigorates our souls.

Despite the subject being rather negative and with Hazlitt’s own troubles with his writing career (rumours were spread that demonised him), this collection is witty and delightfully dark in places.

“Love turns, with a little indulgence, to indifference or disgust: hatred alone is immortal”

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