William Hazlitt was a professional literary critic, essayist, philosopher, and amateur painter who wrote in the early 19th century and the heyday of the Romantic poets. He scraped together a living as an art and theater critic for the newspapers of his day, but his writing transcended the typical ephemeral works of a journalist; his essays demonstrate a range of topics and quality of writing and thought that put him almost on the same level as great essayists like Montaigne.
Given his vocation and various occupations, it is no surprise that he has some ideas about art. In his first essay, “On the Pleasure of Painting,” Hazlitt compares the pleasure of painting with the act of writing. Although both can be called art, they have different goals. The goal of writing is to grapple with the world; it is not merely an act of revealing what you see in nature, but rather it possesses the ability to challenge the way the world is and call our attention to problems in it, it can try to convince us about some truth concerning our experiences in the world, and it can criticize and support ideas. For this reason, the act of writing is best conceived as a struggle with the world and a struggle with conveying the ideas in our own minds so that other people can understand them. Painting, on the other hand, is an act of imitation; the goal of a painter is to imitate what the artist sees and express how they experience nature. Having experience with both, Hazlitt deems painting the more pleasurable activity. He tells us that when he paints:
“The hours pass away untold, without chagrin, and without weariness; nor would you ever wish to pass them otherwise. Innocence is joined with industry, pleasure with business; and the mind is satisfied, though it is not engaged in thinking or in doing any mischief.”
The act of writing lacks such pleasure. We might enjoy thinking about ideas of which we might wish to write, but the actual act of putting thoughts into words and conveying our impressions and ideas is often a frustrating and difficult process. The failure to select the correct word or phrase can actually weaken the idea for a reader rather than effectively convey what we are trying to communicate. We become hyper-critical of ourselves when we write, whereas in painting we lose ourselves in the activity.
For those interested in art that wish to reach their full potential he recommends getting yourself to an art gallery and studying the Old Masters in person. When a young artist encounters the Old Masters it leaves an indelible stamp on the artist’s mind.
“It is stamped on his brain, and lives there thenceforward, a tally for nature, and a test of art. He furnishes out the chambers of the mind from the spoils of time, picks and chooses which shall have the best places—nearest his heart. He goes away richer than he came, richer than the possessor; and thinks that he may one day return, when he perhaps shall have done something like them, or even from failure shall have learned to admire truth and genius more.”
To view the greatest artists, the greatest poets, the greatest novelists, etc. teaches aspiring artists more than any set of abstract rules. It gives them an ideal to reach for, a standard from which to judge their own work and from which to learn. It is a spiritual experience that changes an artist’s perception of what is possible. Hazlitt describes his own experience of seeing the Old Masters for the first time as a life changing experience.
“I was staggered when I saw the works there collected, and looked at them with wondering and with longing eyes. A mist passed away from my sight: the scales fell off. A new sense came upon me, a new heaven and a new earth stood before me. I saw.”
In “On Genius and Common Sense,” Hazlitt suggests art and taste cannot he reduced to rules or be analyzed by rationality alone, but is a matter of feeling and impressions we develop from an accumulation of experience. Whatever rules we may develop about art come from our many varied experiences. In other words, we shouldn’t say a painting is good because it follows some abstract rule about some supposed characteristic a critic or philosopher claims good art must possess, but rather as we have many experiences with different artistic works that we personally judge to be good and bad based on our own feelings and natural reactions, we can formulate some general rules and principles about good qualities in art. True art is not just about following and mastering rules; it’s about capturing the feeling behind nature. This is why you can’t really study art in the traditional sense like you can a skill such as juggling, but to do art well you must in some ways feel deeply about the object you’re trying to represent and sympathize with it.
Artistic genius rests in an artist’s ability to draw out new and striking qualities found in nature. The best artist relies on impressions and instinct rather than following technical rules. Art is a product of the greatest egoism; the work of art is about the artist’s unique perspective, their particular way of viewing a subject or an object of nature. Great geniuses such as Milton, Wordsworth, and Rembrandt create their art through the lens of themselves, their own vision, and what interests them. True genius is peculiar in that it excels at one particular area or skill or subject, while requiring the genius to neglect others. It is hard to be both a fantastic poet and master painter, a celebrated musician and groundbreaking mathematician, etc.
He also argues that genius and capacity are not the same thing. Capacity refers to the knowledge we acquire of a subject or topic, while genius refers to the quality and method of acquisition. Genius allows us to make new discoveries and formulate new ideas, while capacity might be said to refer to our ability to master what has already been done or known, even to an extremely impressive and high level. Genius allows us to achieve originality in that it allows us to see the world in a new light, while still portraying it as it is. We should judge a work of art by the originality it displays (and thus the genius of the artist).
“The value of any work is to be judged of by the quantity of originality contained in it. A very little of this will go a great way. If Goldsmith had never written anything but the two or three first chapters of the Vicar of Wakefield or the character of a Village Schoolmaster, they would have stamped him a man of genius. The editors of Encyclopedias are not usually reckoned the first literary characters of the age. The works of which they have the management contain a great deal of knowledge, like chests or warehouses, but the goods are not their own. We should as soon think of admiring the shelves of a library; but the shelves of a library are useful and respectable.”
In “On the Ignorance of the Learned,” Hazlitt finds that people who are learned, especially in the sense of those who have learned to read and speak dead languages such as Greek and Latin, often possess very little knowledge, lack true understanding, and lack creativity. They are not critical thinkers or even creative thinkers; they are not insightful or clever. They are good at memorizing information, but have no original ideas other than what they can glean from books. In a sense, they only understand a shadowy version of the ideas they study in books; they can repeat the ideas of others, but they don’t really understand it themselves on a deep level. Real knowledge is different from learning in that you can apply it to new situations, solve new problems, and offer new perspectives. For this reason, Hazlitt suggests it is always better to read the work of real genius directly than a commentary by some pedant. It is better to read Shakespeare himself in order to learn from his wisdom and insight than to read the various critics who have written about him.
In “The Indian Jugglers,” he compares physical skills to abstract skills like reasoning and artistic endeavors. Excellence in physical skills like juggling may be superior to intellectual excellence in part because it is difficult to discern what real intellectual excellence looks like; often well-seasoned good reasoners still struggle to win a debate against an opponent. In a discussion, bad reasoning can seem like good reasoning. You aren’t going to make that mistake watching someone juggle an object; they can either juggle the balls or they can’t. Moving back to the realm of art, even though a particular acrobat or juggler may be more proficient at their skill than a particular painter is at his, since it’s the artist’s goal to capture Nature, their role is the more respectable activity because even if they fail to do it perfectly they have the more difficult task and it’s more impressive when they do accomplish an achievement at a high level.
His essay “On Criticism” offers arguments for what makes good and bad literary criticism. The purpose of criticism changes with time and place. Often it takes the form of a critic declaring if an author is good or bad based on a few select lines to serve as evidence along with an analysis of all the different possible meanings of those particular lines as a way of further supporting the quality or lack thereof in a work. Hazlitt believes this sort of literary criticism is often more about the critic showing off his knowledge and skill of analysis than actually about admiration of the work itself. Good criticism reflects the soul of the work by finding what unique perspective, insight, or feelings an author brings to his subject whereas bad criticism focuses too much on whether the structure, plot, or moral meets pre-established formal rules and standards. In a way, these perspectives are opposites of each other; one searches for what is original about the work, the other looks to see how much a particular work follows the rules established by predecessors and tradition.
Some critics can look at a painting and notice all its formal aspects, but cannot see its substance; for this reason, they fail to truly see what makes it beautiful since they are judging paintings by received rules of composition. These sorts of bad critics also tend to believe that some forms are superior than others so that in their minds an epic poem regardless of quality is always superior to a limerick poem because the epic form of poetry is superior to limerick as a type of poetry, a symphony must be superior to a mere song, a landscape painting superior to a portrait. Taken to this extreme, the worst epic poem ever written would be superior to the best limerick poem ever written. Hazlitt agrees that subject does matter and a well-executed work of a high subject is generally superior and better to a well-executed work of a low subject, but a well-executed work of a traditionally low subject is also superior to a poorly done work of a high subject.
Another type of flaw in criticism overemphasizes all the good qualities of a work or all the bad qualities of a work as if it had no redeeming qualities. This is especially true of political criticism. He does recognize that sometimes critical disagreement comes down to differences in tastes, including national tastes. With this in mind, he warns that we should always be wary of criticizing an artist that is admired throughout a different country than our own because most likely the fault lies with us in that we cannot see what makes him or her interesting due to different preferences formed by different cultures. Similarly this can be true about tastes in writers in our own country. One poet may excel in correctness and simplicity; whereas other poets might excel at strength and sublimity. It is ridiculous for a critic to demand a writer adopt the exact same qualities as each other since each writer brings something interesting and unique to the table in their works, while perhaps not bringing other qualities that we might appreciate in other poets. There is another type of critic who enjoys finding secret beauties and meanings in work not apparent to others, while denigrating beautiful works whose meanings and beautiful qualities are obvious. This is the critic who only likes difficult dense works that the average person would struggle to understand. They will dislike or criticize a work simply for being popular or overly simple in style or obvious in meaning. Again, sometimes simplicity can be beautiful and sometimes density and difficulty can be interesting as well.
Beyond art criticism, Hazlitt also deals with other philosophical topics. For example, “On the Past and the Future,” Hazlitt argues that the past is as important as the future and finds it strange that we tend to perseverate on the future, while devaluing our past. After all, the future we imagine or fear may never even happen, while the past has already happened and has left its mark upon us. He argues that we focus so much on the future because we imagine we can the control its outcome with enough effort and foresight, whereas the past is already completed and therefore can’t be changed. With this in mind, we don’t take pleasure in the past because we fear it will slow down our progress of achieving our goals for the future. However, the consolation provided by the better parts of our past can support us during difficult times in the present and help us face an uncertain future.
He also challenges the argument of ancient philosophers that one should never call themselves happy or fortunate until they’re dead because fortune can change at any time. According to these philosophers, the capriciousness of fortune means that a happy blessed life can end as one of the most tragic and awful ones. Hazlitt argues against this point by noting that this argument unfairly focuses on a single bad period in life as way of judging the entire life instead of judging a person’s entire life as a whole or by the majority of its experiences.
“A man’s life is his whole life, not the last glimmering snuff of the candle; and this, I say, is considerable, and not a little matter, whether we regard its pleasures or its pains.”
On this matter, he also writes:
“The length or agreeableness of a journey does not depend on the few last steps of it, nor is the size of a building to be judged of from the last stone that is added to it. It is neither the first nor last hour of our existence, but the space that parts these two—not our exit nor our entrance upon the stage, but what we do, feel, and think while there—that we are to attend to in pronouncing sentence upon it.”
Why should we judge a life a failure or miserable because it contains a bad ending? Why is a life deemed misfortunate if it ends the last ten years in poverty and misery, but the first fifty were full of fortune and bliss? He believes that we need to consider the life as a whole, not on the basis of a single moment or period: past, present, or future.
In the essay “On people with One Idea,” Hazlitt mocks individuals who obsess over one idea that dominates their entire life whether it is about politics, religion, farming, business, poetry, art, or whatever. These people will trot out their idea and shoehorn it into any conversation regardless of the original topic, which is incredibly annoying for the rest of us. Hazlitt believe that the reason some people do this is that the obsessive person lacks ideas about other topics so they cover up their lack of knowledge and generally bland personality with a focus on this one topic that they think they know a lot about, although they might not in reality. Essentially what these people are doing is talking about themselves and how their conception of the idea shows their own superior intellect, even though in reality it’s all a cover for their lack of confidence and ability in other areas.
In “On Living to One’s-Self,” Hazlitt argues it is better to live an obscure life of contemplation away from worldly things in order to be able to contemplate nature, art, and philosophy than to try and make a name for yourself and be noticed by society; this only causes worry and egotistic vanities that interfere with your peace of mind. Many actors, politicians, poets and orators have learned this the hard way.
In “On Thought and Action” he notes that people who enjoy abstract thought are generally not men of action, while men of action are usually not good at abstract thought. In fact, a person of action like a farmer is likely to ruin his affairs by spending too much time reading abstract theories on the best way to farm instead of learning from trial and error and direct experience. However, both types of life styles have their merits. We shouldn’t judge a life of contemplation for being inactive and lacking practicality, just as we shouldn’t judge an active life by how much it is guided by deeper thoughts or principles.
He also mocks the way people try to control others through their wills in “On Will-Making.” The making of wills brings out the most ridiculous aspects of human behavior. The contemplation of death usually doesn’t make us change in positive ways, but often brings out our worst prejudices or eccentric whims. We use our wills to control people or horde money and property for some imaginary future for our descendants, while depriving ourselves of pleasures now.
In “On Paradox and Common-place,” he suggests that originality is not the same thing as singularity. A wise person looks to nature for truth and it doesn’t matter whether it has been said before or not. Some people refuse to challenge traditions, customs and authority, while another type of person seems to only find pleasure in novelty and paradoxes and new ideas. He names the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley as an example in this vein whose writing seems to like to dangle new metaphysical ideas and enjoy the reactions of the public. The problem with this sort of thing is that it never advances knowledge or truth either, but its goal is only to challenge the old or established. He also critiques politicians who advocate turning to some idealized past for our happiness. Hazlitt argues people don’t change for hypothetical better futures or because of some idealized past, but rather people enact revolutions and demand changes because of the concerns and problems of the present moment and abuses that have built up over time from the past.
“On Vulgarity and Affectation” Hazlitt argues that people who are vulgar obsess over the idea of being refined and elegant, while people often considered gentile and elegant tend to obsess over the vulgar as a way of criticizing things they don’t like and think should be avoided. The problem is often people use this as an unthinking slander against certain places and types of people, etc. instead of on a case by case basis. These people think they are elegant and refined, but actually are just thoughtless and are obsessed with appearances rather than truth and actual excellences; they call others vulgar as a way of propping up themselves. Likewise, even boisterous actions from a drunken mob might seem vulgar, but at least they have the advantage of reflecting real feelings and sentiments instead of the false appearances and expectations of others represented in the abstract concept of gentility. It is a false belief that titles or high social class confers excellence upon them. Excellence of character transcends title, social class, and rules of proper decorum and gentility; they’re not a matter of social rules, but real qualities and virtues within us as individuals.
“On Coffee-House Politicians” refers to gentleman who spend large portions of their time in coffeehouses sitting and reading newspapers in order to gossip about the day’s news. Hazlitt censures these men as not really being interested in the news or the issues themselves, but obsessing over them in order to have something seemingly important to talk about with others. In the same essay, he discusses what qualities make for good society; good society involves people who are honest, genuine, and witty. He argues that city society is preferable to country society because your real qualities matter in the city whereas in the country people tend to care more if your rich or have a title or have political connections.
In “On Great and Little Things,” Hazlitt notices that people are often bothered by very little issues and inconveniences than bigger problems. We often get more annoyed when we come close to winning a game then when we lose by a large amount. It is often the case that we lose control of our emotions over minor issues, but we bear and accept our fates during a major tragedy. Hazlitt believes the thing that truly angers us is not the importance of the object, but the time and energy we put into it.
In “On the Knowledge of Character,” Hazlitt acknowledges that it is difficult to get to know a person’s character, even people we have known for years. The best tools we have to ascertain character is “by looks, words, actions.” First impressions of people often prove the most accurate. Looks may be the easiest way to come to know a person because we often cannot control our emotions. Our real feelings often appear on our face whereas we can attempt to hide our real thoughts and character through our words and actions. In other words, people can say one thing and do another. Speech can be used to conceal our thoughts as much as reveal them. Sometimes we may come to think we are judging another person well, but in reality remain ignorant of their true character; the usual reason for this is that we are either too close or too distant to the person to see them in their true nature. Often this is the reason that lower class people and upper class people struggle to understand each other’s minds and characters. Even education can divide people beyond economic differences. Education in abstract ideas such as philosophy and art, train one to value truth over self-interest and everyday petty concerns, but people who lack this sort of training and education worry only about how they can turn anything that comes their way to their advantage, how they can use things to help them in their everyday concerns. Not only do people of different classes fail to understand each other, but so do men and women. Hazlitt advocates that it is best for men to know their own characters by being aware of their worst faults and to excel in their best skills by focusing only on one or two of their best qualities.
In “On the Fear of Death,” Hazlitt argues that the best cure for the fear of death is to remember that “life has a beginning as well as an end.” We should consider that once we didn’t exist and this idea doesn’t bother us. Part of the reason we fear death isn’t because we care about the future, which is an abstract idea, but rather we desire to perpetuate the present into perpetuity. Young people have trouble imagining they will in fact die some day; they may accept the abstract idea as being true, but they struggle to picture it in reality. We never suspect when death will actually arrive; even though it could happen tomorrow, we have a natural propensity to assume there’s still more time and it’s still far off. When we think about death and worry about it, we approach it from the perspective of how we feel as a living person, not how the dead feel. Since the dead can’t think, the dead don’t worry about the fact that their dead. Hazlitt believes that modern society (in this case, the 19th century) makes people more effeminate towards death; the ancient fought violent wars and other acts of violence and passion without suffering deep existential angst that such actions could lead to their death. It’s not clear this is really true. Nevertheless, for this reason, Hazlitt believes men of action tend to deal with the inevitability of death better than intellectuals because they understand how precarious life can be from direct and constant experience. In self-reflection, Hazlitt considers regrets over his unhappy marriage and wonders if it was good to spend so much time living a life dedicated to abstract thoughts, books, and philosophical ideas rather than spending more time enjoying the everyday pleasures of the world, which interestingly contradicts some of his points he makes in other essays.