An Essay Picked by blupete

"Characteristics" 1

To speak highly of one with whom we are intimate, is a species of egotism. Our modesty as well as our jealousy teaches us caution on this subject.

What makes it so difficult to do justice to others is that we are hardly sensible of merit, unless it falls in with our own views and line of pursuit, and where this is the case, it interferes with our pretensions. To be forward to praise others, implies either great eminence, that can afford to part with applause; or great quickness of discernment, with confidence in our own judgments; or great sincerity and love of truth, getting the better of our self-love.

Society is a more level surface than we imagine. Wise men or absolute fools are hard to be met with, as there are few giants or dwarfs. The heaviest charge we can bring against the general texture of society is, that it is common-place; and many of those who are singular, had better be common-place. Our fancied superiority to others is in some one thing, which we think most of, because we excel in it, or have paid most attention to it; whilst we overlook their superiority to us in something else, which they set equal and exclusive store by. This is fortunate for all parties. I never felt myself superior to any one, who did not go out of his way to affect qualities which he had not. In his own individual character and line of pursuit, every one has knowledge, experience, and skill: -- and who shall say which pursuit requires most, thereby proving his own narrowness and incompetence to decide? Particular talent or genius does not imply general capacity. Those who are most versatile are seldom great in any one department: and the stupidest people can generally do something. The highest preeminence in any one study commonly arises from the concentration of the attention and faculties on that one study. He who expects from a great name in politics, in philosophy, in art, equal greatness in other things, is little versed in human nature. Our strength lies in our weakness. The learned in books is ignorant of the world. He who is ignorant of books is often well acquainted with other things; for life is of the same length in the learned and unlearned; the mind cannot be idle; if it is not taken up with one thing, it attends to another through choice or necessity; and the degree of previous capacity in one class or another is a mere lottery.

There are few things in which we deceive ourselves more than in the esteem we profess to entertain for our friends. It is little better than a piece of quackery. The truth is, we think of them as we please -- that is as they please or displease us. As long as we are in good humour with them, we see nothing but their good qualities; but no sooner do they offend us than we rip up all their bad ones (which we before made a secret of, even to ourselves) with double malice. He who but now was a little less than an angel of light shall be painted in the blackest colors for a slip of the tongue, "some trick not worth an egg," for the slightest suspicion of offense given or received. We often bestow the most opprobrious epithets on our best friends, and retract them twenty times in the course of a day, while the man himself remains the same. In love, which is all rhapsody and passion, this is excusable; but in the ordinary intercourse of life it is preposterous.

It is well that there is no one without a fault; for he would not have a friend in the world. He would seem to belong to a different species.

The difficulty is for a man to rise to high station, not to fill it; as it is easier to stand on an eminence than to climb up to it. Yet he alone is truly great who is so without the aid of circumstances and in spite of fortune, who is as little lifted by the tide of opinion, as he is depressed by neglect or obscurity, and who borrows dignity only from himself. It is a fine compliment which Pope has paid to Lord Oxford --

"A soul supreme, in each hard instance tried,
Above all pain, all passion, and all pride;
The rage of power, the blast of public breath
The lust of lucre, and the dread of death!"

The greatest talents do not generally attain to the highest stations. For though high, the ascent to them is narrow, beaten, and crooked. The path of genius is free, and its own. Whatever requires the concurrence and co-operation of others, must depend chiefly on routine and an attention to rules and minutia. Success in business is therefore seldom owing to uncommon talents or original power, which is untractable and self-willed, but to the greatest degree of common-place capacity.

It is great weakness to lay ourselves open to others, who are reserved towards us. There is not only no equality in it, but we may be pretty sure they will turn a confidence, which they are so little disposed to initiate, against us.

Simplicity of character is the natural result of profound thought.

We as often repent the good we have done as the ill.

In public speaking, we must appeal either to the prejudices of others, or to the love of truth and justice. If we think merely of displaying our own ability, we shall ruin every cause we undertake.

A person who talks with equal vivacity on every subject, excites no interest in any. Repose is as necessary in conversation as in a picture.

The best kind of conversation is that which may be called thinking aloud. I like very well to speak my mind on any subject (or to hear another do so) and to go into the question according to the degree of interest it naturally inspires, but not to have to get up a thesis upon every topic. There are those, on the other hand, who seem always to be practising on their audience, as if they mistook them for a DEBATING SOCIETY, or to hold a general retainer, by which they are bound to explain every difficulty, and answer every objection that can be started. This, in private society, and among friends, is not desirable. You thus lose the two great ends of conversation, which are to learn the sentiments of others, and see what they think of yours. One of the best talkers I ever knew had this defect -- that he evidently seemed to be considering less what he felt on any point than what might be said upon it, and that he listened to you, not to weigh what you said, but to reply to it, like counsel on the other side. This habit gave a brilliant smoothness and polish to his general discourse, but, at the same time, took from its solidity and prominence: it reduced it to a tissue of lively, fluent, ingenious common-places (for original, genuine observations are like "minute drops from off the eaves," and not an incessant shower) and, though his talent in this way was carried to the very extreme of cleverness, yet I think it seldom, if ever, went beyond it.

A man's reputation is not in his own keeping, but lies at the mercy of the profligacy of others. Calumny requires no proof. The throwing out malicious imputations against any character leaves a stain, which no after-refutation can wipe out. To create an unfavourable impression, it is not necessary that certain things should be true, but that they have been said. The imagination is of so delicate a texture, that even words wound it.

Want of principle is power. Truth and honesty set a limit to our efforts, which impudence and hypocrisy easily overleap.

In estimating the value of an acquaintance or even a friend, we give a preference to intellectual or convivial over moral qualities. The truth is, that in our habitual intercourse with others, we much oftener required to be amused than assisted. We consider less, therefore, what a person with whom we are intimate is ready to do for us in critical emergencies, than what he has to say on ordinary occasions. We dispense with his services, if he only saves us from ennui. In civilized society, words are of as much importance as things.

Insignificant people are a necessary relief in society. Such characters are extremely agreeable, and even favourites, if they appear satisfied with the part they have to perform.

The youth is better than the old age of friendship.

In the course of a long acquaintance we have repeated all our good things, and discussed all our favourite topics several times over, so that our conversation becomes a mockery of social intercourse. We might as well talk to ourselves. The soil of friendship is worn out with constant use. Habit may still attach us to each other, but we feel ourselves fettered by it. Old friends might be compared to old married people without the tie of children.

We grow tired of ourselves, much more of other people. Use may in part reconcile us to our own tediousness, but we do not adopt that of others on the same paternal principle. We may be willing to sell a story twice, never to hear one more than once.

To be capable of steady friendship or lasting love, are the two greatest proofs, not only of goodness of heart, but of strength of mind.

It makes us proud when our love of a mistress is returned; it ought to make us prouder that we can love her for herself alone, without the aid of any such selfish reflection. This is the religion of love.

It is wonderful how often we see and hear of Shakespear's plays without being annoyed with it. Were it any other writer, we should be sick to death of the very name. But his volumes are like that of nature, we can turn to them again and again: --

"Age cannot wither, nor custom stale
His infinite variety."

The contempt of a wanton for a man who is determined to think her virtuous, is perhaps the strongest of all others. He officiously reminds her of what she ought to be; and she avenges the galling sense of lost character on the fool who still believes in it.

The only vice that cannot be forgiven is hypocrisy. The repentance of a hypocrite is itself hypocrisy.

There is less impertinence and more independence in London than any other place in the kingdom.

To expect an author to talk as he writes is ridiculous, or even if he did, you would find fault with him as a pedant. We should read authors, and not converse with them.

Good and ill seems as necessary to human life as light and shade are to a picture. We grow weary of uniform success, and pleasure soon surfeits. Pain makes ease delightful; hunger relishes the homeliest food, fatigue turns the hardest bed to down; and the difficulty and uncertainty of pursuits in all cases enhanced the value of possession. The wretched are in this respect fortunate, that they have the strongest yearnings after happiness; and to desire is in some sense to enjoy. If the schemes of Utopians could be realized, the tone of society would be changed from what it is, into a sort of insipid high life. There could be no fine tragedies written; nor would there be any pleasure in seeing them. We tend to this conclusion already with the progress of civilization.

It is remarkable how virtuous and generously disposed every one is at a play. We uniformly applaud what is right and condemn what is wrong, when it costs us nothing by the sentiment.

The best lessons we can learn from witnessing the folly of mankind is not to irritate ourselves against it.

Women never reason, and therefore they are (comparatively) seldom wrong. They judge instinctively of what falls under their immediate observation or experience, and do not trouble themselves about remote or doubtful consequences If they make no profound discoveries, they do not involve themselves in gross absurdities. It is only by the help of reason and logical inference, according to Hobbes, that "man becomes excellently wise, or excellently foolish."2

The French are fond of reading as well as of talking. You may constantly see girls tending an apple-stall in the coldest day in winter, and reading Voltaire or Racine. Such a thing was never known in London as a barrow-woman reading Shakespear. Yet we talk of our widespread civilization, and ample provision for the education of the poor.

An awkward Englishman has an advantage in going abroad. Instead of having his deficiency more remarked, it is less so; for an all Englishmen are thought awkward alike. Any slip in politeness or abruptness of address is attributed to an ignorance of foreign manners, and you escape underneath the cover of the national character. Your behavior is not more criticized than your accent. They consider the barbarism of either as a compliment to their own superior refinement.

The national precedence between the English and Scotch may be settled by this, that the Scotch are always asserting their superiority over the English, while the English never say a word about their superiority over the Scotch. The first have got together a great number of facts and arguments in their own favour; the last never trouble their heads about the matter, but have taken the point for granted as self-evident.

There is a double aristocracy of rank and letters, which is hardly to be endured -- monstrum ingens, biforme. A lord, who is a poet as well, regards the House of peers with contempt as a set of dull fellows; and he considers his brother authors as a Grub-street crew. A king is hardly good enough for him to touch; a mere man of genius is no better than worm. He alone is all-accomplished. Such people should be sent to Coventry; and they generally are so, through their insufferable pride and self-sufficiency.

A copy is never so good as an original. This would not be the case indeed, if great painters were in the habit of copying bad pictures; but as the contrary practice holds, it follows that the excellent parts of a fine picture must lose in the imitation and the indifferent parts will not be proportionably improved by any thing substituted at a venture for them.

In some situations, if you say nothing, you are called dull; if you talk, you are thought impertinent or arrogant. It is hard to know what to do in this case. The question seems to be, whether your vanity or your prudence predominates.

Wit is the rarest quality to be met with among people of education, and the most common among the uneducated.

The most perfect style of writing may be that, which treats strictly and methodically of a given subject; the most amusing (if not the most instructive) is that, which mixes up the personal character of the author with general reflection.

The seat of knowledge is in the head; of wisdom, in the heart. We are sure to judge wrong, if we do not feel right.

Fame is the inheritance not of the dead, but of the living. It is we who look back with lofty pride to the great names of antiquity, who drink of that flood of glory as of a river, and refresh our wings in it for future flight.

Those who from a constant change and dissipation of outward objects have not a moment's leisure left for their own thoughts, can feel no respect for themselves, and learn little consideration for humanity.

He will never have true friends who is afraid of making enemies.

Those people who are fond of giving trouble, like to take it; just as those who pay no attention to the comforts of others, are generally indifferent to their own. We are governed by sympathy; and the extent of our sympathy is determined by that of our sensibility.

No one is idle, who can do any thing.

Vice is man's nature: virtue is a habit -- or a mask.

The foregoing maxim shows the difference between truth and sarcasm.

Those who are fond of setting things to rights, have no great objection to seeing them wrong. There is often a good deal of spleen at the bottom of benevolence.



1 Hazlitt's "Characteristics" was written in 1823 and can be found reproduced in: Selected Essays as edited by Geoffrey Keynes (London: Nonsuch Press, 1930); The Best of Hazlitt (London: Methuen, 1947) P. P. Howe, Ed.; and, William Hazlitt, Selected Writings (Oxford University Press, 1991) Edited and with Introduction by Jon Cook.

2 (Leviathan.) The original footnote is found in the Keynes' collection; I have, in turn, placed in parentheses.


Found this material Helpful?

[Hazlitt's Page]
[A List of Hazlitt's Books]
[General Essays]
[Round Table]
[Political Essays]
[The Spirit of the Age]
[The Plain Speaker]

2011 (2020)

Peter Landry