An Essay Picked by blupete

"On the Spirit of Obligations" 1

The two rarest things to be met with are good sense and good-nature. For one man who judges right, there are twenty who can say good things; as there are numbers who will serve you or do friendly actions, for one who really wishes you well. It has been said, and often repeated, that "mere good-nature is a fool": but I think that the dearth of sound sense, for the most part, proceeds from the want of a real, unaffected interest in things, except as they react upon ourselves; or from a neglect of the maxim of that good old philanthropist who said, "Hihil humani a me alienum puto." The narrowness of the heart warps the understanding, and makes us weigh objects in the scales of our self-love, instead of those of truth and justice. We consider not the merits of the case, or what is due to others, but the manner in which our own credit or consequence will be affected; and adapt our opinions and conduct to the last of these rather than to the first. The judgment is seldom wrong where the feelings are right; and they generally are so, provided they are warm and sincere. He who intends others well, is likely to advise them for the best; he who has any cause at heart, seldom ruins it by his imprudence. Those who play the public or their friends slippery tricks, have in secret no objections to betray them.

One finds out the folly and malice of mankind by the impertinence of friends -- by their professions of service and tenders of advice -- by their fears for your reputation and anticipation of what the world may say of you; by which means they suggest objections to your enemies, and at the same time absolve themselves from the task of justifying your errors, by having warned you of the consequences -- by the care with which they tell you ill-news, and conceal from you any flattering circumstance -- their dread of your engaging in any creditable attempt, and the mortification if you succeed -- by the difficulties and hindrances they throw in your way -- by their satisfaction when you happen to make a slip or get into a scrape, and their determination to tie your hands behind you, lest you should get out of it -- by their panic-terrors at your entering into a vindication of yourself, lest in the course of it, you should call upon them for a certificate to your character -- by their lukewarmness in defending, by their readiness in betraying you -- by the high standard by which they try you, and to which you can hardly ever come to -- by their forwardness to partake your triumphs, by their backwardness to share your disgrace -- by their acknowledgment of your errors out of candour, and suppression of your good qualities out of envy -- by their not contradicting, or by their joining in the cry against you, lest they, too, should become objects of the same abuse -- by their playing the game into your adversaries' hands -- by always letting their imaginations take part with their cowardice, their vanity, and selfishness against you; and thus realizing or hastening all the ill consequences they affect to deplore, by spreading abroad that very spirit of distrust, obloquy, and hatred which they predict will be excited against you!

In all these pretended demonstrations of an over-anxiety for our welfare, we may detect a great deal of spite and ill-nature lurking under the disguise of a friendly and officious zeal. It is wonderful how much love of mischief and rankling spleen lies at the bottom of the human heart, and how a constant supply of gall seems as necessary to the health and activity of the mind as of the body. Yet perhaps it ought not to excite much surprise that this gnawing, morbid, acrimonious temper should produce the effect it does, when, if it does not vent itself on others, it preys upon our own comforts, and makes us see the worst side of everything, even as it regards our own prospects and tranquillity. It is the not being comfortable in ourselves that makes us seek to render other people uncomfortable. A person of this character will advise you against a prosecution for a libel, and shake his head at your attempting to shield yourself from a shower of calumny. It is not that he is afraid you will be nonsuited, but that you will gain a verdict! They caution you against provoking hostility, in order that you may submit to indignity. They say that "if you publish a certain work, it will be your ruin" -- hoping that it will, and by their tragical denunciations, bringing about this very event as far as it lies in their power, or at any rate, enjoying a premature triumph over you in the meantime. What I would say to any friend who may be disposed to foretell a general outcry against any work of mine, would be to request him to judge and speak of it for himself, as he thinks it deserves -- and not by his overweening scruples and qualms of conscience on my account, to afford those very persons whose hostility he deprecates the cure they are to give to party-prejudice, and which they may justify by his authority.

Suppose you are about to give lectures at a Public Institution these friends and well-wishers hope "you'll be turned out -- if you preserve your principles, they are sure you will." Is it that your consistency give them any concern? No, but they are uneasy at your gaining a chance of a little popularity -- they do not like this new feather in you cap, they wish to see it stuck out, for the sake of your character -- and when this was once the case, it would be an additional relief to them to see your character following the same road the next day. The exercise of their bile seems to be the sole employment and gratification of such people. They deal in the miseries of human life. They are always either hearing or foreboding some new grievance. They cannot contain their satisfaction, if you tell them any mortification or cross-accident that has happened to yourself; and if you complain of their want of sympathy they laugh in your face. This would be unaccountable, for the spirit of perversity and contradiction planted in human nature. If things go right, there is nothing to be done -- these active-minded persons grow restless, dull , vapid -- life is sleep, a sort of euthanasia -- Let them go wrong, and all is well again; they are once more on the alert, have something to pester themselves and other people about; may wrangle on, and "make mouths at the invisible event!" Luckily, there is not want of materials for his disposition to work upon, there is plenty of grist for the mill. If you fall in love they tell you (by way of consolation) it is a pity that you do not fall downstairs and fracture a limb -- it would be a relief to your mind and show you your folly. So they would reform the world. The class of persons I speak of are almost uniform grumblers and croakers against governments; and it must be confessed governments are of great service in fostering their humours. "Born for their use, they live but to oblige them." While kings are left free to exercise their proper functions, and poet laureates make out their Mittimus to Heaven without a warrant, they will never stop the mouths of the censorious by changing their dispositions; the juices of faction will ferment, and the secretions of the State by duly performed! I do not mind when a character of this sort meets a minister of state like an east wind round a corner, and gives him an ague-fit; but why should he meddle with me? Why should he tell me I write too much, and say that I should gain reputation if I could contrive to starve for a twelvemonth? Or if I apply to him for a loan of fifty pounds for present necessity, send me word back that he has too much regard for me to comply with my request? It is unhandsome irony. It is not friendly, 'tis not pardonable".2

I like real good-nature and good-will better than I do any offers of patronage or plausible rules for my conduct in life. I may suspect the soundness of the last, and I may not be quite sure of the motives of the first. People complain of ingratitude for benefits and of the neglect of wholesome advice. In the first place, we pay little attention to advice, because we are seldom thought of in it. The person who gives it either contents himself to lay down (ex cathedra) certain vague, general maxims and "wise saws," which we knew before; or, instead of considering what we ought to do, recommends what he himself would do. He merely substitutes his own will, caprice, and prejudice for ours and expects us to be guided by them. Instead of changing places with us (to see what is best to be done in the given circumstances), he insists on our looking at the question from his point of view , and acting in such a manner as to please him. This is not at all reasonable, for one man's meat, according to the old adage, is another man's poison. And it is not strange, that starting from such opposite premises, we should seldom jump in a conclusion, and that the art of giving and taking advice is little better than a game at cross-purposes. I have observed that those who are the most inclined to assist others are the least forward or peremptory with their advice; for having our interest really at heart, they consider what can, rather than what cannot be done, and aid our views and endeavour to avert ill consequences by moderating our impatience and allaying irritations, instead of thwarting our main design, which only tends to make us more extravagant and violent then ever. In the second place, benefits are often conferred out of ostentation or pride, rather than from true regard; and the person obliged is too apt to perceive this. People who are fond of appearing in the light of patrons will perhaps go through fire and water to serve you, who yet would be sorry to find you no longer wanted their assistance, and whose friendship cools and their good-will slackens, as you are relieved by their active zeal from the necessity of being further beholden to it. Compassion and generosity are their favourite virtues; and they countenance you, as you afford them opportunities for exercising them. The instant you can go alone, or can stand upon our own ground, you are discarded as unfit for their purpose.

This is something more than mere good-nature or humanity. A thoroughly good-natured man, a real friend, is one who is pleased at our good-fortune as well as prompted to seize every occasion of relieving our distress. We apportion our gratitude accordingly. We are thankful for good-will rather than for services, for the motive than the quantum of favour received -- a kind word or look is never forgotten, while we cancel prouder and weightier obligations; and those who esteem us or evince a partiality to us are those whom we still consider as our best friends. Nay, so strong is this feeling, that we extend it even to those counterfeits in friendship -- flatterers and sycophants. Our self-love , rather than our self-interest, is the master-key to our affections.

I am not convinced that those are always the best-natured or the best-conditioned men, who busy themselves most with the distresses of their fellow creatures. I do not know that those whose names stand at the head of subscriptions to charitable institutions, and who are perpetual stewards of dinners and meetings to encourage and promote the establishment of asylums for the relief of the blind, the halt, and the orphan poor are persons gifted with the best tempers or the kindliest feelings. I do not dispute their virtue, I doubt their sensibility. I am not here speaking of those who make a trade of the profession of humanity, or set their names down out of mere idle parade and vanity. I mean those who really enter into the details and drudge of his sort of service, con amore, and who delight in surveying and in diminishing the amount of human misery. I conceive it possible that a person who is going to pour oil and balm into the wounds of afflicted humanity, at a meeting of the Western Dispensary, by handsome speeches and by a handsome donation (not grudgingly given) may be tomorrow thrown into a fit of rage that very morning by having his toast too much buttered, may quarrel with the innocent prattle and amusements of his children, cry "Pish!" at every observation his wife utters, and scarcely feel a moment's comfort at any period of his life, except when he hears or reads of some case of pressing distress that calls for his immediate interference, and draws off his attention from his own situation and feelings by the act of alleviating it. Those martyrs to the cause of humanity, in short, who run the gauntlet of the whole catalogue of unheard-of crimes and afflicting casualties, who ransack prisons and plunge into lazar-houses and slave-ships as their daily amusement and highest luxury, must generally, I think (though not always), be prompted to the arduous task by uneasy feelings of their own, and supported through it by iron nerves. Their fortitude must be equal to their pity. I do not think Mr Wilberforce a case in point in the argument. He is evidently a delicately-framed, nervous, sensitive man. I should suppose him to be a kind and affectionately-disposed person in all the relations of life. His weakness is too quick a sense of reputation, a desire to have the good word of all men, a tendency to truckle to power and fawn on opinion. But there are some of these philanthropists that a phsyiognomist has hard work to believe in. They seem made of pasteboard, they look like mere machines: their benevolence may be said to go on rollers, and they are screwed to the sticking-place by the wheels and pulleys of humanity:

"If to their share some splendid virtues fall,
Look in their face, and you forget them all."

They appear so much the creatures of the head and so little of the heart, they are so cold, so lifeless, so mechanical, so much governed by calculation, and so little by impulse, that it seems the toss-up of a halfpenny, a mere turn of a feather, whether such people should become a Granville Sharp, or a Hubert in King John, a Howard, or a Sir Hudson Lowe!

"Charity covers a multitude of sins." Wherever it is, there nothing can be wanting; wherever it is not, all else is vain. "The meanest peasant on the bleakest mountain is not without a portion of it (says Sterne); he finds the lacerated lamb of another's flock," &c.3 I do not think education or circumstances can ever entirely eradicate this principle. Some professions may be supposed to blunt it, but it is perhaps more in appearance than in reality. Butchers are not allowed to sit on a jury for life and death; but probably this is a prejudice: if they have the destructive organ in an unusual degree of expansion, they vent their sanguinary inclinations on the brute creation; and besides, they look too jolly, rosy, and in good case (they and their wives), to harbour much cruelty in their dispositions. Neither would I swear that a man was humane merely for abstaining from animal food. A tiger would not be a lamb, though, it fed on milk. Surgeons are in general thought to be unfeeling, and steeled by custom to the sufferings of humanity. They may be so, as far as relates to broken bones and bruises, but not to other things. Nor are they necessarily so in their profession; for we find different degrees of callous insensitivity in different individuals. Some practitioners have an evident delight in alarming the apprehension and cutting of the limbs of their patients: these would have been ill-natured men in any situation in life and merely make an excuse of their profession to indulge their natural ill humour and brutality of temper. A surgeon who is fond of giving pain to those who consult him will nor spare the feelings of his neighbors in other respects; has a tendency to probe other wounds besides those of the body; and is altogether a harsh and disagreeable character. A Jack-Ketch may be known to tie the fatal noose with trembling fingers; or a jailor may have a hearts softer than the walls of his prisons. There have been instances of highway men who were proverbially gentleman. I have seen a Bow-street officer4 (not but that the transition is ungracious and unjust) reading Racine, and following the recitation of Talma at the door of a room which he was sent to guard. Police-magistrates, from the scenes they have to witness and the characters they come in contact with, may be supposed to lose the fine edge of delicacy and sensibility: yet they are not all alike, but differ, as one star differs from another in magnitude. One is to as remarkable for mildness and lenity as another is notorious for harshness and severity. The late Mr Justice Fielding was a member of his profession which (however little accordant with his own feelings) he made pleasant to those of others. He generally sent away the disputants in that unruly region where he presided, tolerably satisfied. I have often seen him, escaped from the noisy repulsive scene, sunning himself in the adjoining walks of St James's Park, and with mild aspect, and lofty but unwieldy mien, eyeing the verdant glades and lengthening vistas where perhaps his childhood loitered. He had a strong resemblance to his father, the immortal author of Tom Jones. I never passed him that I did not take off my hat to him in spirit. I could not help thinking of Parson Adams, of Booth and Amelia. I seemed to belong by intellectual adoption to the same family, and would willingly have acknowledged my obligations to the father to the son. He had something of the air of Colonel Bath. When young, he had very excellent prospects in the law, but neglected a brief sent him by the Attorney-General, in order to attend a glee-club, for which he had engaged to furnish a rondeau. This spoiled his fortune. A man whose object is to please himself, or to keep his word to his friends, is the last man to thrive at court. Yet he looked serene and smiling to his latest breath, conscious of the goodness of his own heart, and of not having sullied a name that had thrown a light upon humanity!

There are different modes of obligation, and different avenues to our gratitude and favour. A man may lend his countenance who will not part with his money, and open his mind to us who will not draw out his purse. How many ways are there, in which our peace may be assailed, besides actual want! How many comforts do we stand in need of, besides meat and drink and clothing! Is it nothing to "administer to a mind diseased" -- to heal a wounded spirit? After all other difficulties are removed, we still want some one to bear with our infirmities, to impart our confidence to, to encourage us in our hobbies (nay, to get up and ride behind us), and to like us with all our faults. True friendship is self-love at second-hand; where, as in a flattering mirror, we may see our virtues magnified and our errors softened, and where we may fancy our opinion of ourselves confirmed by an impartial and faithful witness. He (of all the world) creeps closest to our bosoms, into our favour and esteem, who thinks of us most nearly as we do of ourselves. Such a one is indeed the pattern of a friend, another self -- and our gratitude for the blessing is as sincere, as it is hollow in most other cases! This is one reason why entire friendship is scarcely to be found except in love. There is hardness and severity in our judgments of one another; the spirit of competition also intervenes, unless where there is too great an inequality of pretension or difference of taste to admit of mutual sympathy and respect; but a woman's vanity is interested in making the object of her choice the God of her idolatry; and in the intercourse with that sex, there is the finest balance and reflection of opposite and answering excellences imaginable! It is the highest spirit of the religion of love in the female breast, that Lord Byron has put that beautiful apostrophe in the mouth of Anah, in speaking of her angel-love (alas! are not the sons of men, too, when they are deified it the hearts of woman, only "a little lower than the angels?") --

"And when I think that his immortal wings
Shall one day hover o'er the sepulchre
Of the poor child of clay that so adored him
As he adored the Highest, death becomes
Less terrible!"

This is a dangerous string, which I ought never to touch upon; but the shattered cords vibrate of themselves!

The difference of age, of situation in life, and an absence of all considerations of business have, I apprehend, something of the same effect in producing a refined and abstracted friendship. The person whose doors I enter with most pleasure and quit with most regret, never did me the smallest favour. I once did him an uncalled-for service, and we nearly quarreled about it. If I were in the utmost distress, I should just as soon think of asking his assistance, as of stopping a person of the highway. Practical benevolence is not his forte. He leaves the profession of that to others. His habits, his theory are against it as idle and vulgar. His hand is closed but what of that? His eye is ever open , and reflects the universe: his silver accents, beautiful, venerable as his silver hairs, but not scanted, flow as a river. I never ate or drank in his house; nor do I know or care how the flies or spiders fare in it, or whether a mouse can get a living. But I know that I can get there what I get nowhere else -- a welcome, as if one was expected to drop in just at the moment, a total absence of all respect of persons and of airs of self-consequence, endless topics of discourse, refined thoughts, made more striking by ease and simplicity of manner--the husk, the shell of humanity is left at the door and the spirit mellowed by time, resides within! All you have to do is to sit and listen; and it is like hearing one of Titian's faces speak. To think of worldly matters is a profanation, like that of the money-changers in the Temple; or it is to regard the bread and wine of the Sacrament with carnal eyes. We enter the enchanter's cell, and converse with the divine inhabitant. To have this privilege always at hand, and to be circled by that spell whenever we choose, with an "Enter Sessami," is greater than sitting at the lower end of the tables of Great, than eating awkwardly from gold plate, than drinking fulsome toasts, or being thankful for gross favours, and gross insults!

Few things tend more to alienate friendship than a want of punctuality in our engagements. I have known the breach of a promise to dine or sup to break up more than one intimacy. A disappointment of this kind rankles in the mind -- it cuts up our pleasures (those rare events in human life, which ought not to be wantonly sported with!) -- it not only deprives us of the expected gratification, but renders us unfit for, and out of humour with, every other; it makes us think our society not worth having, which is not the way to make us delighted with our own thoughts; it lessens our self-esteem and destroys our confidence in others; and having leisure on our hands (by being thus left alone) and sufficient provocation withall, we employ it in ripping up the faults of the acquaintance who has played us this slippery trick and in forming resolutions to pick a quarrel with him the very first opportunity we can find. I myself once declined an invitation to met Talma, who was an admirer of Shakespear, and who idolized Buonaparte, to keep an appointment with a person who had forgot it! One great art of woman, who pretend to manage their husbands and keep them to themselves, is to contrive some excuse for breaking their engagements with friends for whom they entertain any respect, or who are likely to have any influence over them.

There is, however a class of persons who have a particular satisfaction in falsifying your expectations of pleasure in their society, who make appointments for no other ostensible purpose than not to keep them; who think their ill-behaviour gives them an air of superiority over you, instead of placing them at your mercy; and who, in fact, in all their overtures of condescending kindness towards you, treat you exactly as if there was no such a person in the world. Friendship is with them a mono-drama, in which they play the principal and sole part. They must needs be very imposing or amusing characters to surround themselves with a circle of friends who find they are to be mere cyphers. The egotism would in such instances be offensive and intolerable, if its very excess did not render it entertaining. Some individuals carry this hard, unprincipled, reckless unconsciousness of everything but themselves and their own purposes to such a pitch that they may be compared to automata, whom you never expect to consult your feelings or alter their movement out of complaisance to others. They are wound up to a certain point, by an internal machinery which you do not very well comprehend; but if they perform their accustomed evolutions so as to excite your wonder or laughter, it is all very well, you do not quarrel with them, but look on at the pantomime of friendship while it lasts or is agreeable.

There are (I may add here) a happy few, whose manner is so engaging and delightful, that, injure you how they will, they cannot offend you. They rob, ruin, ridicule you, and you cannot find in your heart to say a word against them. The late Mr Sheridan was a man of this kind. He could not make enemies. If any one came to request the repayment of a loan from him, he borrowed more. A cordial shake of his hand was receipt in full for all demands. He could "coin his smile for drachmas," cancelled bonds with bon mots, and gave jokes in discharge of a bill. A friend of his said, "If I pull off my hat to him in the street, it costs me fifty pounds, and if he speaks to me, it's a hundred!"

Only one other reflection occurs to me on this subject. I used to think better of the world than I do. I thought its great fault, its original sin was barbarous ignorance and want, which would be cured by the diffusion of civilization and letters. But I find (or fancy I do) that as selfishness is the vice of unlettered periods and nations, envy is the bane of more refine and intellectual ones. Vanity springs out of the grave of sordid self interest. Men were formerly ready to cut one another's throats about the gross means of subsistence and now they are as ready to do it about reputation. The worst is, you are no better off if you fail than if you succeed. You are despised if you do not excel others, and hated if you do. Abuse or praise equally weans your friends from you. We cannot bear eminence in our own department or pursuit, and think it an impertinence in any other. Instead of being delighted with the proofs of excellence and the admiration paid to it, we are mortified with it, thrive only at the defeat of others, and live on the carcase of mangled reputation. By being tried to an ideal standard of vanity and affectation, real objects and common people become odious, or insipid. Instead of being raised, all is prostituted, degraded, vile. Everything is reduced to this feverish, importuning, harassing state. I'm heartily sick of it, and I'm sure I have reason if anyone has.



1 Hazlitt's "On the Spirit of Obligations" was first published in the New Monthly Magazine, January, 1824; and can be found in The Plain Speaker (1826) and in Selected Essays as edited by Geoffrey Keynes (London: Nonsuch Press, 1930).

2 (This circumstance did not happen to me, but to an acquaintance.) The original footnote found in Keynes' colllection; I have, in turn, placed them in parentheses.

3 (See the passage in the Sentimental Journey.)

4 (Lavendar.)


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