Hazards of Hazlitt

by Theodore Dalrymple (July 2015)

In a crowded train a few days ago I was reading Hazlitt preparatory to writing an essay comparing his Shakespeare criticism with that of Dr Johnson (whom he detested). Which of them was the more acute, the more penetrating? And the essay which I happened to read on the train was On the Ignorance of the Learned, which ends with the famous words:

If we wish to know the force of human genius we should read Shakespeare. If we wish to know the insignificance of human learning we may study his commentators.

As Hazlitt had by then written his book about Shakespeare’s characters, he presumably knew whereof he spoke.

The essay both delighted and irritated me. Delighted irritation is, of course, a very pleasant state of mind, for it combines the enjoyments of moral outrage with those of aesthetic appreciation. In a matter of only a few pages I found myself veering, staggering perhaps, between joyous agreement and the deepest exasperation. This, perhaps, is not surprising because I am one of those strange but by no means uncommon creatures, an anti-intellectual intellectual—as, indeed, was Hazlitt.

But Hazlitt goes too far—an occupational hazard of intellectuals who want to attract and keep an audience or readership. Moderation is rarely interesting, but there is no reason, as Bertrand Russell once said, why the truth when found should be interesting. So Hazlitt says that if the learned are ignorant, the ignorant are learned. This is preposterous.

In the first place, Hazlitt loads his dialectical dice by equating learning with pedantry, the learned with the kind of people who can turn ancient Greek verse into Latin epigram without themselves ever having an original thought. He says that such people are often incapable of the simplest practical tasks and are narrow in their outlook and interests. They know nothing of art, music or science, but account themselves superior to all those who are not like them. They call ‘mechanical’ all accomplishments that do not relate to their own particular, tiny and useless skill.

It is true that learning and pedantry sometimes go together, but by no means are all the learned pedantic (the most learned people I have known personally have been accomplished in several different fields, including practical ones unrelated to their own), while the unlearned are not always immune from pedantry. When reviewing a book about a subject of which I know little or nothing, for example, I delight to come across an error which I can recognise. There is more rejoicing in the heart of a pedant over one mistake than over ninety-nine facts he didn’t know. I have quite a number of old books in which a previous reader has marked with an underlining or by an exclamation mark in the margin the only typographical error in the whole volume. It is as if that reader had been reading only in the hope of finding such an error, so that, being a frustrated intellectual himself, he could feel superior to the author of the book he was reading.

But the identification of learning with pedantry is not Hazlitt’s only mistake. He is a populist in the worst sense. He says, for example, the ‘you will hear more good things on the outside of a stage-coach from London to Oxford than if you were to pass a twelvemonth with the undergraduates, or heads of colleges, of that university.’ Times may have changed, but I took a little time off from reading to listen to the three men from Liverpool next to me who were talking among themselves. What were the good things they said? They had but two subjects: the price of various kinds of beer in various kinds of bars, and the selection of the Liverpool football team (the former manager of which once said that football was not a matter of life and death—it was much more important than that). I suspect that I could have spent a twelvemonth in the company of these men and heard of little but beer and football. This does not mean that they were bad men, but it would rather cast doubt on their superior wit.

But it is not only superior wit with which the common, unlearned people are endowed in Hazlitt’s opinion, but superior wisdom. This is what he says:

Now it is true that there are some absurd doctrines propounded by the learned which the ‘mass of society’ does not come to believe, but is it common sense that protects them, or their lack of understanding or interest? After all, they are perfectly capable of believing many absurdities. And if they are endowed with common sense ex officio, how comes it that ‘they trust to their blind guides’?

Hazlitt goes on to say:

Now this passage has a special personal interest for me because, when I am in England, I live next door but four to a house on whose frontage are inscribed the words, In this house lived the learned and eloquent Richard Baxter 1640-41, which for some reason I read for a number of years as ‘learned and elegant,’ perhaps because I prefer elegance to eloquence, the latter being possible in the service of a very bad cause.

But let us return to Hazlitt. Is nearly stoning a preacher to death a sign of the female congregation’s common sense that he extols? Common sense, surely, would laugh at the doctrine Baxter propounded (if, that is, Hazlitt’s representation of it is correct). And if the common sense of the populace were so powerful a shield against Baxter’s ‘fierce and foolish doctrine,’ how came it that he was able to prove, by quotation from supposed authorities, that the road to hell really was paved with babies’ skulls? It is difficult not to conclude that the proper defence against Baxter’s horrible proposition was common sense allied with learning and eloquence. In other words, common sense is necessary but not sufficient.



Threats of Pain and Ruin from New English Review Press. His next book, Out Into the Beautiful World, will be published in August.

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