William Hazlitt.

Lectures on the English poets : [and] The spirit of the age; or contemporary portraits. online

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his Friend, I have spoken the truth elsewhere. But I may say of
him here, that he is the only person I ever knew who answered to
the idea of a man of genius. He is the only person from whom I
ever learnt any thing. There is only one thing he could learn from
me in return, but that he has not. He was the first poet I ever
knew. His genius at that time had angelic wings, and fed on manna.
He talked on for ever ; and you wished him to talk on for ever.
His thoughts did not seem to come with labour and effort ; but as if
borne on the gusts of genius, and as if the wings of his imagination
lifted him from off his feet. His voice rolled on the ear like the
pealing organ, and its sound alone was the music of thought. His
mind was clothed with wings ; and raised on them, he lifted
philosophy to heaven. In his descriptions, you then saw the
progress of human happiness and liberty in bright and never-ending
succession, like the steps of Jacob's ladder, with airy shapes ascending
and descending, and with the voice of God at the top of the ladder.
And shall I, who heard him then, listen to him now ? Not I ! ....
That spell is broke ; that time is gone for ever ; that voice is heard
no more : but still the recollection comes rushing by with thoughts of
long-past years, and rings in my ears with never-dying sound.

'■ What though the radiance which was once so bright,
Be now for ever taken from my sight,
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of glory in the grass, of splendour in the fiow'r;
I do not grieve, but rather find
Strength in what remains behind $
In the primal sympathy,



Which having been, must ever be ;
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering ;
In years that bring the philosophic mind ! ' —

I have thus gone through the task I intended, and have come at
last to the level ground. I have felt my subject gradually sinking
from under me as I advanced, and have been afraid of ending in
nothing. The interest has unavoidably decreased at almost every
successive step of the progress, like a play that has its catastrophe
in the first or second act. This, however, I could not help. I have
done as well as I could.

End of Lectures on
the English Poets





Mr. Bentham is one of those persons who verify the old adage, that
' A prophet has most honour out of his own country.' His reputa-
tion lies at the circumference ; and the lights of his understanding
are reflected, with increasing lustre, on the other side of the globe.
His name is little known in England, better in Europe, best of all
in the plains of Chili and the mines of Mexico. He has ofFered
constitutions for the New World, and legislated for future times.
The people of Westminster, where he lives, hardly dream of such
a person ; but the Siberian savage has received cold comfort from
his lunar aspect, and may say to him with Caliban — ' I know thee,
and thy dog and thy bush ! ' The tawny Indian may hold out the
hand of fellowship to him across the Great Pacific. We believe
that the Empress Catherine corresponded with him ; and we know
that the Emperor Alexander called upon him, and presented him
with his miniature in a gold snuff-box, which the philosopher, to his
eternal honour, returned. Mr. Hobhouse is a greater man at the
hustings, Lord Rolle at Plymouth Dock ; but Mr. Bentham would
carry it hollow, on the score of popularity, at Paris or Pegu. The
reason is, that our author's influence is purely intellectual. He has
devoted his life to the pursuit of abstract and general truths, and to
those studies —

' That waft a thought from Indus to the Pole ' —

and has never mixed himself up with personal intrigues or party
politics. He once, indeed, stuck up a hand-bill to say that he
(Jeremy Bentham) being of sound mind, was of opinion that Sir
Samuel Romilly was the most proper person to represent Westminster ;
but this was the whim of the moment. Otherwise, his reasonings,
if true at all, are true everywhere alike : his speculations concern
humanity at large, and are not confined to the hundred or the bills of
mortality. It is in moral as in physical magnitude. The little is
seen best near : the great appears in its proper dimensions, only from



a more commanding point of view, and gains strength with time, and
elevation from distance !

Mr. Bentham is very much among philosophers what La Fontaine
was among poets : — in general habits and in all but his professional
pursuits, he is a mere child. He has lived for the last forty years
in a house in Westminster, overlooking the Park, like an anchoret
in his cell, reducing law to a system, and the mind of man to a
machine. He scarcely ever goes out, and sees very little company.
The favoured few, who have the privilege of the entree, are always
admitted one by one. He does not like to have witnesses to his
conversation. He talks a great deal, and listens to nothing but facts.
When any one calls upon him, he invites them to take a turn round
his garden with him (Mr. Bentham is an economist of his time, and
sets apart this portion of it to air and exercise) — and there you may
see the lively old man, his mind still buoyant with thought and with
the prospect of futurity, in eager conversation with some Opposition
Member, some expatriated Patriot, or Transatlantic Adventurer,
urging the extinction of Close Boroughs, or planning a code of laws
for some ' lone island in the watery waste,' his walk almost amount-
ing to a run, his tongue keeping pace with it in shrill, cluttering
accents, negligent of his person, his dress, and his manner, intent
only on his grand theme of Utility — or pausing, perhaps, for want
of breath and with lack-lustre eye to point out to the stranger a stone
in the wall at the end of his garden (overarched by two beautiful
cotton-trees) Inscribed to the Prince of Poets, which marks the house
where Milton formerly lived. To show how little the refinements
of taste or fancy enter into our author's system, he proposed at one
time to cut down these beautiful trees, to convert the garden where
he had breathed the air of Truth and Heaven for near half a century
into a paltry Chrestomathic School, and to make Milton's house (the
cradle of Paradise Lost) a thoroughfare, like a three-stalled stable,
for the idle rabble or Westminster to pass backwards and forwards
to it with their cloven hoofs. Let us not, however, be getting on
too fast — Milton himself taught school! There is something not
altogether dissimilar between Mr. Bentham's appearance, and the
portraits of Milton, the same silvery tone, a few dishevelled hairs, a
peevish, yet puritanical expression, an irritable temperament corrected
by habit and discipline. Or in modern times, he is something
between Franklin and Charles Fox, with the comfortable double-chin
and 6leek thriving look of the one, and the quivering lip, the restless
eye, and animated acutcness of the other. His eye is quick and
lively ; but it glances not from object to object, but from thought to
thought. He is evidently a man occupied with some train of fine


and inward association. He regards the people about him no more
han the flies of a summer. He meditates the coming age. He
lears and sees only what suits his purpose, or some ' foregone
conclusion ' ; and looks out for facts and passing occurrences in order
tc put them into his logical machinery and grind them into the dust
aid powder of some subtle theory, as the miller looks out for grist to
hi; mill ! Add to this physiognomical sketch the minor points of
costume, the open shirt-collar, the single-breasted coat, the old
fasaioned half-boots and ribbed stockings ; and you will find in Mr.
Berrham's general appearance a singular mixture of boyish simplicity
and of the venerableness of age. In a word, our celebrated jurist
presents a striking illustration of the difference between the philosophical
and the regal look ; that is, between the merely abstracted and the
merey personal. There is a lack-adaisical honhommie about his whole
aspee, none of the fierceness of pride or power ; an unconscious
neglect of his own person, instead of a stately assumption of
superiority ; a good-humoured, placid intelligence, instead of a lynx-
eyed watchfulness, as if it wished to make others its prey, or was
afraid they might turn and rend him ; he is a beneficent spirit, prying
into the universe, not lording it over it ; a thoughtful spectator of
the scenes of life, or ruminator on the fate of mankind, not a painted
pageant, a stupid idol set up on its pedestal of pride for men to fall
down and worship with idiot fear and wonder at the thing themselves
have made, and which, without that fear and wonder, would in itself
be nothing !

Mr. Bentham, perhaps, over-rates the importance of his own
theories. He has been heard to say (without any appearance of
pride or affectation) that 'he should like to live the remaining years
of his life, a year at a time at the end of the next six or eight
centuries, to see the effect which his writings would by that time
have had upon the world.' Alas! his name will hardly live so
long ! Nor do we think, in point of fact, that Mr. Bentham has
given any new or decided impulse to the human mind. He cannot
be looked upon in the light of a discoverer in legislation or
morals. He has not struck out any great leading principle or parent-
truth, from which a number of others might be deduced ; nor has
he enriched the common and established stock of intelligence with
original observations, like pearls thrown into wine. One truth
discovered is immortal, and entitles its author to be so : for, like a
new substance in nature, it cannot be destroyed. But Mr. Bentham's
forte is arrangement ; and the form of truth, though not its essence,
varies with time and circumstance. He has methodised, collated,
and condensed all the materials prepared to his hand on the subjects



of which he treats, in a masterly and scientific manner ; but we
should find a difficulty in adducing from his different works (however
elaborate or closelv reasoned) any new element of thought, or even t
n-.w fact or illustration. His writings are, therefore, chiefly valuable
as books of reference, as bringing down the account of intellectual
inquiry to the present period, and disposing the results in a con-
pendious, connected, and tangible shape ; but books of reference gre
chiefly serviceable for facilitating the acquisition of knowledge, aid
are constantly liable to be superseded and to grow out of fashion with
its progress, as the scaffolding is thrown down as soon as the builoing
is completed. Mr. Bentham is not the first writer (by a great msny)
who has assumed the principle of utility as the foundation of just
laws, and of all moral and political reasoning: — his merit is, he
has applied this principle more closely and literally ; that h« has
brought all the objections and arguments, more distinctly labelled and
ticketted, under this one head, and made a more constant and explicit
reference to it at every step of his progress, than any other writer.
Perhaps the weak side of his conclusions also is, that he has carried
this single view of his subject too far, and not made sufficient allow-
ance for the varieties of human nature, and the caprices and irregu-
larities of the human will. ' He has not allowed for the wind.' It
is nor that you can be said to see his favourite doctrine of Utility
glittering everywhere through his system, like a vein of rich, shining
ore (that is not the nature of the material) — but it might be plausibly
objected that he had struck the whole mass of fancy, prejudice,
passion, sense, whim, with his petrific, leaden mace, that he had
1 bound volatile Hermes,' and reduced the theory and practice of
human life to a caput mortuum of reason, and dull, plodding, technical
calculation. The gentleman is himself a capital logician ; and he
has been led by this circumstance to consider man as a logical animal.
We fear this view of the matter will hardly hold water. If we attend
to the moral man, the constitution of his mind will scarcely be found
to be built up of pure reason and a regard to consequences : if we
consider the criminal man (with whom the legislator has chiefly to do)
v will be found to be still less so.

Every pleasure, says Mr. Bentham, is equally a good, and is to be

taken into the account as such in a moral estimate, whether it be the

pleasure of sense or of conscience, whether it arise from the exercise

ot \irtue or the perpetration of crime. We are afraid the human

mind does not readily come into this doctrine, this ultima ratio philoso-

pborum, interpreted according to the letter. Our moral sentiments

made up of sympathies and antipathies, of sense and imagination,

D Lerstanding and prejudice. The soul, by reason of its weakness,



is an aggregating and an exclusive principle ; it clings obstinately to
ome things, and violently rejects others. And it must do so, in a
jreat measure, or it would act contrary to its own nature. It needs
hips and stages in its progress, and ' all appliances and means to
bot,' which can raise it to a partial conformity to truth and good
(he utmost it is capable of) and bring it into a tolerable harmony
wth the universe. By aiming at too much, by dismissing collateral
aics, by extending itself to the farthest verge of the conceivable and
posible, it loses its elasticity and vigour, its impulse and its direction.
Th» moralist can no more do without the intermediate use of rules
and principles, without the 'vantage ground of habit, without the
leves of the understanding, than the mechanist can discard the use of
wheds and pulleys, and perform every thing by simple motion. If
the nind of man were competent to comprehend the whole of
truth and good, and act upon it at once, and independently of all
other considerations, Mr. Bentham's plan would be a feasible one,
and tie truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, would be the
best possible ground to place morality upon. But it is not so. In
ascertaining the rules of moral conduct, we must have regard not
merely to the nature of the object, but to the capacity of the agent,
and to his fitness for apprehending or attaining it. Pleasure is that
which is so in itself: good is that which approves itself as such on
reflection, or the idea of which is a source of satisfaction. All
pleasure is not, therefore (morally speaking) equally a good ; for all
pleasure does r.ot equally bear reflecting on. There are some tastes
that are sweet in the mouth and bitter in the belly ; and there is a
similar contradiction and anomaly in the mind and heart of man.

Again, what would become of the Posthac meminisse jwvabit of the
poet, if a principle of fluctuation and reaction is not inherent in the
very constitution of our nature, or if all moral truth is a mere literal
truism ? We are not, then, so much to inquire what certain things
are abstractedly or in themselves, as how they affect the mind, and to
approve or condemn them accordingly. The same object seen near
strikes us more powerfully than at a distance : things thrown into
masses give a greater blow to the imagination than when scattered
and divided into their component parts. A number of mole-hills do
not make a mountain, though a mountain is actually made up of atoms :
so moral truth must present itself under a certain aspect and from a
certain point of view, in order to produce its full and proper effect
upon the mind. The laws of the affections are as necessary as those
of optics. A calculation of consequences is no more equivalent to a
sentiment, than a seriatim enumeration of square yards or teet touches
the fancy like the sight of the Alps or Andes.



To give an instance or two of what we mean. Those who on
pure cosmopolite principles, or on the ground of abstract humanity
affect an extraordinary regard for the Turks and Tartars, have beei
accused of neglecting their duties to their friends and next-doer
neighbours. Well, then, what is the state of the question here?
One human being is, no doubt, as much worth in himself, inde-
pendently of the circumstances of time or place, as another; but heis
not of so much value to us and our affections. Could our imaginaton
take wing Cwith our speculative faculties) to the other side of :he
globe or to the ends of the universe, could our eyes behold whatrver
our reason teaches us to be possible, could our hands reach as fa" as
our thoughts and wishes, we might then busy ourselves to advartage
with the Hottentots, or hold intimate converse with the inhabitants of
the Moon ; but being as we are, our feelings evaporate in so la"ge a
space — we must draw the circle of our affections and duties somewhat
closer — the heart hovers and fixes nearer home. It is true, the bands
of private, or of local and natural affection, are often, nay in general,
too tightly strained, so as frequently to do harm instead of good : but
the present question is whether we can, with safety and effect, be
wholly emancipated from them ? Whether we should shake them
oif at pleasure and without mercy, as the only bar to the triumph ot
truth and justice ? Or whether benevolence, constructed upon a
logical scale, would not be merely nominal, whether duty, raised to
too lofty a pitch of refinement, might not sink into callous indifference
or hollow selfishness ? Again, is it not to exact too high a strain
from humanity, to ask us to qualify the degree of abhorrence we feel
against a murderer by taking into our cool consideration the pleasure
he may have in committing the deed, and in the prospect of gratifying
his avarice or his revenge ? We are hardly so formed as to sympathise
at the same moment with the assassin and his victim. The degree of
ire the former may feel, instead of extenuating, aggravates his
guilt, and shows the depth of his malignity. Now the mind revolts
against this by mere natural antipathy, if it is itself well-disposed ; or
the siow process of reason would afford but a feeble resistance to
violence and wrong. The will, which is necessary to give consistency
and promptness to our good intentions, cannot extend so much
candour and courtesy to the antagonist principle of evil: virtue, to be
sincere and practical, cannot be divested entirely of the blindness and
impetuosity of passion! It has been made a plea (half jest, half
earnest) for the horrors of war, that they promote trade and manu-
factures. It has been said, as a set-off for the atrocities practised
upon the negro slaves in the West Indies, that without their blood
and sweat, so many millions of people could not have sugar to sweeten



their tea. Fires and murders have been argued to be beneficial, as
they serve to fill the newspapers, and for a subject to talk, of — this is
a sort of sophistry that it might be difficult to disprove on the bare
scheme of contingent utility ; but on the ground that we have stated,
it must pass for mere irony. What the proportion between the good
and the evil will really be found in any of the supposed cases, may be
a question to the understanding ; but to the imagination and the
heart, that is, to the natural feelings of mankind, it admits of none !

Mr. Bentham, in adjusting the provisions of a penal code, lays too
little stress on the co-operation of the natural prejudices of mankind,
and the habitual feelings of that class of persons for whom they are
more particularly designed. Legislators (we mean writers on legis-
lation) are philosophers, and governed by their reason : criminals, for
whose controul laws are made, are a set of desperadoes, governed
only by their passions. What wonder that so little progress has been
made towards a mutual understanding between the two parties !
They are quite a different species, and speak a different language,
and are sadly at a loss for a common interpreter between them.
Perhaps the Ordinary of Newgate bids as fair for this office as any
one. What should Mr. Bentham, sitting at ease in his arm-chair,
composing his mind before he begins to write by a prelude on the
organ, and looking out at a beautiful prospect when he is at a loss for
an idea, know of the principles of action of rogues, outlaws, and
vagabonds ? No more than Montaigne of the motions of his cat !
If sanguine and tender-hearted philanthropists have set on foot an
inquiry into the barbarity and the defects of penal laws, the practical
improvements have been mostly suggested by reformed cut-throats,
turnkeys, and thief-takers. What even can the Honourable House,
who when the Speaker has pronounced the well-known, wished-for
sounds, ' That this house do now adjourn,' retire, after voting a
royal crusade or a loan of millions, to lie on down, and feed on
plate in spacious palaces, know of what passes in the hearts of
wretches in garrets and night-cellars, petty pilferers and marauders,
who cut throats and pick pockets with their own hands ? The
thing is impossible. The laws of the country are, therefore, ineffectual
and abortive, because they are made by the rich for the poor, by the
wise for the ignorant, by the respectable and exalted in station for the
very scum and refuse of the community. If Newgate would resolve
itself into a committee of the whole Press-yard, with Jack Ketch at
its head, aided by confidential persons from the county prisons or the
Hulks, and would make a clear breast, some data might be found out
to proceed upon ; but as it is, the criminal mind of the country is a
book sealed, no one has been able to penetrate to the inside 1



Mr. Bentham, in his attempts to revise and amend our criminal
jurisprudence, proceeds entirely on his favourite principle of Utility.
Convince highwaymen and housebreakers that it will be for their
interest to reform, and they will reform and lead honest lives;
according to Mr. Benrham. He says, 'All men act from calculation,
even madmen reason.' And, in our opinion, he might as well carry
this maxim to Bedlam or St. Luke's, and apply it to the inhabitants,
as think to coerce or overawe the inmates of a gaol, or those whose
practices make them candidates for that distinction, by the mere dry,
detailed convictions of the understanding. Criminals are not to be
influenced by reason ; for it is of the very essence of crime to
disregard consequences both to ourselves and others. You may as
well preach philosophy to a drunken man, or to the dead, as to those
who are under the instigation of any mischievous passion. A man is
a drunkard, and you tell him he ought to be sober ; he is debauched,
and you ask him to reform ; he is idle, and you recommend industry
to him as his wisest course ; he gambles, and you remind him that he
may be ruined by this foible ; he has lost his character, and you
advise him to get into some reputable service or lucrative situation ;
vice becomes a habit with him, and you request him to rouse himself
and shake it off; he is starving, and you warn him if he breaks the
law, he will be hanged. None of this reasoning reaches the mark it
aims at. The culprit, who violates and suffers the vengeance of the
laws, is not the dupe of ignorance, but the slave of passion, the victim
of habit or necessity. To argue with strong passion, with inveterate
habit, with desperate circumstances, is to talk to the winds. Clownish
ignorance may indeed be dispelled, and taught better ; but it is seldom
that a criminal is not aware of the consequences of his act, or has not
made up his mind to the alternative. They are, in general, too
knowing by half. You tell a person of this stamp what is his interest;
he says he does not care about his interest, or the world and he differ
on that particular. But there is one point on which he must agree
with them, namely, what they think of his conduct, and that is the
only hold you have of him. A man may be callous and indifferent
to what happens to himself; but he is never indifferent to public
opinion, or proof against open scorn and infamy. Shame, then, not
. is the sheet-anchor of the law. He who is not afraid of being
pointed at as a thief, will not mind a month's hard labour. He who
is prepared to take the life of another, is already reckless of his own.
But every one makes a sorry figure in the pillory ; and the being
launched from the New Drop lowers a man in his own opinion.

Online LibraryWilliam HazlittLectures on the English poets : [and] The spirit of the age; or contemporary portraits. → online text (page 18 of 38)