William Hazlitt.

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

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Online LibraryWilliam HazlittLectures on the English poets : [and] The spirit of the age; or contemporary portraits. → online text (page 19 of 38)
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The lawless and violent spirit, who is hurried by head-strong self-will
to break the laws, does not like to have the ground of pride and


obstinacy struck from under his feet. This is what gives the stvells
of the metropolis such a dread of the tread-mill — it makes them
ridiculous. It must be confessed, that this very circumstance renders
the reform of criminals nearly hopeless. It is the apprehension of
being stigmatized by public opinion, the fear of what will be thought
and said of them, that deters men from the violation of the laws,
while their character remains unimpeached ; but honour once lost, all
is lost. The man can never be himself again ! A citizen is like a
soldier, a part of a machine, who submits to certain hardships,
privations, and dangers, not for his own ease, pleasure, profit, or even
conscience, but — -for shame. What is it that keeps the machine
together in either case ? Not punishment or discipline, but sympathy.
The soldier mounts the breach or stands in the trenches, the peasant
hedges and ditches, or the mechanic plies his ceaseless task, because
the one will not be called a coward, the other a rogue : but let the
one turn deserter and the other vagabond, and there is an end of him.
The grinding law of necessity, which is no other than a name, a
breath, loses its force ; he is no longer sustained by the good opinion
of others, and he drops out of his place in society, a useless clog !
Mr. Bentham takes a culprit, and puts him into what he calls a
Panopticon, that is, a sort of circular prison, with open cells, like
a glass bee-hive. He sits in the middle, and sees all the other does.
He gives him work to do, and lectures him if he does not do it.
He takes liquor from him, and society and liberty ; but he feeds and
clothes him, and keeps him out of mischief; and when he has
convinced him, by force and reason together, that this life is for
his good, he turns him out upon the world a reformed man, and as
confident of the success of his handy-work, as the shoemaker of that
which he has just taken off the last, or the Parisian barber in Sterne,
of the buckle of his wig. ' Dip it in the ocean,' said the perruquier,
' and it will stand ! ' But we doubt the durability of our projector's
patchwork. Will our convert to the great principle of Utility work
when he is from under Mr. Bentham's eye, because he was forced to
work when under it ? Will he keep sober, because he has been kept
from liquor so long ? Will he not return to loose company, because
he has had the pleasure of sitting vis-a-vis with a philosopher of late :
Will he not steal, now that his hands are untied ? Will he not take
the road, now that it is free to him ? Will he not call his benefactor
all the names he can set his tongue to, the moment his back is
turned ? All this is more than to be feared. The charm of criminal
life, like that of savage life, consists in liberty, in hardship, iu danger,
and in the contempt of death, iu one word, iu extraoidiuary excite-
ment ; and he who has tasted of it, will no mote rtturu to regular



habits of life, than a man will take to water after drinking brandy, or
than a wild beast will give over hunting its prey. Miracles never
cease, to be sure ; but they are not to be had wholesale, or to order.
Mr. Owen, who is another of those proprietors and patentees ot
reform, has lately got an American savage with him, whom he carries
about in great triumph and complacency, as an antithesis to his
New Vieiu of Society, and as winding up his reasoning to what it
mainly wanted, an epigrammatic point. Does the benevolent visionary
of the Lanark cotton-mills really think this natural man will act as
a foil to his artificial man : Does he for a moment imagine that his
Address to the higher and middle classes, with all its advantages of
fiction, makes any thing like so interesting a romance as Hunter s
Captivity among the North American Indians ? Has he any thing to
show, in all the apparatus of New Lanark and its desolate monotony,
to excite the thrill of imagination like the blankets made of wreaths
ot snow under which the wild wood-rovers bury themselves for weeks
in winter? Or the skin of a leopard, which our hardy adventurer
slew, and which served him for great-coat and bedding ? Or the
rattle-snake that he found by his side as a bedfellow ? Or his rolling
himself into a ball to escape from him ? Or his suddenly placing
himself against a tree to avoid being trampled to death by the herd of
wild buffaloes, that came rushing on like the sound of thunder? Or
his account of the huge spiders that prey on blue-bottles and gilded
rlies in green pathless forests ; or of the great Pacific Ocean, that the
natives look upon as the gulf that parts time from eternity, and that
is to waft them to the spirits of their fathers ? After all this,
Mr Hunter must find Mr. Owen and his parallelograms trite and
flat, and will, we suspect, take an opportunity to escape from them !

Mr. Bentham's method of reasoning, thougli comprehensive and
exact, labours under the defect of most systems — it is too topical.
It includes every thing ; but it includes every thing alike. It is
rather like an inventory, than a valuation of different arguments.
1 very possible suggestion finds a place, so that the mind is distracted
as much as enlightened by this perplexing accuracy. The exceptions
as important as the rule. By attending to the minute, we
overlook the great ; and in summing up an account, it will not do
merely to insist on the number of items without considering their
amount. Our author's page presents a very nicely dove-tailed mosjic
pavement ot legal common-places. We slip and slide over its even
surface without being arrested any where. Or his view of the
human mind resembles a map, rather than a picture : the outline,
the disposition is correct, but it wants colouring and relief. There
b a technicality of manner, which renders his writings of more value

1 80


to thp professional inquirer than to the general reader. Again, his
style is unpopular, not to say unintelligible. He writes a language of
his own, that darkens knowledge. His works have been translated
into French — they ought to be translated into English. People
wonder that Mr. Bentham has not been prosecuted for the boldness
and severity of some of his invectives. He might wrap up high
treason in one of his inextricable periods, and it would never find its
way into Westminster-Hall. He is a kind of Manuscript author —
he writes a cypher-hand, which the vulgar have no key to. The
construction of his sentences is a curious frame-work with pegs and
hooks to hang his thoughts upon, for his own use and guidance, but
almost out of the reach of every body else. It is a barbarous
philosophical jargon, with all the repetitions, parentheses, formalities,
uncouth nomenclature and verbiage of law-Latin ; and what makes it
worse, it is not mere verbiage, but has a great deal of acuteness and
meaning in it, which you would be glad to pick out if you could.
In short, Mr. Bentham writes as if he was allowed but a single
sentence to express his whole view of a subject in, and as if, should
he omit a single circumstance or step of the argument, it would be
lost to the world for ever, like an estate by a flaw in the title-Jeeds.
This is over-rating the importance of our own discoveries, and
mistaking the nature and object of language altogether. Mr. Bentham
has acquired this disability — it is not natural to him. His admirable
little work On Usury, published forty years ago, is clear, easy, and
vigorous. But Mr. Bentham has shut himself up since then 'in nook
monastic,' conversing only with followers of his own, or with ' men
of Ind,' and has endeavoured to overlay his natural humour, sense,
spirit, and style, with the dust and cobwebs of an obscure solitude.
The best of it is, he thinks his present mode of expressing himself
perfect, and that whatever may be objected to his law or logic, no
one can find the least fault with the purity, simplicity, and perspicuity
of his style.

Mr. Bentham, in private life, is an amiable and exemplary char-
acter. He is a little romantic, or so ; and has dissipated part of a
handsome fortune in practical speculations. He lends an ear to
plausible projectors, and, if he cannot prove them to be wrong in
their premises or their conclusions, thinks himself bound in reason to
stake his money on the venture. Strict logicians are licenced vision-
aries. Mr. Bentham is half-brother to the late Mr. Speaker Abbott '
— Proh pudor! He was educated at Eton, and still takes our novices
to task about a passage in Homer, or a metre in Virgil. He was

1 Now Lord Colchester.


afterwards at the University, and he has described the scruples or an
ingenuous youthful mind about subscribing the articles, in a passage
in his Church-of-Englandism, which smacks of truth and honour both,
and does one good to read it in an age, when ' to be honest ' (or not
to laugh at the very idea of honesty) 'is to be one man picked out
of ten thousand ! ' Mr. Bentham relieves his mind sometimes, after
the fatigue of study, by playing on a fine old organ, and has a relish
for Hogarth's prints. He turns wooden utensils in a lathe for
exercise, and fancies he can turn men in the same manner. He has
no great fondness for poetry, and can hardly extract a moral out of
Shakespeare. His house is warmed and lighted by steam. He is
one of those who prefer the artificial to the natural in most things,
and think the mind of man omnipotent. He has a great contempt
for out-of-door prospects, for green fields and trees, and is for referring
everv thing to Utility. There is a little narrowness in this ; for if
all the sources of satisfaction are taken away, what is to become of
utility itself? It is, indeed, the great fault of this able and extra-
ordinary man, that he has concentrated his faculties and feelings too
entirely on one subject and pursuit, and has not ' looked enough
abroad into universality.' l


The Spirit of the Age was never more fully shown than in its
treatment of this writer — its love of paradox and change, its dastard
submission to prejudice and to the fashion of the day. Five-and-
twenty years ago he was in the very zenith of a sultry and unwhole-
some popularity ; he blazed as a sun in the firmament of reputation ;
no one was more talked of, more looked up to, more sought after,
and wherever liberty, truth, justice was the theme, his name was not
tar off: — now he has sunk below the horizon, and enjoys the serene
twilight of a doubtful immortality. Mr. Godwin, during his lifetime,
ha secured to himself the triumphs and the mortifications of an
extreme notoriety and of a sort of posthumous fame. His bark,
after being tossed in the revolutionary tempest, now raised to heaven
by all the fury of popular breath, now almost dashed in pieces, and
buried in the quicksands of ignorance, or scorched with the lightning
of momentary indignation, at length floats on the calm wave that is
to bear it down the stream of time. Mr. Godwin's person is not
known, he is not pointed out in the street, his conversation is not
ted, his opinions are not asked, he is at the head of no cabal,

1 Lord Bacon's Advancement of Learning.
i J2


he belongs to no party in the State, he has no train of admirers, no
one thinks it worth his while even to traduce and vilify him, he has
scarcely friend or foe, the world make a point (as Goldsmith used
to say) of taking no more notice of him than if such an individual
had never existed ; he is to all ordinary intents and purposes dead
and buried ; but the author of Political Justice and of Caleb Williams
can never die, his name is an abstraction in letters, his works are
standard in the history of intellect. He is thought of now like any
eminent writer a hundred-and-fifty years ago, or just as he will be
a hundred-and-fifty years hence. He knows this, and smiles in silent
mockery of himself, reposing on the monument of his fame —

' Sedet, in eternumque sedebit infelix Theseus.*

No work in our time gave such a blow to the philosophical mind
of the country as the celebrated Enquiry concerning Political Justice.
Tom Paine was considered for the time as a Tom Fool to him ;
Paley an old woman ; Edmund Burke a flashy sophist. Truth,
moral truth, it was supposed, had here taken up its abode ; and these
were the oracles of thought. ' Throw aside your books of chemistry,'
said Wordsworth to a young man, a student in the Temple, ' and
read Godwin on Necessity.' Sad necessity! Fatal reverse! Is
truth then so variable ? Is it one thing at twenty, and another at
forty? Is it at a burning heat in 1793, an ^ below zero in 1814?
Not so, in the name of manhood and of common sense ! Let us
pause here a little. — Mr. Godwin indulged in extreme opinions, and
carried with him all the most sanguine and fearless understandings of
the time. What then ? Because those opinions were overcharged,
were they therefore altogether groundless ? Is the very God of our
idolatry all of a sudden to become an abomination and an anathema ?
Could so many young men of talent, of education, and of principle
have been hurried away by what had neither truth, nor nature, not
one particle of honest feeling nor the least show of reason in it ?
Is the Modern Philosophy (as it has been called) at one moment
a youthful bride, and the next a withered beldame, like the false
Duessa in Spenser? Or is the vaunted edifice of Reason, like his
House of Pride, gorgeous in front, and dazzling to approach, while
'its hinder parts are ruinous, decayed, and old?' Has the main
prop, which supported the mighty fabric, been shaken and given
way under the strong grasp of some Samson ; or has it not rather
been undermined by rats and vermin ? At one time, it almost
seemed, that ' if this failed,

The pillar' d firmament was rottenness,
And earth's base built of stubble : '



now scarce a shadow of it remains, it is crumbled to dust, nor is it
even talked of! ' What, then, went ye forth for to see, a reed
Bhaken with the wind ? ' Was it for this that our young gownsmen
of the greatest expectation and promise, versed in classic lore, steeped
in dialectics, armed at all points for the foe, well read, well nurtured,
well provided for, left the University and the prospect of lawn sleeves,
tearing asunder the shackles of the free born spirit, and the cobwebs
of school -divinity, to throw themselves at the feet of the new
Gamaliel, and learn wisdom from him ? Was it for this, that
students at the bar, acute, inquisitive, sceptical (here only wild
enthusiasts) neglected for a while the paths of preferment and the
law as too narrow, tortuous, and unseemly to bear the pure and broad
light of reason ? Was it for this, that students in medicine missed
their way to Lecturerships and the top of their profession, deeming
lightly of the health of the body, and dreaming only of the renova-
tion of society and the march of mind ? Was it to this that Mr.
Southey's Inscriptions pointed? to this that Mr. Coleridge's Religious
Musings tended ? Was it for this, that Mr. Godwin himself sat
with arms foiled, and, 'like Cato, gave his little senate laws?'
Or rather, like another Prospero, uttered syllables that with their
enchanted breath were to change the world, and might almost stop
the stars in their courses ? Oh ! and is all forgot ? Is this sun of
intellect blotted from the sky ? Or has it suffered total eclipse ?
Or is it we who make the fancied gloom, by looking at it through
the paltry, broken, stained fragments of our own interests and pre-
judices? Were we fools then, or are we dishonest now? Or was
the impulseof the mind less likely to be true and sound when it arose from
high thought and warm feeling, than afterwards, when it was warped
and debased by the example, the vices, and follies of the world?

The fault, then, of Mr. Godwin's philosophy, in one word, was
too much ambition — 'by that sin fell the angels ! ' He conceived too
nobly of his fellows (the most unpardonable crime against them, for
there is nothing that annoys our self-love so much as being compli-
mented on imaginary achievements, to which we are wholly unequal)
— he raised the standard of morality above the reach of humanity,
and by directing virtue to the most airy and romantic heights, made
her path dangerous, solitary, and impracticable. The author of the
Political Justice took abstract reason for the rule of conduct, and
abstract good for its end. He places the human mind on an elevation,
from which it commands a view of the whole line of moral con-
sequences ; and requires it to conform its acts to the larger and more
enlightened conscience which it has thus acquired. He absolves man
from the gross and narrow ties of sense, custom, authority, private



and local attachment, in order that he may devote himself to the
boundless pursuit of universal benevolence. Mr. Godwin gives no
quarter to the amiable weaknesses of our nature, nor does he stoop to
avail himself of the supplementary aids of an imperfect virtue.
Gratitude, promises, friendship, family affection give way, not that
they may be merged in the opposite vices or in want of principle ; but
that the void may be filled up by the disinterested love of good, and
the dictates of inflexible justice, which is * the law of laws, and
sovereign of sovereigns.' All minor considerations yield, in his
system, to the stern sense of duty, as they do, in the ordinary and
established ones, to the voice of necessity. Mr. Godwin's theory,
and that of more approved reasoners, differ only in this, that what are
with them the exceptions, the extreme cases, he makes the every-day
rule. No one denies that on great occasions, in moments of fearful
excitement, or when a mighty object is at stake, the lesser and merely
instrumental points of duty are to be sacrificed without remorse at the
shrine of patriotism, of honour, and of conscience. But the disciple
of the Neiv School (no wonder it found so many impugners, even in
its own bosom ! ) is to be always the hero of duty ; the law to which
he has bound himself never swerves nor relaxes ; his feeling of what
is right is to be at all times wrought up to a pitch of enthusiastic self-
devotion ; he must become the unshrinking martyr and confessor of
the public good. If it be said that this scheme is chimerical and
impracticable on ordinary occasions, and to the generality of mankind,
wel! and good ; but those who accuse the author of having trampled
on the common feelings and prejudices of mankind in wantonness or
insult, or without wishing to substitute something better (and only
unattainable, because it is better) in their stead, accuse him wrongfully.
We may not be able to launch the bark of our affections on the ocean-
tide of humanity, we may be forced to paddle along its shores, or
shelter in its creeks and rivulets : but we have no right to reproach
the bold and adventurous pilot, who dared us to tempt the uncertain
abyss, with our own want of courage or of skill, or with the jealousies
and impatience, which deter us from undertaking, or might prevent us
from accomplishing the voyage !

The Enquiry concerning Political Justice (it was urged by its
favourers and defenders at the time, and may still be so, without
either profaneness or levity) is a metaphysical and logical commentary
on some of the most beautiful and striking texts of Scripture. Mr.
Godwin is a mixture of the Stoic and of the Christian philosopher.
To break the force of the vulgar objections and outcry that have been
raised against the Modern Philosophy, as if it were a new and
monstrous birth in morals, it may be worth noticing, that volumes of


sermons have been written to excuse the founder of Christianity for
not including friendship and private affection among its golden rules,
but rather excluding them. 1 Moreover, the answer to the question,
' Who is thy neighbour ? ' added to the divine precept, • Thou shah
love thy neighbour as thyself,' is the same as in the exploded pages of
our author, — ' He to whom we can do most good.' In determining
this point, we were not to be influenced by any extrinsic or collateral
considerations, by our own predilections, or the expectations of others,
by our obligations to them or any services they might be able to render
us, by the climate they were born in, by the house they lived in, by
rank or religion, or party, or personal ties, but by the abstract merits,
the pure and unbiassed justice of the case. The artificial helps and
checks to moral conduct were set aside as spurious and unnecessary,
and we came at once to the grand and simple question — * In what
manner we could best contribute to the greatest possible good ? '
This was the paramount obligation in all cases whatever, from which
we had no right to free ourselves upon any idle or formal pretext,
and of which each person was to judge for himself, under the infallible
authority of his own opinion and the inviolable sanction of his self-
approbation. ' There was the rub that made philosophy of so short
life ! ' Mr. Godwin's definition of morals was the same as the
admired one of law, reason without passion ; but with the unlimited
scope of private opinion, and in a boundless field of speculation (for
nothing less would satisfy the pretensions of the New School), there
was danger that the unseasoned novice might substitute some prag-
matical conceit of his own for the rule of right reason, and mistake a
heartless indifference for a superiority to more natural and generous
ags. Our ardent and dauntless reformer followed out the moral
of the parable of the Good Samaritan into its most rigid and repulsive
consequences with a pen of steel, and let fall his 'trenchant-blade' on
every vulnerable point of human infirmity ; but there is a want in his
system of the mild and persuasive tone of the Gospel, where 'all is
ience and tender heart.' Man was indeed screwed up, by mood
and iigure, into a logical machine, that was to forward the public
good with the utmost punctuality and effect, and it might go very
well on smooth ground and under favourable circumstances ; but
would it work up-hill or against the grain ? It was to be feared that
•he proud Temple of Reason, which at a distance and in stately
apposition shone like the palaces of the New Jerusalem, might (when
placed on actual ground) be broken up into the sordid styes of

J Shaftesbury made this an objection to Christianity, which was answered by
r, Leland, and other eminent divines, on the ground that Christianity had a
r object in view, namely, general philanthropy.


sensuality, and the petty huckster's shops of self-interest ! Every
man (it was proposed — 'so ran the tenour of the bond ') was to be a
Regulus, a Codrus, a Cato, or a Brutus — every woman a Mother of'
the Gracchi,

' Tt was well said.

And 'tis a kind of good deed to say well.'

But heroes on paper might degenerate into vagabonds in practice,
Corinnas into courtezans. Thus a refined and permanent individual
attachment is intended to supply the place and avoid the incon-
veniences of marriage; but vows of eternal constancy, without church
security, are found to be fragile. A member of the ideal and perfect
commonwealth of letters lends another a hundred pounds for immedi-
ate and pressing use ; and when he applies for it again, the borrower
has still more need of it than he, and retains it for his own especial,
which is tantamount to the public good. The Exchequer of pure
reason, like that of the State, never refunds. The political as well as
the religious fanatic appeals from the overweening opinion and claims
of others to the highest and most impartial tribunal, namely, his own
breast. Two persons agree to live together in Chambers en principles
of pure equality and mutual assistance — but when it comes to the
push, one of them finds that the other always insists on his fetching
water from the pump in Hare-court, and cleaning his shoes for him.
A modest assurance was not the least indispensable virtue in the new
perfectibility code ; and it was hence discovered to be a scheme, like
other schemes where there are all prizes and no blanks, for the
accommodation of the enterprizing and cunning, at the expence of the
credulous and honest. This broke up the system, and left no good
odour behind it! Reason has become a sort of bye-word, and

Online LibraryWilliam HazlittLectures on the English poets : [and] The spirit of the age; or contemporary portraits. → online text (page 19 of 38)