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 29 of 38)
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give and take a fall —

' And gladly would he learn, and gladly teach.'

It is no wonder that this sort of friendly intellectual gladiatorship is
Sir James's greatest pleasure, for it is his peculiar forte. He has not
many equals, and scarcely any superior in it. He is too indolent for
an author ; too unimpassioned for an orator : but in society he is just
vain enough to be pleased with immediate attention, good-humoured
enough to listen with patience to others, with great coolness and self-
possession, fluent, communicative, and with a manner equally free
from violence and insipidity. Few subjects can be started, on which
he is not qualified to appear to advantage as the gentleman and
scholar. If there is some tinge of pedantry, it is carried off by great
affability of address and variety of amusing and interesting topics.
There is scarce an author that he has not read ; a period of history
that he is not conversant with ; a celebrated name of which he has
not a number of anecdotes to relate ; an intricate question that he is
not prepared to enter upon in a popular or scientific manner. If an
opinion in an abstruse metaphysical author is referred to, he is
probably able to repeat the passage by heart, can tell the side of the
page on which it is to be met with, can trace it back through various
descents to Locke, Hobbes, Lord Herbert of Cherbury, to a place in
some obscure folio of the School-men or a note in one of the commen-
tators on Aristotle or Plato, and thus give you in a few moments'
space, and without any effort or previous notice, a chronological table
of the progress of the human mind in that particular branch of inquiry.
There is something, we think, perfectly admirable and delightful in
an exhibition of this kind, and which is equally creditable to the
speaker and gratifying to the hearer. But this kind of talent was of



no use in India : the intellectual wares, of which the Chief Judge
delighted to make a display, were in no request there. He languished
after the friends and the society he had left behind ; and wrote over
incessantly for books from England. One that was sent him at this
time was an Essay on the Principles of Human miction ; and the way in
which he spoke of that dry, tough, metaphysical choke-pear, showed
the dearth of intellectual intercourse in which he lived, and the
craving in his mind after those studies which had once been his pride,
and to which he still turned for consolation in his remote solitude. —
Perhaps to another, the novelty of the scene, the differences of mind
and manners might have atoned for a want of social and literary
agremens : but Sir James is one of those who see nature through the
spectacles of books. He might like to read an account of India ;
but India itself with its burning, shining face would be a mere blank,
an endless waste to him. To persons of this class of mind things
must be translated into words, visible images into abstract propositions
to meet their refined apprehensions, and they have no more to say to
a matter-of-fact staring them in the face without a label in its mouth,
than they would to a hippopotamus! — We may add, before we quit
this point, that we cannot conceive of any two persons more different
in colloquial talents, in which they both excel, than Sir James
Mackintosh and Mr. Coleridge. They have nearly an equal range of
reading and of topics of conversation : but in the mind of the one we
see nothing but fixtures, in the other every thing is fluid. The ideas
of the one are as formal and tangible, as those of the other are
shadowy and evanescent. Sir James Mackintosh walks over the
ground, Mr. Coleridge is always flying off from it. The first knows
all that has been said upon a subject ; the last has something to say
that was never said before. If the one deals too much in learned
common-places, the other teems with idle fancies. The one has a good
deal of the caput mortuum of genius, the other is all volatile salt.
The conversation of Sir James Mackintosh has the effect of reading
a well-written book, that of his friend is like hearing a bewildered
dream. The one is an Encyclopedia of knowledge, the other is a
succession of Sybilline Leaves !

As an author, Sir James Mackintosh may claim the foremost rank
among those who pride themselves on artificial ornaments and acquired
learning, or who write what may be termed a composite style. His
VindicU Gallics is a work of great labour, great ingenuity, great
brilliancy, and great vigour. It is a little too antithetical in the
structure of its periods, too dogmatical in the announcement of its
opinions. Sir James has, we believe, rejected something of the false
'rilliant of the one, as he has retracted some of the abrupt extravagance


of the other. We apprehend, however, that our author is not one of
those who draw from their own resources and accumulated feelings,
or who improve with age. He belongs to a class (common in
Scotland and elsewhere) who get up school-exercises on any given
subject in a masterly manner at twenty, and who at forty are either
where they were — or retrograde, if they are men of sense and modesty.
The reason is, their vanity is weaned, after the first hey-day and
animal spirits of youth are flown, from making an affected display of
knowledge, which, however useful, is not their own, and may be
much more simply stated ; they are tired of repeating the same
arguments over and over again, after having exhausted and rung the
changes on their whole stock for a number of times. Sir James
Mackintosh is understood to be a writer in the Edinburgh Review ;
and the articles attributed to him there are full of matter of great pith
and moment. But they want the trim, pointed expression, the
ambitious ornaments, the ostentatious display and rapid volubility of
his early productions. We have heard it objected to his later com-
positions, that his style is good as far as single words and phrases are
concerned, but that his sentences are clumsy and disjointed, and that
these make up still more awkward and sprawling paragraphs. This
is a nice criticism, and we cannot speak to its truth ; but if the fact
be so, we think we can account for it from the texture and obvious
procers of the author's mind. All his ideas may be said to be given
preconceptions. They do not arise, as it were, out of the subject, or
out of one another at the moment, and therefore do not How naturally
and gracefully from one another. They have been laid down before-
hand in a sort of formal division or frame-work of the understanding ;
and the connection between the premises and the conclusion, between
one branch of a subject and another, is made out in a bungling and
unsatisfactory manner. There is no principle of fusion in the work ;
he strikes after the iron is cold, and there is a want of malleability in
the style. Sir James is at present said to be engaged in writing a
History of England after the downfall of the house of Stuart. May
it be worthy of the talents of the author, and of the principles of the
period it is intended to illustrate !


Mr. Malthus may be considered as one of those rare and fortunate
writers who have attained a scientific reputation in questions of moral
and political philosophy. His name undoubtedly stands very high
in the present age, and will in all probability go down to posterity



with more or less of renown or obloquy. It was said by a person
well qualified to judge both from strength and candour of mind, that
' i*. would take a thousand years at least to answer his work on
Population.' He has certainly thrown a new light on that question,
and changed the aspect of political economy in a decided and material
point of view — whether he has not also endeavoured to spread a gloom
over the hopes and more sanguine speculations of man, and to cast a
slur upon the face of nature, is another question. There is this to
be said for Mr. Malthus, that in speaking of him, one knows what
one is talking about. He is something beyond a mere name — one
has not to beat the bush about his talents, his attainments, his vast
reputation, and leave off without knowing what it all amounts to
— he is not one of those great men, who set themselves off and strut
and fret an hour upon the stage, during a day-dream of popularity,
with the ornaments and jewels borrowed from the common stock,
to which nothing but their vanity and presumption gives them the
least individual claim — he has dug into the mine of truth, and brought
up ore mixed with dross ! In weighing his merits we come at once
to the question of what he has done or failed to do. It is a specific
claim that he sets up. When we speak of Mr. Malthus. we mean
the Essay on Population ; and when we mention the Essay on Popula-
tion, we mean a distinct leading proposition, that stands out intelligibly
from all trashy pretence, and is a ground on which to fix the levers
that may move the world, backwards or forwards. He has not left
opinion where he found it ; he has advanced or given it a wrong bias,
or thrown a stumbling-block in its way. In a word, his name is not
stuck, like so many others, in the firmament of reputation, nobody
knows why, inscribed in great letters, and with a transparency of
Talents, Genius, Learning blazing round it — it is tantamount to
an idea, it is identified with a principle, it means that the population
cannot go on perpetually increasing luithout pressing on the limits of the
means of subsistence, and that a check of some kind or other must, sooner
or later, be opposed to it. This is the essence of the doctrine which
Mr. Malthus has been the first to bring into general notice, and as we
think, to establish beyond the fear of contradiction. Admitting then
as we do the prominence and the value of his claims to public atten-
tion, it yet remains a question, how far those claims are (as to the
talent displayed in them) strictly original; how far (as to the logical
accuracy with which he has treated the subject) he has introduced
foreign and doubtful matter into it; and how far (as to the spirit in
which he has conducted his inquiries, and applied a general principle
to particular objects) he has only drawn fair and inevitable conclusions
from it, or endeavoured to tamper with and wrest it to sinister and


servile purposes. A writer who shrinks from following up a well-
founded principle into its untoward consequences from timidity or
false delicacy, is not worthy of the name of a philosopher : a writer
who assumes the garb of candour and an inflexible love of truth to
garble and pervert it, to crouch to power and pander to prejudice,
deserves a worse title than that of a sophist!

Mr. Malthus's first octavo volume on this subject (published in
the year 1798) was intended as an answer to Mr. Godwin's Enquiry
concerning Political Justice. It was well got up for the purpose, and
had an immediate effect. It was what in the language of the ring is
called a facer. It made Mr. Godwin and the other advocates of
Modern Philosophy look about them. It may be almost doubted
whether Mr. Malthus was in the first instance serious in many things
that he threw out, or whether he did not hazard the whole as an
amusing and extreme paradox, which might puzzle the reader as it
had done himself in an idle moment, but to which no practical
consequence whatever could attach. This state of mind would
probably continue till the irritation of enemies and the encouragement
of friends convinced him that what he had at first exhibited as an
idle fancy was in fact a very valuable discovery, or ' like the toad
ugly and venomous, had yet a precious jewel in its head.' Such a
supposition would at least account for some things in the original
Essay, which scarcely any writer would venture upon, except as
professed exercises of ingenuity, and which have been since in part
retracted. But a wrong bias was thus given, and the author's theory
was thus rendered warped, disjointed, and sophistical from the very

Nothing could in fact be more illogical (not to say absurd) than
the whole of Mr. Malthus's reasoning applied as an answer [par
excellence) to Mr. Godwin's book, or to the theories of other
Utopian philosophers. Mr. Godwin was not singular, but was kept
in countenance by many authorities, both ancient and modern, in
supposing a state of society possible in which the passions and wills
of individuals would be conformed to me general good, in which the
knowledge of the best means of promoting human welfare and the
desire of contributing to it would banish vice and misery from
the world, and in which, the stumbling-blocks of ignorance, of
selfishness, and the indulgence of gross appetite being removed, all
things would move on by the mere impulse of wisdom and virtue,
to still higher and higher degrees of perfection and happiness.
Compared with the lamentable and gross deficiencies of existing
institutions, such a view of futurity as barely possible could not fail
to allure the gaze and tempt the aspiring thoughts of the philan-



thropist and the philosopher : the hopes and the imaginations of
speculative men could not but rush forward into this ideal world
as into a vacuum of good ; and from 'the mighty stream of tendency'
(as Mr. Wordsworth in the cant of the day calls it,) there was
danger that the proud monuments of time-hallowed institutions, that
the strong-holds of power and corruption, that 'the Corinthian
capitals of polished society,' with the base and pediments, might be
overthrown and swept away as by a hurricane. There were not
wanting persons whose ignorance, whose fears, whose pride, or whose
prejudices contemplated such an alternative with horror ; and who
would naturally feel no small obligation to the man who should
relieve their apprehensions from the stunning roar of this mighty
change of opinion that thundered at a distance, and should be able,
by some logical apparatus or unexpected turn of the argument, to
prevent the vessel of the state from being hurried forward with the
progress of improvement, and dashed in pieces down the tremendous
precipice of human perfectibility. Then comes Mr. Malthus forward
with the geometrical and arithmetical ratios in his hands, and holds
them out to his affrighted contemporaries as the only means of
salvation. 'For' (so argued the author of the Essay) 'let the
principles of Mr. Godwin's Enquiry and of other similar works be
carried literally and completely into effect ; let every corruption and
abuse of power be entirely got rid of; let virtue, knowledge, and
civilization be advanced to the greatest height that these visionary
reformers would suppose ; let the passions and appetites be subjected
to the utmost control of reason and influence of public opinion :
grant them, in a word, all that they ask, and the more completely
their views are realized, the sooner will they be overthrown again,
and the more inevitable and fatal will be the catastrophe. For the
principle of population will still prevail, and from the comfort, ease,
and plenty that will abound, will receive an increasing force and
impetus ; the number of mouths to be fed will have no limit, but the
food that is to supply them cannot keep pace with the demand for it ;
we must come to a stop somewhere, even though each square yard,
by extreme improvements in cultivation, could maintain its man :
in this state of things there will be no remedy, the wholesome
checks of vice and misery (which have hitherto kept this principle
within bounds) will have been done away ; the voice of reason will
be unheard ; the passions only will bear sway ; famine, distress,
havoc, and dismay will spread around ; hatred, violence, war, and
bloodshed will be the infallible consequence, and from the pinnacle
of happiness, peace, refinement, and social advantage, we shall be
hurled once more into a profounder abyss of misery, want, and


barbarism than ever, by the sole operation of the principle of
population ! ' — Such is a brief abstract of the argument of the Essay.
Can any thing be less conclusive, a more complete fallacy and petit: .
principiii Mr. Malthus concedes, he assumes a state of perfectibility,
such as his opponents imagined, in which the general good is to
obtain the entire mastery of individual interests, and reason of gross
appetites and passions : and then he argues that such a perfect
structure of society will fall by its own weight, or rather be under-
mined by the principle of population, because in the highest possible
state of the subjugation of the passions to reason, they will be
absolutely lawless and unchecked, and because as men become
enlightened, quick sighted and public-spirited, they will show them-
selves utterly blind to the consequences of their actions, utterly
indifferent to their own well-being and that of all succeeding genera-
tions, whose fate is placed in their hands. This we conceive to be
the boldest paralogism that ever was offered to the world, or palmed
upon willing credulity. Against whatever other scheme of reform
this objection might be valid, the one it was brought expressly to
overturn was impregnable against it, invulnerable to its slightest
graze. Say that the Utopian reasoners are visionaries, unfounded ;
that the state of virtue and knowledge they suppose, in which reason
shall have become all-in-all, can never take place, that it is incon-
sistent with the nature of man and with all experience, well and
good — but to say that society will have attained this high and 'palmy
state,' that reason will have become the master-key to all our
motives, and that when arrived at its greatest power it will cease
to act at all, but will fall down dead, inert, and senseless before
the principle of population, is an opinion which one would think few
people would choose to advance or assent to, without strong induce-
ments for maintaining or believing it.

The fact, however, is, that Mr. Malthus found this argument entire
(the principle and the application of it) in an obscure and almost
forgotten work published about the middle of the last century,
entitled Various Prospects of Mankind, Nature, and Providence, by a
Scotch gentleman of the name of Wallace. The chapter in this work
on the Principle of Population, considered as a bar to all ultimate
views of human improvement, was probably written to amuse an idle
hour, or read as a paper to exercise the wits of some literary society
in the Northern capital, and no farther responsibilty or importance
annexed to it. Mr. Malthus, by adopting and setting his name to it,
has given it sufficient currency and effect. It sometimes happens that
one writer is the first to discover a certain principle or lay down a
given observation, and that another makes an application of, or draws



a remote or an immediate inference from it, totally unforeseen by the
first, and from which, in all probability, he might have widely dis-
sented. But this is not so in the present instance. Mr. Malthus
has borrowed (perhaps without consciousness, at any rate without
acknowledgment) both the preliminary statement, that the increase in
the supply of food ' from a limited earth and a limited fertility ' must
have an end, while the tendency to increase in the principle of
population has none, without some external and forcible restraint on
it, and the subsequent use made of this statement as an insuperable bar
to all schemes of Utopian or progressive improvement — both these he
has borrowed (whole) from Wallace, with all their imperfections on
their heads, and has added more and greater ones to them out of his
own store. In order to produce something of a startling and dramatic
effect, he has strained a point or two. In order to quell and frighten
away the bugbear of Modern Philosophy, he was obliged to make a
sort of monster of the principle of population, which was brought into
the field against it, and which was to swallow it up quick. No half-
measures, no middle course of reasoning would do. With a view to
meet the highest possible power of reason in the new order of things,
Mr. Malthus saw the necessity of giving the greatest possible physical
weight to the antagonist principle, and he accordingly lays it down
that its operation is mechanical and irresistible. He premises these
two propositions as the basis of all his reasoning, I . That food is
necessary to man ; 2. That the desire to propagate the species is an
equally indispensable law of our existence : — thus making it appear that
these two wants or impulses are equal and coordinate principles of
action. If this double statement had been true, the whole scope and
structure of his reasoning (as hostile to human hopes and sanguine
speculations) would have been irrefragable ; but as it is not true, the
whole (in that view) falls to the ground. According to Mr.
Malthus's octavo edition, the sexual passion is as necessary to be
gratiiied as the appetite of hunger, and a man can no more exist
without propagating his species than he can live without eating.
Were it so, neither of these passions would admit of any excuses, any
delay, any restraint from reason or foresight ; and the only checks to
the principle of population must be vice and misery. The argument
would be triumphant and complete. But there is no analogy, no
parity in the two cases, such as our author here assumes. No man
can Jive for any length of time without food ; many persons live all
their lives without gratifying the other sense. The longer the craving
after food is unsatisfied, the more violent, imperious, and uncon-
troulable the desire becomes ; whereas the longer the gratification
c f the sexual passion is resisted, the greater force does habit and


resolution acquire over it ; and, generally speaking, it is a well-known
fact, attested by all observation and history, that this latter passion is
subject more or less to controul from personal feelings and character,
from public opinions and the institutions of society, so as to lead either
to a lawful and regulated indulgence, or to partial or total abstinence,
according to the dictates of moral restraint, which latter check to the
inordinate excesses and unheard-of consequences of the principle of
population, our author, having no longer an extreme case to make out,
admits and is willing to patronize in addition to the two former and
exclusive ones of vice and misery, in the second and remaining editions
of his work. Mr. Malthus has shown some awkwardness or even
reluctance in softening down the harshness of his first peremptory
decision. He sometimes grants his grand exception cordially, pro-
ceeds to argue stoutly, and to try conclusions upon it ; at other times
he seems disposed to cavil about or retract it : — ' the influence of
moral restraint is very inconsiderable, or none at all.' It is indeed
difficult (more particularly for so formal and nice a reasoner as Mr.
Malthus) to piece such contradictions plausibly or gracefully together.
We wonder how he manages it — how any one should attempt it !
The whole question, the gist of the argument of his early volume
turned upon this, ' Whether vice and misery were the only actual or
possible checks to the principle of population ? ' He then said they
were, and farewell to building castles in the air : he now says that
moral restraint is to be coupled with these, and that its influence
depends greatly on the state of laws and manners — and Utopia stands
where it did, a great way off indeed, but not turned topsy-turvy by
our magician's wand ! Should we ever arrive there, that is, attain to
a state of perfect moral restraint, we shall not be driven headlong back
into Epicurus's stye for want of the only possible checks to population,
vice and misery ; and in proportion as we advance that way, that is,
as the influence of moral restraint is extended, the necessity for vice
and misery will be diminished, instead of being increased according
to the first alarm given by the Essay. Again, the advance of civiliza-
tion and of population in consequence with the sam.p degree of moral
restraint (as there exists in England at this present time, for instance)
is a good, and not an evil — but this does not appear from the Essay.
The Essay shows that population is not (as had been sometimes taken
for granted) an abstract and unqualified good; but it led many
persons to suppose that it was an abstract and unqualified evil, to be

Online LibraryWilliam HazlittLectures on the English poets : [and] The spirit of the age; or contemporary portraits. → online text (page 29 of 38)