Hazlitt Speaks His Mind

Something put me in mind of Hazlitt’s famous Letter to William Gifford this morning – so I thought I might as well give you a bit of the flavour of it. It’s a permanent, settled grievance of mine that Hazlitt is so little-known. I think he’s the single most inexplicably obscure writer in English. He ought to be at least as famous as Orwell and far more so than Lamb or Carlyle. He’s an absolutely brilliant, dazzling writer, and he’s no slouch as a thinker, either.

The letter to Gifford starts off briskly:

Sir, You have an ugly trick of saying what is not true of any one you do not like; and it will be the object of this letter to cure you of it.

There are so many people around who have that ugly trick, these days. How one wishes for a few Hazlitts to cure them of it.

You are the Government Critic, a character nicely differing from that of a government spy – the invisible link, that connects literature with the police…The distinction between truth and falsehood you make no account of: you mind only the distinction between Whig and Tory…The same set of threadbare common-places, the same second-hand assortment of abusive nick-names, the same assumption of little magisterial airs of superiority, are regularly repeated…You dictate your opinions to a party, because not one of your opinions is formed upon an honest conviction of the truth or justice of the case, but by collusion with the prejudices, caprice, interest or vanity of your employers.

And that’s just from the first couple of pages. There’s quite a lot more. It’s a little lesson in history and politics, as well as epistemology, in itself.

Update. That was silly – I should have given the link for this wonderful site that has a number of Hazlitt essays (though I don’t see the Letter to Gifford, alas). If you’ve never read a word of him, you don’t have to wait until you can get to the library or bookstore, you can start with Blue Pete.

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