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On the Pleasure of Hating by William Hazlitt

22 July 2008

I was very pleased with the edition of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations that was published in Penguin’s Great Ideas Series, and when I came across another display a little while ago I thought that I would pick up another volume — this time, by an author I had never read before.

On the Pleasure of Hating by William Hazlitt (Penguin Great Ideas Series)

Radical English essayist William Hazlitt penned the bulk of his work in the late Georgian and early Regency periods, and though he began as a dabbling painter and occasional writer he turned his hand to journalism and literary criticism, writing for publications such as the Times and the Edinburgh Review. As an essayist, he was greatly influenced by the philosophers and writers of the Enlightenment as well as Edmund Burke, though his admiration for the latter waned somewhat as a result of some of Burke’s more conservative writings. But he wrote on a number of different subjects, and the essays in this little edition touch on such diverse topics as the joys of going to a boxing match in the country, the parasitical nature of the English moneyed classes, the fallacy of the divine right of kings…and, naturally, the title essay, which challenges the reader to regard hatred as one of the few real constants (and indeed, pleasures) in human life.

Hazlitt’s essays are written in a style that has long been out of fashion — and not, I think, entirely without reason. They seem as if they were meant to be read aloud, to a group, in a particularly bombastic tone of voice. His tone is definitely combative, almost arrogantly defensive, and he seems to aim at (and enjoy) working his readers into a frenzy of either vehemently agreeing or soundly disagreeing with him. If Hazlitt was paid by the word for what he wrote, he would likely have made a fair amount of money even for his less enthusiastic essays. Yet even though his writings likely will not hold everyone’s attention, as an essayist who is representative of a particular writing style and a specific period of literary history, his works have a definite place in the Penguin Great Ideas series.

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