Esteemed thinker: William Hazlitt

Characters in a literary work are those persons or things that carry out the action the author has executed. They are the change agents of a story; the personalities that interact to weave a good tale. However, when we think of someone’s attributes, may they be considered good or bad, then we also are thinking of the word character. This one, the moral or ethical quality of an individual however, is much less easy to establish. For even though we may have known a person for a great while, just how well do we know their character?

Some believe that we can tell a man or woman’s character by looking into their eyes…as in the expression ‘the eyes are the windows to the soul’. The notion that we can detect one’s deep thoughts, decipher what makes a person tick, all with a casual glance is indeed intriguing… yet it makes us wonder if this prescription is a fact or merely a romantic perception. In the 1800s, right about the time photography was coming into the hands of ordinary folks, photographers such as the great Matthew Brady set their sights on portraiture to show a person’s noble character and Samuel G. Szabó who believed physical characteristics of the criminal psyche could be discerned through photography.

And then there are some who claim they can divulge a man or woman’s true character by the company they keep. At first blush this seems like logical reasoning for if one’s friends are scrupulous and trustworthy, then it would be fair to assume that the character of said individual would too be conscientious and honest. However, does that mean as we travel in and out of relationships the integrity of our character is examined with such fine tuned scrutiny that our traits would to be judged fickle like the disposition of a hungry bear? Vicious before it eats, but then when fully satisfied it is content and resumes in peaceful slumber. Is it possible then to postulate that a person can impersonate a different character and like a chameleon that can camouflage its appearance to suit its surroundings so too can the character be so easily disguised?

Alas then, how can we determine if human nature is designed to be a good judge of character? A man or woman in a relationship is often blind to the disposition of the attracted mate; even though others around see quite clearly that there is…shall we say…a marked flaw. And as time passes, a revelation appears, but not to anyone’s surprise…for like finding bones in a cemetery…sometimes we do not have to dig too deep to uncover the true character of a person.

William Hazlitt Today’s blog presents esteemed thinker: William Hazlitt (1778-1830). Born in Kent, England; he was an essayist, painter, and philosopher. Though he is a relatively an unknown to the 21st century reader, he was considered a great prose writer and important critic of the early 19th century’s Romantic period, making original contributions to appreciation of art, theatre, literature and philosophy. His essays could fill twenty volumes, making him one of England’s most prolific writers. Hazlitt was also a controversial journalist who, at the expense of his own chances for advancement, defended a radical stance that was actively persecuted in his day; an attack on the privileged and monarchy.

I now bid you good reading as you take time to venture into the prose of William Hazlitt. Take time and please do dally…for your full attention will not be wasted as I bring to you a snippet from an essay in his book Table Talk.

“ON THE KNOWLEDGE OF CHARACTER “
“It is astonishing, with all our opportunities and practice, how little we know of this subject. For myself, I feel that the more I learn, the less I understand it… There are various ways of getting at a knowledge of character—by looks, words, actions. The first of these, which seems the most superficial, is perhaps the safest, and least liable to deceive: nay, it is that which mankind, in spite of their pretending to the contrary, most generally go by. Professions pass for nothing, and actions may be counterfeited; but a man cannot help his looks. ‘Speech,’ said a celebrated wit, ‘was given to man to conceal his thoughts.’ Yet I do not know that the greatest hypocrites are the least silent. The mouth of Cromwell is pursed up in the portraits of him, as if he was afraid to trust himself with words. Lord Chesterfield advises us, if we wish to know the real sentiments of the person we are conversing with, to look in his face, for he can more easily command his words than his features. A man’s whole life may be picture painted of him by a great artist would probably stamp his true character on the canvas, and betray the secret to posterity…

I shall not say much of friendship as giving an insight into character, because it is often founded on mutual infirmities and prejudices. Friendships are frequently taken up on some sudden sympathy, and we see only as much as we please of one another’s characters afterwards. Intimate friends are not fair witnesses to character, any more than professed enemies. They cool, indeed, in time, part, and retain only a rankling grudge of past errors and oversights. Their testimony in the latter case is not quite free from suspicion.

One would think that near relations, who live constantly together, and always have done so, must be pretty well acquainted with one another’s characters. They are nearly in the dark about it. Familiarity confounds all traits of distinction: interest and prejudice take away the power of judging…”

First images selected from Metropolitan Museum in NYC: “Rogues, a Study of Characters “1860; photographer Samuel G. Szabó

4 thoughts on “Esteemed thinker: William Hazlitt

  1. This is a subject that I really enjoy. I’ve spent years watching people, I’ve noticed that very few people will spend more then a brief moment looking into the eyes of another person. I’ve often wondered why this is, for myself engaging in this kind of eye contact lets a person know that you truly understand them and the same in return. This I believe is why the world is in the state it’s in, disengagement of this sort leads people to be only mindful of themselves thus self centered. Compassion only happens when one truly sees or tries to see through the eyes of others.

  2. Another wonderful selection, and excellent comments of your own. And I’m inevitably reminded of Percy Sledge, “When a Man Loves a Woman”: “If she is bad, he can’t see it. / She can do no wrong. / Turn his back on his best friend, / If he puts her down.”

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