William Hazlitt

On common-place critics

Nor can I think what thoughts they can conceive.

We have already given some account of common-place people; we shall in this number attempt a description of another class of the community, who may be called (by way of distinction) common-place critics. The former are a set of people who have no opinions of their own, and do not pretend to have any; the latter are a set of people who have no opinions of their own, but who affect to have one upon every subject you can mention. The former are a very honest, good sort of people, who are contented to pass for what they are; the latter are a very pragmatical, troublesome sort of people, who would pass for what they are not, and try to put off their commonplace notions in all companies and on all subjects, as something of their own. They are of both species, the grave and the gay; and its is hard to say which is the most tiresome.

A common-place critic has something to say upon every occasion, and he always tells you either what is not true, or what you knew before, or what is not worth knowing. He is a person who thinks by proxy, and talks by rote. He differs with you, not because he thinks you are in the wrong, but because he thinks somebody else will think so. Nay, it would be well if he stopped here; but he will undertake to misrepresent you by anticipation, lest others should misunderstand you, and will set you right, not only in opinions which you have, but in those which you may be supposed to have. Thus, if you say that Bottom the weaver is a character that has not had justice done to it, he shakes his head, is afraid you will be thought extravagant, and wonders you should think the Midsummer Night’s Dream the finest of all Shakespear’s plays.

He judges of matters of taste and reasoning as he does of dress and fashion, by the prevailing tone of good company; and you would as soon persuade him to give up any sentiment that is current there, as to wear the hind part of his coat before. By the best company, of which he is perpetually talking, he means persons who live on their own estates, and other people’s ideas. By the opinion of the world, to which he pays and expects you to pay great deference, he means that of a little circle of his own, where he hears and is heard.

Again, good sense is a phrase constantly in his mouth, by which he does not mean his own sense or that of anybody else, but the opinions of a number of persons who have agreed to take their opinions on trust from others. If any one observes that there is something better than common sense, viz., uncommon sense, he thinks this is a bad joke. If you object to the opinions of the majority, as often arising from ignorance or prejudice, he appeals from them to the sensible and well-informed; and if you say that there may be other persons as sensible and well-informed as himself and his friends, he smiles at your presumption. If you attempt to prove anything to him, it is in vain, for he is not thinking of what you say, but of what will be thought of it. The stronger your reasons, the more incorrigible he thinks you; and looks upon any attempt to expose his gratuitous assumptions as the wondering of a disordered imagination.

His notions are like plaster figures cast in a mould, as brittle as they are hollow; but they will break before you can make them give way. In fact, he is the representative of a large part of the community, the shallow, the vain, and indolent, of those who have time to talk, and are not bound to think; and he considers any deviation from the select forms of commonplace, as the accredited language of conventional impertinence, as compromising the authority under which he acts in his diplomatic capacity.

It is wonderful how this class of people agree with one another; how they herd together in all their opinions; what a tact they have for folly; what an instinct for absurdity; what a sympathy in sentiment; how they find one another out by infallible signs, like Freemasons! The secret of this unanimity and strict accord is, that not any one of them ever admits any opinion that can cost the least effort of mind in arriving at, or of courage in declaring it. Folly is as consistent with itself as wisdom: there is a certain level of thought and sentiment, which the weakest minds, as well as the strongest, find out as best adapted to them; and you as regularly come to the same conclusions, by looking no farther than the surface, as if you dug to the centre of the earth!

You know before hand what a critic of this class will say on almost every subject the first time he sees you, the next time, the time after that , and so on to the end of the chapter. The following list of his opinions may be relied on:—It is pretty certain that before you have been in the room with him ten minutes, he will give you to understand that Shakespear was a great but irregular genius. Again, he thinks it a question whether any one of his plays, if brought out now for the first time would succeed. He thinks that Macbeth would be the most likely, for the music which has been since introduce into it. He has some doubts as to the superiority of the French school over us in tragedy, and observes, that Hume and Adam Smith were both of that opinion. He thinks Milton’s pedantry a great blemish in his writings, and that Paradise Lost has many prosaic passages in it. He conceives that genius does not always imply taste, and that wit and judgment are very different faculties. He considers Dr Johnson as a great critic and moralist, and that his Dictionary was a work of prodigious erudition and vast industry; but that some of the anecdotes of him in Boswell are trifling. He conceives that Mr Locke was a very original and profound thinker. He thinks Gibbon’s style vigorous but florid. He wonders that the author of Junius was never found out. He thinks Pope’s translation of the Illiad an improvement on the simplicity of the original, which was necessary to fit it to the taste of modern readers. He thinks there is a great deal of grossness in the old comedies; and that there has been a great improvement in the morals of the higher classes since the reign of Charles II. He thinks the reign of Queen Anne the golden period of our literature; but that, upon the whole, we have no English writer equal to Voltaire. He speaks of Boccaccio as a very licentious writer, and thinks the wit in Rabelais quite extravagant, though he never read either of them. He cannot get through Spenser’s Fairy Queen, and pronounces all allegorical poetry tedious. He prefers Smollett to Fielding, and discovers more knowledge of the world in Gil Blas than in Don Quixote. Richardson he thinks very minute and tedious. He thinks the French Revolution has done a great deal of harm to the cause of liberty; and blames Buonaparte for being so ambitious. He reads the Edinburgh and Quarterly Reviews, and thinks as they do. He is shy of having an opinion on a new actor or a new singer; for the public do not always agree with the newspapers.

He thinks that the moderns have great advantages over the ancients in many respects. He thinks Jeremy Bentham a greater man than Aristotle. He can see no reason why artists of the present day should not paint as well as Raphael or Titian. For instance, he thinks there is something very elegant and classical in Mr Westall’s drawings. He has no doubt that Sir Joshua Reynold’s Lectures were written by Burke. He considers Horne Tookes’s account of the conjuction That very ingenious, and holds that no writer can be called elegant who uses the present for the subjunctive mood, who says If it is for If it be. He thinks Hogarth a great master of low, comic humour; and Cobbet a coarse, vulgar writer.

He often talks of men of liberal education, and men without education, as if that made much difference. He judges of people by their pretensions; and pays attention to there opinions according to their dress and rank in life. If he meets with a fool, he does not find him out; and if he meets with any one wiser than himself, he does not know what to make of him. He thinks that manners are of great consequence to the common intercourse of life. He thinks it difficult to prove the existence of any such thing as original genius, or to fix a general standard of taste. He does not think it possible to define what wit is. In religion his opinions are liberal. He considers all enthusiasm as a degree of madness, particularly to be guarded against by young minds; and believes that truth lies in the middle, between the extremes of right and wrong. He thinks that the object of poetry is to please; and that astronomy is a very pleasing and useful study. He thinks all this, and a great deal more, that amounts to nothing. We wonder we have remembered one half if it.

For true no-meaning puzzles more than wit.

Though he has an aversion to all new ideas, he likes all new plans and matters-of-fact, the new Schools for All, the Penitentiary, the New Bedlam, the New Steam-Boats, the Gas-Lights, the new Patent Blacking; everything of that sort, but the Bible Society. The Society for the Suppression of Vice he thinks a great nuisance, as every honest man must.

In a word, a common-place critic is the pedant of polite conversation. He refers to the opinion of Lord M. or Lady G. with the same air of significance that the learned pedant does to the authority of Cicero or Virgil; retails the wisdom of the day, as the anecdote-monger does the wit; and carries about with him the sentiments of people with a certain respectability in life, as the dancing master does their air, or the valets their clothes.

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MLA Citation

Hazlitt, William. “On common-place critics.” . Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 30 Sep 2006. 19 Sep 2017 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/hazlitt/common-place_critics/>.

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