William Hazlitt

On depth and superficiality

I wish to make this Essay a sort of study of the meaning of several words, which have at different times a good deal puzzled me. Among these are the words, wicked, false, and true, as applied to feeling; and lastly, depth and shallowness. It may amuse the reader to see the way in which I work out some of my conclusions underground, before throwing them up on the surface.

A great but useless thinker once asked me, if I had ever known a child of a naturally wicked disposition? And I answered, “Yes, that there was one in the house with me that cried from morning to night, for spite.” I was laughed at for this answer, but still I do not repent it. It appeared to me that this child took a delight in tormenting itself and others; that the love of tyrannising over others and subjecting them to its caprices was a full compensation for the beating it received, that the screams it uttered soothed its peevish, turbulent spirit, and that it had a positive pleasure in pain from the sense of power accompanying it. His principiis nascuntur tyranni, his carnifex animus. I was supposed to magnify and over-rate the symptoms of the disease, and to make a childish humour into a bugbear; but, indeed, I have no other idea of what is commonly understood by wickedness than that perversion of the will or love of mischief for its own sake, which constantly displays itself (though in trifles and on a ludicrously small scale) in early childhood. I have often been reproached with extravagance for considering things only in their abstract principles. And with heat and ill-temper, for getting into a passion about what no ways concerned me. If any one wishes to see me quite calm, they may cheat me in a bargain, or tread upon my toes; but a truth repelled, a sophism repeated, totally disconcerts me, and I lose all patience. I am not, in the ordinary acceptation of the term, a good-natured man; that is, many things annoy me besides what interferes with my own ease and interest. I hate a lie, a piece of injustice wounds me to the quick, though nothing but the report of its reaches me. Therefore I have made many enemies and few friends; for the public know nothing of well-wishers, and keep a wary eye on those that would reform them. Coleridge used to complain of my irascibility in this respect, and not without reason. Would that he had possessed a little of my tenaciousness and jealousy of temper; and then, with his eloquence to paint the wrong, and acuteness to detect it, his country and the cause of liberty might not have fallen without a struggle! The craniologists give me the organ of local memory, of which faculty I have not a particle, though they may say that my frequent allusions to conversations that occurred many years ago prove the contrary. I once spent a whole evening with Dr. Spurzheim, and I utterly forgot all that passed, except that the Doctor waltzed before we parted! The only faculty I do possess is that of a certain morbid interest in things, which makes me equally remember or anticipate by nervous analogy whatever touches it; and for this our nostrum-mongers have no specific organ, so that I am quite left out of their system. No wonder that I should pick a quarrel with it! It vexes me beyond all bearing to see children kill flies for sport; for the principle is the same as in the most deliberate and profligate acts of cruelty they can afterwards exercise upon their fellow-creatures. And yet I let moths burn themselves to death in the candle, for it makes me mad; and I say it is in vain to prevent fools from rushing upon destruction. The author of the “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (who sees farther into such things than most people) could not understand why I should bring a charge of wickedness against an infant before it could speak, merely for squalling and straining its lungs a little. If the child had been in pain or in fear, I should have said nothing, but it cried only to vent its passion and alarm the house, and I saw in its frantic screams and gestures that great baby the world, tumbling about in its swaddling-clothes, and tormenting itself and others for the last six thousand years! The plea of ignorance, of folly, of grossness, or selfishness makes nothing either way: it is the downright love of pain and mischief for the interest it excites, and the scope it gives to an abandoned will, that is the root of all the evil, and the original sin of human nature. There is a love of power in the mind independent of the love of good, and this love of power, when it comes to be opposed to the spirit of good, and is leagued with the spirit of evil to commit it with greediness, is wickedness. I know of no other definition of the term. A person who does not foresee consequences is a fool: he who cheats others to serve himself is a knave: he who is immersed in sensual pleasure is a brute; but he alone, who has a pleasure in injuring another, or in debasing himself, that is, who does a thing with a particular relish because he ought not, is properly wicked. This character implies the fiend at the bottom of it; and is mixed up pretty plentifully (according to my philosophy) in the untoward composition of human nature. It is this craving after what is prohibited, and the force of contrast adding its zest to the violations of reason and propriety, that accounts for the excess of pride, of cruelty, and lust; and at the same time frets and vexes the surface of life with petty evils, and plants a canker in the bosom of our daily enjoyments. Take away the enormities dictated by the wanton and pampered pride of human will, glutting itself with the sacrifice of the welfare of others, or with the desecration of its own best feelings, and also the endless bickerings, heart-burnings and disappointments produced by the spirit of contradiction on a smaller scale, and the life of man would “spin round on its soft axle,” unharmed and free, neither appalled by huge crimes nor infested by insect follies. It might, indeed, be monotonous and insipid; but it is the hankering after mischievous and violent excitement that leads to this result, that causes that indifference to good and proneness to evil, which is the very thing complained of. The griefs we suffer are for the most part of our own seeking and making; or we incur or inflict them, not to avert other impending evils, but to drive off ennui. There must be a spice of mischief and wilfulness thrown into the cup of our existence to give its sharp taste and sparkling colour. I shall not go into a formal argument on this subject, for fear of being tedious, nor endeavour to enforce it by extreme cases, for fear of being disgusting; but shall content myself with some desultory and familiar illustrations of it.

I laugh at those who deny that we ever wantonly or unnecessarily inflict pain upon others, when I see how fond we are of ingeniously tormenting ourselves. What is sullenness in children or grown people but revenge against ourselves? We had rather be the victims of this absurd and headstrong feeling, than give up an inveterate purpose, retract an error, or relax from the intensity of our will, whatever it may cost us. A surly man is his own enemy, and knowingly sacrifices his interest to his ill-humour, because he would at any time rather disoblige you than serve himself, as I believe I have already shown in another place. The reason is, he has a natural aversion to everything agreeable or happy—he turns with disgust from every such feeling, as not according with the severe tone of his mind—and it is in excluding all interchange of friendly affections or kind offices that the ruling bias and the chief satisfaction of his life consist. It is not every country town supplied with its scolds and scandalmongers? The first cannot cease from plaguing themselves and everybody about them with their senseless clamour, because the rage of words has become by habit and indulgence a thirst, a fever on their parched tongue; and the others continue to make enemies by some smart hit or sly insinuation at every third word they speak, because with every new enemy there is an additional sense of power. One man will sooner part with his friend than his joke, because the stimulus of saying a good thing is irritated, instead of being repressed, by the fear of giving offence, and by the imprudence or unfairness of the remark. Malice often takes the garb of truth. We find a set of persons who pride themselves on being plain-spoken people, that is, who blurt out everything disagreeable to your face, by way of wounding your feelings and relieving their own, and this they call honesty. Even among philosophers we may have noticed those who are not contented to inform the understandings of their readers, unless they can shock their prejudices; and among poets those who tamper with the rotten parts of their subject, adding to their fancied pretensions by trampling on the sense fo shame. There are rigid reasoners who will not be turned aside from following up a logical argument by any regard to consequences, or the “compunctious visitings of nature” (such as their love of truth)—I never knew one of these scrupulous and hard-mouthed logicians who would not falsify the facts and distort the inference in order to arrive at a distressing and repulsive conclusion. Such is the fascination of what releases our own will from thraldom, and compels that of others reluctantly to submit to terms of our dictating! We feel our new power, and disregard their weakness and effeminacy with prodigious self-complacency. Lord Clive, when a boy, saw a butcher passing with a calf in a cart. A companion whom he had with him said, “I should not like to be that butcher!”—replied the future Governor of India, laughing at all sympathy but that with his own sufferings. The “wicked” Lord Lyttleton (as he was called) dreamt a little before his death that he was confined in a huge subterranean vault (the insides of this round globe) where as far as eye could see, he could discern no living object, till at last he saw a female figure coming towards him, and who should it turn out to be but Mother Brownrigg, whom of all people he hated! That was the very reason why he dreamt of her.

You ask her crime: she whipp’d two ’prentices to death, And hid them in the coal-hole.

—Poetry of the Anti-Jacobin.

I do not know that hers is exactly a case in point; but I conceive that in the well-known catastrophe here alluded to, words led to blows, bad usage brought on worse from mere irritation and opposition, and that, probably, even remorse and pity urged on to aggravated acts of cruelty and oppression, as the only means of drowning reflection on the past in the fury of present passion. I believe that remorse for past offenses has sometimes made the greatest criminals, as the being unable to appease a wounded conscience renders men desperate; and if I hear a person express great impatience and uneasiness at some error that he is liable to, I am tolerably sure that the conflict will end in a repetition of the offense. If a man who got drunk over-night repents bitterly next morning, he will get drunk again at night; for both in his repentance and his self-gratification he is led away by the feeling of the moment. But this is not wickedness, but despondency and want of strength of mind: and I only attribute wickedness to those who carry their wills in their hands, and who wantonly and deliberately suffer them to tyrannize over conscience, reason and humanity, and who even draw on additional triumph from this degrading conquest. The wars, persecutions, and bloodshed occasioned by religion have generally turned on the most trifling differences in forms and ceremonies; which shows that it was not the vital interests of the questions that were at stake, but that these were made a handle and pretext to exercise cruelty and tyranny on the score of the most trivial and doubtful points of faith. There seems to be a love of absurdity and falsehood as well as mischief in the human mind, and the most ridiculous as well as barbarous superstitions have on this account been the most acceptable to it. A lie is welcome to it, for it is, as it were, its own offspring; and it likes to believe, as well as act, whatever it pleases, and in the pure spirit of contradiction. The old idolatry took vast hold of the earliest ages; for to believe that a piece of painted stone or wood was a God (in the teeth of the fact) was a fine exercise of imagination; and modern fanaticism thrives in proportion to the quantity of contradictions and nonsense it pours down the throats of the gaping multitude, and the jargon and mysticism it offers to their wonder and credulity. Credo guia impossible est, is the standing motto of bigotry and superstition; that is, I believe, because to do so is a favourite act of the will, and to do so in defiance of common sense and reason enhances the pleasure and the merit (tenfold) of this indulgence of blind faith and headstrong imagination. Methodism, in particular, which at once absolves the understanding from the rules of reasoning, and the conscience from the restraints of morality, throwing the whole responsibility upon a vicarious righteousness and an abstract belief, must, besides its rant, its vulgarity, and its amatory style, have a double charm both for saints and sinners. I have also observed a sort of fatuity, and indolence or indocility of the will to circumstances, which I think has a considerable share in the common affairs of life. I would willingly compound for all the mischiefs that are done me voluntarily, if I could escape those which are done me without any motive at all, or even with the best intentions. For instance, if I go to a distance, where I am anxious to receive an answer to my letters, I am sure to be kept in suspense. My friends are aware of this, as also of my impatience and irritability; and they cannot prevail on themselves to put an end to this dramatic situation of the parties. There is pleasure (an innocent and well-meaning one) in keeping a friend in suspense, in not putting oneself out of one’s way for his ill humours and apprehensions (though one would not for the world do him a serious injury), as there is in dangling the finny prey at the end of a hook, or in twirling round a cock-chaffer after sticking a pin through him at the end of a string ,— there is no malice in the case, no deliberate cruelty, but the buzzing noise and the secret consciousness of superiority to any annoyance of inconvenience ourselves lull the mind into a delightful state of listless torpor and indifference. If a letter requires an immediate answer, send it by a private hand to save postage. If our messenger fall sick or breaks a leg and begs us to forward it by some other means, return it him again, and insist on its being conveyed according to its first destination. His cure may be slow but sure. In the meantime our friend can wait. We have done our duty in writing the letter and are in no hurry to receive it! We know the contents, and they are matters of perfect indifference to us. No harm is meant by all this, but a great deal of mischief may accrue. There is, in short, a sluggishness and untractableness about the will, that does not easily put itself in the situation of others, and that consults its own bias best by giving itself no trouble about them. Human life is so far a game of cross-purposes. If we wish a thing to be kept secret, it is sure to transpire: if we wish it to be known, not a syllable is breathed about it. This is not meant; but it happens so from mere simplicity and thoughtlessness. No one has ever yet seen through all the intricate folds and delicate involutions of our self-love, which is wrapped up in a set of smooth flimsy pretexts like some precious jewel in covers of silver paper.

I proceed to say something of the words false and true, as applied to moral feelings. It may be argued that this is a distinction without a difference; for that as feelings only exist by being felt, wherever, and in so far as they exist, they must be true, and that there can be no falsehood or deception in the question. The distinction between true and false pleasure, between real and seeming good, would be thus done away with; for the reality and the appearance are here the same. And this would be the case if our sensations were simple and detached, and one had no influence on another. But it is in their secret and close dependence on one another, that the distinction here spoken of takes it rise. That then is true or pure pleasure that has no alloy or drawback in some other consideration; that is free from remorse and alarm; and that will bear the soberest reflection; because there is nothing that, upon examination, can be found acting indirectly to check and throw a damp upon it. On the other hand, we justly call those pleasures false and hollow, not merely which are momentary and ready to elude our grasp, but which, even at the time, are accompanied with such consciousness of other circumstances as must embitter and undermine them. For instance, putting morality quite out of the question; is there not an undeniable and wide difference between the gaiety and animal spirits of one who indulges in a drunken debauch to celebrate some unexpected stroke of good fortune, and his who does the same thing to drown care for the loss of all he is worth? The outward objects, the immediate and more obvious sensations are, perhaps, very much the same in the latter case as in the former,—the rich viands, the sparkling wines, the social merriment, the wit the loud laughter, and the maddening brain, but the still small voice is wanting, there is a reflection at bottom, that, however stifled and kept down, poisons and spoils all, even by the violent effort to keep it from intruding; the mirth in the one case is forced, in the other is natural; the one reveller is (we all know by experience) a gay laughing wretch, the other a happy man. I profess to speak of human nature as I find it; and the circumstance that any distinction I can make may be favourable to the theories of virtue, will not prevent me from setting it down, from the fear of being charged with cant and prejudice. Even in a case less palpable than the one supposed, where “some sweet oblivious antidote” has been applied to the mind, and is lulled to temporary forgetfulness of its immediate cause of sorrow, does it therefore cease to gnaw the heart by stealth; are no traces of it left in the care-worn brow or face; is it the state of mind the same as it was; or is there the same buoyancy, freedom and erectness of spirit as in more prosperous circumstances? On the contrary, it is torpid, vexed, and sad, enfeebled or harassed, and weighted down by the corroding pressure of care, whether it thinks of it or not. The pulse beats slow and languid, the eye is dead; no object strikes us with the same alacrity; the avenues to joy or content are shut; and life becomes a burthen and a perplexing mystery. Even in sleep, we are haunted with the broken images of distress or the mockery of bliss, and we in vain try to still the idle tumult of the heart. The constantly tampering with the truth, by the putting off the day of reckoning, the fear of looking our situation in the face, gives the mind a wandering and unsettled turn, makes our waking thoughts a troubled dream, or sometimes ends in madness, without any violent paroxysm, with out any severe pang, without any overt act, but from that silent operation of the mind which preys internally upon itself, and works the decay of its powers the more fatally, because we dare not give it open and avowed scope. Do we not, in the case of any untoward accident or event, know, when we wake in the morning, that something is the matter, before we recollect what it is? The mind no more recovers its confidence and serenity after a staggering blow, than the haggard cheek and sleepless eye their colour and vivacity, because we do not see them in the glass. Is it to be supposed that there is not a firm and healthy tone of the mind as well as of the body; or that when this has been deranged, we do not feel pain, lassitude, and fretful impatience, though the local cause or impression may have been withdrawn? Is the state of the mind or of the nervous system, and its disposition or indisposition to receive certain impressions from the remains of others still vibrating on it, nothing? Shall we say that the laugh of a madman is sincere; or that the wit we utter in our dreams is sterling? We often feel uneasy at something, without being able to tell why, or attribute it to the wrong cause. Our unconscious impressions necessarily give colour to, and re-act upon our conscious ones; and it is only when these two sets of feelings are in accord, that our pleasures are true and sincere; where there is a discordance and misunderstanding in this respect, that they are said (not absurdly as in pretended) to be false and hollow. There is then a serenity of virtue, a peace of conscience, a confidence in success, and a pride of intellect, which subsist and are a strong source of satisfaction independently of outward and immediate objects, as the general health of the body gives a glow and animation to the whole frame, notwithstanding a scratch we may have received in our little finger, and certainly very different from a state of sickness and infirmity. The difficulty is not so much in supposing one mental cause or phenomenon to be affected and imperceptibly moulded by another, as in setting limits to the everlasting ramifications of our impressions, and in defining the obscure and intricate ways in which they communicate together. Suppose a man to labour under a habitual indigestion. Does it not oppress the very sun in the sky, beat down all his powers of enjoyment, and imprison all his faculties in a living tomb? Yet he perhaps long laboured under this disease and felt its withering effects, before he was aware of the cause. It was not the less real on this account; nor did it interfere the less with the sincerity of his other pleasures, tarnish the face of nature, and throw a gloom over everything. “He was hurt, and knew it not.” Let the pressure be removed, and he breathes freely again; his spirits run with a livelier current and he greets nature with smile; yet the change is in him, not in her. Do we not pass the same scenery that we have visited but a little before, and wonder that no object appears the same, because we have some secret cause of dissatisfaction? Let any one feel the force or disappointed affection, and he may forget and scorn his error, laugh and be gay to all outward appearance, but the heart is not the less seared and blighted ever after. The splendid banquet does not supply the loss of appetite, nor the spotless ermine cure the itching palm, nor gold nor jewels redeem a lost name, no pleasure fill up the void of affection, nor passion stifle conscience. Moralists and divines say true, when they talk of the “unquenchable fire, and the worm that dies not.” The human soul is not an invention of priests, whatever fables they have engrafted on it; nor is there an end of all our natural sentiments because French philosophers have not been able to account for them! Hume, I think, somewhere contends at all satisfactions are equal, because the cup can be no more than full. But surely, though this is the case, one cup holds more than another. As to mere negative satisfaction, the argument may be true. But as to positive satisfaction or enjoyment, I see no more how this must be equal, than how the heat of a furnace must in all cases be equally intense. Thus, for instance there are many things with which we are contented, so as not to feel an uneasy desire after more, but yet we have a much higher relish of others. We may eat a mutton-chop without complaining, though we should consider a haunch of venison as a greater luxury if we had it. Again in travelling abroad, the mind acquires a restless and vagabond habit. There is more of hurry and novelty, but less of sincerity and certainty in our pursuits than at home. We snatch hasty glances of a great variety of things but want some central point of view. After making the grand tour, and seeing the finest sights in the world, we are glad to come back at last to our native place and our own fireside. Our associations with it are the most steadfast and habitual, we there feel most at home and at our ease, we have a resting-place for the sole of our foot, the flutter of hope, anxiety, and disappointment is at an end, and whatever our satisfactions may be, we feel may be, we feel most confidence in them and have the strongest conviction of their truth and reality. There is then a true and a false or spurious in sentiment as well in reasoning and I hope the train of thought I have here gone into may serve in some respects as a clue to explain it.

The hardest question remains behind. What is depth and what is superficiality? It is easy to answer that the one is what is obvious, familiar, and lies on the surface, and that the other is recondite and hid at the bottom of a subject. The difficulty recurs—What is meant by lying on the surface, or being concealed below it, in moral and metaphysical questions? Let us try for an analogy. Depth consists then in tracing any number of particular effects to a general principle, or in distinguishing an unknown cause from the individual and varying circumstances with which it is implicated, and under which it lurks unsuspected. It is in fact resolving the concrete into the abstract. Now this is a task of difficulty, not only because the abstract naturally merges into the concrete, and we do not well know how to set about separating what is thus jumbled or cemented together in a single object, and presented under a common aspect; but being scattered over a larger surface, and collected from a number of undefined sources there must be a strong feeling of its weight and pressure, in order to dislocate it from the object and bind it into a principle. The impression of an abstract principle is faint and doubtful in each individual instance; it becomes powerful and certain only by the repetition of the experiment, and by adding to the last results to our first hazardous conjectures. We thus gain a distinct hold or clue to the demonstration, when a number of vague and imperfect reminiscences and united and drawn out together, by tenaciousness of memory and conscious feeling in one continued act. So that the depth of understanding or reasoning in such cases may be explained to mean, that there is a pile of implicit distinctions analysed from a great variety of facts and observations, each supporting the other, and that the mind, instead of being led away by the last or first object or detached view of the subject that occurs, connects all these into a whole from the top to the bottom and by its intimate sympathy with the most obscure and random impressions that tend to the same result, evolves a principle of abstract truth. Two circumstances are combined in a particular object to produce a given effect: how shall I know which is the true cause, but by finding it in another instance? But the same effect is produced in a third object, which is without the concomitant circumstances of the first or second case. I must then look out for some other latent cause in the rabble of contradictory pretensions huddled together, which I had not noticed before, and to which I am eventually led by finding a necessity for it. But if my memory fails me, or I do not seize on the true character of different feelings, I shall make little progress, or be quite thrown out in my reckoning. Insomuch that according to the general diffusion of any element of thought or feeling, and its floating through the mixed mass of human affairs, do we stand in need of a greater quantity of that refined experience I have spoken of, and of a quicker and firmer tact in connecting or distinguishing its results. However, I must make a reservation here. Both knowledge and sagacity are required, but sagacity abridges and anticipates the labour of knowledge and sometimes jumps instinctively at a conclusion; that is, the strength or fineness of the feeling, by association or analogy, sooner elicits the recollection of a previous and forgotten one in different circumstances, and the two together, by a sort of internal evidence and collective force, stamp any proposed solution with the character of truth or falsehood. Original strength of impression is often (in usual questions at least) a substitute for accumulated weight of experience; and intensity of feeling is so far synonymous with depth of understanding. It is that which here gives us a contentious an palpable consciousness of whatever affects it in the smallest or remotest manner, and leaves to us the hidden springs of thought and action through our sensibility and jealousy of whatever touches them.—To give illustration or two of this very abstruse subject.

Elegance is a word that means something different from ease, grace, beauty, dignity; yet it is akin to all these; but it seems more particularly to imply a sparkling brilliancy of effect with finish and precision. We do not apply the term to great things; we should not call an epic poem or a head of Jupiter elegant, but we speak of an elegant copy of verses, an elegant headdress, an elegant fan, an elegant diamond brooch, or bunch of flowers. In all these cases (and others where the same epithet is used) there is something little and comparatively trifling in the objects and the interests they inspire. So far I deal chiefly in examples, conjectures, and negatives. But this is far from a definition. I think I know what personal beauty is, because I can say in one word what I mean by it, viz., harmony of form; and this idea seems to me to answer to all the cases to which the term personal beauty is ever applied. Let us see if we cannot come to something equally definitive with respect to other phrase. Sparking effect, finish, and precision are characteristic, as I think, of elegance but as yet I see no reason why they should be so, any more than why blue, red, and yellow should form the colours of the rainbow. I want a common idea as a link to connect them, or to serve as a substratum for the others. Now suppose I say that elegance is beauty, or a least the pleasurable in little things: we then have a ground to rest upon at once. For elegance being beauty or pleasure in little or slight impressions, precision, finish, and polished smoothness follow from this definition as matters of course. In other words, for a thing that is little to be beautiful, or any rate to please, [Note: I have said before that this is a study, not a perfect demonstration. I am no merchant in metaphysics.] it must have precision of outline, which in larger masses and gigantic forms is not so indispensable. In what is small, the parts must be finished or they will offend. Lastly, in what is momentary and evanescent, as in dress, fashions &c., there must be glossy and sparkling effect, for brilliancy is the only virtue of novelty. That is to say, by getting the primary conditions or essential qualities of elegance in all circumstances whatever, we see how these branch off into minor divisions in relation to form, details, colour, surface, &c., and rise from a common ground of abstraction into all the variety of consequences and examples. The Hercules is not elegant; the Venus is simply beautiful. The French, whose ideas of beauty or grandeur never amount to more than an elegance, have no relish for Rubens, nor will they understand this definition.

When Sir Isaac Newton saw the apple fall, it was a very simple and common observation but it suggested to his mind the law that holds the universe together. What then was the process in this case? In general, when we see anything fall, we have the idea of a particular direction, of up and down associated with the motion by invariable and every day’s experience. The earth is always (as we conceive) under our feet, and the sky above our heads, so that according to this local and habitual feeling, all heavy bodies must everlastingly fall in the same direction downward, or parallel to the upright position of our bodies. Sir Isaac Newton by a bare effort of abstraction, or by a grasp of a mind comprehending all the possible relations of things, got rid of this prejudice, turned the world as it were on its back and saw the apple fall not downwards, but simply towards the earth, so that it would fall upwards on the same principle, if the earth were above it, or towards it any rate in whatever direction it lay. This highly abstracted view of the case answered to all the phenomena of nature, and no other did; and this view he arrived at by a vast power of comprehension, retaining and rescuing the contradictory phenomena of the universe under one law and counteracting and banishing from his mind that almost invincible and instinctive association of up and down as it relates to the position of our own bodies and the gravitation of all others to the earth in the same direction. From a circumscribed and partial view we make that, which is general, particular: the great mathematician here spoken of, from a wide and comprehensive one, made it general again, or he perceived the essential condition or cause of a general effect, and that which acts indispensably in all circumstances, separate from other accidental and arbitrary ones.

I lately heard an anecdote related of an American lady (one of two sisters) who marred young and well, and had several children; her sister however was married soon after herself to a richer husband, and had a larger (if not finer) family, and after passing several years of constant repining and wretchedness, she died at length of pure envy. The circumstance was well known, and generally talked of. Some one said on hearing this, that it was a thing that could only happen in America; that it was a trait of the republican character and institutions, where alone the principle of mutual jealousy, having no high and distant objects to fix upon and divert it from immediate and private mortifications, seized upon the happiness or outward advantages even to the nearest connexions as its natural food and having them constantly before its eyes gnawed itself to death upon them. I assented to this remark and I confess is struck me as showing a deep insight into human nature. Here was a sister envying a sister and that not for objects that provoke strong passion, but for common and contentional advantages, till it ends in her death. They were also represented as good and respectable people. How then is this extraordinary development of an ordinary human frailty to be accounted for? From the peculiar circumstances? These were the country and state of society. It was in America that it happened. The democratic level, the flatness of imagery the absence of those towering and artificial heights that in old and monarchical states act as conductor to attract and carry of the splenetic humours and rancorous hostilities of a whole people, and to make common and petty advantages sink into perfect insignificance, were full in the mind of the person who suggested the solution; and in this dearth of every other mark or vent for it, it was felt intuitively, that the natural spirit of envy and discontent would fasten upon those that were next to it and whose advantages, there being no great differences in point of elevation would gall in proportion to their proximity and repeated recurrence. The remote and exalted advantages of birth and station in countries where the social fabric is constructed of lofty and unequal materials, necessarily carry the mind out of its immediate and domestic circle; whereas, take away those objects of imaginary spleen as moody speculation and they leave, as the inevitable alternative, the envy and hatred of our friends and neighbours at every advantage we possess, as so many eye-sores and stumbling-blocks in their way, where these selfish principles have not been curbed or given way altogether to charity and benevolence. The fact, as stated in itself, is an anomaly: as thus explained, by combining it with a general state of feeling in a country, it seems to point out a great principle in society. Now this solution would have been attained but for the deep impression which the operation of certain general causes of moral character had recently made, and the quickness with which the consequences of its removal were felt. I might give other instances, but these will be sufficient to explain the argument, or set others upon elucidating it more clearly.

Acuteness is depth, or sagacity in connecting individual effects with individual causes, or vice versa as in stratagems of war policy, and a knowledge of character and the world. Comprehension is the power of combining a vast number of particulars in some one view, as in mechanics, or the game of chess, but without referring them to any abstract or general principle. A common place differs from an abstract discourse in this, that it is trite and vague, instead of being new and profound. It is a common-place at present to say that heavy bodies fall by attraction. It would always have been one to say that this falling is the effect of a law of nature, or the will of God. This is assigning a general but not adequate cause.

The depth of passion is where it takes hold of circumstances too remote or indifferent for notice from the force of association or analogy and turns the current of other passions by its own. Dramatic power in the depth of the knowledge of the human heart, is chiefly shown in tracing this effect. For instance the fondness displayed by a mistress for a lover (as she is about to desert him for a rival) is not mere hypocrisy or art to deceive him, but nature, or the reaction of her pity in parting tenderness towards a person she is about to injure, but does not absolutely hate. Shakespear is the only dramatic author who has laid open this reaction or involution of the passions in a manner worth speaking of. The rest are commonplace declaimers, and may be very fine but not deep philosophers. There is a depth even in superficiality, that is, the affections cling round obvious and familiar objects, not recondite and remote ones; and the intense continuity of feeling thus obtained, forms the depth of sentiment. It is that that redeems poetry and romance from the charge of superficiality. The habitual impressions of things are, as to feeling, the most refined ones. The painter also in his mind’s eye penetrates beyond the surface or husk or the object, and sees into a labyrinth of forms an abyss of colour. My head has grown giddy in following the windings of the drawing in Raphael, and I have gazed on the breath of Titian, where infinite imperceptible gradations were blended in a common mass, as into a dazzling mirror. This idea is more easily transferred to Rembrandt’s chiaro-scura, where the greatest clearness and the nicest distinctions are observed in the midst of obscurity. In a word, I suspect depth to be that strength and at the same time subtlety of impression, which will not suffer the slightest indication of though or feeling to be lost, and gives warning of them over whatever extent of surface they are diffused, or under whatever disguises of circumstances they lurk.


MLA Citation

Hazlitt, William. “On depth and superficiality.” . Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 9 Sep 2006. 04 Dec 2023 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/hazlitt/depth_and_superficiality/>.

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