Hatred Alone Is Immortal
On William Hazlitt’s principle of the pleasure of hating, and what the “apple of discord” can teach us about how to deal with it.
Hatred alone is immortal. Or so it is according to William Hazlitt, who opens his essay On the Pleasure of Hating with a description of a spider awkwardly crawling its way towards him over the matted floor. The sight of it disgusts the author, but, controlling his emotions, he lets the little insect get away. His philosophy prevents him from crushing it, but it cannot make him love it. “I bear the creature no ill will,” he writes, “but still I hate the very sight of it.” We may be able to control our will, but we cannot expel our sentiments.
Hazlitt suggests that over time every positive emotion fades away—what always remains is pain and hatred:
Pure good soon grows insipid, wants variety and spirit. Pain is bittersweet, which never surfeits. Love turns, with a little indulgence, to indifference or disgust: hatred alone is immortal.—Do we not see this principle at work every where? Animals torment and worry one another without mercy: children kill flies for sport: every one reads the accidents and offences in a newspaper, as the cream of the jest: a whole town runs to be present at a fire, and the spectator by no means exults to see it extinguished.
If, like in the case of the spider, we no longer resort to violence, we take our feuds to the printed page. The “Protestants and Papists do not now burn one another at the stake,” he writes, but they continue to quarrel in their pamphlets and their books. The “meek Christian” takes pleasure in sending his enemies into the fires of hell. The patriotism of the Englishman doesn’t lie in his love for his countrymen—it lies in his hatred for the French. Hazlitt turns this idea into a principle:
This principle is of a most universal application. It extends to good as well as evil: if it makes us hate folly, it makes us no less dissatisfied with distinguished merit. If it inclines us to resent the wrongs of others, it impels us to be as impatient with their prosperity. We revenge injuries: we repair benefits with ingratitude. Even our strongest partialities and likings soon take this turn. … We hate old friends: we hate old books: we hate old opinions; and at last we come to hate ourselves.
We grow tired of old friends, for they have become too wise for us or too foolish. We lose interest in old books, for even the greatest works lose that striking pleasure they give us on the first reading—“the wine of poetry is drank, and but the lees remain.” And it is the same with art. With the exception of Titian, that is, whose landscapes breathe an air “pure, refreshing as if it came from other years,” and whose faces have a look “that never passes away.” Recalling a painting by Titian, Hazlitt asks himself why he doesn’t use such art as a “perpetual barrier” between himself and mischance:
It is because pleasure asks a greater effort of the mind to support it than pain; and we turn, after a little dalliance, from what we love to what we hate!
Hazlitt has even grown to hate his old opinions. He used to believe that words like genius, virtue, liberty and love meant something, but now he would “care little if these words were struck out of a dictionary.” And, having discarded them, he’s grown to hate himself for “not having hated and despised the world enough.”
In the age of social media, this principle of the universality of hatred is amplified to the extreme. A study of the New York Times’s most emailed list found that articles which incited anger were the ones that got shared the most.1 Sparked by the subject, such things inevitably incite a torrent of comments, and, as more people get pulled into the fray, they in turn react to the already spiteful sentiment, feeding the general anger like dried brush feeds a wildfire. It becomes an engine of hatred, its wheels turned by the steam of rage. A spectacle both loathsome and irresistible.
As Hazlitt writes, quoting Burke: people go to see a tragedy, “but if there were an execution going forward in the next street … the theatre would be left empty.” Today, the mob congregates on social media, looking for the next outrage to vent its vitriol. It flocks to an incident like moths to a flame. The sensations it offers are just too strong and too easily triggered to be resisted, even at their own detriment.
Remember this should their attention turn to you. You can never avoid criticism, for it is not your words or actions that govern people’s response, but their own state of mind. If they’re looking for faults, they’ll find them in both success and failure, for it is not the faults themselves that matter, but the pleasure people feel in pointing them out. As the great Stoic philosopher Epictetus teaches: it’s not enough for someone to cause you harm for it to affect you, you must also perceive yourself being harmed—“If someone succeeds in provoking you, realize that your mind is complicit in the provocation.” The remedy is simply to ignore it—unless provoked, the mob will grow bored sooner than you realize and will move onto its next target.
There’s a concept in one of Aesop’s fables called the apple of discord. It’s a crisp visual metaphor for the mechanics of strife:2
Hercules was once travelling along a narrow road when he saw lying on the ground in front of him what appeared to be an apple, and as he passed he stamped upon it with his heel. To his astonishment, instead of being crushed it doubled in size; and, on his attacking it again and smiting it with his club, it swelled up to an enormous size and blocked up the whole road. Upon this he dropped his club, and stood looking at it in amazement. Just then Minerva appeared, and said to him, “Leave it alone, my friend; that which you see before you is the apple of discord: if you do not meddle with it, it remains small as it was at first, but if you resort to violence it swells into the thing you see.”