On Public Opinion

by William Hazlitt

'Scared at the sound itself has made.'

Once asking a friend why he did not bring forward an explanation of a circumstance, in which his conduct had been called in question, he said, 'His friends were satisfied on the subject, and he cared very little about the opinion of the world.' I made answer that I did not consider this a good ground to rest his defence upon, for that a man's friends seldom thought better of him than the world did. I see no reason to alter this opinion. Our friends, indeed, are more apt than a mere stranger to join in with, or be silent under any imputation thrown out against us, because they are apprehensive they may be indirectly implicated in it, and they are bound to betray us to save their own credit. To judge of our jealousy, our sensibility, our high notions of responsibility, on this score, only consider if a single individual lets fall a solitary remark implying a doubt of the wit, the sense, the courage of a friend—how it staggers us—how it makes us shake with fear—how it makes us call up all our eloquence and airs of self-consequence in his defence, lest our partiality should be supposed to have blinded our perceptions, and we should be regarded as the dupes of a mistaken admiration. We already begin to meditate an escape from a losing cause, and try to find out some other fault in the character under discussion, to show that we are not behind-hand (if the truth must be spoken) in sagacity, and a sense of the ridiculous. If, then, this is the case with the first flaw, the first doubt, the first speck that dims the sun of friendship, so that we are ready to turn our backs on our sworn attachments and well-known professions the instant we have not all the world with us, what must it be when we have all the world against us; when our friend, instead of a single stain, is covered with mud from head to foot; how shall we expect our feeble voices not to be drowned in the general clamour? how shall we dare to oppose our partial and mis-timed suffrages to the just indignation of the public? Or if it should not amount to this, how shall we answer the silence and contempt with which his name is received. How shall we animate the great mass of indifference or distrust with our private enthusiasm? how defeat the involuntary smile, or the suppressed sneer, with the burst of generous feeling and the glow of honest conviction? It is a thing not to be thought of, unless we would enter into a crusade against prejudice and malignity, devote ourselves as martyrs to friendship, raise a controversy in every company we go into, quarrel with every person we meet, and after making ourselves and every one else uncomfortable, leave off, not by clearing our friend's reputation, but by involving our own pretensions to decency and common sense. People will not fail to observe that a man may have his reasons for his faults or vices; but that for another to volunteer a defence of them, is without excuse. It is, in fact, an attempt to deprive them of the great and only benefit they derive from the supposed errors of their neighbours and contemporaries—the pleasure of backbiting and railing at them, which they call seeing justice done. It is not a single breath of rumour or opinion; but the whole atmosphere is infected with a sort of aguish taint of anger and suspicion, that relaxes the nerves of fidelity, and makes our most sanguine resolutions sicken and turn pale; and he who is proof against it, must either be armed with a love of truth, or a contempt for mankind, which places him out of the reach of ordinary rules and calculations. For myself, I do not shrink from defending a cause or a friend under a cloud; though in neither case will cheap or common efforts suffice. But, in the first, you merely stand up for your own judgment and principles against fashion and prejudice, and thus assume a sort of manly and heroic attitude of defiance: in the last (which makes it a matter of greater nicety and nervous sensibility), you sneak behind another to throw your gauntlet at the whole world, and it requires a double stock of stoical firmness not to be laughed out of your boasted zeal and independence as a romantic and amiable weakness.

There is nothing in which all the world agree but in running down some obnoxious individual. It may be supposed that this is not for nothing, and that they have good reasons for what they do. On the contrary, I will undertake to say, that so far from there being invariably just grounds for such an universal outcry, the universality of the outcry is often the only ground of the opinion; and that it is purposely raised upon this principle, that all other proof or evidence against the person meant to be run down is wanting. Nay, further, it may happen, that while the clamour is at the loudest; while you hear it from all quarters; while it blows a perfect hurricane; while 'the world rings with the vain stir'—not one of those who are most eager in hearing and echoing knows what it is about, or is not fully persuaded that the charge is equally false, malicious, and absurd. It is like the wind, that 'no man knoweth whence it cometh, or whither it goeth.' It is vox et præterea nihil. What, then, is it that gives it its confident circulation and its irresistible force. It is the loudness of the organ with which it is pronounced, the stentorian lungs of the multitude; the number of voices that take it up and repeat it, because others have done so; the rapid flight and the impalpable nature of common fame, that makes it a desperate undertaking for any individual to inquire into or arrest the mischief that, in the deafening buzz or loosened roar of laughter or indignation, renders it impossible for the still small voice of reason to be heard, and leaves no other course to honesty or prudence than to fall flat on the face before it, as before the pestilential blast of the desert, and wait till it has passed over. Thus every one joins in asserting, propagating, and in outwardly approving what every one, in his private and unbiassed judgment, believes and knows to be scandalous and untrue. For every one in such circumstances keeps his own opinion to himself, and only attends to or acts upon that which he conceives to be the opinion of every one but himself. So that public opinion is not seldom a farce, equal to any acted upon the stage. Not only is it spurious and hollow in the way that Mr. Locke points out, by one man's taking up at second hand the opinion of another, but worse than this, one man takes up what he believes another will think, and which the latter professes only because he believes it held by the first! All, therefore, that is necessary to control public opinion, is to gain possession of some organ loud and lofty enough to make yourself heard, that has power and interest on its side; and then, no sooner do you blow a blast in this trump of ill-fame, like the horn hung up on an old castle-wall, than you are answered, echoed, and accredited on all sides: the gates are thrown open to receive you, and you are admitted into the very heart of the fortress of public opinion, and can assail from the ramparts with every engine of abuse, and with privileged impunity, all those who may come forward to vindicate the truth, or to rescue their good name from the unprincipled keeping of authority, servility, sophistry, and venal falsehood! The only thing wanted is to give an alarm—to excite a panic in the public mind of being left in the lurch, and the rabble (whether in the ranks of literature or war) will throw away their arms, and surrender at discretion to any bully or impostor who, for a consideration, shall choose to try the experiment upon them!

What I have here described is the effect even upon the candid and well-disposed: what must it be to the malicious and idle, who are eager to believe all the ill they can hear of every one; or to the prejudiced and interested, who are determined to credit all the ill they hear against those who are not of their own side? To these last it is only requisite to be understood that the butt of ridicule or slander is of an opposite party, and they presently give you carte blanche to say what you please of him. Do they know that it is true? No; but they believe what all the world says, till they have evidence to the contrary. Do you prove that it is false? They dare say, that if not that something worse remains behind; and they retain the same opinion as before, for the honour of their party. They hire some one to pelt you with mud, and then affect to avoid you in the street as a dirty fellow. They are told that you have a hump on your back, and then wonder at your assurance or want of complaisance in walking into a room where they are, without it. Instead of apologising for the mistake, and, from finding one aspersion false, doubting all the rest, they are only the more confirmed in the remainder from being deprived of one handle against you, and resent their disappointment, instead of being ashamed of their credulity. People talk of the bigotry of the Catholics, and treat with contempt the absurd claim of the Popes to infallibility—I think with little right to do so. Walk into a church in Paris, you are struck with a number of idle forms and ceremonies, the chanting of the service in Latin, the shifting of the surplices, the sprinkling of holy water, the painted windows 'casting a dim religious light,' the wax tapers, the pealing organ: the common people seem attentive and devout, and to put entire faith in all this—Why? Because they imagine others to do so; they see and hear certain signs and supposed evidences of it, and it amuses and fills up the void of the mind, the love of the mysterious and wonderful, to lend their assent to it. They have assuredly, in general, no better reason—all our Protestant divines will tell you so. Well, step out of the church of St. Roche, and drop into an English reading-room hard by: what are you the better? You see a dozen or score of your countrymen with their faces fixed, and their eyes glued to a newspaper, a magazine, a review—reading, swallowing, profoundly ruminating on the lie, the cant, the sophism of the day! Why? It saves them the trouble of thinking; it gratifies their ill-humour, and keeps off ennui! Does a gleam of doubt, an air of ridicule, or a glance of impatience pass across their features at the shallow and monstrous things they find? No, it is all passive faith and dull security; they cannot take their eyes from the page, they cannot live without it. They believe in their adopted oracle (you see it in their faces) as implicitly as in Sir John Barleycorn, as in a sirloin of beef, as in quarter-day—as they hope to receive their rents, or to see Old England again! Are not the Popes, the Fathers, the Councils, as good as their oracles and champions? They know the paper before them to be a hoax, but do they believe in the ribaldry, the calumny, the less on that account? They believe the more in it, because it is got up solely and expressly to serve a cause that needs such support—and they swear by whatever is devoted to this object.

The greater the profligacy, the effrontery, the servility, the greater the faith. Strange! That the British public, whether at home or abroad, should shake their heads at the Lady of Loretto, and repose deliciously on Mr. Theodore Hook. It may well be thought that the enlightened part of the British public, persons of family and fortunes, who have had a college education, and received the benefit of foreign travel, see through the quackery, which they encourage for a political purpose, without being themselves the dupes of it. This scarcely mends the matter. Suppose an individual, of whom it has been repeatedly asserted that he has warts on his nose, were to enter the reading-room aforesaid, is there a single red-faced country squire who would not be surprised at not finding this story true, would not persuade himself five minutes after that he could not have seen correctly, or that some art had been used to conceal the defects, or would be led to doubt, from this instance, the general candour and veracity of his oracle? He would disbelieve his own senses rather. Seeing is believing, it is said: lying is believing, I say. We do not even see with our own eyes, but must 'wink and shut our apprehension up,' that we may be able to agree to the report of others, as a piece of good manners and a point of established etiquette. Besides, the supposed deformity answered his wishes, the abuse fed fat the ancient grudge he owed some presumptuous scribbler, for not agreeing in a number of points with his betters; it gave him a personal advantage over a man he did not like—and who will give up what tends to strengthen his aversion for another? To Tory prejudice, dire as it is—to English imagination, morbid as it is, a nickname, a ludicrous epithet, a malignant falsehood, when it has been once propagated and taken to the bosom as a welcome consolation, becomes a precious property, a vested right; and people would as soon give up a sinecure, or a share in a close borough, as this sort of plenary indulgence to speak and think with contempt of those who would abolish the one, or throw open the other. Party-spirit is the best reason in the world for personal antipathy and vulgar abuse.

'But, do you not think, Sir' (some dialectician may ask), 'that belief is involuntary, and that we judge in all cases according to the precise degree of evidence and the positive facts before us?'

No, Sir.

'You believe, then, in the doctrine of philosophical free-will?'

Indeed, Sir, I do not.

'How then, Sir, am I to understand so unaccountable a diversity of opinion from the most approved writers on the philosophy of the human mind?'

May I ask, my dear Sir, did you ever read Mr. Wordsworth's poem of Michael?

'I cannot charge my memory with the fact.'

Well, Sir, this Michael is an old shepherd, who has a son who goes to sea, and who turns out a great reprobate, by all the accounts received of him. Before he went, however, the father took the boy with him into a mountain-glen, and made him lay the first stone of a sheep-fold, which was to be a covenant and a remembrance between them if anything ill happened. For years after, the old man used to go and work at the sheep-fold—

'Among the rocks
He went, and still look'd up upon the sun,
And listen'd to the wind,'

and sat by the half-finished work, expecting the lad's return, or hoping to hear some better tidings of him. Was this hope founded on reason—or was it not owing to the strength of affection, which in spite of everything could not relinquish its hold of a favourite object, indeed the only one that bound it to existence?

Not being able to make my dialectician answer kindly to interrogatories, I must get on without him. In matters of absolute demonstration and speculative indifferences, I grant, that belief is involuntary, and the proof not to be resisted; but then, in such matters, there is no difference of opinion, or the difference is adjusted amicably and rationally. Hobbes is of opinion, that if their passions or interests could be implicated in the question, men would deny stoutly that the three angles of a right-angled triangle are equal to two right ones: and the disputes in religion look something like it. I only contend, however, that in all cases not of this peremptory and determinate cast, and where disputes commonly arise, inclination, habit, and example have a powerful share in throwing in the casting-weight to our opinions, and that he who is only tolerably free from these, and not their regular dupe or slave, is indeed 'a man of ten thousand.' Take, for instance, the example of a Catholic clergyman in a Popish country: it will generally be found that he lives and dies in the faith in which he was brought up, as the Protestant clergyman does in his—shall we say that the necessity of gaining a livelihood, or the prospect of preferment, that the early bias given to his mind by education and study, the pride of victory, the shame of defeat, the example and encouragement of all about him, the respect and love of his flock, the flattering notice of the great, have no effect in giving consistency to his opinions and carrying them through to the last? Yet, who will suppose that in either case this apparent uniformity is mere hypocrisy, or that the intellects of the two classes of divines are naturally adapted to the arguments in favour of the two religions they have occasion to profess? No; but the understanding takes a tincture from outward impulses and circumstances, and is led to dwell on those suggestions which favour, and to blind itself to the objections which impugn, the side to which it previously and morally inclines. Again, even in those who oppose established opinions, and form the little, firm, formidable phalanx of dissent, have not early instruction, spiritual pride, the love of contradiction, a resistance to usurped authority, as much to do with keeping up the war of sects and schisms as the abstract love of truth or conviction of the understanding? Does not persecution fan the flame in such fiery tempers, and does it not expire, or grow lukewarm, with indulgence and neglect? I have a sneaking kindness for a Popish priest in this country; and to a Catholic peer I would willingly bow in passing. What are national antipathies, individual attachments, but so many expressions of the moral principle in forming our opinions? All our opinions become grounds on which we act, and build our expectations of good or ill; and this good or ill mixed up with them is soon changed into the ruling principle which modifies or violently supersedes the original cool determination of the reason and senses. The will, when it once gets a footing, turns the sober judgment out of doors. If we form an attachment to any one, are we not slow in giving it up? Or, if our suspicions are once excited, are we not equally rash and violent in believing the worst? Othello characterises himself as one

——'That loved not wisely, but too well;
Of one not easily jealous—but, being wrought,
Perplex'd in the extreme.'

And this answers to the movements and irregularities of passion and opinion which take place in human nature. If we wish a thing we are disposed to believe it: if we have been accustomed to believe it, we are the more obstinate in defending it on that account: if all the world differ from us in any question of moment, we are ashamed to own it; or are hurried by peevishness and irritation into extravagance and paradox. The weight of example presses upon us (whether we feel it or not) like the law of gravitation. He who sustains his opinion by the strength of conviction and evidence alone, unmoved by ridicule, neglect, obloquy, or privation, shows no less resolution than the Hindoo who makes and keeps a vow to hold his right arm in the air till it grows rigid and callous.

To have all the world against us is trying to a man's temper and philosophy. It unhinges even our opinion of our own motives and intentions. It is like striking the actual world from under our feet: the void that is left, the death-like pause, the chilling suspense, is fearful. The growth of an opinion is like the growth of a limb; it receives its actual support and nourishment from the general body of the opinions, feelings, and practice of the world; without that, it soon withers, festers, and becomes useless. To what purpose write a good book, if it is sure to be pronounced a bad one, even before it is read? If our thoughts are to be blown stifling back upon ourselves, why utter them at all? It is only exposing what we love most to contumely and insult, and thus depriving ourselves of our own relish and satisfaction in them. Language is only made to communicate our sentiments, and if we can find no one to receive them, we are reduced to the silence of dumbness, we live but in the solitude of a dungeon. If we do not vindicate our opinions, we seem poor creatures who have no right to them; if we speak out, we are involved in continual brawls and controversy. If we contemn what others admire, we make ourselves odious; if we admire what they despise, we are equally ridiculous. We have not the applause of the world nor the support of a party; we can neither enjoy the freedom of social intercourse, nor the calm of privacy. With our respect for others, we lose confidence in ourselves: everything seems to be a subject of litigation—to want proof or confirmation; we doubt, by degrees, whether we stand on our head or our heels—whether we know our right hand from our left. If I am assured that I never wrote a sentence of common English in my life, how can I know that this is not the case? If I am told at one time that my writings are as heavy as lead, and at another, that they are more light and flimsy than the gossamer—what resource have I but to choose between the two? I could say, if this were the place, what those writings are.—'Make it the place, and never stand upon punctilio!'

They are not, then, so properly the works of an author by profession, as the thoughts of a metaphysician expressed by a painter. They are subtle and difficult problems translated into hieroglyphics. I thought for several years on the hardest subjects, on Fate, Free-will, Foreknowledge absolute, without ever making use of words or images at all, and that has made them come in such throngs and confused heaps when I burst from that void of abstraction. In proportion to the tenuity to which my ideas had been drawn, and my abstinence from ornament and sensible objects, was the tenaciousness with which actual circumstances and picturesque imagery laid hold of my mind, when I turned my attention to them, or had to look round for illustrations. Till I began to paint, or till I became acquainted with the author of The Ancient Mariner, I could neither write nor speak. He encouraged me to write a book, which I did according to the original bent of my mind, making it as dry and meagre as I could, so that it fell still-born from the press, and none of those who abuse me for a shallow catch-penny writer have so much as heard of it. Yet, let me say, that work contains an important metaphysical discovery, supported by a continuous and severe train of reasoning, nearly as subtle and original as anything in Hume or Berkeley. I am not accustomed to speak of myself in this manner, but impudence may provoke modesty to justify itself. Finding this method did not answer, I despaired for a time; but some trifle I wrote in the Morning Chronicle, meeting the approbation of the editor and the town, I resolved to turn over a new leaf—to take the public at its word, to muster all the tropes and figures I could lay hands on, and, though I am a plain man, never to appear abroad but in an embroidered dress. Still, old habits will prevail; and I hardly ever set about a paragraph or a criticism, but there was an undercurrent of thought, or some generic distinction on which the whole turned. Having got my clue, I had no difficulty in stringing pearls upon it; and the more recondite the point, the more I laboured to bring it out and set it off by a variety of ornaments and allusions. This puzzled the scribes whose business it was to crush me. They could not see the meaning: they would not see the colouring, for it hurt their eyes. One cried out, it was dull; another, that it was too fine by half: my friends took up this last alternative as the most favourable; and since then it has been agreed that I am a florid writer, somewhat flighty and paradoxical. Yet, when I wished to unburthen my mind in the Edinburgh by an article on English metaphysics, the editor, who echoes this florid charge, said he preferred what I wrote for effect, and was afraid of its being thought heavy! I have accounted for the flowers; the paradoxes may be accounted for in the same way. All abstract reasoning is in extremes, or only takes up one view of a question, or what is called the principle of the thing; and if you want to give this popularity and effect, you are in danger of running into extravagance and hyperbole. I have had to bring out some obscure distinction, or to combat some strong prejudice, and in doing this with all my might, may have often overshot the mark. It was easy to correct the excess of truth afterwards. I have been accused of inconsistency, for writing an essay, for instance, on the Advantages of Pedantry, and another on the Ignorance of the Learned, as if ignorance had not its comforts as well as knowledge. The personalities I have fallen into have never been gratuitous. If I have sacrificed my friends, it has always been to a theory. I have been found fault with for repeating myself, and for a narrow range of ideas. To a want of general reading, I plead guilty, and am sorry for it; but perhaps if I had read more, I might have thought less. As to my barrenness of invention, I have at least glanced over a number of subjects—painting, poetry, prose, plays, politics, parliamentary speakers, metaphysical lore, books, men, and things. There is some point, some fancy, some feeling, some taste, shown in treating of these. Which of my conclusions has been reversed? Is it what I said ten years ago of the Bourbons which raised the war-whoop against me? Surely all the world are of that opinion now. I have, then, given proofs of some talent, and of more honesty: if there is haste or want of method, there is no commonplace, nor a line that licks the dust; and if I do not appear to more advantage, I at least appear such as I am. If the Editor of the Atlas will do me the favour to look over my Essay on the Principles of Human Action, will dip into any essay I ever wrote, and will take a sponge and clear the dust from the face of my Old Woman, I hope he will, upon second thoughts, acquit me of an absolute dearth of resources and want of versatility in the direction of my studies.

Monadnock Valley Press > Hazlitt