THR Web Features   /   February 13, 2024

Hatred Alone Is Immortal

Why we should be concerned, above all, with the education of the passions.

Alan Jacobs

( THR illustration/Adobe Stock.)

Recently I happened to read, in the course of a single day, two interesting, intelligent, and well-meaning essays. The first, by New York Times columnist David Brooks, concerned the dominance in our own moment of doom-mongering, catastrophism, and (of course) the endless festival of blaming associated therewith. The second, by Harvard University law professor Jeannie Suk Gersen, addressed the attack on freedom of speech from both left and right and how that attack threatens the conditions required for academic freedom.

Brooks’s essay concludes thus:

One moment in history gives me hope. In the 1950s, as I’ve noted, the McCarthy era brought a wave of paranoia about communists under every bed. But that moment generated a cultural recoil that eventually led to, for instance, John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address, one of the most lavishly optimistic addresses in American history: “Together, let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate diseases, tap the ocean depths and encourage the arts and commerce.” And it wasn’t so long ago that Barack Obama thrilled millions with his gospel of hope and change. We shouldn’t let our current season of gloom and menace become self-fulfilling, but rather should help make the country ripe for a communalism of belonging. History shows that it doesn’t pay to be pessimistic about pessimism.

And Gersen’s essay concludes thus:

To demonstrate that it is against antisemitism, Harvard may face pressure to expand its definitions of discrimination, harassment, and bullying, so as to stifle more speech that is deemed offensive. In order to resist such pressures, the university needs to acknowledge that it has allowed a culture of censoriousness to develop, recommit itself to academic freedom and free speech, and rethink D.E.I. in a way that prizes the diversity of viewpoints. Though some argue that D.E.I. has enabled a surge in antisemitism, it is the pervasive influence of D.E.I. sensibilities that makes plausible the claim that universities should always treat anti-Zionist speech as antisemitism, much in the way that some have claimed that criticizing aspects of the Black Lives Matter movement—or even D.E.I. itself—is always discrimination. The post-Gay crisis has created a crossroads, where universities will be tempted to discipline objectionable speech in order to demonstrate that they are dedicated to rooting out antisemitism and Islamophobia, too. Unless we conscientiously and mindfully pull away from that path, academic freedom—which is essential to fulfilling a university’s purpose—will meet its destruction.

Again, both of these essays are admirable in many ways, but both of them, I believe, fail to reckon with the essential thing: Many Americans, as far as I can tell, don’t want to shape their views in accordance with the data; many Americans, again as far as I can tell, don’t want to create an environment in which a broad range of perspectives are freely articulated and peacefully debated. They don’t want to be hopeful about the possibilities of America. Nor do they want academic freedom in our universities. What many people want, what they earnestly and passionately desire, is to hate their enemies. A few years ago J.D. Vance—now a senator, then a political neophyte—uttered The Creed of Our Age: “I think our people hate the right people.”

And that’s why the essential text for our time is an essay written almost exactly two hundred years ago by the English writer William Hazlitt: “On the Pleasure of Hating.”

Hazlitt begins by noting the presence of a spider in his room—a spider which, let us say at the outset, he does not kill. Indeed he prides himself on refraining from violence. “A child, a woman, a clown, or a moralist a century ago, would have crushed” the creature—but “my philosophy has got beyond that.”

Perhaps we today flatter ourselves similarly. After all, little more than a hundred years ago, as Beverly Gage has documented in her fascinating book The Day Wall Street Exploded, a captain of industry or a king or a president stood a good chance of being assassinated by rifle, handgun, or bomb. And even the 1970s were dramatically more violent than our own moment, as historian Rick Perlstein pointed out several years ago:

“The country is disintegrating,” a friend of mine wrote on Facebook after the massacre of five policemen by black militant Micah Johnson in Dallas. But during most of the years I write about in Nixonland and its sequel covering 1973 through 1976, The Invisible Bridge, the Dallas shootings might have registered as little more than a ripple. On New Year’s Eve in 1972, a New Orleans television station received this message: “Africa greets you. On Dec. 31, 1972, aprx. 11 pm, the downtown New Orleans Police Department will be attacked. Reason—many, but the death of two innocent brothers will be avenged.” Its author was a twenty-three-year-old Navy veteran named Mark James Essex. (In the 1960s, the media had begun referring to killers using middle names, lest any random “James Ray” or “John Gacy” suffer unfairly from the association.) Essex shot three policemen to death, evading arrest. The story got hardly a line of national attention until the following week, when he began cutting down white people at random and held hundreds of officers at bay from a hotel rooftop. Finally, he was cornered and shot from a Marine helicopter on live TV, which also accidentally wounded nine more policemen. The New York Times only found space for that three days later.

As Perlstein concludes, “Stories like these were routine in the 1970s.” They are not routine now, largely because, like Hazlitt, “We learn to curb our will and keep our overt actions within the bounds of humanity, long before we can subdue our sentiments and imaginations to the same mild tone. We give up the external demonstration, the brute violence, but cannot part with the essence or principle of hostility.” We’re content to condemn and mock our enemies on social media and demand that they be fired from their jobs and banished from polite society. Thus “The spirit of malevolence survives the practical exertion of it.”

Hazlitt thinks that this “spirit of malevolence” is an absolute necessity for human beings. “Nature seems (the more we look into it) made up of antipathies: Without something to hate, we should lose the very spring of thought and action.” Have we other motives to action? A few, perhaps, but they are weak: “Pure good soon grows insipid, wants variety and spirit. Pain is a bittersweet, wants variety and spirit. Love turns, with a little indulgence, to indifference or disgust: Hatred alone is immortal. Do we not see this principle at work everywhere?”

And because he sees it everywhere, Hazlitt is happy to indulge his own fantasies of hatred—keeping them always, of course, with civilized bounds; which is to say, his hatreds are nursed in his imagination and find an outlet through words. (See, for instance, his transcendently vituperative Letter to William Gifford, Esq. A representative excerpt: “I shall proceed to shew, first, your want of common honesty, in speaking of particlar persons; and, secondly, your want of common capacity, in treating of any general question. It is this double negation of understanding and principle that makes you all that you are.”)

And what is the culmination of Hazlitt’s lifelong indulgence of “the pleasure of hating”? About this Hazlitt is disturbingly forthright:

Seeing all this as I do, and unravelling the web of human life into its various threads of meanness, spite, cowardice, want of feeling, and want of understanding, of indifference towards others, and ignorance of ourselves,—seeing custom prevail over all excellence, itself giving way to infamy—mistaken as I have been in my public and private hopes, calculating others from myself, and calculating wrong; always disappointed where I placed most reliance; the dupe of friendship, and the fool of love; —have I not reason to hate and to despise myself? Indeed I do; and chiefly for not having hated and despised the world enough.

These are the concluding words of his essay. So, hate as much as you can, and in the end it will never, can never, be enough; and all that will be left to you then is self-loathing.

This, I think, is where the culture of our media, and our academic life, is headed. It may end in violence, but I think not, at least not a return to the brutality of the Seventies, much less that of the age of “anarchist” bombings. What we are moving toward instead is an ever-blooming festival of contempt and blame that will—inevitably: caveat lector —culminate in all the varieties of self-loathing.

The language required to respond to this is not the language of optimism, or freedom, or democracy, or liberal values. What we first need is the acceptance of David Hume’s famous statement from his Treatise on Human Nature: “Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” It is then the education of the passions with which we must be primarily concerned. And therefore the single most important question we can ask ourselves is this: What pleasure, what gratification, can we offer to people that exceeds the pleasure of hating?