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Dec 28, 2011               
      

Hazlitt's Essays: Belief, whether voluntary?



And now for something different - I mean different from XMRV, ME/CFS etc. though in fact the text that follows is highly appropriate - namely Hazlitt, indeed also with an essay that I hadn't read nor seen before yesterday, in this somewhat oddly named collection of essays by him:

       - "Winterslow: essays and characters written there" (pdf, 10.4 MB)

The reason for the somewhat odd name is that the collection was originally edited by his son in 1839 and 1850, and as Hazlitt Jr. himself put it in his foreword of 1850:

For such reasons, and for the other reason, which I mention incidentally, that Winterslow is my own native place, I have given its name to this collection of 'Essays and Characters written there'; as indeed, practically were very many of his works, for it was there that most of his thinking was done.

The reason that the text that follows is highly appropriate to the theme of XMRV, ME/CFS etc. is that it discusses the manner in which men (and women: I do not write PC English) hold fast to their beliefs or come to revise them. I have several times lately found occassion to link to

- Cognitive Dissonance

but the idea of that notion, if not the term, is much older than Festinger, for it can be found in this essay by Hazlitt. Consider e.g. this:

To say that the truth or falsehood of a proposition is the only circumstance that gains it admittance into the mind, independently of the pleasure or pain it affords us, is itself an assertion made in pure caprice or desperation.

A person may have a profession or employment connected with a certain belief, it may be the means of livelihood to him, and the changing it may require considerable sacrifices, or may leave him almost without resource (to say nothing of mortified pride)—this will not mend the matter.

The evidence against his former opinion may be so strong (or may appear so to him) that he may be obliged to give it up, but not without a pang and after having tried every artifice and strained every nerve to give the utmost weight to the arguments favouring his own side, and to make light of and throw those against him into the background.

And nine times in ten this bias of the will and tampering with the proofs will prevail. It is only with very vigorous or very candid minds that the understanding exercises its just and boasted prerogative, and induces its votaries to relinquish a profitable delusion and embrace the dowerless truth.

Or indeed this:

With the herd, belief on all abstract and disputed topics is voluntary, that is, is determined by considerations of personal ease and convenience, in the teeth of logical analysis and demonstration, which are set aside as mere waste of words.

In short, generally speaking, people stick to an opinion that they have long supported and that supports them.

How else shall we account for the regular order and progression of society: for the maintenance of certain opinions in particular professions and classes of men, as we keep water in cisterns, till in fact they stagnate and corrupt: and that the world and every individual in it is not ' blown about with every wind of doctrine' and whisper of uncertainty?

Or this:

Alas, poor human nature! Opinion is for the most part only a battle, in which we take part and defend the side we have adopted, in the one case or the other, with a view to share the honour of the spoil.

Few will stand up for a losing cause, or have the fortitude to adhere to a proscribed opinion; and when they do, it is not always from superior strength of understanding or a disinterested love of truth, but from obstinacy and sullenness of temper.

Or this:

Are we not averse to believe bad news relating to ourselves—forward enough if it relates to others? If something is said reflecting on the character of an intimate friend or near relative, how unwilling we are to lend an ear to it, how we catch at every excuse or palliating circumstance, and hold out against the clearest proof, while we instantly believe any idle report against an enemy, magnify the commonest trifles into crimes, and torture the evidence against him to our heart's content!

Do not we change our opinion of the same person, and make him out to be black or white according to the terms we happen to be on? If we have a favourite author, do we not exaggerate his beauties and pass over his defects, and vice versa?

The human mind plays the interested advocate much oftener than the upright and inflexible judge, in the colouring and relief it gives to the facts brought before it.

We believe things not more because they are true or probable, than because we desire, or (if the imagination once takes that turn) because we dread them. 'Fear has more devils than vast hell can hold.'

Anyway... if you like Hazlitt, that is, if you have a fine mind and an exquisitely refined taste, you will understand, like and admire what follows, and if not, I have at least pointed you to one of the finest minds and finest writers I have read in my nearly 62 years.

Enjoy, if you are capacious enough! (There is an endnote on this edition.)



William Hazlitt ca. 1826
by William Bewick


BELIEF, WHETHER VOLUNTARY?

'Thy wish was father, Harry, to that thought.'

It is an axiom in modern philosophy (among many other false ones) that belief is absolutely involuntary, since we draw our inferences from the premises laid before us, and cannot possibly receive any other impression of things than that which they naturally make upon us.

This theory, that the understanding is purely passive in the reception of truth, and that our convictions are not in the power of our will, was probably first invented or insisted upon as a screen against religious persecution, and as an answer to those who imputed bad motives to all who differed from the established faith, and thought they could reform heresy and impiety by the application of fire and the sword.

No doubt, that is not the way: for the will in that case irritates itself and grows refractory against the doctrines thus absurdly forced upon it; and as it has been said, the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.

But though force and terror may not be always the surest way to make converts, it does not follow that there may not be other means of influencing our opinions, besides the naked and abstract evidence for any proposition: the sun melts the resolution which the storm could not shake.

In such points as, whether an object is black or white or whether two and two make four1, we may not be able to believe as we please or to deny the evidence of our reason and senses: but in those points on which mankind differ, or where we can be at all in suspense as to which side we shall take, the truth is not quite so plain or palpable; it admits of a variety of views and shades of colouring, and it should appear that we can dwell upon whichever of these we choose, and heighten or soften the circumstances adduced in proof, according as passion and inclination throw their casting-weight into the scale.

Let any one, for instance, have been brought up in an opinion, let him have remained in it all his life, let him have attached all his notions of respectability, of the approbation of his fellow-citizens or his own self-esteem to it, let him then first hear it called in question, and a strong and unforeseen objection stated to it, will not this startle and shock him as if he had seen a spectre, and will he not struggle to resist the arguments that would unsettle his habitual convictions, as he would resist the divorcing of soul and body?

Will he come to the consideration of the question impartially, indifferently, and without any wrong bias, or give the painful and revolting truth the same cordial welcome as the long-cherished and favourite prejudice?

To say that the truth or falsehood of a proposition is the only circumstance that gains it admittance into the mind, independently of the pleasure or pain it affords us, is itself an assertion made in pure caprice or desperation.

A person may have a profession or employment connected with a certain belief, it may be the means of livelihood to him, and the changing it may require considerable sacrifices, or may leave him almost without resource (to say nothing of mortified pride)—this will not mend the matter.

The evidence against his former opinion may be so strong (or may appear so to him) that he may be obliged to give it up, but not without a pang and after having tried every artifice and strained every nerve to give the utmost weight to the arguments favouring his own side, and to make light of and throw those against him into the background.

And nine times in ten this bias of the will and tampering with the proofs will prevail. It is only with very vigorous or very candid minds that the understanding exercises its just and boasted prerogative, and induces its votaries to relinquish a profitable delusion and embrace the dowerless truth.

Even then they have the sober and discreet part of the world, all the bons pères de famille, who look principally to the main chance, against them, and they are regarded as little better than lunatics or profligates to fling up a good salary and a provision for themselves and families for the sake of that foolish thing, a Conscience!

With the herd, belief on all abstract and disputed topics is voluntary, that is, is determined by considerations of personal ease and convenience, in the teeth of logical analysis and demonstration, which are set aside as mere waste of words.

In short, generally speaking, people stick to an opinion that they have long supported and that supports them.

How else shall we account for the regular order and progression of society: for the maintenance of certain opinions in particular professions and classes of men, as we keep water in cisterns, till in fact they stagnate and corrupt: and that the world and every individual in it is not ' blown about with every wind of doctrine' and whisper of uncertainty?

There is some more solid ballast required to keep things in their established order than the restless fluctuation of opinion and 'infinite agitation of wit.' We find that people in Protestant countries continue Protestants, and in Catholic countries Papists. This, it may be answered, is owing to the ignorance of the great mass of them; but is their faith less bigoted, because it is not founded on a regular investigation of the proofs, and is merely an obstinate determination to believe what they have been told and accustomed to believe?

Or is it not the same with the doctors of the church and its most learned champions, who read the same texts, turn over the same authorities, and discuss the same knotty points through their whole lives, only to arrive at opposite conclusions? How few are shaken in their opinions, or have the grace to confess it?

Shall we then suppose them all impostors, and that they keep up the farce of a system, of which they do not believe a syllable?

Far from it: there may be individual instances, but the generality are not only sincere but bigots. Those who are unbelievers and hypocrites scarcely know it themselves, or if a man is not quite a knave, what pains will he not take to make a fool of his reason, that his opinions may tally with his professions?

Is there then a Papist and a Protestant understanding—one prepared to receive the doctrine of transubstantiation and the other to reject it?

No such thing: but in either case the ground of reason is pre-occupied by passion, habit, example—the scales are falsified.

Nothing can therefore be more inconsequential than to bring the authority of great names in favour of opinions long established and universally received. Cicero's being a Pagan was no proof in support of the Heathen mythology, but simply of his being born at Rome before the Christian era; though his lurking scepticism on the subject and sneers at the augurs told against it, for this was an acknowledgment drawn from him in spite of a prevailing prejudice. Sir Isaac Newton and Napier of Merchiston both wrote on the Apocalypse; but this is neither a ground for a speedy anticipation of the Millennium, nor does it invalidate the doctrine of the gravitation of the planets or the theory of logarithms.

One party would borrow the sanction of these great names in support of their wildest and most mystical opinions; others would arraign them of folly and weakness for having attended to such subjects at all. Neither inference is just. It is a simple question of chronology, or of the time wlien these celebrated mathematicians lived, and of the studies and pursuits which were then chiefly in vogue.

The wisest man is the slave of opinion, except on one or two points on which he strikes out a light for himself and holds a torch to the rest of the world.

But we are disposed to make it out that all opinions are the result of reason, because they profess to be so; and when they are right, that is, when they agree with ours, that there can be no alloy of human frailty or perversity in them; the very strength of our prejudice making it pass for pure reason, and leading us to attribute any deviation from it to bad faith or some unaccountable singularity or infatuation.

Alas, poor human nature! Opinion is for the most part only a battle, in which we take part and defend the side we have adopted, in the one case or the other, with a view to share the honour of the spoil.

Few will stand up for a losing cause, or have the fortitude to adhere to a proscribed opinion; and when they do, it is not always from superior strength of understanding or a disinterested love of truth, but from obstinacy and sullenness of temper.

To affirm that we do not cultivate an acquaintance with truth as she presents herself to us in a more or less pleasing shape, or is shabbily attired or well-dressed, is as much as to say that we do not shut our eyes to the light when it dazzles us, or withdraw our hands from the fire when it scorches us.

' Masterless passion sways us to the mood
  Of what it likes or loathes. '

Are we not averse to believe bad news relating to ourselves—forward enough if it relates to others? If something is said reflecting on the character of an intimate friend or near relative, how unwilling we are to lend an ear to it, how we catch at every excuse or palliating circumstance, and hold out against the clearest proof, while we instantly believe any idle report against an enemy, magnify the commonest trifles into crimes, and torture the evidence against him to our heart's content!

Do not we change our opinion of the same person, and make him out to be black or white according to the terms we happen to be on? If we have a favourite author, do we not exaggerate his beauties and pass over his defects, and vice versa?

The human mind plays the interested advocate much oftener than the upright and inflexible judge, in the colouring and relief it gives to the facts brought before it.

We believe things not more because they are true or probable, than because we desire, or (if the imagination once takes that turn) because we dread them. 'Fear has more devils than vast hell can hold.'

The sanguine always hope, the gloomy always despond, from temperament and not from forethought. Do we not disguise the plainest facts from ourselves if they are disagreeable? Do we not flatter ourselves with impossibilities?

What girl does not look in the glass to persuade herself she is handsome? What woman ever believes herself old, or does not hate to be called so: though she knows the exact year and day of her age, the more she tries to keep up the appearance of youth to herself and others? What lover would ever acknowledge a flaw in the character of his mistress, or would not construe her turning her back on him into a proof of attachment?

The story of January and May is pat to our purpose; for the credulity of mankind as to what touches our inclinations has been proverbial in all ages: yet we are told that the mind is passive in making up these wilful accounts and is guided by nothing but the pros and cons of evidence.

Even in action and where we may determine by proper precaution the event of things, instead of being compelled to shut our eyes to what we cannot help, we still are the dupes of the feeling of the moment, and prefer amusing ourselves with fair appearances to securing more solid benefits by a sacrifice of Imagination and stubborn Will to Truth.

The blindness of passion to the most obvious and well-known consequences is deplorable. There seems to be a particular fatality in this respect. Because a thing is in our power till we have committed ourselves, we appear to dally, to trifle with, to make light of it, and to think it will still be in our power after we have committed ourselves.

Strange perversion of the reasoning faculties, which is little short of madness, and which yet is one of the constant and practical sophisms of human life!

It is as if one should say—I am in no danger from a tremendous machine unless I touch such a spring and therefore I will approach it, I will play with the danger, I will laugh at it, and at last in pure sport and wantonness of heart, from my sense of previous security, I will touch it—and there's an end.

While the thing remains in contemplation, we may be said to stand safe and smiling on the brink: as soon as we proceed to action we are drawn into the vortex of passion and hurried to our destruction.

A person taken up with some one purpose or passion is intent only upon that: he drives out the thought of everything but its gratification: in the pursuit of that he is blind to consequences: his first object being attained, they all at once, and as if by magic, rush upon his mind. The engine recoils, he is caught in his own snare.

A servant girl, for some pique, or for an angry word, determines to poison her mistress. She knows beforehand (just as well as she does afterwards) that it is at least a hundred chances to one she will be hanged if she succeeds, yet this has no more effect upon her than if she had never heard of any such matter. The only idea that occupies her mind and hardens it against every other, is that of the affront she has received, and the desire of revenge; she broods over it; she meditates the mode, she is haunted with her scheme night and day; it works like poison; it grows into a madness, and she can have no peace till it is accomplished and off her mind; but the moment this is tlie case, and her passion is assuaged, fear takes place of hatred, the slightest suspicion alarms her with the certainty of her fate, from which she before wilfully averted her thoughts; she runs wildly from the officers before they know anything of the matter; the gallows stares her in the face, and if none else accuses her, so full is she of her danger and her guilt, that she probably betrays herself. She at first would see no consequences to result from her crime but the getting rid of a present uneasiness; she now sees the very worst.

The whole seems to depend on the turn given to the imagination, on our immediate disposition to attend to this or that view of the subject, the evil or the good.

As long as our intention is unknown to the world, before it breaks out into action, it seems to be deposited in our own bosoms, to be a mere feverish dream, and to be left with all its consequences under our imaginary control: but no sooner is it realised and known to others, than it appears to have escaped from our reach, we fancy the whole world are up in arms against us, and vengeance is ready to pursue and overtake us.

So in the pursuit of pleasure, we see only that side of the question which we approve; the disagreeable consequences (which may take place) make no part of our intention or concern, or of the wayward exercise of our will: if they should happen we cannot help it; they form an ugly and unwished-for contrast to our favourite speculation: we turn our thoughts another way, repeating the adage Quod sic mihi ostendis incredulus odi.

It is a good remark in Vivian Grey that a bankrupt walks in the streets the day before his name is in the Gazette with the same erect and confident brow as ever, and only feels the mortification of his situation after it becomes known to others. Such is the force of sympathy, and its power to take off the edge of internal conviction!

As long as we can impose upon the world, we can impose upon ourselves, and trust to the flattering appearances, though we know them to be false.

We put off the evil day as long as we can, make a jest of it as the certainty becomes more painful, and refuse to acknowledge the secret to ourselves till it can no longer be kept from all the world.

In short, we believe just as little or as much as we please of those things in which our will can be supposed to interfere; and it is only by setting aside our own interests and inclinations on more general questions that we stand any chance of arriving at a fair and rational judgment.

Those who have the largest hearts have the soundest understandings; and he is the truest philosopher who can forget himself.

This is the reason why philosophers are often said to be mad, for thinking only of the abstract truth and of none of its worldly adjuncts—it seems like an absence of mind, or as if the devil had got into them!

If belief were not in some degree voluntary, or were grounded entirely on strict evidence and absolute proof, every one would be a martyr to his opinions, and we should have no power of evading or glossing over those matter-of-fact conclusions for which positive vouchers could be produced, however painful these conclusions might be to our own feelings, or offensive to the prejudices of others.


1 Hobbes is of opinion that men would deny this, if they had any interest in doing so.



Endnote on this html-edition:

This is derived from the xml and the pdf of Hazlitt's Essays, on Archive.org named and linked above.

It contains far more empty lines than in the pdf, that consists of images of the 1850 edition by Hazlitt's son, but this I did to try to make Hazlitt easier to read. To undo it and return it to something much more like the printed pages, remove all empty lines.

It has been checked and compared by me, but if you want the best approximation to the printed text, there is the pdf linked above.

The footnote 1 is Hazlitt's; the Latin Quod sic mihi ostendis incredulus odi is Horace's and may be translated as "Whatever you show me in an elaborate way, I detest and disbelieve".

Maarten Maartensz
Amsterdam
28 dec 2011


I will put the above later in my Hazlitt-section where you find quite a lot more by him.
 


P.S.
Corrections, if any are necessary, have to be made later. 
 

 

As to ME/CFS (that I prefer to call ME):
1.  Anthony Komaroff Ten discoveries about the biology of CFS (pdf)
2.  Malcolm Hooper THE MENTAL HEALTH MOVEMENT: 
PERSECUTION OF PATIENTS?
3.  Hillary Johnson The Why
4.  Consensus of M.D.s Canadian Consensus Government Report on ME (pdf)
5.  Eleanor Stein Clinical Guidelines for Psychiatrists (pdf)
6.  William Clifford The Ethics of Belief
7.  Paul Lutus

Is Psychology a Science?

8.  Malcolm Hooper Magical Medicine (pdf)
9.
 Maarten Maartensz
ME in Amsterdam - surviving in Amsterdam with ME (Dutch)
10.
 Maarten Maartensz Myalgic Encephalomyelitis

Short descriptions of the above:                

1. Ten reasons why ME/CFS is a real disease by a professor of medicine of Harvard.
2. Long essay by a professor emeritus of medical chemistry about maltreatment of ME.
3. Explanation of what's happening around ME by an investigative journalist.
4. Report to Canadian Government on ME, by many medical experts.
5. Advice to psychiatrist by a psychiatrist who understands ME is an organic disease
6. English mathematical genius on one's responsibilities in the matter of one's beliefs:

7. A space- and computer-scientist takes a look at psychology.
8. Malcolm Hooper puts things together status 2010.
9. I tell my story of surviving (so far) in Amsterdam/ with ME.
10. The directory on my site about ME.



See also: ME -Documentation and ME - Resources
The last has many files, all on my site to keep them accessible.
 


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