History: E457_Hazlitt

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Assigned: Hazlitt's "The French Revolution" (84-98), "On Personal Identity" (190-202), "Originality" (270-77), "On the Elgin Marbles" (277-96). Selections aren't in the Norton Anthology — see below for edition details. If you are unable to get hold of the Oxford text early in the semester, here is a version of "The French Revolution" to use.

For Week 3

"The French Revolution"

1. Hazlitt clearly believes that the press played an important role in bringing on the French Revolution. What, specifically, did the French press do to prepare the way for revolution? What philosophical and/or political assumptions underlie Hazlitt's claims in this regard?

2. Hazlitt describes with gusto the decayed state of the old regime in France — how it had already lost its legitimacy well before the Revolution. But what, according to him, accounts for the fact that the old regime and its supports lasted so long in such a sorry state – what kinds of attitudes and practices can protect even discredited authority?

3. Hazlitt writes perceptively about the character of fanatics such as Maximilien Robespierre, the Jacobin leader often associated with the Revolution's worst excesses. Why did Robespierre mostly succeed in achieving his designs? That is, what were his qualities, and how did those qualities suit the revolutionary times in which he lived?

4. To what extent, if at all, does Hazlitt, a persistent supporter of the French Revolution, excuse the authoritarian, guillotine-happy direction the Revolution took during the period known as "The Terror" (i.e. 1793-94)? How, in any event, does he explain this violent episode?

5. A general question — with regard to the journalistic press today and its coverage of momentous political and social events, do you share Hazlitt's optimism about the great power of a free press to inform and shape public opinion? Or do you feel that the press mostly fails to ask the right questions of the right people at the right time? Give an example one way or another with respect to current affairs in the national/international news.

For Week 15

"On Personal Identity"

6. According to Hazlitt, what constitutes a person's identity? From 197-201 especially, what observations he offer regarding the role of class, education, taste, and habit in what we call "identity"?

7. In the simplest sense, this is an essay that centers on defining a key term. How would you characterize Hazlitt's method of definition? Is he mainly interested in offering a precise definition, or would you describe his method otherwise?


8. What is Hazlitt's simplest definition of originality? How does he flesh out his seemingly paradoxical claim that an artist's production must be "both true and new" (270ff)?

9. On 273 and following, what does Hazlitt say constitutes "genius," and what relationship does he posit between originality and genius?

10. Discuss Hazlitt's remarks in the last few pages of this essay regarding issues such as the value of "eccentricity and paradox" and the problems inherent in individual artistic styles and collective schools or movements of art? What antagonism does he describe between "the mob" and those who truly understand and/or create art?

"On the Elgin Marbles"

11. What exactly are the Elgin Marbles to which Hazlitt refers, and what controversy surrounded them from the moment they were brought to Britain from Greece? (A good place to look is the Wikipedia essay on the subject, but you might also visit this Illustrated Tour.

12. Hazlitt (like William Blake) clearly disagrees with Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-92), the neoclassical painter and president of the Royal Academy, about nearly all things pertaining to the visual arts. Discuss the main points of disagreement between Reynolds and Hazlitt — most particularly the issue of how to represent something in its perfect, ideal state.

13. Hazlitt undeniably privileges nature over art. What are some of the comments he makes on this issue? Still, how does Hazlitt recuperate art and artistic expression -– in what sense can works of art actually take on the excellence of nature?

Edition: Hazlitt, William. Selected Writings. Ed. Jon Cook. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998. ISBN 0192838008.


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