William Hazlitt (1778-1830) “On The Fear Of Death” (1821):

Perhaps the best cure for the fear of death is to reflect that life has a beginning as well as an end. There was a time when we were not: this gives us no concern – why then should it trouble us that a time will come when we shall cease to be? I have no wish to have been alive a hundred years ago, or in the reign of Queen Anne: why should I regret and lay it so much to heart that I shall not be alive a hundred years hence, in the reign of I cannot tell whom?

I was first introduced to Hazlitt as a graduate student in philosophy while studying theories of diachronic personal identity. Hazlitt’s more philosophical essays are not read much these days and this has a lot to due with the fact that he published between David Hume and Immanuel Kant. As a result, he is better known for his social commentary than his philosophical works. What I find exciting in Hazlitt’s work is the combination of an analytical approach within an experientially-based narrative.

Hazlitt asks us to think about our attitudes towards both the past and the future. He sees an inconsistency between the anticipation of a point in the future when we cease to be as opposed to the point in the past when we ceased to be. How should we explain this inconsistency? Both attitudes are acts of the imagination. We have to imagine ourselves at some point in the future and we also must imagine ourselves in the past. Hazlitt suggests that the inconsistency is at its root irrational. I find this to be very comforting. Could it be that our fear of death is in part socially constructed; in other words, that it is the result of living in a society which emphasizes the future? I wonder if it is possible to condition an individual to worry as much about the past as we do about the future. Again, both are functions of the imagination. Perhaps this inconsistency connects to the psychological pull of a universe that we believe is here for each of us. We find it difficult to imagine a future without us in it. Interesting again that we don’t seem to have this concern about the point in the past where we do not yet exist. Imagine for a moment that we cold anticipate the future filled-in and see the point where we no longer existed. Would this change our attitude towards the future significantly? Perhaps it would make us more fearful knowing when our time was up, but again, we have access to the same information in reference to the past. Back to Hazlitt:

People walk along the streets the day after our deaths just as they did before, and the crowd is not diminished. While we were living, the world seemed in a manner to exist only for us, for our delight and amusement, because it contributed to them. But our hearts cease to beat, and it goes on as usual, and thinks no more about us than it did in our lifetime. The million are devoid of sentiment, and care as little for you or me as if we belonged to the moon. We live the week over in the Sunday’s newspaper, or are decently interred in some obituary at the month’s end. It is not surprising that we are forgotten so soon after we quit this mortal stage: we are scarcely noticed, while we are on it. It is not merely that our names are not known in China – they have hardly been heard of in the next street. We are hand and glove with the universe, and think the obligation is mutual. This is an evident fallacy.

I can’t help but think about my recent post regarding our strong desire to identify with and find meaning in the lives of our Civil War ancestors.  Their experiences seem larger than life and the issues involved, we believe, were significant.  Along the way we make personal and ideological connections, some based on evidence, but many spun by a strong desire for a heroic story that not only validates the historic figure’s life, but our own as well.  Perhaps in identifying so strongly with individuals from the past – regardless of whether they are related to us or not – we are looking to find meaning in our own lives.  In other words, if their lives mattered than perhaps ours do as well..

About Kevin Levin

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3 comments add yours

  1. Historians are the only people who really regret the eras before our existence, for our distance from them is a constant reminder of our limitations. Death, on the other hand, we know comes to all in their time.

  2. I understand that the focus of Hazlitt’s writing (the work that you cite) was the “fear of death”, but I find it interesting that you use his philosophy considering he (at least from what I gather in what you cite here) would be classified among those who could care less about the past, and would probably think little of the work of historians (or anyone who has a desire to try and understand people of the past).

    Whether the pursuit of the story of people in the past is rooted in ancestral/biological or ideological sense of “connection” to the past, I think, in its rawest form (an interest in wanting to know more about people within history), it is a worthy motivation as it sparks a desire to learn. The drive itself is not so bad, but what matters is what we do with it (though the perceived “value” in the eyes of others varies and is dependent on the their ideas of what is good and bad).

  3. From the dates you gave, he published AFTER Kant. Kant’s heyday was the 1780s, and he died in 1804, when Hazlitt was 27.

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