Let us repair to the wild English hearth of 1821, where William Hazlitt is contemplating contemplation.
“I never was in a better place or humour than I am at present for writing on this subject,” Hazlitt reports from Winterslow Hut. “I have a partridge getting ready for my supper, my fire is blazing on the hearth.”
From there, Hazlitt tackles a source of much human misery — the “troublesome effort to ensure the admiration of others.” How better, he says, “to be satisfied with one’s own thoughts.” His essay is titled “On Living to One’s-Self.”
Little could he anticipate the hours we would spend on Twitter, counting up followers and fretting about Klout scores. Am I loved, disliked, feared, respected? Twitter, Twitter, on the wall, who’s most favored of them all?
Oh, the burden of shooting out 140-character bursts of chitchat just to stay in the public eye. Then there’s the obligation to engage in phony-friendly banter. Among the many self-serving posts, one must sprinkle selfless bits of advice and personal revelation — to sound genuine.
If one insists on speaking from the heart, one risks revealing dark and unpopular thoughts. Beware the candid remark released in a moment of sleep-deprived stress. Friends will turn on you. Even on a good day, nameless enemies (competitors?) may say false and defamatory things about you from behind a curtain of anonymity.
All across social media, one’s performance is judged by “success metrics” — quantifiable evidence of one’s importance to the world. They include time visitors spend on one’s website, the number of clicks it gets, how many Facebook “likes” and Twitter “favorites” one gets, and the extent of buzz generated by one’s blog posts.
Of course, Hazlitt had no access to today’s online media. But he did spend much time in hyper-social 19th-century London, where business and creative types primped and strutted in a quest for public esteem. They, too, worried about getting “influencers” aboard their admiration train.
“I have seen a celebrated talker of our own time turn pale and go out of the room when a showy-looking girl has come into it, who for a moment divided the attention of his hearers,” Hazlitt writes. He describes an actor at the top of his profession, who is “in a state of alarm at every appearance or rumour of the appearance of a new actor.”
When a man “undertakes to play a part on the stage, and to persuade the world to think more about him than they do about themselves,” Hazlitt writes, “he is got into a track where he will find nothing but briars and thorns, vexation and disappointment.”
Recall the desperation of the disgraced Rep. Anthony Weiner, who accidentally tweeted a crotch picture of himself to his 45,000 followers. The New York Democrat later confessed that he virtually lived on Facebook and Twitter, trying to see what people thought of him.
(Some public figures now hire companies to create thousands of phantom followers. So much for the sanctity of Klout scores.)
Hazlitt’s objective, he says, “is to be a silent spectator of the mighty scene of things, not an object of attention or curiosity in it.”
He goes on: “Even in the common affairs of life, in love, friendship, and marriage, how little security have we when we trust our happiness in the hands of others!”
A man living wisely to himself “is free as air, and independent as the wind,” Hazlitt adds. Gone is “the desire to shine and make holiday in the eyes of others.” And we who follow that path know the peace of “retiring within ourselves and keeping our wishes and our thoughts at home!”
Amen — or, as the yogis might put it, namaste.
Froma Harrop is a Providence Journal columnist.