There is a passage in Hazlitt’s The Spirit of the Age—it comes in the essay on “The Late Mr. Horne Tooke”—that defines not only its eponymous subject but an entire class of failed writers. “He generally ranged himself on the losing side,” wrote Hazlitt, “and had rather an ill-natured delight in contradiction, and in perplexing the understandings of others, without leaving them any clue to guide them out of the labyrinth into which he had led them. He understood, in its perfection, the great art of throwing the onus probandi on his adversaries, and so could maintain almost any opinion, however absurd or fantastical, with fearless impunity.”

Writers of this class are remembered for their follies, rather than their wisdom, for their follies have a representative character. What they illuminate is not the distilled intelligence of their time but its shibboleths and chimeras....


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