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Almost from the first, he wrote as a genius of startling maturity. But then, for all his numerous false starts, he was mature – thirty-four years of age when he became a journalist, by which time he was already the author or editor of six published volumes. He was homeschooled by his father, the Reverend William Hazlitt (1737–1805), who had been educated at the University of Glasgow by (among others) Adam Smith, and passed on to his son a love of Latin and British philosophy. At the time his father was a student there, Glasgow was a remarkably enlightened institution that encouraged its students to think for themselves rather than learn by rote. The result was that many of its graduates resisted pressure to conform, preferring to worship outside the Anglican church. That explains in part why Hazlitt Sr became a Unitarian minister and wanted his son to follow him. It explains also why the future essayist failed to do so: the tradition of enquiry that drove Glasgow graduates to Socinianism nudged many at the Hackney New College, where young Hazlitt was sent to train, into atheism. It is important to add, however, that the essayist was not an atheist in the modern sense – there is no nihilism or despair in him, as in some twentieth-century writers – and there was nothing self-regarding about his refusal to believe. If he lacked faith in a benevolent Deity, he was confident that human beings possessed the power to choose the path of good over evil.

Yet these are the writings of a man whose youthful ambition would never have been to write for news­


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