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One Cheer for Hypocrisy

Attention Californians: TCT’s founding editor-in-chief, Robert Royal, will be in the Golden State later this month. Here’s Bob’s schedule, with a couple of links for more information (and more to come): Sacramento Catholic Forum, noon on Thursday February 18; Kolbe Academy & Trinity Prep, 2055 Redwood Road, Napa, CA 94558 at 7:00 PM on Friday February 19; University of Santa Barbara, Catholic Chaplaincy, St. Mark’s University Parish: 6550 Picasso Road, Goleta, CA 93117, 6:30 PM Monday February 22; and Claremont McKenna College, 4:00 PM Tuesday February 23.

Among the surviving moral ideals, authenticity remains uniquely powerful. Who, after all, whatever his other vices, wants to be thought of as untrue to his own self? As explained by Charles Taylor, our culture of tolerance “shies away” from judging some forms of life as better than others, holding instead that “the good life is what each individual seeks, in his or her own way.”

Despite its moral subjectivism, this claim places a profound burden on the individual to seek their good “in his or her own way.” So understood, the individual is thought fully creative only when constituting a bespoke good, one uniquely patterned and suited to his “own way.” Refusing to accept the demands of self-constitution – by accepting the received norms of tradition or religion, say – is thus tantamount to the denial of self. Or so it is thought.

The “apprenticeship in self-denial,” once considered a precondition of “true freedom,” transforms into vice, with accolades for those courageous souls who cease denying their real “own way” of being themselves. (The language pervading the gender and sexuality discussions is an obvious example.)

With authenticity as a guiding ideal, hypocrisy becomes especially loathsome to the contemporary mind. Admittedly, there is something irksome about the hypocrite, particularly if an unctuous or preening fraud, and the Christian tradition, has always thought “the heart” as worth more than merely external behavior. Yet as the great aphorist Nicholás Gómez Dávila writes: “When a longing for purity persuades him to condemn ‘social hypocrisy,’ man does not recover his lost integrity, but loses his shame.”

An untutored rage for purity, one insufficiently skeptical of human foibles, dissimilation, and weakness, shines the light of criticism into every shadowy recess, but unmoors rather than emancipates.

We are not pure, reasoning beings; instead, we live by the graces nestled in our institutions and social forms, with villains and scoundrels cheek-by-jowl our heroes and saints. Life on earth cannot be paradise, and attempts to recover Eden often replace an ordered hypocrisy with a well-intentioned hell.

I often thought of Gómez Dávila when reading The Devil’s Pleasure Palace: The Cult of Critical Theory and the Subversion of the West, the erudite but somewhat undisciplined new book by Michael Walsh. Criticizing the Frankfurt School, including the cultural Marxism of Antonio Gramsci, Georg Lukács, Herbert Marcuse, Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, and others, Walsh claims that the “overly intellectualized and emotionally juvenile” school “released a horde of demons into the American psyche.”

Questioning everything for the sake of liberation, they disguised their nihilistic hatred of the “bedrock of the country, from patriotism to marriage to the family to military service” as a quest for “truth that will lead to human happiness here on earth.”

Part of the massive personal library of Nicolás Gómez Dávila
Part of the massive personal library of Gómez Dávila

In the name of emancipation, critical theory savaged any constraint judged antiquated or arbitrary, first in the moral and then the political order. Slipping the leash of prudence and decorum, they systematically sapped and degraded the religious, cultural, and moral confidence of our way of life, not least the sexual and familial cornerstones of order in an “unremitting assault.”

Fixated on our failures, Frankfurt hoped to unmask, to reveal and expose to the light of day the dishonesties of our heritage, as if any hypocrisy falsified the entire system of norms. Interestingly, at several places, Walsh sanguinely admits that moral strictures are often “more honored in the breach than in the observance.”

Humans are not pure, which is precisely why we have cultural norms supported and transmitted by the sometimes hypocritical bearers of that same culture, and why “do as I say and not as I do” is a vital form of moral formation. If only angels were qualified to teach, few of us would be educated.

In the Republic, Socrates compares the kind of philosopher who knows only criticism but not genuine wisdom to a puppy pulling and tearing with sharp teeth at anyone within reach. Destroying, they are unable to build, perhaps explaining why Socrates’ own educational program begins with orthodoxy, with fairy tales providing judgments in what is to be thought pleasant and unpleasant, honorable and shameful.

This is an education of pre-judgments given to the young so that in moments of confusion, fear, or temptation they can rely on what they know tacitly, what is bred into their guts and bones rather than what can be perfectly and pristinely reasoned.

Horror at the inauthentic, the hypocrite, as Gómez Dávila states, seldom delivers integrity, but more often shamelessness. Casting aside the patrimony of the hypocrites, we are delivered over to the whims of critics and the feeble resources of our own, “authentic” ways. And we are often the worse for it.

Our heroes have feet of clay. Our institutions are fragile and incomplete. Our loves impure. Our wills splinted. Our reason fallible. Our religions governed by all-too human leaders. Our statesmen also politicians. And on it goes – wisdom demands a dash of skepticism, irony, even a bit of world-weariness and wariness.

This is not to capitulate or to wink at vice, let alone to excuse those with power who stumble or abuse it. It is, however, to recall, again from Gómez Dávila, that “skepticism does not mutilate faith; it prunes it,” since both skepticism and faith “strangle idols” and “undermine human presumptuousness.” The presumption of destructive puppies is everywhere.

So, too, are hypocrites; indeed, the mirror proves this. But that should lead to a cautious regard for the wisdom of the past, and a cautious disregard for the promises of liberation. Not every authentic person is wise, and not every imperfect hypocrite to be discounted.

One, muted cheer for hypocrisy, then, but only one.

R.J. Snell

R.J. Snell

R. J. Snell is visiting lecturer at Princeton University and a Director of the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, NJ. His most recent book is Acedia and Its Discontents: Metaphysical Boredom in an Empire of Desire.