Hypocrisy Reconsidered

“Our civilization has declined to a point where there are worse things than hypocrisy. Because hypocrisy means doing the right thing for the wrong reason. And I think when people do the right thing for the wrong reason, the hell with the reason. I mean, civilization still goes on. What is worse than hypocrisy is false humility.”—John Lukacs

Though I have not read Jeremy Lott’s new book In Defense of Hypocrisy, I came across an interview with him that recently appeared in the American Spectator (”Love Thy Hypocrite?“). I am largely in agreement with Lott’s view, which appears to be a reiteration of La Rochefoucauld’s adage that “hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue.” Along these lines, Lott draws an interesting point from the Gospels:

[Christ] thought hypocrisy was bad but not so much for the deception as for the bad behavior that it masked. And he cautioned people that they should still listen carefully to what the teachers of the law had to say, and follow those teachings. Today, we’ve created more of a “saint or shut up” approach to hypocrisy. We tend to approach the issue with the opposite set of assumptions as the rabbi from Nazareth.

Lott wants to “reinvigorate our old grudging respect for hypocrisy and take some of the sting out of the more ridiculous hypocrisy accusations.” He senses the insincerity of those who are constantly pointing up the foibles of others (e.g., conservatives who fail to live up to their professed beliefs). As Samuel Johnson shrewdly noted

None are so industrious to detect wickedness, or so ready to impute it, as they whose crimes are apparent and confessed. They envy an unblemished reputation, and what they envy they are busy to destroy: they are unwilling to suppose themselves meaner and more corrupt than others, and therefore willingly pull down from their elevations those with whom they cannot rise to an equality.

There’s a greater deception at work than the old fashioned “do as I say, not as I do” attitude. At least the latter acknowledges some standard. Indeed it pretends to live up to it. Readers may recall the career of James Boswell who, in his public writings, posed as a champion of political and religious tradition even though he was a libertine in private. His published writings represented the high principles for which he strove, though he so often fell short of them. But would it have been better if we only knew the uninhibited Boswell? It is clear that the wayward Scotsman sought the friendship of Samuel Johnson not only for its intellectual delight but its moral probity and constancy. Would it really be “honest” if we disavowed Boswell’s principles and concerned ourselves only with his foibles? As it is, his lasting contribution to the Western moral imagination is not to be found in some prurient diary entries but in his high minded, and beautifully written, Life of Johnson.

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