Hypocrisy: A Defense

IT was during my school days that I first read Oscar Wilde’s essay on ‘The Decay of Lying.’ Ever since I read his discerning monograph I have deplored the decay of lying as much as Mr. Wilde himself. In later years I have come to believe that telling the truth is not only bad writing, as Mr. Wilde maintains, but, in one sense at least, bad morals also.

‘The crude commercialism of America,’ says Mr. Wilde, ‘its materializing spirit, its indifference to the poetical side of things, and its lack of imagination and of high unattainable ideals, are entirely due to that country having adopted for its national hero a man who, according to his own confession, was incapable of telling a lie; and it is not too much to say that the story of George Washington and the cherry tree has done more harm, and in a shorter space of time, than any other moral tale in the whole of literature.'

Mr. Wilde presents telling evidence in support of his thesis that noble veracity makes ignoble literature. Too much concentration on life as it is spoils our taste for the contemplation of life as it should be. He would have us play a game of make-believe, and this, from a moral point of view, we can frankly call hypocrisy.

After a hopeless effort to live honestly I have come to the conclusion that lying — or better, hypocrisy — is as indispensable to satisfactory living as Mr. Wilde proves it to be indispensable to literature. I have decided to recite firmly my belief in the Christian code of ethics. As far as my own conduct is concerned, I have found it impossible and undesirable. But I retain it. I have found that it is worth retaining even at the price of hypocrisy.

Of late too much has been said in favor of honesty. Men like Bertrand Russell and Havelock Ellis, against the whole tribe of whom this article is principally leveled, are making too much headway with their demands for frankness and consistency. Guided by their depressing common sense, as Wilde might have said, we are rapidly losing our high regard for those virtues which we have never desired.

Man is compelled to go right on lying to himself no matter how clearly he sees the truth. Indeed, no man can be a genuine hypocrite unless he knows better. He should not fear to learn from men like Fraser, Westermarck, and Wundt that his cherished moral code is derived from ancient superstitions and savage tabus, and not from Mount Sinai as he once supposed. Nor should he listen with anything but enormous and fascinated respect to Bertrand Russell when he declares that the ideas of Jesus are too exalted for any practical purpose. But if he allows Fraser to destroy his reverence for the Ten Commandments, or if he permits himself to agree with Bertrand Russell that because an ideal is impossible to attain it is therefore unprofitable and should be deserted for some easier conception, he is lost.

In a recent volume entitled Sceptical Essays, in which he deserts calculus and the fogs of philosophy long enough to come solidly down to earth, Mr. Russell declares that ‘we have, in fact, two kinds of morality side by side; one which we preach but do not practise, and another which we practise but seldom preach.’ Mr. Russell does not admire this habit of ours. But if we are to have preaching at all I believe it far better to preach the things we don’t practise than the things we do.

I know a man, entirely moral according to the usual standards, who gives tuberculosis and other debilities to numbers of his fellows by allowing them to work in a copper mine where the dust-filled atmosphere destroys their lungs after a number of years. I see little good for the world in a sermon extolling the practices of this copper magnate; but he is full of excellent sermons on texts which he would never think of putting to proof.

He accepts the commandment ‘Thou shalt not steal’ and despises crooked politicians; but when a discharged miner, hungry after several days without food, broke into a house and robbed an ice box he bribed the judge to dismiss the case. He is a humanitarian. Ever since reading of Jean Valjean in the galleys he had felt that penal servitude was too much to exact for a loaf of bread. But he was not the man to question overtly laws that on the whole worked to advantage. By bribing the judge, he has remained a good hypocrite and helped to preserve the sacredness of property.

We must believe that certain actions are wrong with just as much sincerity as we condone them. We make no effort to deny that Mr. Russell is in the right when he maintains that many poets were only good poets when they were bad men. ‘Swinburne was wicked in his youth when he wrote Songs Before Sunrise in praise of those who fought for freedom; he was virtuous in his old age when he wrote savage attacks on the Boers for defending their liberty against wanton aggression. . . . Coleridge went through a similar change: when he was wicked he wrote Kubla Khan, and when he was good he wrote theology.’ As hypocrites, we readily admit that we prefer Swinburne young to Swinburne old, Coleridge’s Kubla Khan to Coleridge’s theology; but nothing can make us deny that the one moral state was badness and the other goodness. The fact that men who do violence to our accepted moral standards achieve eminence in poetry does not lead us to declare that their poems were bad, neither does it require us to admit, with Mr. Russell, that their morals were good.

We can, if we please, steal some of Mr. Russell’s philosophic thunder and base our defense on pragmatic grounds. William James writes, in developing his celebrated doctrine of ‘pragmatism,’ ‘The true is the name of whatever proves itself to be good in the way of belief.’ We might maintain that hypocrisy is the good, and therefore the true, because if one is sincerely hypocritical one can allow for whatever is excellent in Mr. Russell and those who think as he does without disqualifying what no one denies to be the higher nobility in the Teacher of Nazareth.

For example, we are agreed with Mr. Russell and all utilitarians and pragmatists and individualists that inflexible statutes are often grossly unjust. Thievery is not criminal when a hungry workman steals from an ice box. If the gods denied us murder, we should have had no Cesare Borgia, no United States of America (what could we have done with the Indians?), no Marshal Foch. Even wantonness has given us priceless treasures — Cleopatra, Don Juan, Casanova, in one category; Guinevere and Sir Launcelot, Abelard and Héloïse, in another. Yet, despite these admissions, our theoretical respect for strict morality is enormous. Our ideal is a model of duplicity: rigid definition, but tolerant application.

Mr. Russell rightly calls this attitude hypocrisy. He sees as we do that theft , murder, and adultery are not always evil in their effects, and he would therefore persuade us to call them ‘sins’ no longer. He is ruinously honest . Two thousand years of Christianity have demonstrated, he says, that no men anywhere can live as Jesus desired; the time has come to discard our hypocritical standards, to adopt in their place a workable, scientific ethic, to preach that which we can really practise, and practise it unashamed.

Havelock Ellis, in agreement with Mr. Russell, has gone one step further and, in his chapter on ‘The Art of Morals’ contained in The Dance of Life, has outlined this workable ethic, the code that he would substitute for our Decalogue. Living should be looked upon as an art. A man should mould his life as though he were carving a statue. And his workmanship should be criticized, not by answering the question, ‘Is it moral?’ but by answering the question, ‘Is it artistic?’

Mr. Ellis seems to believe that a nice balance between instinct, and reason can be achieved, and maintains that the result of this delicate equilibrium is art. What would happen, I wonder, if we were to turn the world over to Mr. Ellis and he were to stand firmly by his principles? I think it safe to say that the world would be a place in which neither Mr. Ellis nor any other lover of æstheticism would care to live.

What is an artistic life? The former Kaiser would certainly maintain that Doorn, Holland, constitutes the only inartistic detail of his career. A farfetched example, perhaps, but who could prevent any man from putting his own conception of art into practice in Mr. Ellis’s ideal world? We hypocrites could, when men displeased us, frankly call them immoral; but Mr. Ellis could never bring himself to the point of bigotry necessary to label them inartistic. He would be in hearty disagreement with their canons of æstheticism, but he could only repeat to them words attributed to an eminent Victorian when asked by an adolescent enthusiast to pass judgment on a Cubist canvas: ‘Our ideas of Art, young man, are not in agreement.’

And yet, if we were to organize a world empire to-morrow and crown Mr. Ellis its Cæsar, I would gladly live under his dominion. Mr. Ellis would be, I venture to state, a perfect hypocrite. He would believe that men should develop naturally, without restraint, into artistic beings; but with the welfare of all mankind on his shoulders, and his own welfare to boot, he would see to it that they had restraints in plenty. If he were to hear that Bertrand Russell considered Rodrigo Borgia, the eminent master of poisoning, an artistic man, he would see to it that Mr. Russell should not gain access to the soup bowl of any desirable citizen, with particular reference to the soup bowl of Mr. Havelock Ellis.

The truth is that we can distinguish genuinely artistic men, such as Socrates, who conform to Mr. Ellis’s requirement of a balance between instinct and reason, and who nevertheless leave us with a feeling of something else to be desired. Socrates may never have yielded to what wo call ‘Socratic love’ (I am not at all convinced that he did), but his most earnest disciples have not thought it necessary to demand a new name for this affection. They are sure that he was moderate, temperate, in all things. That is enough for them, but not for us hypocrites. We balk at an ideal which allows even moderation in all things.

The life of Socrates, or of that other great object of Mr. Ellis’s admiration, Marcus Aurelius, represents a vast improvement over your life and mine. A world peopled with men balancing instinct with reason would be an immeasurably better world than that of this day. But even such Utopian bliss, were it to be realized, would still leave an unfulfilled dream. There would still be a voice to tell us, ‘One thing thou lackest.’ And that lack —how shall we describe it? Would it not be the illusory, the indefinable and illogical selflessness that through the ages has gathered about the largely legendary personality of Jesus?

And so I offer my defense as an uncompromising, utterly hypocritical Christian. I persist in preaching what I do not practise, and in practising what I dare not preach. Any day in the week, except Sunday, you can give me one Socrates to ten Savonarolas.