Last night I had a mental block and couldn’t think of the saying “hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.” I got past the mental block and made the point that I wanted to make without the saying.
I thought of it on the way home, but then I wondered where it came from. According to this fellow, it came from La Rochefoucauld and was originally “Hypocrisie est un hommage que la vice rend à la vertu.”
While I was there, I read the guy’s page “in defense of hypocrisy” and it made the point that I was trying to make last night very well indeed.
The hypocrite, while choosing vice, recognizes that virtue is in fact better, if not for him, and assumes its appearance. When we characterize the hypocrite as dishonest, we must recognize what he is dishonest about: not about good and evil, but only about himself.
Teenagers are very sensitive to hypocrisy, especially in their parents, their teachers, and any other figures in authority. As one facing the teenage years a second time—this time as the father of a teenager—I am becoming very aware of this. No doubt this sensitivity comes from a perception that these persons in their lives are not, after all, perfect. Yet they continue to insist upon high standards of behavior from the young person. They tell you to keep your temper, and then lose theirs; they tell you to obey traffic laws and then get stopped for speeding; they profess a religion, but then don’t live as if it made any difference. When I was a teenager, we were fond of pointing out anything of this kind that we could discover (and I couldn’t discover much).
When a teenager or an adult discovers hypocrisy of this sort in another person, particularly one claming authority, the first reaction is to reject the authority. If Dad says I shouldn’t drive too fast, but he drives too fast, then he must be wrong about speeding, so I’ll do it too. If they tell me not to drink, but then they get sloshed on a Saturday night, well, I guess I can do it too. The parents may be hypocrites in fact, and since the average teenager does not have the sophistication of a French noble of the age of Louis XIV, he does not realize that his parents at least recognize what is right, even if they prefer not to do it.
On the other hand, they may be fallible human beings who want to do what’s right, but feel compelled to do otherwise. Cowardice or anxiety or the heat of emotion can overpower anyone and lead to choosing what we know to be wrong. We live in a constant state of moral tension between what we know to be right and what we actually find ourselves doing, and the confused standards of those who would exploit our precarious situation to increase their own wealth or power does not make the situation any more secure. A person who behaves contrary to his professed principles may merely be struggling—or he may be a hypocrite.