Popular Science Monthly/Volume 38/March 1891/Hypocrisy as a Social Elevator
By JOHN McELROY.
WHEN atrabilarious Hamlet, in his choleric interview with his mother in the cabinet, impudently advised her to
"Assume a virtue if you have it not,"
he unwittingly laid down a general-conduct rule of high value to individuals and the community.
Simulation of virtue, though far inferior to the real article, is still the next best thing to it, just as whitewash, though much inferior to marble, is yet greatly superior to dirty nakedness.
It is very desirable that all men and all women should stand together on the very highest plane of goodness; but the largest proportion of them do not—probably never will. It is unreasonable to expect that the mass of humanity will be steadily aligned on the most advanced standards of morality, especially when those standards are pushed forward as rapidly as they have been in the more recent centuries. Ethics is a constantly developing science. What was a high grade of morality in the eighteenth century would be a very ordinary one to-day; just as the man who, in our colonial times, would have been regarded as neat and cleanly in his person, would seem a good deal of a sloven to-day. Then, as now, men and women assumed to be much cleaner, morally and physically, than they really were, and by sheer force of persistence and habit became really cleaner than they at first pretended to be. Persons with the bump of approbativeness highly developed constantly forge to the front on lines which they think will win them the esteem of their fellows, and the latter follow with unequal steps, first showing outward respect and conformity to better ideas and practices, and then making them more or less of realities in their lives.
Denunciation of hypocrisy forms a large part of the "properties" of lay and ecclesiastical moralists who exploit timewarped schemes of salvation. Exercise of moderate reasoning powers would teach them that calculating and persistent hypocrisy has been one of the most powerful factors in the moral advancement of the world. We all aspire higher than we attain, and in the moral domain pretense constantly precedes practice. We begin by appearing to be better than we really are, and the force of habit soon makes an actuality out of what was merely assumption. Hamlet explains this clearly to his mother:
"That monster, Custom, who all sense doth eat
Those who pretend to be much better than they are have at least begun the upward development, and recognized the goal to which their faces should be turned.
No man is made worse by simulating goodness. There is every chance that he will be made better by the mere act of simulation.
Beyond doubt, the much-abused Pharisees were powerful promoters of the ethical development of the Jews. Their firm insistence upon higher moral ideas and purer lives could not have been without marked influence upon those around them. If the only motive for doing this was to enhance the esteem in which they were held by the community, it speaks well for their shrewdness in recognizing the drift of public sentiment, and for the community which honored superior goodness.
Jesus Christ's denunciations of them should be given the allowance usually accorded the polemic blasts of a sorely nagged sectary against his rival sectaries. If, indeed, they only cleaned the outside of the cup and platter, they certainly did much better than those who let both outside and inside remain foul. The very denunciation implies that this must have been the rule with those around them. If a man, seeking the applause of his neighbors, begins by furbishing the outside of his platter, in order to be superior to them, there is every probability that he will soon progress to the cleansing of the inside also, so as to still keep ahead of those who emulate him by external purification of their culinary utensils. Then their cleanliness as a principle becomes merely a matter of time.
National histories and the portraiture of the great men of the past are all more or less flagrant pieces of hypocrisy. The historians of every nation carefully feed its self-esteem by the assiduous elaboration of everything in its past that is noble, brave, and enlightened, and the equally assiduous obscuration of all that is mean, cowardly, barbarous, and otherwise discreditable. It is true that modern historians have abandoned the ancient practice of tracing the descent of their peoples directly from the immortal gods, but they come as near it as the limitations of modern thought will allow. Invariably they represent their people as of exceptionally distinguished lineage and character and a powerful factor for good from the moment of entrance upon the stage of history. Its soldiers were godlike in courage and devotion; its statesmen divine in purity and wisdom. Higher motives than desire to flatter the national vanity help to actuate the historians in this misrepresentation. They believe that it is best to make out of the past ideals for coming generations to emulate. They desire to stimulate national virtue by high examples.
The truth is, the early history of every great nation is like the early history of men who have risen from the gutter to prominence. There has been a long and dreary period of ignorant—frequently disreputable—struggling of mean abilities, in mean ways, with mean competitors and mean surroundings. Rightly viewed, this is one of the most comforting facts in human history, for it shows that nations, like men, constantly
"rise to higher things,
With their dead selves as stepping-stones."
Take, for example, the history of England. The impression which has been studiously produced upon the mind of the average reader is that that great nation has, ever since the advent of William the Conqueror (if not before), occupied the same proud place at the head of the wealth, power, and civilization of the world that she has for the past century. Nothing could be farther from the truth for at least four centuries after the battle of Hastings. Until usurper Henry VII snatched the scepter from the lifeless hand of usurper Richard III, on Bosworth Field, in 1485, England was a thinly peopled, out-of-the-way island, of almost as little importance to the rest of the world as Venezuela is to-day. Such ignorant, dull, brutalized white men as the Englishmen of the Plantagenet period are not to be found to-day outside of a Russian village, or a community of Hungarian miners in a Pennsylvania coal town. Then civilization shed but feeble light at its centers on the Continent, while the mongrel race in England were literally the "heathen of the isles," who dwelt in Cimmerian darkness. Nor, as historians would make us believe, was the high civilization which succeeded self-evolved from this unpromising horde. Native Englishmen—Norman and Saxon—played but a small part in the development of the nation. The men who made England were the swarming adventurers from every land—enterprising merchants, cunning artificers, and sailors bold—who flocked to the island when the discovery of the Cape of Good Hope and the Americas, together with the growth of northwestern Europe, made it the finest business location in the world. It gratifies the pride of the amalgamated descendants of those many-tongued adventurers to believe that they are sprung directly from the Anglo-Saxon lords of the soil, or from the "landless resolutes" who went filibustering with William the Bastard. The besotted peasantry found to-day in the purely agricultural districts of England indicate the intellectual sterility of the land before its splendid commercial opportunities caused it to be fertilized by a freshet of the best brains and energy of the Continent. The domestic peace which began with the Tudors was also potent in this enrichment, in attracting thither from the war-accursed mainland a large share of the intellect and skill of Europe. The few hundred thousand beef-witted Britons of the days of the early Tudors would have counted for no more in history than the Bretons of France, the Basques, or the Styrians, had it not been for the inundation of superior minds, moved to flow in from every quarter by love of gain, of peace, and of freedom of conscience.
"Lives of great men all remind us," if we examine them critically, that, since their day, the advance in morals has been almost as great as in the arts and sciences. Judged by present ethical standards, many great men of the past—the benefactors of their race, and men who builded strongly and well for their countries and the world—had the morals of the slums. Had they been held to the same accountability as the men of to-day, they would have been social outcasts, if not actually behind prison-bars.
Taking even our own country, and so recent history as that of the end of the last century, every well-informed man knows that the private lives and much of the public careers of the men whom we revere—such men as Winthrop, Hancock, Adams, Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, Monroe, Jackson, etc.—would not bear at all the tests we now apply to public and private characters. Yet we hypocritically assume that these men were altogether superior to any now before the public eye. We teach our children that they were ideal men, whose characters form the highest models for imitation. While this is arrant hypocrisy, it is probably wise public policy, and, after all, but justice to those illustrious men. Their morals were undoubtedly superior to the rule in their day. The good they did lives after them, while the evil is buried with their bones. Much, too, of the evil seemed good to them. As Froude well says, "All history is anachronism, for we constantly see the events of yesterday by the light of today." Nothing is to be gained by parading their weaknesses and vices, while much good is accomplished by presenting them as unblemished ideals—exemplars for present and future generations.
It is the same with our national history. Up to that time there was never a more genuinely patriotic struggle in the history of the world than our Revolution. Yet if the movement for independence had been deprived of all the aid given it by sordid greed, selfish ambition, industrious self-seeking, and partisan rancor, the patriotic impulse would have been far from strong enough to carry on the contest to final victory. But we wisely enrich human nature by placing to its credit all these baser metals transmuted into the pure gold of unselfish patriotism.
The elevation of woman to her present position from the degradation into which she had sunk during the long night of the dark ages was a slow and tedious work. Nothing aided in it so much as the arrant hypocrisy which took the form of mediæval gallantry. It became the fashion to show ostentatious deference to woman, especially if she had birth, youth, and some pretensions to beauty. At first hollow and specious to the last degree—thinly varnishing a bestiality so low that it was scarcely above that of a "bull" seal, who takes possession of all the "cows" that he can force into his rocky harem and defend against the lust of rival "bulls"—the bombast of idolatrous devotion, the shamming of respectful deference, the make-believe admission of superiority in manners, morals, love, and religion constantly came, by mere force of iteration, to approach nearer the reality. Even the coarsest-grained of the gluttonous and swilling boors who formed the body of the "gentle knighthood" became, through the habitual wearing of the mask, more genuinely appreciative of womanhood and more of a gentleman at heart. The women, on the other hand, for the same reason, became more elevated because of the factitious elevation assigned them, better informed as to what was due them, and more strenuous in exacting it.
Sir De Bracy, the "free captain," was quite capable, had he gained the Princess Rowena for his wife, of beating her "with a stick no larger than his thumb," as the old English law permitted, or of subjecting her to other and deeper indignities. But the requirement of ostentatious politeness in public would have operated to make him less of a tyrant at home, and this influence, extending through scores of generations, has assisted powerfully in securing for women all that they now enjoy. Even the Ivanhoes of the thirteenth century made fearfully tough husbands, and led their "queens of love and beauty" wretched lives; but still they had to make some show of living up to the gush and swagger of the tournament, and the women were better off than they otherwise would have been.
Millions have drifted into intimate relations with the bath-tub and clean linen who, at the outset, had no intention of going further than such superficial cleansing as would make a good impression on those around them whose favorable opinion it was desirable to have.
The traditional young lady who, notified that she was to go to a party that evening, called down the stairs to her mother to know if she were to wash for a high-necked or a low-necked dress, undoubtedly came in time to value cleanliness for its own sake, and make her ablutions without careful reference to the amount of surface her costume would reveal.
We shall go far, however, to find so good an illustration of the rapid development of pretense into actuality as is afforded by the history of religions. All religions began with shows, forms, and external observances, which, per opere operato, as the Catholics used to hold of baptism, speedily became faith. The conquerors, rulers, and soldiers who, for political and selfish reasons, imposed the Christian and Mohammedan religions on more than half the world, only attempted to compel extrinsic acceptance of their forms and ceremonies. What one generation did under the shadow of a sword which was quick to smite, succeeding ones did from what was considered the deepest religious instincts. Outward forms, which were terms of capitulation exacted by conquerors, quickly grew into symbols of true inward faith. Belief sprang from the reflex action of acts. Men did certain things to save their lives or property, and then fully accepted the spiritual meaning of those things. So long as Christianity relied merely on the teaching of its doctrines, it made slow progress indeed. Three centuries after Christ Constantino the Great, for political reasons, gave to it the powerful aid of the sword of state, and thereafter its spread was much more rapid. Still, it required more than one thousand years of bloody propaganda, by blade and fire, before its leisure intervals as they could gain amid their swiftly following intrigues, accessions, assassinations, insurrections, invasions, and dethronements, to wholesale baptisms of Jews, pagans, and other non-Christians, so that the Church grew in numbers though the empire fell to pieces.became acknowledged throughout the whole of Europe. By the end of the fourth century the energetic militarism of Theodosius the Great—frequently exerted by armies of barbarians—had nominally overthrown paganism throughout the Roman Empire, and nominally established not only Christianity, but the Nicene form of that faith. His successors devoted such
In the eighth century Charlemagne set about the work of evangelization on a grand scale, and for thirty-two years devoted the major part of the military resources of his empire to spreading the gospel among the heathen Saxons. He killed off possibly one hundred thousand of them—slaying forty-five hundred in cold blood at one time—and deported thousands of those he did not kill to other lands. Finally, their king and leading warriors had to bow before his puissant sword, and receive the rite of baptism. He also converted great numbers of Huns, Danes, Wends, Swedes, and Czechs.
Still a large portion of northern Europe was left under the control of the priests of Odin, and for several centuries the work of rounding up these pagans, and chasing them with blade and brand into the bosom of the Church, was a favorite occupation of princes and knights. At the end of the tenth century Olaf I succeeded in converting the Norwegians at the point of the lance, and his son followed up pagan-killing with such enthusiasm as to win himself canonization from the Church. Sweden was brought into the fold about the same time and by the same means; but it was not until the beginning of the thirteenth century that the Christianization of Denmark was completed by a grand raid of Valdemar II into Esthonia. Then the Teutonic Knights did some very successful missionary work, accompanied with much slaughter, in securing the supremacy of the Cross among the heathen of Prussia, Courland, and Livonia.
While mailed hands were thus persistently hammering the heathen of northern Europe into practicing Christian rites, the evangelization of Russia was brought about with less attrition—the Muscovites being a more submissive people. Toward the end of the tenth century Vladimir the Great decided that it was necessary to have a state religion. He studied the Jewish, Mohammedan, Roman Catholic, and Greek forms, and gave the preference to the latter. He had sixty thousand of his people baptized in one day, and the rest accepted the ordinance as fast as his agents could reach them and communicate his will.
Everywhere the result was the same. Outward compliance begat inward conviction, and the peoples whose stubborn necks were bent with most difficulty to the yoke of the Church became in time its sturdiest upholders. Hudibras says:
"The man enforced against his will
Human history does not confirm this. On the other hand, it supports the assertion that if the enforcement is strong and continuous, the probability is that the enforced one's opinion will eventually coincide with it. With several volumes of standard reference books close at hand, I calmly await the vehement chorus of dissent from this proposition.