wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

William Ian Miller

Faking It

Once people suspect hypocrisy, many start to mistrust all appearances of virtue as so much glory seeking and shamming. Montaigne goes so far as to claim that virtuous deeds done openly are ever more compromised the grander they are: 'The more glittering the deed the more I subtract from its moral worth, because of the suspicion aroused in me that it was exposed more for glitter than for goodness.' Because virtue looks good, it looks bad. What are the virtuous to do? Pretend to vice? In fact this antihypocrisy strategy is often tried—recall that Jesus counsels it with regard to fasting: pretend that you are not fasting when you are (Matt. 6.16-18)—and it immediately gives rise to its own styles of hypocrisy, vanity, and playing at virtue. In one of Mark Twain's burlesques of Heaven we find Sir Richard Duffer, a butcher from Hoboken who died with a carefully cultivated reputation for meanness; he was awarded a baronetcy in Heaven for having secretly furnished the homes of 'honest square people out of work' with meat. Take the more famous cases of St. Thomas a Becket and St. Thomas More, who secretly wore itchy hairshirts underneath their sumptuous robes to punish themselves for the vanity of their rich clothing and high office. Better to appear completely given over to unapologetic luxury than to appear virtuously dressed in unostentatious habit and be suspected of ostentatious piety. Yet it is hard not to suspect Becket and More of smirking to themselves, vain of their hairshirt secret, or congratulating themselves on the brilliance of a move that turns their showy sumptuousness into fake showy sumptuousness, all to get around the stricture against trumpeting one's virtue.

Similarly, it is hard not to imagine the simpler Richard Duffer undertaking considerable extra labor to keep his generosity secret. We can see him delighting in his reputation for meanness, precisely because it is false, taking no small pleasure in a smug contempt for those fools who fall for his perfectly engineered deception, who are so wrong in their opinion of him. The townspeople's false blame purifies his virtue and shoots him straight to Heaven, at least according to this theory of obsessive hypocrisy avoidance.

There are certain false fronts that are not part of the niceties of politeness and decorum but instead turn the people who are their objects into fools: this is the sin of Frank Churchill in Emma, who by keeping his engagement to Jane Fairfax secret is assumed by others, namely Emma, to be available for flirtation. The unknowing are thus entrapped into humiliating themselves by fancying they are being attended to by Frank in ways they are not. When the sham is revealed people resent it, and with good reason. It is not likely that the denizens of Hoboken who disliked the falsely mean butcher will feel much more charitable toward him once his secret is revealed. No one likes being made a fool of, even (or especially?) in the interests of someone else's trip to Heaven. It is not as if Duffer's strategy doesn't impose costs on the unwitting others; they have had the vice of censoriousnes thrust upon them against their will.

With Becket and More, two very sophisticated actors, the suspicion of hypocritical antihypocrisy is stronger. They are not being vain of their virtue in the vulgar sense of parading holiness about literally trumpeting it, but instead are being vain of their virtue to their internal audience, for the benefits accruing to their self-esteem. Their secret self-mortification, however, eventually gets noticed. That is why I can write about it. When Becket died it was apparent when they stripped him, and we know of More's too. They, I suppose, knew we would know, for by playing to their internal audience they were also, just maybe, playing to a future earthly audience in addition to the one in Heaven.

Wearing a hairshirt, even in secret, is ostentatious in a way that other, less lurid kinds of devotion are not, especially back then, when the competition in matters of holiness was a political as well as social and religious issue. Even if the motives for wearing hairshirt for mortifiers of the flesh such as Becket and More were untainted by competitiveness or glorying, they would know that others might suspect that their motives were tinged with saintly ambition. They surely struggled with incessant temptation and could not always keep the pride of finery and high office at bay. The hairshirt is a testimony to that. But did they not also indulge in some self-satisfaction in knowing they were enduring itching silently, ever so patiently, while suffering the additional punishment of being blamed for their pride of office?

Unless, that is, hairshirts had already become a fad and you could not trust that the people you encountered were not also wearing one. Various ways of mortifying the flesh followed the rules of fashion ability; in the early centuries of Christianity, stylites—pole sitters—were in vogue; in the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries pus drinking had its day. One can imagine a group of wags, all with hairshirts under their brocaded doublets, querying in their cups: tell me Philip, where do you go for your hairshirts? Do you order the lice separately?