When Dostoevsky submitted his manuscript of Crime and Punishment for publication, he included a cover letter that gave a brief synopsis of the novel.
In this way, he informed the publisher that his story was about a university student who “had submitted to certain strange, incomplete ideas which float on the wind.” It was an apt description not only of his book, but also of what happens to so many “victims” of higher education who fall prey to the attraction of a less-than-adequate idea.
Such “strange, incomplete ideas” continue to float on the wind and continue to infect the minds of the very university students who pride themselves on being able to “think for themselves.” Ideas of this type are like viruses, but they are more insidious. By entering the mind and influencing one's actions, they can have an adverse effect on the whole person. “If the eye is worthless, the whole body will be in full darkness” (Matthew 6:23; Luke 11:34).
In his new book Standing for Something: 10 Neglected Virtues That Will Heal Our Hearts and Homes (Times Books, 2000), Gordon B. Hinckley provides a poignant account of two university students, deeply infected by one of these “strange, incomplete ideas,” who came to his office with a tale of woe.
The two were engaged and had been looking forward to their wedding day with great anticipation. Now, through tears, they related their sad and unforeseen situation. The girl's untimely pregnancy meant that the couple would get married much sooner than planned, and under considerably less jubilant circumstances. The thought of abortion crossed their minds, but they eventually rejected it. But it would be necessary for them to compromise their education plans.
“We were sold short,” the young man lamented. “We've cheated one another,” sobbed his fiancee. She explained how they submitted to the idea that virtue is hypocrisy. Now they were suffering from the realization that the absence of virtue is not spontaneity and freedom, but misery and regret.
The notion that “virtue is hypocrisy” is a curious one. Surely hypocrisy, the mere pretense of virtue, is not itself a virtue. We do well to avoid hypocrisy. But the way to avoid this universally detested vice is precisely through virtue.
Hypocrisy is a species of pride. It is a way of pretending to be better than we know ourselves to be. Its natural antidote is humility. But humility is a virtue. The mere semblance of virtue may illustrate hypocrisy. Yet to think of virtue only as an outward pretense is to have a strange and incomplete understanding of virtue. Real virtue is inward and enables us to be more genuine. Its purpose is not to make us gloat and be proud of its possession, but rather to help us love more effectively. Refusal to cultivate virtue is not the way to avoid hypocrisy. Indeed, in the absence of virtue, hypocrisy flourishes. The engaged couple, unfortunately, had a woefully incomplete notion of virtue. They thought it was pretense; in reality, it is essence.
Try as we may, we cannot fully deny the value of virtuousness. We sign our letters “sincerely” and bid each other to “take care.” We bemoan the lack of “integrity in the business world and praise the athlete who shows determination. Our stereos must have high fidelity, and a major insurance company calls itself Prudential.
And vice, which continues to pay homage to virtue, feels the need to disguise itself in virtuous raiment. Thus, we have abortion for “compassion,” and euthanasia for “mercy,” while even members of the Mafia pride themselves on being “loyal” and “courageous.” Hypocrisy may be a mockery of virtue, but in its own way pays it a lavish compliment.
Virtue is primarily an interior possession. Its primary function is to facilitate the expression of our love. Without virtue, love remains dormant and unex-pressed. As we express love through virtue, virtue takes on an outward demeanor. The caring heart manifests itself outwardly, as do kindness, courtesy, and all the other sundry virtues.
According to the incomplete notion of virtue, it is just an outer appearance, without substance or foundation. Thus, it is a sham, and the bearer of such a vitiated form of virtue is a hypocrite. We fear hypocrisy and the stern rebukes it earns. As a result, we avoid its apparent cause — virtue itself. Such is the trendy, but simplistic idea of virtue.
It should be apparent that the person who avoids virtue because he fears that it will turn him into a hypocrite is more concerned about public criticism than personal authenticity. We must dare to be virtuous, even at the risk of seeming to be hypocrites. It is for this reason that some thinkers have come to believe that courage is the mother of all virtues. Courage need not be associated with the battlefield. It is present in the individual who, knowing that he is not a saint, is nonetheless willing to expose himself to the accusation of being a hypocrite.
Of course, it is better to be falsely accused of hypocrisy than to be rightly accused of moral cowardice. We do not avoid vices, such as hypocrisy, simply by dodging them. The person who imagines that he is above hypocrisy has really fallen into a deeper recess of pride. Only through virtue can one avoid the vice of hypocrisy, though not necessarily its charge. But then, the virtuous person is more interested in doing good than in having an unsullied reputation.
Rev. Hinckley's penitent university students felt cheated by the incomplete idea of virtue that was floating on the wind. They began to realize, though via the “school of hard knocks,” that virtue is for the stouthearted — indeed, for those brave souls who persist in doing good in the face of opposition and misjudgment. Christ himself remained virtuous under the assault of humiliation and public ridicule. Should we model ourselves on anyone less?
Donald DeMarco is a philosophy professor at St. Jerome's University in Waterloo, Ontario,