From Iris Murdoch, “The Sublime and the Beautiful Revisited”:
Virtue is not essentially or immediately concerned with choosing between actions or rules or reasons, nor with stripping the personality for a leap. It is concerned with really apprehending that other people exist. this too is what freedom really is; and it is impossible not to feel the creation of a work of art as a struggle for freedom. Freedom is not choosing; that is merely the move that we make when all is already lost. Freedom is knowing and understanding and respecting things quite other than ourselves. Virtue is in this sense to be understood as knowledge, and connects us so with reality.
There’s something quite powerful in Murdoch’s liberal Platonism. I appreciate both her insistence that, although ethical reflection can cause our form of life to change, our form of life is nevertheless not a matter of choice; and her insistence that forms of life are not autonomous, and insofar as they fail to be autonomous, they can be judged to be better or worse.
Aesthetically, Murdoch resembles both the later Auden, in insisting that art must undermine its own attempts at enchantment. It would take some effort to demonstrate, but I suspect that The Sea, The Sea! owes something to The Sea and the Mirror. They both also resemble Bakhtin, in finding modernist poetry particularly susceptible to the entrapment of self-in-self, and thinking the 19th-century novel the form best suited for escaping it. I find these sorts of claims compelling, but also suspicious.
Lord, who createdst man in wealth and store,
Though foolishly he lost the same,
Decaying more and more,
Till he became
O let me rise
As larks, harmoniously,
And sing this day thy victories:
Then shall the fall further the flight in me.
My tender age in sorrow did beginne
And still with sicknesses and shame.
Thou didst so punish sinne,
That I became
Let me combine,
And feel thy victorie:
For, if I imp my wing on thine,
Affliction shall advance the flight in me.
George Herbert, “Easter Wings.”
David Jones, in his 1955 essay “Art and Sacrament,” on whether cakes are speech:
If the cook should say: ‘This is for Susan’s birthday—don’t you think it a work of art?’ you may or may not agree with the cook’s notion of beauty but you would not be able to deny the ‘art’. For leaving aside the art of cooking and the supererogatory art of icing, in so far as the cake is ‘made for Susan’s birthday’ it is ‘made over’ in some sense. By every possible test it belongs to Ars. It belongs to Ars, or rather it was pre-ordained to Ars, from the first movement of the cook’s mind to make something that should be significant of Susan’s birth. We might almost say it belonged to art ante omnia saecula, though perhaps that is going a bit far and we don’t want to be a sitting bird for the guns of unsporting metaphysicians. But certainly all the conditions, determining what is art from what it is not, are more than fulfilled. There is making, there is added making, there is explicit sign, there is a showing forth, a re-presenting, a recalling and there is gratuitousness and there is full intention to make this making this. Moreover this particular making signifies a birth. It recalls a past event and looks back at some anniversaries and looks forward to future anniversaries, it is essentially celebrative and festive: it would be gay. For as Poussin said of another art: ‘The goal of painting is delight.’ And this is universally true of all art no matter how difficult it is to posit the delight. But this mkaing, though joyful and celebrative of a birthday, recalls also, by implication, a day, or many days, of at least some degree of acute pain, perhaps of great anguish, and, perhaps, even of death. So that this making covers, in a rudimentary way, or contains in embryo, all that is shown forth in the greatest imaginable art-works. I mean no art can compass more than that attempted in the line of the Sequence for Easter Day: Mors et vita duello conflixere mirando.
It was pure good fortune that we stumbled on this example in the kitchen, for indeed we might have searched further and fared far worse. For probably there are not many arts that would so simply and conclusively show forth to us the nature and function of Ars.
The etymology of “hypocrisy” is somewhat strange. As the OED tells it, it traces back to the Greek ὑπό (hypo-, “under”) + κρίνειν (krinein, “to decide, determine, judge”). In a first step which I don’t quite understand, the combination ὑποκρίνεσθαι, which would seem to mean “under”+”determined,” came to mean “to answer.” Then, in another odd but by no means unprecedented development (cf. the dual meanings of “to act” and “to perform”), it became “to play a part on a stage.” Now, for us, hypocrisy means to play a part when not on a stage.
Hypocrisy, like irony, is one of those terms whose meaning we can’t seem to keep straight. (Perhaps it’s no coincidence that both concepts derive from Greek tragedy.) It can’t just be saying one thing and doing another: that’s not hypocrisy, it’s akrasia, a failure to follow through on our best intentions. But it’s too broad to define it as saying one thing and thinking another: that’s lying, of which hypocrisy is a specific kind.
The topic is confusing because saying is both a bit like thinking, and a bit like doing: it’s a kind of doing the whole point of which is to show other people something about what we’re thinking. The thing to remember is that saying sometimes fails to actually link up with thinking (we don’t always say what we think), and (so) sometimes fails also to link up with doing (other people aren’t always convinced that we think what we say). We can only make sure our saying does anything, by doing other things as well; when our doing is consistent with our saying, it suggests that both are consistent with our thinking. When our doing and saying fail to be consistent, two explanations present themselves: either we suffer from akrasia, or we are perpetrators of hypocrisy.
To see the difference, imagine someone who volunteers for military service. By doing so, he gives the appearance of the virtue of courage, that is, valuing the city’s survival over his own life, but all he’s done, so far, is say something. Now suppose that when he’s actually called on to go into battle, he flees. What he said was undermined by what he later did.
We can, at this point, point out to him how his deeds undermined his words. If he merely suffers from akrasia, then this will shame him, and his desire to avoid shame will lead him to do what he said after all, and eventually he will actually acquire the virtue of courage of which he deeds gave the appearance. This is, basically, how Aristotelian moral education works.
If, on the other hand, he refuses to be shamed into doing what he said he would, then we consider him to be a hypocrite, that is, someone who desires to look virtuous but has no desire whatsoever actually to be virtuous. Hypocrisy interferes with the process of moral education: the student has no desire to be taught, but he wants to trick his teachers into believing that he has learned.
But there’s something strange here: didn’t I just say moral education comes about through shame? And doesn’t shame result, not from acting poorly, but from being thought to have acted poorly? So doesn’t that make every student of virtue a hypocrite?
No. Take the soldier who fled battle out of akrasia. His volunteering wasn’t hypocritical, because he did not volunteer while saying to himself, “I don’t want actually to be courageous.” But neither did he volunteer while actually thinking courageously. He had no real understanding of what courage was; he did not know how to apply the concept in conditions different from those in which he found himself before volunteering, namely, conditions in which there was no way to tell the difference between saying courageous things and actually being courageous.
I suspect that this knowledge has to be first-personal, in which case the story would go like this. First, shame makes us desire to be thought like other people who seem virtuous, which we think will makes us virtuous. Then, we suffer from akrasia, and fail to act virtuously. Then we realize that there is a difference between being thought virtuous, even by ourselves, and actually thinking virtuously. Then, we transfer our desire for the former to a desire for the latter, and try to be virtuous even when no one is watching. (We can still suffer from akrasia at this point, but each episode of akrasia will reveal that we do not yet fully understand the virtue we wish to possess.) Or, we refuse to make that transfer, and hypocritically desire to be thought virtuous while disclaiming any desire for actual virtue.
In sum, our virtue shouldn’t be only an act, but still, we can only learn virtue by acting virtuously.
Can anyone ever really be a hypocrite? There’s reason to think that the answer is no.
When we accuse someone of hypocrisy, we are saying that he has refused to desire virtue. But the point of making such an accusation is to shame the target of the accusation into ceasing his hypocrisy. This only makes sense if hypocrisy is not, in fact, a final refusal to desire virtue, but only a particularly intrenched form of akrasia, that is, a forgetting of what virtue requires in a particular situation. In which case, though the person has engaged in hypocrisy, he is not a hypocrite, if that phrase is taken to mean that he is a hypocrite essentially, irrevocably, or intentionally.
And this makes sense. Rarely does the perpetrator of even the most brazen hypocrisy think to himself, “I am a hypocrite.” Rather, he thinks of himself as virtuous “in the ways that matter.” Only, he thinks that other people do not understand in what virtue really consists. He actually cares very little about public opinion; he cares only for the consequences it can bring. This makes it impossible to shame him into virtue through the normal terms of censure (e.g. “coward”). It’s this impossibility that makes the use of the term “hypocrisy” necessary. It’s meant to remind him that there is no such thing as a private definition of virtue: we come to understand virtue, not through isolated cogitation, but through recognizing virtue in other people, and desiring to be like them.
What about someone who applies the name hypocrite to himself (though not, of course, out loud)—and applies it, not in self-censure, but in self-approbation? For example, Julian Sorel, antihero of Stendhal’s The Red and the Black, who early in life takes “a vow of hypocrisy.”
Well, he cannot do so sincerely. For him to call himself a hypocrite in self-approbation, he has to think hypocrisy a virtue. But then he has to desire, not actually to be a hypocrite, but only to be thought a hypocrite by everyone whose opinion matters. The only opinion that matters to him is, of course, be his own, since only he shares his positive valuation of hypocrisy. So even the self-proclaimed hypocrite is not truly a hypocrite, because his proclamation is itself hypocritical. Even when we try, we cannot refuse to desire virtue, we can only avoid our desire for virtue.
But the self-proclaimed hypocrite differs from the perpetrator of everyday hypocrisy in that not even an accusation of “hypocrite” can rouse him from his akrasia. If the akratic is like someone whose beliefs entail a contradiction, and the hypocrite is like someone who affirms a contradiction, then the self-proclaimed hypocrite is like someone who denies the law of non-contradiction. He cannot really deny it—his denial demonstrates that he does not understand it—but he is still impossible to reason with.
An optimistic reading of The Red and the Black has Julian snapped out of his hyper-hypocrisy by his realization that he is about to die. (A pessimistic one leaves him a hypocrite till the end.) Whether or not it’s what happens in the novel, the optimistic reading offers a reasonable account of how hyper-hypocrisy might come undone. If the hyper-hypocrite really desires, not to be a hypocrite, but to be thought hypocritical (by himself), then he will abandon his hypocrisy if (and only if?) he realizes that this desire will inevitably be defeated by death: after he dies he will no longer think anything, he will only be whatever he turns out to be.
You probably haven’t noticed the dearth of posts over the last month. By way of explanation, I’m starting work on my dissertation, which means I’m trying to write academic prose every day; this leaves unfortunately little time/energy/space/matter to devote to posting here. I’ll probably keep it up, and perhaps start posting more dissertation-related things here (and more half-formed thoughts), but expect updates fewer than once a week.
Speaking of half-formed dissertation thoughts, here’s a thought about a passage from the last few pages of David Jones’ In Parenthesis.
First, the passage.
The Queen of the Woods has cut bright boughs of various flowering.
. These knew her influential eyes. Her awarding hands can pluck for each their fragile prize.
. She speaks to them according to precedence. She knows what’s due to this elect society. She can choose twelve gentle-men. She knows who is most lord between the high trees and on the open down.
. Some she gives white berries
. some she gives brown
. Emil has a curious crown it’s
. made of golden saxifrage.
. Fatty wears sweet-briar,
he will reign with her for a thousand years.
. For Balder she reaches high to fetch his.
. Ulrich smiles for his myrtle wand.
. That swine Lillywhite has daisies to his chain—you’d hardly credit it.
. She plaits torques of equal splendor for Mr. Jenkins and Billy Crower.
. Hansel with Gronwy share dog-violets for a palm, where they lie in serious embrace beneath the twisted tripod.
. Siôn gets St. John’s Wort—that’s fair enough.
. Dai Greatcoat, she can’t find him anywhere—she calls both high and low, she had a very special one for him.
. Among this July noblesse she is mindful of December wood—when the trees of the forest beat against each other because of him. She carries to Aneirin-in-the-nullah a rowan sprig, for the glory of Guenedota. You couldn’t hear what she said to him, because she was careful for the Disciplines of the Wars.
Out of context, this all probably makes little sense. It helps to know, definitely, that this comes during a lull in the battle of the Somme, and that all of the characters mentioned (besides the mythological Queen of the Woods) are dead. But this factual knowledge alone isn’t too helpful; the passage gains immensely in power when you’ve read the book and know Mr. Jenkins, Dai Greatcoat, and Aneirin intimately, and several of the others by name.
My thought is this: the same applies to the imagery itself. White berries, brown berries, golden saxifrage, mistletoe, myrtle, daisies, dog-violets, St. John’s wort, rowan: if you don’t know what these flowers look like (and I didn’t, until I looked them up), the scene is difficult to imagine with any specificity. And if you don’t know the language of flowers, the exact significance of the scene is difficult to apprehend. The problem is, there’s not one such language; and how to know which one the Queen of the Woods speaks?
In a strange coincidence, my wife has gotten into floral arrangements. I tend to think she’s pretty good, but I also know nothing about flowers. Given this new development, and the importance of the passage quoted above to the book about which I’m writing part of my dissertation, this is perhaps something I should remedy.
A note about that passage. Dai Greatcoat, we hear, can’t be found anywhere. Dai is a Welsh version of David, and after In Parenthesis was published David Jones often went by Dai Greatcoat, but this passage isn’t about him, it’s about a soldier character who shows up midway through the book, or rather a sort of incarnation of Soldiery itself. Dai Greatcoat is certainly dead; why can’t she find him? That seems to me the central question of the book.
Incidentally, today is the Feast of St. David, who was, as David Jones well knew, the patron saint of Wales. We know next to nothing about him.