Skip to content


March 9, 2016

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.

Oedipus and the Sphinx

Oedipus and the Sphinx

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.

The Calling of Saint Matthew-Caravaggio (1599-1600).jpg

Caravaggio (1599-1600), The Calling of Saint Matthew

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.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: