Victorian Hypocrisy

The hypocrisy of the Victorians is the spittoon of critics: everyone feels entitled to take a passing shot. But it was the Victorians who taught us how to hate them, who exposed and exhibited how far they fell short of their own standards. They did not know how to take things, the Victorians: when they found that the best of them fell short, they concluded not that their standards were unworkable, but that the ones who had seemed best were hypocrites.

Other ages took it for granted that to be born human was to be born weak, part of a fallen race. But with the Victorians, and with their real descendants—not those of us with willing spirits and weak flesh, but those of us who pounce on them—it was established that moral malfeasance was always positive evidence of the intent to deceive and manipulate; that high standards are high only to shadow the sins that lurk behind them.

We have inherited, not the Victorian standards, but the Victorian attitude, the double bind that the ultimate sin is sin concealed. So we have become catalogers of sins; we have named them all, from megalomaniacal delusions to the crannies of sexual perversion. In this sense only, we have gone farther than any other age in understanding human nature; but though we have all the data, we learn nothing from it.

We are ungenerous with the species that we study. We have descriptive lexicographers, but no descriptive psychologists; they all study us in order to instruct us; and by instruct, they do not mean illuminate or capacitate, but disillusion. The psychologist who writes to disabuse us of pride writes to recognition and admiration; the psychologist who writes to convince us that we have strengths as well as weaknesses is walled off into the ghetto of self-help and managerial platitude-peddling.

The Victorians thought we were born good. That is nothing new; ask Mencius. But where Mencius blamed the bad examples we set for one another, the Victorians blamed themselves for being bad examples. In the Victorian view, evil is powerless over us until we give it power, the way Ahriman was born from a doubting thought of Ormazd; except that our misstep is not doubt, but hypocrisy.

The ancients offered us proverbs and dark sayings to make us wise, that is, to give us regret and fear; not to purify us from temptation but to teach us to compensate for human frailty. The moderns invite us to the spectacle of the convicted hypocrite being thrown to the lions and expect us to cheer. Here is instruction enough in not trying, in not daring, in not sticking the neck out.

The Victorians did something terrible to us. They lacerated the continuity of history. They hid the wide, wild world from us for our own good, and when at last we found it again, tucked away in the attic, we thought we had discovered something new. They disinherited us; they denied us our birthright, our place in history. Even when we denied them, we had no ground to stand on but the one they left us: their hypocrisy.

We are all Victorians; and they are Victorians most who, like the Victorians themselves, pile on contempt for the hypocrisy of their contemporaries or their forerunners, for whom the instrument which seeks out the motes in others' eyes becomes the beam in their own.


Tyrants always first burn the books and bury the scholars. They have never got them all; but what the survivors have learned, whether alone with the hidden texts or forbidden books in their attics, or reciting them over and over to keep them straight in the attics of their brains; what they have learned while despised as wizards, witches, devil-traffickers, heretics, sentimentalists, reactionaries, pedants, or just as mad; what they have learned is that an age is not made dark or light by its luminaries, but by the lesser lights crowding around and beside them.

In an age of darkness an incandescent mind is an annoyance. At best it disorients, at worst it horrifies, those who live in darkness. Great lights are bearable only to those with eyes adapted to light, to those already aware, in themselves and in those around them, of the possibility and the worth of light. Those who have walked in darkness all their lives, who have given their whole trust and faith to one or another set of directions, committed to memory, that have kept them from falls and collisions without requiring them to be aware of where they are – they will hate light. They have been blind to the world, and worse, unmirrored, unknown to themselves. Light will pain them, and they will hide from it, shroud it, or put it out with slogans and proverbs, with laughter and mockery and shouting down; with exiling potshards, with crosses, with the auto-de-fé and the pyre, with the breaking wheel, with guns, with imprisonment, with transportation, with impoverishing lawsuits.

Greatness requires audient mediocrity not for contrast, but for support. The opposition the great meet from the mediocre is like the resistance of the water to the swimmer. What holds them back also holds them up.

New Worlds

We are trapped on this planet, among earthly problems without earthly solutions. Real change takes room to experiment. Think of the changes in the world over the past few centuries from the mutual discovery of new continents. I live in a country which was conceived and undertaken as an experiment, and has become the proof and example of democracy without mob rule or faction and of freedom without chaos.

Some conscientious voices say that before we look to the stars, we should fix our problems on earth. They have a point. But if we could solve our problems, we would have solved them already. I am stuck here in the earthly mud with all the rest of us. I cannot imagine what experiments are yet to be done. But I trust that what hope there is to better the human condition lies through them.

If you had asked an educated Spaniard of the year 1491 what the principal problem facing Spanish society was – provided you could communicate what you meant by “problem” and “society” – the answer would be: “The Jews.” 1492, the year of the discovery of America, was also the year that Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the last of the Jews of Spain. If our species survives, then our ideas of what the problems of society are, and how to solve them, will likely sound to our descendants as quaint, and as cruel, as the voice of Torquemada.

No more than we can sit and reason out nature without experiment can we sit and reason out human nature and human possibilities. It must come to experiment. To colonize our sister planets or the stars is not to repeat the world we know on a larger scale: it is to discover new worlds, not in the sky or in the stars, but in ourselves.

To see what we take for granted, to see unimagined alternatives, will take perspective broader than the narrow experience of Earth. We have come to the end of what continents can do; we need planets. If there is nothing new under the sun, we must have new suns.