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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.