Departments

Peccadilloes

Before you shoot, consider the ricochet. Before you moralize, consider the peccadillo. Certainly the peccadillo is an unphilosophical idea. There is no logic in the sin that does not make a sinner, the crime that does not make a criminal. Yet the peccadillo is left over wherever sins or crimes are counted. Its inevitability implies a resilience to human behavior that is almost material. In measuring wood for the cut you must figure in the kerf of the saw—how much material the cut itself will remove. Likewise in philosophical division you must expect the measured boundaries of immorality to fall outside of the marks that guide the division. Of course in woodwork this can be compensated; in philosophy it cannot be. The name for one who calls harmless things harmful to prevent harmful things from being thought tolerable—the name is hypocrite. In this way law is superior to morality. Law, being justified from without, can blend the boundaries of the legal and the illegal to the greater security of the law, make jaywalking a crime, allow its subjects just enough lawbreaking of minor laws that they obey the important laws without feeling punctilious or servile.

But morality must self-stand. Thus both in society and in the individual, the fervor of moral commitment trends over time into immorality, step by step as the excision of hypocrisy cuts a new brink of the immoral, which frays into new peccadilloes, which invent new hypocrisy, which being purged cuts a new brink of the immoral—and so on, until at last the philosopher sits, like the overreaching workman, ashamed among scraps—scraps cut down over and over in adjusting the fit until not enough remains for any fit at all.