The Irony of Practice: Hypocrisy

In a previous post, I pointed out the use of Socratic irony in Pierre Hadot’s writings on philosophy as a way of life involving spiritual exercises. The idea is that “Hadot’s practice of irony reveals the irony of practice.” To put it simply, practice is always hypocritical.

Hadot’s irony follows the Socratic method of going down to the level of ordinary opinion (redescension toward doxa) and then moving his reader up out of the cave of opinion and into the light of truth. It would be pretty weird if someone as steeped in Hellenistic thought as Hadot didn’t use some Hellenistic rhetorical strategies in his own writing (even if unintentionally).

At the level of ordinary opinion, Hadot proposes that philosophy is a way of life, not merely set of ideas/beliefs or an academic profession, but then as one engages with this proposition one ascends toward more rarified air. Philosophy is a way of life involving exercises? Yes. All exercises? No, just spiritual exercises, which transform one’s soul or character (psuche, ethos). All spiritual exercises of ethico-psychological transformation? No, mainly those articulated by Hellenistic philosophers.

To reiterate: Philosophy isn’t just the stuffy ideas of old Greek guys; it’s about living practices; well, living spiritual practices; well, specifically the spiritual practices of old Greek guys. Hadot simultaneously writes and erases a distinction between philosophy as practice (way of life) and philosophy as ideas (profession). Hadot isn’t ironic out of insincerity. His irony is part of his sincere practice. This simultaneous articulation and erasure is what practice is all about.

All sincere practice involves an authenticity lag, which is to say, it involves play-acting or pretending, making it by faking it. This is how the development of character (ethos) operates. Greeks knew this. Hadot knew this. Our self-help, be yourself, authentication frenzy of a culture does not know this, instead relegating hypocrisy exclusively to its negative manifestations.

Wayne Booth discusses this in book about the role of fiction in ethics, The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1988). Booth makes some observations about hypocrisy in the chapter, “Consequences for Character: The Faking and Making of the ‘Self.’” The following passage is from Booth.

The word “hypocrisy” originally meant simply the playing of a role on the stage: dramatic acting, hypocrisis, from hypo (“under”) plus crinein (“to decide, determine, judge”). To give the signs of choosing in a certain way, on stage or off, was to convey a character of a certain kind, in “hypocrisy.” Thus the two words, “character” and “hypocrisy,” suggest a challenging analogy: actors play roles as characters, with “hypocrisy”; authors play roles by creating characters, and readers and spectators play roles by re-creating them, hypo-critically. What is forgotten in our universal condemnation of hypocrisy is that a kind of play-acting with characters, or characteristics, a kind of faking of characters, is one of the main ways that we build what becomes our character.

[…] If my character is the totality of all the roles I can play effectively, good and bad, it will be in some sense a product of all the “hypocrises” I have practiced (good or bad) long enough to perfect them.

Many of the virtues that we most honor are originally gained by practiced that our enemies might call faking, our friends perhaps something like aspiring or emulating. […] We must fake—must practice—playing the cello (say) long before we can really play it, and each stage of improvement requires new levels of faking. One soon learns, in developing any skill, that we inhibit our progress most be declaring ourselves incompetent: “I’m a poor tennis player” is almost certainly a prelude to worse playing than “I’m getting better all the time.” […] The difference between productive hypocrisy—aspiring and emulating—and the vice that the word is used to name must thus surely lie in the motive and direction of the “practice.” If I am really practicing only deceit, and not in fact developing my potentialities for a given virtue, then of course what I will develop is skill in the practice of deception. (252-253)

Booth also notes the strange historical fact that the word “practice” originally meant something hypocritical before gaining the more perfecting qualities with which it is attributed currently. “The earliest recorded sense of the word is ‘the action of scheming or planning; artifice; a trick or plot.’ Yet the word quickly developed more favorable senses, since—as we say—practice makes perfect” (253).

In his book on environmental virtue ethics, Emplotting Virtue (SUNY, 2014), Brian Treanor makes a similar point about a “productive” or “aspirational” hypocrisy, which “is not vicious unless we deceive ourselves by thinking (or others by implying) we have actually acquired a virtue that we are, as yet, only aping” (197).

[I]f we remain aware that we are aspiring to be better than we actually are, that our performance is part of the hard work of becoming a better self, and that such acting cannot be divorced from difficult philosophical questioning of whether we are playing the role properly, such simulation ca be an ethically valuable tool. Fake it until you make it, so to speak. (ibid)

[Note: The featured image for this post is not a real bookshelf. It’s wallpaper]

9 thoughts on “The Irony of Practice: Hypocrisy

  1. why equate simulation/experimentation (practice like say one does with an instrument) with faking, seems to be a bit of sleight of hand at least in terms of our everyday use of hypocrisy

    1. Good question! It’s the ethical side of practice that drives me to bring up hypocrisy. The old meaning of hypocrisy as playing a part or pretending (hupokrinesthai) has been lost to the current usage which sees hypocrisy as simply an ethical failing or deception. That current usage is based on ideals of moral purity and authenticity, which don’t work that well. They definitely don’t work well in our era of ethical complicity and compromise, so I’m trying to reactivate some semantic sediment that can stir up a more complex sense of ethics.

      I like Alexis Shotwell’s Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times. Especially in environmental ethics, there is no possibility of ethical purity. Along those lines, I agree with Tim Morton that hypocrisy is the mood appropriate to the Anthropocene: hyposubjects living with hyperobjects. What interests me about Hadot (and about virtue ethicists like Wayne Booth and Brian Treanor) is that we can find resources for hyposubjective training in Hellenistic philosophy. Instead of a false choice between hypocrisy and purity/authenticity, we have a choice between different kinds of hypocrisy: deceitful and aspirational. The optative mood (aspirational) gets ethics into training and exercise, and it gets ethics out of the ridiculous imperative and prohibitive moods of “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots.”

      1. Rabinow’s ecology of ignorance sounds great. I’m very familiar with Caputo’s radical/deconstructive hermeneutics. His book Against Ethics is also relevant here. I’m not fighting common sense as much as thinking of its context, maybe bracketing it like phenomenologists bracket the natural attitude. I think Caputo mentions something like that regarding Derrida and Rorty on common sense.

        I’m all for being limited, fallible, uncertain, etc., but those terms don’t quite address the ambiguous (in)authenticity that come with practice. I suppose we could just talk about authenticity as aspirational inauthenticity and not bother with the semantics of hypocrisy. But the word is thrown around a lot in public discourse, and rarely is its usage felicitous. Ultimately, it’s environmental ethics that makes the word “hypocrisy” unavoidable for me, specifically in light of a cynical attitude that dismisses any advocacy/action that looks hypocritical (like Al Gore or DiCaprio promoting responses to climate change even though they still have high carbon footprints). Such charges of hypocrisy aren’t sufficient to justify dismissing their ethical character. Sometimes hypocrisy is sincere character development, and sometimes it’s an ethical failure. It’s not hypocrisy as such that’s the problem.

      2. why is coming up short (having a limited grasp) inauthentic and not just human?
        If one doesn’t try for something in-human (godlike) than why isn’t it just doing the best we can with what/who we are? One is trying for/forward something in practice (one isn’t practicing just anything) so how does that get out of do this not that?

    1. Right, I’m okay saying that it’s just human and it’s about trying our best with what we’ve got, not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good, and that kind of thing. In lots of situations it’s probably good to steer clear of the language games of authenticity (cf. Adorno, The Jargon of Authenticity). We don’t really have to talk about hypocrisy either, although it’s history in ethical and literary theories makes it difficult to avoid. There are lots of ways to talk about the unfinished, imperfect, already-but-not-yet structure of practice. Wicked problems sounds good, although I’m not sure if that gets to the faking/fictive quality that hypocrisy gets at. Like Latour/Bachelard: les faits sont faits (“the facts are fabricated”). All action involves (play)acting.

      There’s still a do-this (don’t-do-that) in this sense of training. It’s just aspirational (optative), not imperative or prohibitive.

      1. facts are fabricated as all human tools are (why it’s better to think in terms of proto-types rather than arche-types ) so not fake just artificial. I would hazard that most writing around such subjects doesn’t trade in talk of authenticity or hypocracy and to do so seems to lead back into the imperative but to each their own I suppose. Have you read Rorty’s book on Irony?

      2. That facts are fabricated/fake is etymological. They’re artificial, sure, but there’s no need to wall off any association with faking. In any case where things like hypocrisy, deceit, aspiration, pretension, authenticity, authentication, and authority come into the mix, I’m just trying to avoid purity ethics. That’s a non-prescriptive avoidance. David Wood’s work on deconstructive ethics is pretty good on this non-prescriptive point. In the Greek context that folks like Hadot recover, hypocrisy has plenty of optative possibilities, definitely not restricted to imperative and prohibitive moods. It’s been a while since I read Rorty’s irony stuff. I find Tim Morton to be a much better reader of Derrida. His work on irony and hypocrisy sums up what I’m saying here.

Leave a Reply to dmf Cancel 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: