Hypocrisy doesn’t have the cachet of other vices. It is typically petit bourgeois, lacking the aristocratic glamour of jealousy or ambition, the subject matter of the great tragic writers. Vanity is better regarded. Avarice does more damage. Cruelty is in an altogether different league. Hypocrites will be sent, if they are unlucky enough to meet a merciless judge on a bad day, to Purgatory, not to Hell.
The word is often used, its meaning is rarely clear and it has become a generic term of abuse. In classical Greek, a ‘hypocrite’ is an actor or pretender. No doubt it was applied to Socrates’ opponents, the Sophists. Christ popularised it when he damned the scribes and the pharisees. English literature confirms its negative connotations. Milton calls it ‘the only evil that walks invisible except to God alone’ – an argument for silence on the subject? According to Sterne, ‘the cant of hypocrites is the worst’ – which sounds like a tautology while Blake coupled them with ‘scoundrels and flatterers’ – adding little precision. The dictionary suggests that the hypocrite makes false professions of virtue, though common usage has given it a wider sense. The word has entered the vocabulary of public debate. It is frequently used to define the case of a person who has double standards, who asks other people to conform to models of good behaviour which he does not adopt himself. It loosely applies also to anyone who asks society to end abuses in which he himself engages. Examples are socialists who send their sons to public schools; those who demand censorship of obscene literature and enjoy it themselves; advocates of the abolition of mortgage tax relief who take advantage of its availability. When a gap opens up between conduct and belief, double standards are suspected and sharp-eyed moralists prepare to pounce, like the arbiters of linguistic taste on the look-out for clichés and mixed metaphors.