Hypocrisy and Self-Deception

“No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.”
— Hawthorne

When I first encountered this sentence, I read it as a florid, Victorian admonition against the corrosive effects of pretense. I have little doubt the author intended it so. But as I record the words herein, I hearken to their literal meaning, and the moral that they convey becomes at once less transparent and more interesting.

The words were penned in apposition to the character of the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, but his situation may aptly be abstracted to comprehend all hypocrites of a sufficiently sensitive nature that they remain aware of the disparity between their public and private faces. The public face is of good character. The private knowledge is of shameful lapses in that character.

So what can it mean to “finally get bewildered as to which may be the true”? Presumably, the initial state is a clarity about the public face being false, and a recognition that undisclosed sins mar its purity. The final state of bewilderment, then, must be reckoned a clouding of that insight, which can only be a form of self-deception in which the protagonist comes to believe his own deception. He smooths over the dissonance by a convenient oblivion with respect to the original transgression.

And, indeed, this may be the most common human foible, as a man comes to believe his own lies, and hypocrisy becomes ingrained in his character. But, if this be the author’s intent, then the aphorism could hardly be an admonition, and might even be read as a recommendation to the expedient of pretense, as a path that holds out both a present salve to the conscience, and the future promise of a higher and better self to which the flawed self gradually grows nigh.

We may feel confident that Hawthorne intended no such compromise with honesty, and the character of Dimmesdale may be taken to illumine an intent that is belied by his words. Dimmesdale, far from lapsing into an easy self-deception, was rather drawn down the path of the more complexly sensitive soul toward a hyperactive conscience that magnified the perception of his sin, and compounded his inward guilt with the burden of his ongoing deceptions. The poignancy of Dimmesdale’s complaint was so excruciating precisely because he was not able to deceive himself.

From the context of the novel, we must conclude that Hawthorne’s intended message alloyed the sting of his sanctimonious tone with the very inverse of his literal meaning: the admonition is that, should we seek to deceive our public and thereby deceive ourselves, the expedient will prove ultimately to be in vain, and the truth of our transgression will, in the end, only haunt us the more for our attempts to conceal it.

And that finally be a message worthy of Hawthorne, and of the ages, and of this Daily Inspiration.


Author’s note: I don’t aspire to become a literary analyst, and less am I drawn to semantic hair-splitting, but I had a funny feeling about this quote as I went to post it, and found myself writing about it in a style borrowed from Hawthorne, and then taking two hours out of my evening to express this relatively simple idea.  Why did I do this?  I can only respond with an exclamation of gladness that I have the leisure to indulge in such extravagances when the spirit moves me. — JJM

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