It is not a word a thinking man should use freely. The unclassifying mind hurls it as an allegation broadly.
In Leviathan, Hobbes uses the term but four times (and once in De Cive), each in the Christian or Jewish religious context. The origin in our language is from the Gospels, in the great sermons in which Jesus condemns those Pharisees and teachers of the law who practise outward signs of piety but fail to live a life of actual sanctity.
That this man, hated of the Pharisees (whose false doctrine and hypocriticall sanctity he had reproved) and by their means, of the People accused of unlawfull seeking for the Kingdome, and crucified, was the true CHRIST, and King promised by God,
The word used in the original Greek that has come down to us is ‘ὑποκριται‘, and that word does not mean what we think it does: it is not a philosophical or theological technical term but is Greek for ‘play-actors’.
Greek drama was very different from ours. Their playwrights were just as skilled, and I would hold out Aristophanes as equal to many of our own, but the performance was of static oration by an actor with a mask in front of his face. The mask, not the actor, was the character, the image or portrait, χαρακτηρ, of the man portrayed (or as the Romans called it, the persona). The origin of the Greek word for a stage actor, ὑποκριτής, is in words for ‘pronounce from under’; in short, to orate from behind a mask.
In the Gospels then, those Pharisees who were all portrayal and no action were ὑποκριται, actors speaking another’s lines from behind a carefully constructed mask.
There will have been many of the Pharisee party in those days who were genuine, who had real love for God and for their neighbour, practising charity and mercy, but it is a lot easier just to put on a show, to set out rules and visibly follow those rules as on a rail along a straight road (even if as a result you pass the needy by on the other side of the road). Today we would call it ‘virtue signalling’.
A life fully according to the law and the prophets, and the Gospel, is impossible. It is easier to whiten the sepulchre so it is at least bright and clean outside as a show for other, and turn your mind from the rottenness within.
Modernity uses the word ‘hypocrite’ too loosely. It is an unanswerable condemnation where any variance from ones pronouncements triggers a tri-syllabic denunciation. Looking back to the origin of the term, restricting it to that context, should restrain the accusing mouth. Anyone can live up to a narrow set of rules he himself has invented and can amend, but how many of those accusers would live up to the standards of the Gospel?
The leading theme of Christianity is that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and must struggle towards amending ourselves, seeking an unearned forgiveness. We will not find perfection. We must strive for it. In doing so if we scorn as a hypocrite, as a masked actor, one who is striving but has failed in some respect, it is to speak from behind our own mask.
Condemning others for failings is a positive act nevertheless. If there is no condemnation from others, there is little motive to improve. The prophets condemned others in fierce terms, from Moses all the way to John the Baptist, and accepted it when God condemned them in turn for their own failings. Jesus condemned the wicked, and forgave the penitent. The apostles too had harsh words for sinners. They knew their own imperfections though.
- Symon Patrick (1626-1707) and His Contribution to the Post-1660 Restored Church of England by the Rev Dr Nicholas Fisher
- A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe
- Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World by Laura Spinney
- The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan
- By John Milton:
- By Thomas Hobbes in the Civil War and Restoration era: