In Praise of Hypocrisy

Doug Henwood dhenwood at
Mon Nov 22 09:15:28 PST 1999

Wall Street Journal - November 22, 1999

In Defense of Hypocrisy By Roger Kimballl, managing editor of The New Criterion.

When I was in college, there was a story going around about the German philosopher Max Scheler (1874-1928). Scheler was known for inspiring ethical meditations with titles like "On Man's Place in the Cosmos." He was also, according to this story, known for his energetic philandering. A distraught admirer approached him about this discrepancy: How could he write all those noble, morally uplifting works and yet lead such a discreditable personal life? The response attributed to Scheler is illuminating. The sign that points to Boston, he said, doesn't have to go there.

I have had several occasions to ponder this story in recent months. The revelation this summer that Newt Gingrich -- champion of family values and moral leadership -- had been conducting an adulterous affair with a staff member was one. And the very sad and lurid news coming from Hillsdale College over the last few weeks is another.

Shocking Scandal

As much of the world knows by now, the president of Hillsdale, George Roche III, suddenly resigned in the wake of his daughter-in-law's suicide and accusations that for 19 years he had been carrying on an adulterous affair with her: his son's wife, the mother of his grandson. Mr. Roche categorically denied the affair, "with God as my witness," but few people, it seems, believe him. It is a shocking story, repulsive if true and in any case both a personal tragedy and an institutional scandal.

What makes it all the more shocking is that Mr. Roche was a highly respected conservative leader. He had taken Hillsdale from a state of supine poverty and neglect in 1971 and built it into a conservative showpiece. During his tenure, Mr. Roche raised nearly $325 million, increasing the endowment from $4 million to $183 million. He expanded the physical plant by half while keeping the student enrollment constant at 1,200. SAT scores of incoming students have consistently risen, and Hillsdale has proudly upheld a traditional Great Books curriculum based (in the words of the college's mission statement) on "modern man's intellectual and spiritual inheritance from the Judeo-Christian faith and Greco-Roman culture." Last year, U.S. News & World Report ranked Hillsdale first among Midwestern liberal-arts colleges.

Perhaps Mr. Roche's most audacious act was to refuse federal money. As government largess came with more and more strings, he determined to preserve Hillsdale's independence from political correctness and preferential treatment (also known as "affirmative action"). Some 80% of Hillsdale students receive financial aid. Not a dime comes from federal coffers.

This invigorating blend of free-market energy and traditional intellectual and moral values made Mr. Roche a hero to conservatives, and rightly so. The question now is whether he is to be consigned to the outer darkness.

About the question of whether Mr. Roche is guilty of having an adulterous affair with his daughter-in-law, I know exactly as much as you do: namely, nothing beyond the horrifying accusations and a few isolated facts. (We are sure to learn more in the coming weeks.) There have been plenty of damaging rumors, too, but rumor, as Shakespeare said, is "a pipe/Blown by surmises, jealousies, conjectures."

In any event, I am interested neither in defending Mr. Roche nor in joining the prosecution. What interests me are not Mr. Roche's possible sins or failings, grave though they may be, but his actual achievements. And this brings me back to Max Scheler's distinction between a sign and the destination to which it points.

In effect, Scheler was defending hypocrisy. He was saying that the ideals he articulated were more important than his personal failure to achieve them. When the story of Bill Clinton's liaison with Monica Lewinsky became public, there was plenty of condemnation, but almost nobody talked about hypocrisy: lying, yes; moral turpitude, by all means; but not hypocrisy. That is because hypocrisy is essentially an aristocratic failing. It extols "the best" even if the best is generally unattainable.

This is one reason that hypocrisy, among all the vices, is regarded with particular disdain and horror by egalitarians. A hypocrite publicly upholds noble values and standards of behavior even though he knows he may sometimes fall short of the conduct they require. He does this because he recognizes that those values are worthy of support and commendation even if he cannot always embody them.

In his letter of resignation earlier this month, George Roche III celebrated the educational triumphs that he and his colleagues had achieved at Hillsdale. Critics from both left and right derided this claim, gleefully or regretfully as the case may be. But I believe Mr. Roche was right. And he was right even if it turns out that he is guilty as charged. Together with his colleagues at Hillsdale, he really did turn a foundering, nearly bankrupt institution into an important bastion of conservative values.

Many critics have faulted Hillsdale for not taking a harder line on Mr. Roche. At a recent convocation, called to "clarify the college's core values," the scandal was not even mentioned beyond vague references to the "events of the last few weeks." A report in The Weekly Standard noted that if you had somehow missed the news, "you would have had no idea that the president of Hillsdale had just been forced from office in the wake of a suicide-sex scandal."

Given all the publicity the episode has generated, however, was that necessarily such a bad thing? After all, the college had acted swiftly to force Mr. Roche's resignation, precipitating an ignominious end to a shining career. What would be gained by a public inquisition? If anything, college officials may not have been sufficiently reticent. When it comes to prurient curiosity, there is a lot to be said for maintaining a dignified silence.

Virtue and Vice

La Rochefoucauld's famous observation that "hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue" has been endlessly repeated in the press coverage of this story. But it has generally, I think, been misinterpreted. The epigram has been presented as meaning -- in the words of one journalist -- that "the loudest moralizers may be most suspect." But I believe La Rochefoucauld meant to suggest that hypocrisy was an implicit acknowledgment of the claims of virtue. Otherwise, why bother with dissimulation?

At the convocation mentioned above, the acting president of Hillsdale said that "we are all, all of us, left fallen and short of the glory of God." That did not do much to assuage Hillsdale's critics. But it did remind me of another of La Rochefoucauld's observations: that the misfortunes of others are easily borne. It would be curious if the real failing in this whole sorry episode should turn out to be Schadenfreude instead of hypocrisy.

More information about the lbo-talk mailing list