4. Hypocrisy and the Judgment of Men

© 2021 Adam Roberts, CC BY 4.0 https://doi.org/10.11647/OBP.0249.04

The middleness of Middlemarch is a moral as well as an existential quantity, a matter of ethics as both mediated and medial. The novel’s twinned mirrors situate questions of honesty or mendacity, and Eliot’s characters middle themselves somewhere between moral puritanism on the one hand—Dorothea’s over-identification with St Theresa, or Antigone, we might say—and active malignancy on the other (the melodramatic blackmailing villainy of John Raffles, say). And this brings me to another epigraph.

At the head of chapter 38 we read: ‘C’est beaucoup que le jugement des hommes sur les actions humaines; tôt ou tard il devient efficace’. This means: ‘the judgement of men on human affairs is a serious business; sooner or later it always comes into force’. Eliot identifies the line’s provenance: ‘Guizot’—that is, the French historian François Pierre Guillaume Guizot. It is worth taking the trouble to locate the original context for this quotation in Guizot’s 1835 Course in Modern History, part of his discussion of the Middle Ages, an epoch in which he diagnoses a kind of radical hypocrisy. Medieval people, Guizot argues, possessed genuinely-held high and spiritual ideals, and yet nonetheless lived lives of remarkable brutality and venality. How to reconcile this seeming contradiction?

Fig. 3 François Pierre Guillaume Guizot, Cours D’Histoire Moderne (Brussels: Louis Hauman & Co., 1835), vol. 1, title page, https://www.google.co.uk/books/edition/_/aYNfDbifZJoC?hl=en&gbpv=1. Public domain.

Mais quelle que soit la cause, le fait est indubitable. On le rencontre partout au moyen âge, dans les poésies populaires comme dans les exhortations des prêtres. Partout la pensée morale des hommes s’élève et aspire fort au-dessus de leur vie. Et gardez-vous de croire que, parce qu’elle ne gouvernait pas immédiatement les actions, parce que la pratique démentait sans cesse et étrangement la théorie, l’influence de la théorie fût nulle et sans valeur. C’est beaucoup que le jugement des hommes sur les actions humaines; tôt ou tard il devient efficace. ‘J’aime mieux une mauvaise action qu’un mauvais principe’, dit quelque part Rousseau, et Rousseau avait raison.1
But whatever the cause, the facts cannot be denied. This phenomenon is found everywhere in the Middle Ages, as much in popular poetry as in the exhortations of the priests. Everywhere the moral thought of men rises and aspires far above their mundane lives. But don’t be fooled into believing—because it didn’t directly inform their actions, because their practice was continually at odds with their theory—that this influence was nothing, or had no value. The judgment of men on human actions is a serious matter, and, sooner or later, it always takes effect: ‘I prefer a bad action to a bad principle’, says Rousseau somewhere, and Rousseau is right.

This larger context is particularly interesting, speaking as it does to the novel as a moral as well as a physical middling: a commitment to compromise and an acceptance of people as themselves always to one degree or another morally compromised.

When Bulstrode’s story eventually unwinds he becomes, I would argue, less an object of readerly contumely than of readerly sympathy, not despite but because of the exposure his earlier altitudes of Methodist hypocrisy. ‘There may be coarse hypocrites, who consciously affect beliefs and emotions for the sake of gulling the world’, is how Eliot puts it; ‘but Bulstrode was not one of them. He was simply a man whose desires had been stronger than his theoretic beliefs, and who had gradually explained the gratification of his desires into satisfactory agreement with those beliefs. If this be hypocrisy, it is a process which shows itself occasionally in us all, to whatever confession we belong. There is no general doctrine which is not capable of eating out our morality if unchecked by the deep-seated habit of direct fellow-feeling with individual fellow-men’.2 Like Rousseau, Eliot prefers bad actions to bad ‘doctrine’. Like him, I’d say, she is right.

Chapter 38 itself is given over to a quartet of Middlemarchian eminences. To begin with, the Cadwalladers and Sir James Chettam discuss the political situation, deploring Ladislaw’s editorship of the Pioneer and the potential for radical political upheaval they believe this represents. They are joined later in the chapter by Mr. Brooke, who argues the contrary case, in favour of political reform. This party embodies two different valences of, more or less, political hypocrisy. ‘I do wish people would behave like gentlemen’, is Sir James’s essential-oil-of-Toryism (‘feeling’, Eliot nicely glosses her character’s statement ‘that this was a simple and comprehensive programme for social wellbeing’). ‘Behaving like a gentleman’ is, it seems, a capacious enough political programme to encompass both nobility and venality.

‘I thought the most expensive hobby in the world was standing for Parliament,’ said Mrs. Cadwallader. ‘They said the last unsuccessful candidate at Middlemarch—Giles, wasn’t his name?—spent ten thousand pounds and failed because he did not bribe enough. What a bitter reflection for a man!’
‘Somebody was saying,’ said the Rector, laughingly, ‘that East Retford was nothing to Middlemarch, for bribery.’
‘Nothing of the kind,’ said Mr. Brooke. ‘The Tories bribe, you know: Hawley and his set bribe with treating, hot codlings, and that sort of thing; and they bring the voters drunk to the poll. But they are not going to have it their own way in future—not in future, you know. Middlemarch is a little backward, I admit—the freemen are a little backward. But we shall educate them—we shall bring them on, you know. The best people there are on our side.’3

The issue is not bribery as such, but only the most effective modes of applying inducements to the electorate to obtain one’s political preference. Brooke’s Liberalism only seems more idealistic and less hypocritical than Sir James’s Toryism. In fact, his unfittedness for political office is embodied in his small-scale incompetence and various abdications as a landlord, all satirised in Ladislaw’s paper.

Hannah Arendt thought that ‘hypocrisy is the vice of vices’, because ‘integrity can indeed exist under the cover of all other vices except this one. Only crime and the criminal, it is true, confront us with the perplexity of radical evil; but only the hypocrite is really rotten to the core’.4 But Eliot doesn’t really believe anyone is rotten to the core, and whilst she is of course not endorsing hypocrisy in this novel she is nonetheless reflecting on the extent to which the various compromises humans end-up making with absolute virtue, absolute duty and the noblest aims ‘middle’ us all in the reality of social existence. Very medieval, in Guizotian terms, we might think. Not for nothing is that period called the ‘middle’ ages.

There are other ways in which we might conceptualise what could be called hypocrisy. There is, for instance, Robert Browning’s celebrated insistence that a man’s reach should exceed his grasp (or what’s a heaven for?), the gap between reach and aim emblematising this very term. True, if we reach for something beyond our grasp unknowingly, an instinctive or unaware over-reaching, we probably wouldn’t use the word ‘hypocrisy’; but I wonder whether what Browning is saying is something more profound, that we not only do but should knowingly over-reach ourselves, that we should enact a kind of disingenuousness about what we can achieve, what can be achieved. This, it seems to me, is closer to hypocrisy, albeit one that Browning styles as a paradoxically divine one.

One person’s hypocrisy might be another’s realism; it might be spun as honesty in a system one considers weighted against honesty and truthfulness. The problem with this view is that it describes all systems. Civilisation, as Freud so persuasively argues, necessarily entails its discontents; hypocrisy could be thought part of the needful superstructuring of the latter so as to maintain the former—the tribute, as the old phrase has it, vice pays to virtue. This is particularly true in the magisterium of politics, ‘particularly true’ in the sense that we all recognise that politicians are especially prone to hypocrisy. David Runciman has insightfully explored the way ‘politics’ is a combination of more-or-less calcified ritual and ceremony on the one hand, and pragmatic horse-trading on the other, such that the latter will in actual political life tend to hide behind the former. ‘Politics requires us to talk about complex issues as though they were simple, and to keep hidden from public view some of the nastier deals and compromises that enable us to get things done in communities made up of millions of quarrelsome, naive and opinionated people’.5 Isn’t this also the (to fall into cliché for a moment) ‘journey’ Dorothea goes on?—from an unworldly idealism that proves harmful to her and others, towards a wiser comprehension of how the world, and love, actually works, and the compromises one must make with both. Or is this to confuse our broader tolerance for ‘hypocrisy’ in a specifically ‘party political’ context with the ways hypocrisy manifests in our emotional and spiritual lives? Bulstrode is revealed to be a whited sepulchre; but he also committed criminal acts and was implicated in a man’s death. This is more than the common-garden hypocrisies that delineate our ordinary, sublunary humanity. Is it hypocritical, in any sense, for Casaubon to believe Dorothea could love him? Or that he could control her after his death? Is Fred Vincy a hypocrite for allowing his easy-going preference for pleasure to interfere with his sterner interpersonal duty? Hypocrisy seems the wrong word in this context. It’s the flipside of the Browning quotation I mention above. The English word derives etymologically from the Ancient Greek ὑπόκρισις, which means ‘answer, stage acting, pretence’, coming out of the broader discourse of theatrical performance. When we reach for something we know is beyond our grasp, we are performing the action, even if only for our own benefit, in the sense that being aware our gesture is futile does not prompt us to the honesty of giving up. We could go further and suggest: life, actually, is stitched-together out of such moments, such gestures, such forlorn hopes, essays into action, gambles on relationships, on work, on hope itself.

The epigraph to chapter 10 is a quotation from Thomas Fuller:

‘He had catch’d a great cold, had he had no other clothes to wear than those of a skin of a Bear not yet killed.’—FULLER

This trims the actual quotation (from Fuller’s 1662 History of the Worthies of England) a little: ‘But he had catch’d a great cold, had he had no other clothes to wear then [sic] those which were to be made of a skin of a Bear not yet killed’.6 The fuller sentence makes the sense clearer: Fuller describes someone in pressing need of clothes whose only option is a bearskin still on the outside of a live bear. The position of someone, in other words, who has a good deal of dangerous work to undertake before his necessity can be addressed.

Chapter 10 concerns Casaubon anticipating his impending marriage, and also records a dinner party in which various other Middlemarchians discuss the match. The application of the Fuller line to such a chapter is a little unclear. Does it refer to Ladislaw, whom (we are told in the opening paragraph) has left Middlemarch for Europe, with the implication that his nascent love for Dorothea has a long and arduous route to traverse, obstacles to overcome—her marriage to Casaubon—before it finds its consummation? Or does it refer to Casaubon? This is a character whom Eliot describes here, with nicely sensitive insight, as a man aware that he ought to be happy that he is going to marry this beautiful and attentive young woman who is nonetheless puzzled that he still experiences ‘a certain blankness of sensibility’ on the subject. Is his marital happiness his unskinned bear? Or does the epigraph relate to the later portion of the chapter, given over to Mr. Brooke’s dinner party attended by Lady Chettham, Lydgate, Vincy, Bulstrode and others?

We need a wider context. The line comes at the end of Fuller’s entry on ‘Mount-Edgecombe’ (now spelled ‘Mount Edgecumbe’) in Cornwall:

MOUNT-EDGECOMBE. It was built by Sir Richard Edgecombe, Knight […] In the Raign of Queen Mary (about the year 1555) he gave entertainment at one time, for some good space, to the Admirals of the English, Spanish, and Netherland, and many Noble-men besides. Mount Edgcombe was the scene of this Hospitality; a house new built and named by the aforesaid Knight, a square Structure with a round Turret at each end, garretted on the top. The Hall (rising above the rest) yieldeth a stately sound as one entereth it; the Parlour and Dyning-roome afford a large and diversified prospect both of Sea and Land. The high scituation (cool in Summer, yet not cold in Winter) giveth health: the neighbour River wealth: two Block-houses great safety: and the Town of Plymouth good company unto it. Nor must I forget the fruitful ground about it (pleasure without profit is but a Hower without a root); stored with Wood, Timber, Fruit, Deer, and Connies, a sufficiency of Pasture, Arable, and Meadow, with Stone, Lime, Marl, and what not.
I write not this to tempt the Reader to the breach of the Tenth Commandement, ‘covet his Neighbour’s house’; and one line in the prevention thereof: I have been credibly informed that the Duke of Medina Sidonia, Admiral of the Spanish Fleet in the year 88, was so affected at the sight of this House (though but beholding it at a distance, from the Sea) that he resolved it for his own possession in the partage of this Kingdome (blame him not if choosing best for himself), which they had pre-conquered in their hopes and expectation. But he had catch’d a great cold, had he had no other clothes to wear then those which were to be made of a skin of a Bear not yet killed.7

The whole passage contextualises Eliot’s line as being not about an arduous road to eventual consummation, but, on the contrary, as a quasi-proverbial expression for desiring a manifest impossibility. The Duke of Medina Sidonia never did get his hands on Mount Edgecumbe, after all. So perhaps the focus of the epigraph is Dorothea herself—ironically so, in the sense that she does come into wifely possession of a fine house. Such a (material) thing was never Dorothea’s goal, of course; she hoped for something more refined, spiritual and scholarly, but that—Eliot is saying—is like the Spanish Duke lusting after this English stately home.

The epigraph, in other words, is in its diffident way saying something large and profound, something with a pressing relevance to the novel. It is saying that we cannot free our looking-forward from the shape that our desires (conscious or unconscious) give to our anticipations, from the taint of hypocrisy; because such desiring, by being future-orientated, becomes inevitably defined by the inconsiderable. Praxis will subvene upon eros.

This is especially the case for Dorothea because her desire is unsimple—as our desire so often is. She does not (as it might be) simply desire Casaubon; she desires something larger than Casaubon, and believes—her heart believes, at any rate—that he is the route to reaching it. In the words of Patricia McKee ‘Dorothea’s desire is not a desire to be met but a desire to be exceeded by something larger than herself’.8 Her desire is at once a knowledge of her smallness and her ambition for greatness. Her desire, in other words, mediates not animal satisfactions nor social or material cupidity, but rather precisely the relation between the small and the large, between motto and majority.

We stand, small epigraphs, at the head of a large body of unread text—our future. Only when we have apprehended the latter will our relation to it, direct or ironic, clear or complex, become evident to us. That’s what it means to exist in time. It may be that our desire, like Rosamond, or Fred Vincy, is only for material comfort and status—a lovely house, say—but, Eliot’s novel suggests, this is not only subject to the vagaries, and so obliged to pay the price, of futurity as such; it also tangles us in more than we think. It gives us, whether we like it or not, skin in the game, bearish or other. What we end up doing in pursuit of such desire might be less than optimal: might be selfish, or bring suffering to others, or put them in financial danger, or ostracise them. It is not that bad actions are defensible as such; rather, it is just (Eliot is saying) that she prefers a bad action to a bad principle. And Eliot is right.

1 François-Pierre Guillaume Guizot, Cours D’Histoire Moderne: Histoire de la Civilisation en France (Paris: Didier, 1846), vol. 3, pp. 363–4, https://www.google.co.uk/books/edition/Histoire_de_la_civilisation_en_France/_A-HYbpWLgQC?hl=en&gbpv=1

2 Eliot, Middlemarch, ch. 61.

3 Ibid., ch. 38.

4 Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1990), p. 103.

5 David Runciman, Political Hypocrisy: The Mask of Power, from Hobbes to Orwell and Beyond (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), p. 130. Runciman makes a distinction between this kind of ‘first order’ hypocrisy, which he thinks is baked-into the political process, and what he calls ‘second order’ hypocrisy, in which politicians cynically exploit the public’s sense that a double-standard applies. He deplores this second kind of hypocrisy.

6 Thomas Fuller, The History of the Worthies of England [1662], ed. by John Nichols (London: F.C. and J. Rivington, 1811), vol. 1, p. 208.

7 Ibid.

8 Patricia McKee, Heroic Commitment in Richardson, Eliot, and James (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), p. 151.

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