*A truly cynical witticism by La Rochefoucauld.
Hypocrisy, or “frontin,” is one of the least respected vices in modern society. Observe its impact when a politician is revealed as an hypocrite, where his behavior or speech is insincere, that he pretends to be what he is not. When his credibility is shot, his career no longer exists.
However, hypocrisy was much worse during the Victorian age, where its exaggerated concern for the external appearance of virtue led to insincerity and deception. This concept is brilliantly exemplified in The Red and the Black, a magnificent representative of 19th century French literature. Stendhal’s claim to immortality lies in his perceptive writing that balances social commentary with psychological insights of the main characters, the arrogant yet clueless Julien, the virtuous Madam de Renal, and the impulsive Mademoiselle Mathilde de la Mole.
What I found most interesting was the portrayal of “hypocrisy” according to the protagonist’s perception and as the overall characteristic of society during the Restoration period. The trouble is, Julien despises hypocrisy, but at the same time, he realizes that in order to acquire success he has to give in and be hypocritical. He holds a romantic view of Napoleon, but conservatism has forbidden such sentiments. Since the only possible route for the son of a bourgeois is the priesthood, Julien learns Latin in order to impress Chelan, the local priest, and this is only the first of a long series of insincere acts that helps him to get ahead. Authenticity is cheap.
Rousseau, one of Stendhal’s philosophy muses, claims the source of hypocrisy is society itself because it is artificial and its members develop deformed natures. Society is deemed artificial because it imposes inequality among its members, especially when inherited social rank and inherited rank have nothing to do with the innate abilities of the person. Also, the artificiality of language creates a gap between the ideals and behavior in the real world. These ideals such as beauty, freedom, happiness, are all impossible to actualize in the real world because they are indefinable. There is nothing in the real world to correspond to these abstract ideals. The pursuit of abstractions in a socially invented hierarchy of wealth and rank causes psychological damage to people. One cannot truly live in an artificial world and escape the charge of hypocrisy.
Stendhal carefully showed how hypocrisy could betray a secret truth of character, and more importantly how the phony emphasis on piety actually drained all passion from the interactions of people in Parisian society.