The Cult of Virtue — Part Three

David Proud
27 min readOct 31, 2020

‘It is part of education, of thinking as the consciousness of the single in the form of universality, that the ego comes to be apprehended as a universal person in which all are identical. A man counts as a man in virtue of his manhood alone, not because he is a Jew, Catholic, Protestant, German, Italian, &c. This is an assertion which thinking ratifies and to be conscious of it is of infinite importance. It is defective only when it is crystallised, e.g. as a cosmopolitanism in opposition to the concrete life of the state’.

- Hegel, ‘Elements of the Philosophy of Right’.

October, 2020, being Black History Month, UK supermarket chain Sainsbury’s accordingly posted a statement on their website concerning the actions they have been undertaking to support their co-workers: ‘Recently we provided our black colleagues with a safe space to gather in response to The Black Lives Matters movement’, by which of course they meant Black Lives Matter, the solecism itself should have alerted someone to the error. The presupposition here being that black people in general are fundamentally all alike in character or outlook and in agreement with regard to political ideas and fully supportive of the Black Lives Matter movement. In addition Sainsbury’s informed their Twitter followers on October 1: ‘We are proud to celebrate Black History Month together with our Black colleagues, customers and communities and we will not tolerate racism. We proudly represent and serve our diverse society and anyone who does not want to shop with an inclusive retailer is welcome to shop elsewhere’.

Such open expressions of moral fortitude and demonstrations of worthy deeds one may suppose to be driven by a desire for societal eminence and self-righteous self-approbation with the primary intention being that of enhancing the image of the company, which is rather odd given that it is doubtful that there are many who will have attained to such a high level of naivety as to view such statements as anything other than what they are, disingenuous, hollow, and hypocritical, with the consequence that the company is being boycotted in certain quarters precisely for moral reasons, its patronising stance towards a particular demographic, its promotion of racial segregation; its ensuring their senior board are well-versed in critical race theory, that is, the view that institutions, particularly legal ones as well as mercantile, are inherently racist, that race itself far from having any natural basis in biology, is a social construct developed by white people and utilised by them for the furtherance of their political and economic interests at the expense of non-whites; from which it transpires that out of the social, economic, and legal variances that white people have constructed between races, racial inequality emerges in virtue of such variances and which serves to sustain privileged white interests in politics, and in the labour market, causing to exist both impecuniousness and criminal activity within many minority communities.

A blatant instance of hypocritical virtue signalling then; a retailer conferring upon their customers moral guidance in order that they may take a good hard look at themselves and try to be better people, while at the same time advocating for the raising of racial consciousness with none of their white management intending to give up their position to be replaced by non-whites; discriminating in favour of non-white colleagues through granting them extra support thereby utilising race, a social construct created by white people, to now serve black interests. And how far is such special treatment to extend? Were I to be caught shoplifting in Sainsbury’s, a mature adult knowing the difference between right and wrong, it would be reasonable enough that I were punished and permanently excluded from all of their stores, and yet were a non-white caught shoplifting it is systemic white oppression that led to such behaviour and not only should they not be punished but in the name of social justice and the righting of social injustices perhaps they should even be allowed to keep whatever it was they lifted; but as far as I am aware Sainsbury’s has no such policy. ‘What quagmires and mendacity must there be about if it is possible, in the modern European hotch-potch, to raise questions of ‘race’!’, said Friedrich Nietzsche, (1844–1900), ‘Maxim: To associate with no man who takes any part in the mendacious race swindle’.

Kurt Seligmanni, ‘The Outcast’, 1947

But wait! Assuming a pompous self-satisfied stance from a position of self-appointed authority, may not such a charge equally be levelled at those who are boycotting Sainsbury’s? And upon what basis must we necessarily assume someone opposing our beliefs and ideas are disingenuous, sacrificing knowledge on the altar of sanctimony, maintaining the pretence of some quite apparent falsehood being true while knowing full well that it is false? The world is a complex business, one’s own pronouncements upon it hardly indubitable and free from error, and concerning any political policy characterised by debate and controversy the rightness or wrongness of it can never be a straightforward matter. And of course certain beliefs may seem to us as idiotic but it does not necessarily follow that the purveyors of such beliefs are disingenuous, they may well just be idiots. Furthermore, denouncing others as virtue signallers is unlikely to incline one towards questioning one’s own beliefs as any philosopher should; indeed, it more likely encourages dogmatism, a disinclination to even reflect upon ideas that one may take to be obviously erroneous, in virtue of one having at the outset summarily dismissed those who disagree with one as insincere, not really believing what they purport to believe.

Virtue signalling, it is asserted, evinces hypocrisy, and yet those doing the accusing of virtual signalling are themselves signalling that their own arguments are simply at the service of sincerely held beliefs; but discarding another’s beliefs that are taken to be obviously false as simple virtue signalling then liberates the accuser from the burdensome task of granting that other’s beliefs proper consideration; thereby licencing them with the right to do likewise with the accuser’s beliefs. Healthy self-doubt is abandoned in the process; indeed, one may question my use of the word cult in title of this series, the word intended in the sense of signifying a religious-like dogmatic system of, or a faddish devotion to, spurious ideas, a word with disparaging connotations, frequently employed in ad hominem assaults directed towards those unorthodox collectives that happen to espouse differing doctrines or practices from the norm, in effect, insofar as the term applies to a religion, a cult is a religion that we do not like; is not thereby my discussion already loaded with my own specific outlook and prejudices? It may well appear so, and yet, so many important factors have been absent from this discussion so far hence its lack of proper philosophical depth; the human condition, the nature of being and existence, of truth and lies, of innocence and guilt, of freedom and bondage, of justice and inequity, of judging and of being judged.

Girolamo da Treviso the Younger, ‘A Protestant Allegory’, 1542–44

[The English Reformation, formally sanctioned by the Act of Supremacy of 1534, whereby Henry VIII broke away from the Church of Rome and was established as head of the Church of England. Here a pope sprawls on the ground, flanked by two female figures representing avarice and hypocrisy, all of whom are being stoned by the four evangelists]

Enter Jean-Baptiste Clamence, judge-penitent, the central character and narrator of Albert Camus’, (1930–1916), ‘The Fall’, quondam highly successful well-respected Parisian defence lawyer Jean-Baptiste leading an essentially perfect life the bulk his work centring around cases involving widows and orphans, the poor and disenfranchised that are otherwise incapable of providing for themselves a proper defence before the law; a man of virtue who enjoyed giving friendly directions to strangers on the streets, giving up to others his seat on the bus, giving alms to the poor, and helping the blind to cross the street. In brief, Jean-Baptiste’s self-conception was of a man living purely for the sake of others and achieving more than the vulgar ambitious man and rising to that supreme summit where virtue is its own reward. And in his job he knew well the value of virtue all right, as he explains to his interlocutor that he has met in a tavern in Amsterdam:

‘But, after all, I was on the right side; that was enough to satisfy my conscience. The feeling of the law, the satisfaction of being right, the joy of self-esteem, cher monsieur, are powerful incentives for keeping us upright or keeping us moving forward. On the other hand, if you deprive men of them, you transform them into dogs frothing with rage. How many crimes committed merely because their authors could not endure being wrong! I once knew a manufacturer who had a perfect wife, admired by all, and yet he deceived her. That man was literally furious to be in the wrong, to be blocked from receiving, or granting himself, a certificate of virtue. The more virtues his wife manifested, the more vexed he became. Eventually, living in the wrong became unbearable to him. What do you think he did then? He gave up deceiving her? Not at all. He killed her. That is how I entered into relations with him’.

So what happened to the lawyer that he became a judge-penitent, a judge now doing penance? Why is he now seated in a seedy bar called Mexico City situated in Amsterdam, in its red-light district as it happens, delivering his confessions to a stranger? Jean-Baptiste, lover of high, open places, everything from mountain summits to the uppermost decks of boats. ‘I have never felt comfortable’, he explains, ‘except in lofty surroundings. Even in the details of daily life, I need to feel above’. Amsterdam, a city beneath sea-level, a cold, wet place where a thick blanket of fog is constantly hanging over the crowded, neon-light-lined streets. And then the canals that put Jean-Baptist in mind of Dante’s, (1265–1321), ‘Inferno’: ‘Have you noticed that Amsterdam’s concentric canals resemble the circles of hell? The middle-class hell, of course, peopled with bad dreams. When one comes from the outside, as one gradually goes through those circles, life — and hence its crimes — becomes denser, darker. Here, we are in the last circle’. The last circle of hell, Amsterdam’s red-light district, the location of a bar named Mexico City, which Jean-Baptiste is now frequenting nightly, the setting serving to illustrate, both literally and metaphorically, Jean-Baptiste’s fall from the heights of bourgeois Parisian society to the dark and dismal Dante-evoking underworld of Amsterdam, where tortured souls amble about, without purpose, amongst one another.

Claude Monet, ‘Canal in Amsterdam’, 1874

Upon crossing the Pont Royal late one night homeward bound after having previously called upon his mistress Jean-Baptiste encounters a woman attired in black leaning over the edge of the bridge; he hesitates for one moment, reflecting upon an unusual sight at that time of night in particular given the emptiness of the streets, but he continues on his way regardless. and having only strolled a little distance he hears the distinct sound of a body hitting the water; whereupon he ceases his stroll, knowing full well what has occurred, and yet he does nothing, not so much as even turning around; the noise of screaming is repeated several times while it goes downstream until it abruptly ceases: ‘The silence that followed, as the night suddenly stood still, seemed interminable. I wanted to run and yet didn’t move an inch. I was trembling, I believe from cold and shock. I told myself that I had to be quick and felt an irresistible weakness steal over me. I have forgotten what I thought then. ‘Too late, too far… or something of the sort. I was still listening as I stood motionless. Then, slowly, in the rain, I went away. I told no one’.

Despite Jean-Baptiste’s self-image having been of one who is a selfless advocate for the weak and disadvantaged, he simply turns a blind eye to the incident and continues on his way, at a later time expounding upon his failure to do anything as most likely explicable in terms of his having to do something would thereby oblige him to endanger his own safety. Some years pass after the apparent suicide of the woman off the Pont Royal, during which time Jean-Baptiste underwent an apparently successful effort to purge the whole event from his memory, and Jean-Baptiste is making his way home one evening in Autumn after an especially satisfactory day of work when he pauses upon the empty Pont des Arts and ponders: ‘I was happy. The day had been good: a blind man, the reduced sentence I had hoped for, a cordial handclasp from my client, a few generous actions and, in the afternoon, a brilliant improvisation in the company of several friends on the hard-handedness of our governing class and the hypocrisy of our leaders. … I felt rising within me a vast feeling of power and — I don’t know how to express it — of completion, which cheered my heart. I straightened up and was about to light a cigarette, the cigarette of satisfaction, when, at that very moment, a laugh burst out behind me’.

Upon turning around Jean-Baptiste discovers of course that the laughter, of course was not directed at him, very likely it originated from a distant conversation between friends, such is the rational course of his thought; nonetheless, as he informs us: ‘I could still hear it distinctly behind me, coming from nowhere unless from the water’. The laughter is thereby disquieting because at once it puts him in mind of his blatant failure to do anything at all about the woman who had one supposes drowned a few years before. This is an unhappy, unfortunate coincidence for Jean-Baptiste; he is reminded of his failure precisely at the moment when he is applauding himself for being such a selfless individual; and further, the laughter is described as a ‘good, hearty, almost friendly laugh’, implying that the meaning of the laughter originated within himself, just as later when deciding whether or not to go out from his apartment the laughter of youths below his window dissuades him for in any case he has work to do; and when going to the bathroom for a glass of water: ‘My reflection was smiling in the mirror, but it seemed to me that my smile was double … ‘. For the evening on the Pont des Arts has come to signify for Jean-Baptiste the collision of his true self with his bloated self-image, and the eventual awareness of his own hypocrisy becomes achingly apparent.

And there’s the rub, once we have come to realize something about ourselves there can be no reclaiming of things as they were; no doubt, for instance, were I to be drafted and sent off to the battlefield I would very probably discover things about myself that I would prefer not to know; that I am a coward maybe, or that I enjoy killing; and whatever I learn about myself I can never unlearn it. Jean-Baptiste revels in his virtue, and simple laughter is enough to generate at once the thought that he let a woman drown years ago without doing anything to assist her; and now that he knows he is a hypocrite he is confident that the rest of the world is fully cognizant of his duplicity as well; what an abrupt transformation, from self-assured highly laudable man of good standing to a paranoid individual convinced that everyone is judging him. But upon further reflection he recognises that everyone is judging everyone else; and upon even further reflection he arrives at an awareness of everyone being guilty of something, and thus we are always going to be judged, we are always going to be condemned, and yet naturally enough Jean-Baptiste desires neither to be judged nor laughed at.

So what is the solution? Whatever he attempts only adds to his criminal record, so to speak, seeking distraction through retreating into the world of women, for instance, thereby hoping to escape from the judgemental regard of men, but he treats women badly and he knows it; or debauchery, or alcohol, momentary distractions and by no means permanent solutions, indeed, only serving to heighten his sense of guilt. And suicide is not the solution either for there is very little fun to be had in that. The solution he at last comes up with is a rather odd one given that it is the very thing he is trying to escape from; through being judged. Freedom, as existentialists like to inform us, is burdensome, and to remain free requires our proving our innocence which is to be done by standing up in court and having someone judge us; but by relinquishing our burdensome and in effect giving ourselves up to slavery we no longer have to be judged; never mind due judicial process in establishing your guilt or otherwise, just be sent straight to jail; for it is not punishment that is the issue, it is being judged:

‘Threat, dishonour, police are the sacraments of that resemblance. Scorned, hunted down, compelled, I can then show what I am worth, enjoy what I am, be natural at last. This is why, très cher, after having solemnly paid my respects to freedom, I decided on the sly that it had to be handed over without delay to anyone who comes along. And every time I can, I preach in my church of Mexico City, I invite the good people to submit to authority and humbly to solicit the comforts of slavery, even if I have to present it as true freedom’.

But this kind of universal slavery is not a real possibility; so by way of a temporary solution Jean-Baptiste embarks upon a temporary solution involving a reversal in his reasoning in the manner of Nicolaus Copernicus, (1473–1543). who informed the world that the earth rotates around the sun, and not the other way around as previously believed. Absurdist logic is now brought into play. Jesus not defending himself is an instance of this. ‘Yes, it was the third evangelist, I believe’, Jean-Baptiste explains, ‘who first suppressed his complaint. ‘Why hast thou forsaken me?’ — it was a seditious cry, wasn’t it? Well, then, the scissors! Mind you, if Luke had suppressed nothing, the matter would hardly have been noticed; in any case, it would not have assumed such importance. Thus the censor shouts aloud what he proscribes. The world’s order likewise is ambiguous’. Through omission attention is drawn to what is omitted; Jean-Baptiste does not want to be judged, yet all men and women judge one another in order to avoid being judged themselves; but by a Copernican reversal of reasoning one can judge oneself in order to judge another, for judging oneself and judging another are in effect the same thing. And so now he is a penitential judge, confessing his own sins while condemning the other for theirs. And Jean-Baptiste is a hypocrite no more. still engaging in duplicity for sure, but admitting to it, acting as he has done all along, but now being honest about it, with no requirement to avoid being judged for he has deprived judgment of its meaning; through confessing guilt to a judge then getting judged as guilty no longer matters.

Through confessing his sins Jean-Baptiste has merely avoids judgment but in addition proves his innocence; or owning up to his guilt in order to avoid judgment, which is true of course if his confession happens to be a genuine; and yet his confession is just as much an accusation of you, dear reader, as it is about his own sins. Jean-Baptiste used to tell his law students that, if they want to defend a murderer, they should talk about their own sins, for if everyone of us guilty we can hardly condemn a murderer for being guilty. Jean-Baptiste renders guilt and innocence as relative terms, and he informs you that in order to prove your innocence: ‘it is not enough to accuse yourself in order to clear yourself; otherwise, I’d be as innocent as a lamb. One must accuse oneself in a certain way, which it took me considerable time to perfect. I did not discover it until I fell into the most utterly forlorn state. Until then, the laughter continued to drift my way, without my random efforts succeeding in divesting it of its benevolent, almost tender quality that hurt me’. And this certain way is to accuse yourself by simultaneously accusing others; we should all be judge-penitents, becoming innocent through making the other guilty. Absurdist logic you see, appropriate for an absurd world.

William Hogarth, ‘The Bench’, c. 1758

But wait! Is not the ultimate existential value that of authenticity? And how is that even achievable? According to Jean-Paul Sartre, (1905–1980), and without delving too deeply into the murky world of Sartrean metaphysics, there is such a thing as the human condition, which he terms facticity, there are facts about ourselves that we have not chosen, where we were born, our attributes, skin colour (!) for instance, our capabilities, though they can be worked upon, but there is also such a thing as transcendence, now this is where free choice comes into play, what we aspire to, what inspires us, and the like; facticity is based upon observable facts, transcendence is based upon the relation of consciousness to an object (not just material object) oriented world; there is always more to an object than meets the eye, to put it crudely. And if another is viewed strictly as an object (as happens when judging another, I haven’t lost sight of the theme of this article, in case you were wondering), that other is then a transcendence transcended. And freedom belongs to our facticity, for I may well be free to choose this or that, but I am not free not to choose this or that. I did not ask to be brought into this world but now that I have been I now have to make choices. Although, as it happens, Sartre did write, in ‘Existentialism and Human Emotions’, 1957:

‘Someone will say, ‘I did not ask to be born’. This is a naive way of throwing greater emphasis on our facticity. I am responsible for everything, in fact, except for my very responsibility, for I am not the foundation of my being. Therefore everything takes place as if I were compelled to be responsible. I am abandoned in the world, not in the sense that I might remain abandoned and passive in a hostile universe like a board floating on the water, but rather in the sense that I find myself suddenly alone and without help, engaged in a world for which I bear the whole responsibility without being able, whatever I do, to tear myself away from this responsibility for an instant. For I am responsible for my very desire of fleeing responsibilities. To make myself passive in the world, to refuse to act upon things and upon Others is still to choose myself, and suicide is one mode among others of being-in-the-world. Yet I find an absolute responsibility for the fact that my facticity (here the fact of my birth) is directly inapprehensible and even inconceivable, for this fact of my birth never appears as a brute fact but always across a projective reconstruction of my for-itself [i.e. consciousness]. I am ashamed of being born or I am astonished at it or I rejoice over it, or in attempting to get rid of my life I affirm that I live and I assume this life as bad. Thus in a certain sense I choose being born’.

‘Man is condemned to be free’, according to Sartre. But our freedom is burdensome, an existentialist position towards it that we have already noted, and so we set about distracting ourselves from the fact that we are aware of our own freedom and responsibility; we pretend to ourselves that we are not free, in the hope of convincing ourselves; and this is self-deception, which Sartre terms bad faith, from which phenomenon Sartre concludes that consciousness is contradictory and paradoxical; ‘it is what it is not and is not what is’, as he puts it in ‘Being and Nothingness’, 1943. That is to say, it breaks the law of identity, whereby for all things x, x = x. If consciousness is x, then x does not = x, and not in the sense that it is separated from its past or future self but rather it is separated from its present self. The question then arises as to how a successful self-deception is possible, whereby the deceiver, that knows the truth about whatever he or she is being deceptive about, and the deceived, that does not know the truth, are one and the same entity.

Sigmund Freud, (1856–1939), appealed to the notion of an unconscious to deal with this problem, but Sartre sets about demolishing that solution; not only is there no such thing as a Freudian unconscious but even supposing that there were, the contradiction remains. Freud compartmentalised the mind; one compartment knows the truth, the other does not; consciousness, the ego, is kept blissfully in the dark about what is going on deep down in the unconscious, the id, due to the operations of a censor filtering out unpleasant truths, but Sartre cites instances for which such a Freudean analysis cannot provide a proper account.

Frigid women, for instance, the subject of a clinical report by psychoanalyst Wilhelm Stekel, (1868–1940), ‘Frigidity in Women’, 1926. Steckel’s account of the matter runs as follows: according to the husband’s testimony his wife apparently gives all the objective signs of pleasure during sex, though she insisted that she did not; there is no reason to suppose that she was be anything less than perfectly frank about this, she believed what she was saying; and of course it will be objected that this obviously brutish husband was too wrapped up in his own self-esteem he was unaware that this was in fact excruciatingly vexatious for his wife; but this is to misunderstand the point being made here, for even if such cases do not occur in the way that Steckel or Sartre describes them the significant factor in all of this is that in the description just given we can recognize a particular kind of behaviour, sexual or not, that we all engage in and which Freud can give no account, that is to say, the behaviour of the wife is a sort of attempt to distract herself from something that she knows all too well, and Freudian theory confuses the motive or reason for the deception, in psychoanalytical terms this is the the complex, with the truth that she is deceived about.

Contemplation’, Félix Armand Heullant, (1834–1905)

That is to say, the frigid woman attempts to turn herself into God. Now where did that come from? I know you are thinking. Well, this term to be understood in the technical sense in which Sartre uses it whereby consciousness tries to become what it is, but only the mind of God is identical with itself; and to become God is the project upon which we are all engaged, and yet the desired end is impossible to achieve. ‘Man is a futile passion’, as Sartre puts it. Indeed, whether we are atheists are not, with everything we do being aimed at an absent God this may well account for such things as virtue coming to be in the world in the first place, that there is a sense of an ultimate good, despite the fact that the source of it is not there, at least not in the sense that is suppose. Christian apologists such as William Lane Craig, (1949 -), like to happily assert (I will not say argue) that if God did not exist then objective moral values and duties do not exist, but objective moral values and duties do exist and therefore God exists. But God is sufficient unto Himself merely as a notion of a being that is what it is, no actual existence required.

Freedom leads to anguish, according to Sartre, indeed, anguish provides a proof of our freedom; and so we may opt for emphasizing our facticity at the expense of our transcendence, that is to say, our freedom; and this is also how we treat others, denying their freedom, emphasizing their facticity. Does not this present an obstacle for Jean-Baptiste’s Copernican reversal? In judging ourselves we may reverse the process and emphasise our transcendence at the expense of our facticity; in facing up to shameful episodes from our past (not going to the assistance of someone who is suicidal for instance) we may say, oh yes, that is what I did, but I am not the person that I was, I am reborn. One might even find God, for it is of no matter whether he exists or not: ‘Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God’. (John 3:3). Or a prisoner seeking parole may well claim that he is not what he was and actually believe it; and yet, our facticity and our freedom are not the kinds of things that we can really succeed in deceiving ourselves about in virtue of every act of consciousness that we make being a free act in a situation and every act of consciousness is at some minimal level aware of what it is doing (Sartre has rejected the unconscious remember); hence we cannot ultimately escape being conscious of our transcendence, which is to say, our freedom, and of our facticity, yet we can distract ourselves from them.

Self-deception has hitherto been characterised in terms of knowledge, the deceiver knows the truth, the deceived does not know the truth, thus yielding a contradiction; but just like Jean-Baptiste wandering around the circles of Hell we need to keep going deeper and deeper; the frigid woman at some minimal level does not know she is feeling pleasure, in denying that she does she speaks honestly though not necessarily truly; but given that to be conscious is to be at the very least minimally self-consciousness she is fully aware of the pleasure; that is where the deceiving activity is situated. But according to Sartre: ‘We must abandon the primacy of knowledge’, which is to say, this minimal self-awareness is not knowledge; for Sartre has confined knowledge to full-blown consciousness, a consciousness that knows its objects; and since such minimal self-awareness is not knowledge the frigid woman cannot be said to know that she feels pleasure; and the contradiction goes away given that she is aware that she feels pleasure, at a minimal level of self-awareness, but she does not know that she does.

But then, what we have here is no longer self-deception, it would appear; something has gone awry. If our frigid woman positively believed, as opposed to knew, she was not feeling pleasure, this would imply that there are at least two senses of belief; one sense in which belief is compatible with, and in fact is implied by, knowledge, for I cannot know something if I do not believe it, knowledge might even be defined as justified true belief; and then there is belief pure and simple. I believe that you are enjoying reading this article but I do not know that you are, such a belief falls short of knowledge and this is the kind of belief that is involved in self-deception, Sartre characterises belief and knowledge in terms of ‘the adherence of being to its object’, which is to say, for consciousness to adhere to an object is for consciousness to commit itself to an object; and when the object is given vaguely or obscurely the evidence for this given is inadequate; were it adequate the object would be giving of itself and no longer would it be belief that is under consideration but knowledge in full bloom; which is to say, commit oneself to the perfectly obvious and one cannot help but assent to it and nothing is left to be done, it is merely an issue of opening up one’s mental vision and taking note of the evidence.

Rene Magritte, ‘A Famous Man’, 1926

But if what one commits oneself to is not so obvious, then this involves an effort to believe it. ‘The lady doth protest too much, methinks’ said Queen Gertrude, in ‘Hamlet’, in response to the insincere overacting of a character in the play within a play, her statement indicative of doubt with regard to the character’s sincerity in their protestations of love, as if she were trying to convince herself rather than others that her love was real and heart-felt. This is the very kind of thing that Freud cannot explain, according to Sartre. To return to our frigid woman, there may be a hidden motive for her denial and which perhaps Freud could explain though the motive is not that well hidden; but that is not all she is deceived about, and the remainder of the deception is something that lies outside of his theory; for self-deception involves belief in the sense of commitment to some view or claim, and given that self-deception is not knowledge, the evidence for the claim necessarily is less than adequate; but though one cannot believe x, in this sense of belief, without being minimally aware of believing x, given that every act of consciousness is fully conscious of an object and minimally conscious of itself; in this sense one cannot believe x without one being aware that one is adhering to something for which one has at the very best inadequate evidence. That is to say, one must be aware that one is making oneself believe it, despite the lack of evidence, and the more one is aware that one is making oneself believe, that one has to make oneself believe if one are going to believe at all, that one’s evidence is insufficient, the more one is aware that one could be mistaken,

The more one tries to disallow such a possibility the more strenuously one has to work, and subsequently the more one is aware of having to do that work in virtue of the inadequacy of the evidence; that is, the more firmly one adheres to whatever it is one is endeavouring to convince oneself of, the more apparent it becomes that one is becoming unstuck and one’s belief is being undermined. The more one believes the less one believes, as Sartre explains: ‘Every belief is a belief that falls short; one never wholly believes what one believes’. … ‘To believe is not-to-believe’, and this is the contradiction that infects self-deception; making oneself believe in make believe, and what this entails is that self-deception is not endeavouring to be self-deception, it is striving to be knowledge, and that it can ever be; it is a metastable notion, to put it in Sartrean terminology, unstable, continually portending a fragmentation, and all the while sustainable for quite long durations.

One might compare the Sartrean definition of subjectivity with Søren Kierkegaard’s, (1813–1855), truth as subjectivity, ‘an objective uncertainty held fast in an appropriation process of the most passionate inwardness’. One detects a significant similarity between the two notions, indeed, they are really the same thing, and yet (and this is the kind of thing that makes existentialism whatever may be subsumed under that term somewhat problematical for me) what Kierkegaard regarded as something to be treasured, an existential virtue one might say, for Sartre, subsuming it as he does under the notion of bad faith or self-deception, it is an existential vice. When one believes or firmly adheres to an object in this sense all the effort derives from oneself, which Kierkegaard regards as a wonderful thing, whereas were one to engage with something as plain as the nose on one’s face one has no need to bring oneself to believe it, for in the face of blindingly obvious and overwhelming evidence one is compelled to assent to it. But in the case of that which is not overwhelmingly obvious, one has to work oneself up into believing it; oneself is the one doing it; truly a glorious achievement, thought Kierkegaard, for where is the glory in believing something in the absence of the believer’s active role, his or her own input and efforts, in the acquisition of that belief. But while Sartre is in agreement with the mechanism in operation here, is overall evaluation of what is going on differs markedly; self-deception is inevitable, that is; perhaps not every type of self-deception, but for the self-deception of the frigid woman it assuredly is; she is reflecting and she is deceived about herself; it cannot be avoided.

Were one try to avoid it then one tries to be sincere; to see oneself for what one really is; but one is what one is not and is not what one is; how then can one objectively and courageously face up to what on really is if one necessarily is not what one is? An attempt to look at oneself objectively is doomed to fail at the very first hurdle for there is nothing objective about oneself, apart from one’s facticity of course, and to persist in thinking otherwise is to sustain the pretence that one’s transcendence having it’s determining limits; that we are definable; that there is a real us; that there is a settled and determinate truth about ourselves and that it falls upon our shoulders to face up to it fearlessly. But this is not the case, and the very endeavour to be sincere in general is simply another, especially beguiling and entrapping mode of being in bad faith once again; for the objective of attempting to be sincere an impossible objective to attain; the requirement being to be what one is, of endeavouring to be God.

Salvador Dali, ‘Phantasmagoria’, 1930

But wait! If it is impossible to be sincere then it is surely impossible to be insincere as well; to return to where I began, who are the virtuous and who are the signallers of virtue? Who are the sincere and who are the hypocrites? And what of Jean-Baptiste who believes he has found a way to no longer be a hypocrite, his project doomed at the outset whatever he supposes the solution to be? He cannot even be a penitent judge. He cannot be anything. One needs to probe even more deeply into these issues, to bring something back that is more in accord with our intuitions concerning others and the judgements we pass upon them, and that for me will provide some kind of a sense of a rational or ethical justification for my decision to no longer shop at Sainsbury’s.

To be continued …..


Dream Song 66: ‘All virtues enter into this world:’)

by John Berryman (1914–1972)

‘All virtues enter into this world:’)

A Buddhist, doused in the street, serenely burned.

The Secretary of State for War,

winking it over, screwed a redhaired whore.

Monsignor Capovilla mourned. What a week.

A journalism doggy took a leak

against absconding coon (‘but take one virtue,

without which a man can hardly hold his own’)

the sun in the willow

shivers itself & shakes itself green-yellow

(Abba Pimen groaned, over the telephone,

when asked what that was:)

How feel a fellow then when he arrive

in fame but lost? but affable, top-shelf.

Quelle sad semaine.

He hardly know his selving. (‘that a man’)

Henry grew hot, got laid, felt bad, survived

(‘should always reproach himself’.

Henry features recurrently in Berryman’s poetry bearing a striking resemblance to the poet, yet Berryman insisted his readers understood that Henry was a fictional version of himself, a literary alter ego. In an interview, he claimed: ‘Henry does resemble me, and I resemble Henry; but on the other hand I am not Henry. You know, I pay income tax; Henry pays no income tax. And bats come over and they stall in my hair — and f*** them, I’m not Henry; Henry doesn’t have any bats’. But given the versions we create of ourselves which are the fictional? Which the real? And is he not here emphasising his facticity at the expense of his transcendence?

René Magritte, ‘La Double Réalité’, 1936



David Proud

David Proud is a British philosopher currently pursuing a PhD at the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool, on Hegel and James Joyce.