I've started reading Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and something he wrote about the philosophers and religion made me think:

In their writings and conversation, the philosophers of antiquity asserted the independent dignity of reason; but they resigned their actions to the commands of law and of custom. Viewing, with a smile of pity and indulgence, the various errors of the vulgar, they diligently practised the ceremonies of their fathers, devoutly frequented the temples of the gods; and sometimes condescending to act a part on the theatre of superstition, they concealed the sentiments of an atheist under the sacerdotal robes.

In this day of 'practising what you preach', I can't imagine thinkers mimicking these habits. I can't imagine Christopher Hichens performing Communion or Richard Dawkins leading a prayer. If they did, they would seemingly lose all credibility.

I'd like to state that I'm not asking whether or not hypocrisy has become more common. I'm asking what has changed within society, in general, or in philosophy specifically, to make hypocrites more vilified than it seems they once were. And whether or not it is necessary, if you want to be taken seriously, to practise what you preach.

What changed?

  • Welcome! Your question as formulated is a little confusing; are you asking about hypocrisy in general, and whether it has become more common? (If so, it's probably a bit too broad.) Is there any chance I might be able to persuade you to tell us a little more about your context and motivations?
    – Joseph Weissman
    Jan 20, 2012 at 18:09
  • Yes, absolutely. I apologize. Should I just edit the original post? I'll do what I can to put it in the format required.
    – Robert Ray
    Jan 20, 2012 at 18:31
  • Yes, we definitely encourage making improving edits to your own questions. No apologies necessary; I would just like to enhance the likelihood of your question getting a great answer
    – Joseph Weissman
    Jan 20, 2012 at 19:18
  • To preach , you have to: 1. survive 2. Be socially tolerable . In modern times, both 1 and 2 are more relaxed.
    – user2411
    Nov 21, 2012 at 10:31

4 Answers 4


I think one could argue that tradition may have been valued more back then and important to retain respect in society; also because we are more aware of these kinds of ironies today and so they are not as easy to get away with.

The former reason hasn't entirely disappeared. Take religion for example; in many communities across the US, if you secretly write about atheism that's fine, but if you publicly proclaim it you will be ostracized.

The later reason is simply that we are more aware of it. The general public is more aware of logical contradictions; we have time to concern ourselves with these things. I would image the average man back in those days had real concerns like whether it was going to rain the next day so his crops could grow.

As an addendum I want to add though that I've never heard of such a position before (that ancient philosophers generally did not practice what they preach). If it is true then I imagine some of the basic social psych reasons which I offered above could be in play. It would be hard to otherwise imagine some sort of positive cultural feature that could account for such a practice (i.e. "they preferred to live lives of irony"). That, or I missed a LOT when taking Ancient Philosophy...

  • Good points. I must also admit that I have a U.S. bias, so I'm not sure if the things I see are indicative of what happens in other places in the world. It's interesting; where tradition may have been more valued in antiquity, we have patriotism here which seems to have taken its place.
    – Robert Ray
    Jan 20, 2012 at 21:30
  • Hopefully that doesn't last forever because in my opinion, blind patriotism is as naive as traditionalism... XD
    – stoicfury
    Nov 22, 2012 at 0:04

I don't think your comparison is apt; Cicero (to use Gibbon's example) had an entirely different project than Hitchens and Dawkins. Whereas the latter take on the task of arguing for atheism and against religion, Cicero was by no means an atheist; in De natura deorum he has characters describing the theologies of the Stoics, the Academics, and the Epicureans, and whereas the last-named are atheist, he does not endorse this position in particular (nor does he reject it.) In short, Cicero takes no stand against the religion of his day, so his taking part in the public rituals is by no means hypocritical; his commitment to the probity of reason is not an obstacle to participation in the church. Nor is Cicero unique in this regard; it is worth remembering that Darwin regularly attended his local parish church.

So, I don't think you've provided any evidence that hypocrisy was treated differently in antiquity than it is today.

  • From the reading, he doesn't point out Cicero, exclusively. He also mentions Lucian by name. But Gibbon also writes, "It was indifferent to them what shape the folly of the multitude might choose to assume, and they approached with the same inward contempt, and the same external reverence, the altars of the Libyan, the Olympian, and the Capitoline Jupiter." To me, that sounds like hypocrisy. I'm not sure if Gibbon's writing is evidence, as it is written far after the events he wrote about, but it's what I am using.
    – Robert Ray
    Jan 20, 2012 at 21:27

I can't imagine Hitchens performing Communion or Russell leading a prayer. If they did, they would seemingly lose all credibility.

I feel compelled to ask, what has credibility got to do with atheism or faith? Why should an atheist be considered more or less credible than someone who believes in a deity? If someone is a priest, yet philosophized the non-existence of God, would it hold that he were necessarily a hypocrite, or merely exploring another point of view and questioning his faith? If someone is a self-proclaimed atheist in public, but secretly prays to God, is he necessarily a hypocrite, or is he someone who is questioning his atheism - in some ways his faith?

In both cases, you could say that neither is strictly practicing what they preach, and yet it doesn't necessarily follow that they lack credibility if your own beliefs align with theirs. The Christian may say that the Atheist lacks credibility because history documents through scripture that God exists, and the evidence is irrefutable to those willing to see it. The Atheist likewise says that there is no fundamental basis for the existence of a supreme being and the evidence is irrefutable because there is no directly observable proof.

As to whether anything has changed, do we have any knowledge that confirms that ancient philosophers weren't vilified for an apparent hypocrisy? We do know that many were persecuted in their day for teaching heresies, so outwardly practicing hypocrisy would have been a means of survival, but not necessarily an indication that the philosophers themselves were actually hypocritical.

Is it any more necessary today to practice what you preach? Today we have technologies undreamed of in ancient times. I think that makes it so much harder for anyone today to preach one way, yet live another. In ancient times, your reputation could not be disproved merely on hearsay unless you had a particularly vocal and powerful opponent. These days, any kid with a smartphone can be your undoing. In some ways, it is therefore more important to practice what you preach. However, the general public can be quite forgiving. Give it a few years, and people will forget an indiscretion or two. Do some amazing good in the mean time, and they'll forgive you as well.

The cynic within me also feels compelled to point out that with good PR, even the most vilified individuals are likely to be portrayed positively enough that the odd hypocritical moment will be overlooked. Those who live a hypocritical daily existence however, are likely to be treated rather harshly, yet like those philosophers of old, each will have a loyal core following who will see past the practice in order to accept the preach. In that sense, perhaps things haven't really changed at all.

  • I think when you're considered an enthusiastic advocate for anything, credibility is important. Or at least it's seen as so. I don't think it's different whether you are a Christian/atheist/Muslim/etc. The reason I asked what I asked was specifically in response to Gibbon, who wrote in a tone that the philosophers of the day were not exploring their faith.
    – Robert Ray
    Jan 24, 2012 at 21:24
  • @RobertRay I hope you don't feel that I was making an argument specifically about faith or religion. Appearances and Perceptions are both very dependent on personal perspective, and can be powerful motivators to take action if a person believes their own core values are being challenged. Assumptions are likewise potentially dangerous to rational thinking. By highlighting other possible lines of thinking, I hope to show that perhaps people focus too strongly on what they see, thus closing their minds to other possibilities, with the truth lost somewhere along the way.
    – S.Robins
    Jan 24, 2012 at 21:39

A little terminological clear-up, first. 'Practise what you preach' is usually directed to people who tell others to do one thing (give up smoking) but don't act on the advice themselves (a doctor tells her patients to give up smoking but smokes regularly herself). I'm not sure I'd call this 'hypocrisy'. I see hypocrisy as the self-conscious deception of others. The hypocrite talks and acts in ways meant to deceive others. She pretends to have beliefs, motives, intentions, that she does not have. Not quite the same thing.

But I take the question to be about hypocrisy. The final paragraph of the question is dominated by it.

If there has been a rise in hypocrisy, there is a connection with the rise of individualism, both liberal and existentialist, as a virtue. (A diverse pairing, I know.) The ideal of the individual as living authentically according to her or his own values, and not automatically heeding conventions and customs, and deciding that if you don't respect some practice or institution why pay it the tribute of hypocritically appearing to esteem or approve of it ?

Consider an example :

How many gays pretended to be straight in 1918 ? 1938 ? Now when gaylife is widely - I don't say universally - accepted as an equally valid lifestyle, especially by gays themselves, appearing to be straight seems an imposition and an inauthentic way of 'being in the world' as Heidegger might say. If you're 'glad to be gay', why pretend you're not ? Unless of course you live in a homophobic culture but I assume otherwise here.

There is, I'm pretty sure, a link between the rise of this kind of humanistic or Enlightenment individualism and a decline of hypocrisy at least in select areas of life. Philosophically the influence of Kant, with his idea of the self-legislating individual who follows laws she or he has adopted autonomously and not from custom or convention, deserves mention. Such an individual has no reason even to pretend to be what others want him or her to be. Sartrean existentialism coincides with much the same line of thought, though the influence of Kant even on persons who have never heard of him has been much greater.

Yet another kind of individualism has played a part in the decline of hypocrisy- the egoistic individualism of homo economicus in which each pursues his or her own interests regardless of those of others - or takes account of others' interests only in order to further his or her own. The egoistic individual is disconnected from any traditional social order, customs and conventions. To the extent that we do not belong to a community we have no motive to pretend hypocritically to respect a community's values. Communal values of fairness, care or sympathy are not worth even simulating. I am describing a point of view, not endorsing it. Yet we see this kind of individualism at work in economies where, for instance, CEOs award themselves disproportionately to company performance or to the salaries of staff further down the ladder. There is not even a straight-faced attempt to justify the disproportion. A hypocrite would at least pretend that the disproportion was fair. This is not a general indictment of CEOs, just a pointer to the egoistic individualism of some.

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