Sham and Sincerity
If mechanical work has the limitations cited, it is what we call the higher vocations that involve just the gravest dangers, for in these we are subject to all sorts of pressures and bonds from social forces, and immediate worldly success often results from pretense and deceit. Thoreau understood that. He found he could not preach, in a conventional pulpit, and be honest, because he would have to say what would please his congregation. He could not teach school, because his behavior and teaching would have to fit the views of his patrons:
“I have thoroughly tried school-keeping, and found that my expenses were in proportion, or rather out of proportion, to my income, for I was obliged to dress and train, not to say think and believe, accordingly, and I lost my time into the bargain. As I did not teach for the good of my fellow-men, but simply for a livelihood, this was a failure.”- Thoreau, Walden
So he earned his living by a simple form of mechanical labor, lived on a few cents a day, and taught what he believed, without payment. That is one solution, but not attractive to many.
“The public is the greatest of sophists,” said Plato; and for a time the premium does seem to be placed on appearance rather than reality. Take so high a calling as that of a minister, the physician of the spirit: expected to be a moral model in the community (which none of us is worthy to be), preaching largely to women, with little opportunity for frank comradeship with the men of his congregation, pushed by the world’s demand on to a pedestal apart — the danger is that he will come to dwell on how he appears rather than what he is, which is the high road to hypocrisy. Thus the minister who remains entirely sincere, with no touch of pretense or affectation, is a saint of the spirit and should be honored as such.
For a time it aids the physician to assume an air of mysterious omniscience, whimsically illustrated in Latin prescriptions. It is further to his advantage that many persons should be ill, as long a time as possible. You see the temptation. The Chinese, with their usual contradiction of Western civilization, seem alone to have solved the problem. With them, we are told, the physician receives a salary while every member of the family is entirely well. One case of illness stops the pay till the patient is cured. That is one way!
It is to the lawyer’s interest that persons should quarrel, and that reconciliation should be long and difficult. The more the law is filled with intricate complexities and absurd technicalities, the greater is the need for the professional lawyer and the larger his fees. Further, the system that pays him to give his mind to the task of making seem true, what often he does not believe true, involves grave strain on his own mental integrity. There are examples where great lawyers have refused to undertake the defense of any accused person in whose innocence they did not sincerely believe, but the young practitioner in criminal law will tell you it is quite impossible to follow that rule and win a career.
What vocation is higher than that of the teacher, concerned with building the human spirit in children and young people? How often, with all the high opportunities of the calling, one finds the teacher acquiring all the unfortunate “ear-marks ” of the vocation — the assertive manner, high-pitched voice, didactic assurance in expressing narrow opinions — characteristics springing from dealing habitually with immature minds and exercising authority over them.
James Mill pointed out that magazine literature must succeed in the week or month in which it is published, and therefore the easiest way to success is to catch and express just the whim on the surface of public opinion. The temptation so to cater is strong on writer, editor and publisher alike. Further, responding to some vulgar interest of the moment assures commercial success to drama, novel or article. In consequence we have the current mass of prurient stuff exploiting the sex instinct in unworthy fashion.
So, in all fields, the world bribes its leaders to be their worst selves. I know public teachers and ministers who admit frankly that they overstate, holding that it is the only way to make ideas prevail. The temptation to this vice is strong upon every leader, but what is its result? At the moment, the audience responds with applause, but at home, afterwards, those who think are apt to say, “Why, that is not true.” Thus the transient effect is obtained at the expense of alienating the very persons who should be won to the cause, while the speaker’s own mind is vitiated…
I recall a modern educator (James L. Hughes) remarking that he had never heard an audience applaud a greatly original thought. The statement is perhaps extreme; but when you hear such a thought expressed, your inclination is not to make a noise; rather it is to ask, “Is that true?” meeting the challenge of the original thought with your own active mind. On the other hand, there is a trick of making almost any audience applaud. The speaker does not need to think at all, for thinking is hard work, and every audience is glad to be relieved of it. No, it is necessary only to use frequently, in an unctuous voice, those catch-words of conventional morality — home, country and mother — and almost any audience will applaud. Those who have not been thinking, suddenly hear these phrases, and know that it is time to applaud. All those who have been living evil lives make the most noise, because they want to cover their trail by getting into the front rank of those applauding conventional morality. The few who are really thinking may sit silently disgusted, but they do not come next time, so then the whole audience applauds.
This goes on for a considerable time, and then people awaken. “Why,” they say, ” this is clap-trap and sham; kick the charlatan out!” Now it is right that the charlatan should be so punished, but the world that has bribed him to be his worst self has not earned the right to administer the kick.
There is, of course, another side to all this. If humanity is ever ready to respond to clap-trap and sham, to pretense and the sensational appeal, so it is always ready to respond to the most high, to the noblest truth voiced in the simplest form. The highest appeals to the lowest: were this not true, there would be no hope for democracy. It takes genius, however, to grasp and express quite simply the heart of humanity; and genius is rare.
Thus every vocation has its own dangers, and these are great just in proportion to the opportunity for culture and service. The larger the opportunity, the easier the fall. The only safeguard is everlasting effort and utter sincerity. One must keep constantly before one that the way of appearances is the way of death, the way of reality is the way of life. One must cling to this unfailingly as the basic principle of all action, even when the faith is blind and the material rewards seem to be given to pretense and sham. Indeed, the fundamental attitude of the doer always determines the value of the thing done. The work is worth just the measure of manhood expressed in it — never more, and, we may be thankful, never less.
Last updated: June 23, 2015