Hypocrisy is originally a dramatic term. It contains the Greek ύπό (hypo), which means ‘under’, and the verb κρίνειη (krinein), to judge, decide, determine, etc. A hupokrites was a character who spoke out from under a homogenous chorus, and the word gradually came to refer in general to one who plays a part. Under the guise of another, so to speak, one makes his/her judgments and decisions. Hypocrites are actors, connoisseurs of pretense: they are una genta dipinta, in Dante’s words, a painted people. In canto 23 the contrapasso is spot on. Those who put the most weight on their exterior are now overburdened by it. I picture an underdeveloped interior dangling pitifully under the two-ton cowl like the clapper of a bell.
We identify hypocrisy most readily in politics and religion. Our political leaders and people of faith have chosen to don a mantle of moral rectitude, and it’s easy to find the areas where their unwieldy bodies slip out of the tight costume. Our preachers and public orators exhort us to follow higher paths, and we are quick to fling our epithets of hypocrisy at them, when they’ve been paparazzied on the lower streets. However, hypocrisy cannot be boiled down to a simple failure to consistently practice what you preach. Though the cross weighs a ton, and they drop it as much as we do, our preachers should not stop urging us to bear it. Our leaders should not give up their clarions to charity and compassion, though they stumble. Hypocrisy, rather, is deliberate pretense. It is moral cosmetics. It is about maintaining power—not just in the Machiavellian (that other famous Florentine) sense of using princely pretense to negotiate the demands of various political interests, but also in the more down-to-earth sense of the political power of standing out in the crowd, like the old Greek hupokrites on stage, separate from the chorus.
The saddled hypocrites in Hell are locked in an eternal procession. Just as their ceremony has been distended into eternity, their ceremonious vestments are gilded lead. In the words of Christ from the Sermon on the Mount, “they have their reward.” Their desire was to be recognized by their outward appearance and act, and now that pretense is their defining characteristic. The word hypocrite, it is worth noting, is used several times in Matthew 6. Here Jesus is counseling his audience against ostentatious displays of piety—trumpeting one’s almsgiving, distorting one’s features while fasting, praying in the open streets and sanctuaries. In short, Jesus exhorts, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:1). In these verses, public displays of piety are for purposes of self-promotion, of exerting influence over the crowds; but Christ champions a piety of secrecy, one more attuned to the interior than the exterior, to the eschatological reward more than the immediate reward.
Hypocrisy is a political sin. It is always perpetrated in crowds, in networks of relationships. It is a sin of thinness, veneer, of lightness. It is the satin or silk of sins. In baptism, according to Paul in Galatians, one ‘puts on Christ’. The water seeps into our skin, and we become Christ-saturated. But when our bodies are greased with the Christ-mask we’ve painted ourselves, the water beads and remains on the service. Divine justice, in the Infernal law, says “the surface is all.” The stole that one wore so lightly on earth is now a leaden horseshoe. In Paradise, one imagines, the ones who bore la grave stola of the cross (and didn’t, in self-interest and political expediency, like Caiaphas, pawn it off to another) are floating in wonderful lightness, unmoored by the interiors they filled in secret with the Spirit. There, then, is the true hupokrites, set apart from the crowd, a pure holy drifting.