The Electric Commentary

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Excellent Quotes, Part 1

I'm not in a blogging mood today. Instead, here are some quotes from books I'm reading. Let's start with The Diamond Age, by Neal Stephenson.

Context: The Diamond Age is one of Neal's "future dystopia" books, along with Snow Crash (I have not read Zodiac, and don't know anything about it). In both of these books humanity has fragmented itself by race and culture in a sort of hypersegregation. The following conversation takes place between the moralistic and proper Neo-Victorians. This is an interesting view on hypocrisy:

"You know, when I was a young man, hypocrisy was deemed the worst of vices," Finkle-McGraw said. "It was all because of moral relativism. You see, in that sort of climate, you are not allowed to criticise others -- after all, if there is no absolute right and wrong, then what grounds is there for criticism?...

"Now, this led to a good deal of general frustration, for people are naturally censorious and love nothing better than to criticise others' shortcomings. And so it was that they seized on hypocrisy and elevated it from a ubiquitous peccadillo into the monarch of all the vices. For, you see, if there is no right and wrong, you can find grounds to criticise another person by contrasting what he has espoused with what he has actually done. In this case, you are not making any judgment whatsoever as to the correctness of his views or the morality of his behaviour -- you are merely pointing out that he has said one thing and done another. Virtually all the political discourse in the days of my youth was devoted to the ferreting out of hypocrisy.

"You wouldn't believe the things they said about the original Victorians. Calling someone a Victorian in those days was almost like calling them a fascist or a Nazi.”

Both Hackworth and Major Napier were dumbfounded. “Your Grace!” Napier exclaimed. I was naturally aware that their moral stance was radically different from ours—but I am astonished to be informed that they actually condemned the first Victorians…

"Because they were hypocrites... the Victorians were despised in the late Twentieth Century. Many of the persons who held such opinions were, of course, guilty of the most nefarious conduct themselves, and yet saw no paradox in holding such views because they were not hypocrites themselves -- they took no moral stances and lived by none."

"So they were morally superior to the Victorians -- " Major Napier said, still a bit snowed under.

-- even though -- in fact, because -- they had no morals at all."

"We take a somewhat different view of hypocrisy," Finkle-McGraw continued. "In the late Twentieth Century
Weltanschaaung, a hypocrite was someone who espoused high moral views as part of a planned campaign of deception -- he never held these beliefs sincerely and routinely violated them in privacy. Of course. most hypocrites are not like that. Most of the time it's a spirit-is-willing, flesh-is-weak sort of thing."

"That we occasionally violate our own moral code," Major Napier said, working it through, "does not imply that we are insincere in espousing that code."

"Of course not," Finkle-McGraw said. "It's perfectly obvious, really. No one ever said it was easy to hew to a strict code of conduct. Really, the difficulties involved -- the missteps we make along the way -- are what make it interesting. The internal, and eternal, struggle between our base impulses and the rigorous demands of our own moral system is quintessentially human. It is how we conduct ourselves in that struggle that determines how we may in time be judged by a higher power."

(From The Diamond Age, pages 190-191.)


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