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Hypocrisy is the act of pretending to have beliefs, opinions, virtues, feelings, qualities, or standards that one does not actually have. Hypocrisy typically comes from a desire to mask actual motives or feelings, or from a person's inability to conform to standards they espouse.

Samuel Johnson spoke about hypocrisy in Rambler No. 14:

"Nothing is more unjust, however common, than to charge with hypocrisy him that expresses zeal for those virtues which he neglects to practice; since he may be sincerely convinced of the advantages of conquering his passions, without having yet obtained the victory, as a man may be confident of the advantages of a voyage, or a journey, without having courage or industry to undertake it, and may honestly recommend to others, those attempts which he neglects himself."[1]

Psychologically, hypocrisy can be an unconscious act of self-deception.



The word hypocrisy comes from the Greek ὑπόκρισις (hypokrisis), which means "play-acting", "acting out", "feigning" or "dissembling"[2]. The word hypocrite is from the Greek word ὑποκρίτης (hypokrites), the agentive noun associated with υποκρίνομαι (hypokrinomai), i.e. "I play a part." Both derive from the verb κρίνω, "judge" (»κρίση, "judgement" »κριτική (kritiki), "critics") presumably because the performance of a dramatic text by an actor was to involve a degree of interpretation, or assessment, of that text.

The word is an amalgam of the Greek prefix hypo-, meaning "under", and the verb "krinein", meaning "to sift or decide". Thus the original meaning implied a deficiency in the ability to sift or decide. This deficiency, as it pertains to one's own beliefs and feelings, informs the word's contemporary meaning[3].

Whereas hypokrisis applied to any sort of public performance (including the art of rhetoric), hypokrites was a technical term for a stage actor and was not considered an appropriate role for a public figure. In Athens in the 4th Century BC, for example, the great orator Demosthenes ridiculed his rival Aeschines, who had been a successful actor before taking up politics, as a hypokrites whose skill at impersonating characters on stage made him an untrustworthy politician. This negative view of the hypokrites, perhaps combined with the Roman disdain for actors, later shaded into the originally neutral hypokrisis. It is this later sense of hypokrisis as "play-acting," i.e. the assumption of a counterfeit persona, that gives the modern word hypocrisy its negative connotation.

Common fallacies

  • It is a common fallacy (see List of fallacies) to—in an ad hominem attack—accuse someone of being a hypocrite in an attempt to invalidate their argument. In other words, just because someone is a hypocrite, that does not make them wrong.
  • It is also common for children to employ this type of ad hominem attack against their parents. For example, children may accuse their parents of hypocrisy if the parent admonishes them for using drugs or smoking, or warning them of the dangers of such activities, if the parent used them in the past.
  • Notwithstanding, while hypocrisy does not refute truth, it is valid to hold that hypocrisy can place truth within a given context.
  • A medical board that consists of smokers who refuse to hire a medical candidate on the grounds that the candidate is a smoker is guilty of inconsistent norms, but not necessarily hypocrisy. In this case a norm has been established that smokers can become doctors.

For example, the fact that a doctor smokes doesn't make that doctor wrong when they advise a patient that smoking is dangerous. Also, a doctor who truly believes smoking is dangerous yet smokes is not a hypocrite simply for practicing dangerous behavior. Instead, to accurately label as hypocrite a smoking doctor who advises patients that smoking is dangerous, the doctor would have to actually believe smoking is not dangerous.

Hypocrisy and vice

Although hypocrisy has been called "the tribute that vice pays to virtue," and a bit of it certainly greases the wheels of social exchange, it may also corrode the well-being of those people who are continually forced to make use of it.[4] As Boris Pasternak has Yurii say in Doctor Zhivago, "Your health is bound to be affected if, day after day, you say the opposite of what you feel, if you grovel before what you dislike... Our nervous system isn't just fiction, it's part of our physical body, and it can't be forever violated with impunity."

See also


  1. Rambler 14, P. 154. In Chalmers, Alexander: Full text of "The British essayists : with prefaces, historical and biographical". Retrieved 2009-04-15.
  2. Pocket Oxford Classical Greek Dictionary, ed Morwood and Taylor, OUP 2002
  3. Online Etymology Dictionary
  4. The Pursuit of Health, June Bingham & Norman Tamarkin, M.D. Walker&Co.

External links


Up to date as of January 15, 2010

Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary




From Middle English ipocrisie < Old French ypocrisie < Late Latin hypocrisis < Ancient Greek ὑπόκρισις (hupokrisis), answer, stage acting, pretense) < ὑποκρίνομαι (hupokrinomai), I reply) < ὑπό (hupo), under) + the middle voice of κρίνω (krinō), I separate, judge, decide).


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hypocrisy (plural hypocrisies)

  1. The claim or pretense of holding beliefs, feelings, standards, qualities, opinions or virtues that one does not actually possess.

Derived terms


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