Hypocrisy-A Brief History of Hypocrisy

Hypocrisy-A Brief History of Hypocrisy: ‘You! Hypocrite lecteur!’ shouts T. S. Eliot triumphantly from his poem ‘The Waste Land’. Read on to find out the history of this fascinating word.

The idea of hypocrisy is prominent in Eliot’s poem particularly through Tiresias, the blind seer: after all how can a blind man see? If hypocrisy is merely a person pretending to do something they cannot, then Tiresias may be one of history’s earliest hypocrites.


Not strictly true. At high school we were told to stop using ‘two-faced’ in our essays and to replace it with this magical new word: hypocritical. Only years later did I really appreciate the meaning of this new word, and though the current dictionary definitions have strayed from the original, back in my teens I was not far away at all.

Hypocrite comes from the Greek word hypokrités which, according to certain academics, means ‘he who explains’. But, as is often the case with language, the meaning is redundant, and it is another factor, here the context, that links the world across history.

Hypokrités belonged to the lexical field of the theatre, and in theatre ‘he who explains’ tends to be the actor. But it is the context of this actor that is the most important factor to consider in understanding the origins of this word. The ancient Greek actor played a series of different parts by changing his mask: quite literally he was a two-faced man.

(If you want to read up more on the history of Greek theatre and the origins of hypocrisy you might want to read Storia del teatro antico by Elena Adriani; on the other hand you might not want to do it if you don’t speak Italian.)


The classical world can be a rich ground for hypocrites as we have seen with Tiresias. In Roman mythology Janus was the god of beginnings and endings which is why he was often depicted as having two-heads. It is no surprise that nowadays we use him almost as a symbol of hypocrisy; the irony arises, however, from the fact that Janus wasn’t really a bad guy, not like James Bond would have you believe in Goldeneye, anyway.

If the classical world is full of hypocrites, it is also full of symbols. Janus, though not inherently evil, is the personification of hypocrisy and has had to bear the burden over the years. Our society has a strong tendency towards symbol-forming and the colourful myths and legends give us some great examples: hello, Pandora’s Box.

So of all of them, Tiresias was probably the only true hypocrite by modern standards, and I would actually argue that he’s more of a paradox than anything else.

Modern Meaning

So what is the difference between the paradoxical Tiresias and the hypocritical Tiresias? Enter stage left the modern meaning of hypocrite. The juvenile ‘two-faced’ definition has taken on a more psychological dimension over the years. Hypocrisy is a purely behavioural trait involving someone who pretends to act in a particular (favourable) way, when in fact their real life contradicts these ideals.

Gone are the masks of Thespis in the ancient Greek theatre, and what we have is a complex psychological process fitting for our modern, cut-throat capitalistic society. It is for this reason that Tiresias is not a hypocrite; he is no more a hypocrite than Janus. Janus has the symbolic duality, Tiresias the symbolic contradiction. Neither, however, have the inherent evil present in Baudelaire’s original ‘hypocrite lecteur’.

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