This post is about discretion and legalism. It follows up on the post The Virtue with No Name, or the Best Mormon Essay You’ll Read This Month.

The nameless virtue post is about the virtue of preaching standards even though it makes you look bad because you haven’t followed them perfectly yourself. As usual, the lively JG badinage in the comments was great. Vader forcechoked the heck out of the essay, and Agellius smote it hip and thigh, like El Cid risen from the grave. They didn’t demolish the essay so much as squeeze all the possible juice out of it.

Vader compelled attention to the virtues of sincerity and discretion, and how they relate to hypocrisy. Agellius, on the other hand, pointed out that what the Savior called hypocrisy was what we now normally call legalism or pharisaism: a mechanical or even malicious adherence to the letter of the law while ignoring the spirit of it.

The sincerity discussion has already been aired in the first two comments of the Nameless Virtue essay and in the update to it. Discretion and pharisaism remain to be discussed.

Discretion. Interesting. Discretion obviously has echoes of both hypocrisy and the Nameless Virtue. Discretion is the virtue of knowing when not to reveal truths or pry after truths. (By truths I mean either facts or judgments). Usually they are truths about other people, or about institutions. But they can be truths about oneself. The discrete Mormon does not tell all his spiritual experiences to everyone. The discrete Catholic respects the confessional seal almost as much as his priest. Like hypocrisy and the Nameless Virtue, discretion requires a felt mismatch between what is communicated or signaled and what is in part the real state of affairs. The hypocrite advocates virtues he doesn’t possess or care to possess, for his own personal advantage. The nameless virtuer advocates virtues he doesn’t possess, because he cares about the virtue and feels the lack of it.

The difference is that the discrete man is not advocating. He is not signaling. His virtue consists in refusing to do these things. His refusal to signal isn’t intended to deceive people about his own status, nor is it usually intended to promote a virtue. His refusal to signal arises from a sense of what is fitting, from care about people’s feelings, and from care not to abuse what he has learned in confidence. Discretion is a temple virtue.

The opposite vices are indiscretion, gossip, confessionalism, the cult of authenticity—of “letting it all hang out,” deconstruction, and to the extent its different from gossip, betraying confidences. Indiscretion is hardly considered a vice in our culture. It’s just a faux pas. It’s social clumsiness. But that is probably more an artefact of our culture than a sober measure of the seriousness of the vice. I can imagine a culture that puts a high value on discretion and hates the indiscreet. Gossip as a vice is spreading damaging information for the pleasure of it and for use as a social cement between the gossiper and the gossippee. The substance of the gossip doesn’t usually have to be true, but usually the gossip is communicated in a true way. “They say that . . . ,” “I heard that . . . ,”—and its true, they are saying that, and the gossiper did hear that. But the discrete soul knows that just because you’ve heard something or just because people are saying something isn’t automatic warrant for telling others what you’ve heard or what ‘they’ are saying. Gossip doesn’t have to betray confidences, but it often does. “You can’t tell anyone this, but So-and-so told me . . .” Confessionalism is being indiscrete about yourself. It is an attention-seeking vice that sucks the social oxygen out of the room into its own chatty lungs. It diminishes the gravity of the sins that it is seeking to confess; confessionalism keeps its sins on its endtable, along with the curios and other knickknacks, to haul out when the conversation flags. The cult of authenticity opposes the nameless virtue by telling people to be true to themselves and follow their inner bliss, even though it turns out that much of us have pretty shabby selves and would be much better off being true to an ideal or a covenant. But the cult of authenticity also opposes discretion by telling people they have a duty to say what they “really” think, even if or especially if its hurtful and destructive to a relationship. Like Dr. Johnson said, a lot of the thoughts your mind throws up are shocking codswallop that should never see the light of day. The cult of authenticity damages friendships and ruins marriages. Deconstruction is the same thing, the cult of authenticity, but applied to institutions and stories. It’s curious, though, that the cult of authenticity encourages falsehood. Angry, shocking, or hurtful thoughts are more “authentic” because they are the kind we usually try to be discrete about. So the cult of authenticity insists that they are authentic and happiness and love aren’t, which is false to facts. Along the same lines, “the real truth” about institutions and myths always has to be cheap and tawdry. Deconstruction will lie if necessary to get to “the real truth.”

Most of these vices that oppose discretion are inherent professional malformations of the mass media.

Hypocrites usually get by through appealing to other people’s discretion. Don’t expose me, they’ll say, or you’ll hurt my reputation, or this institution, or my wife and children.

The vices that distort discretion are: secretiveness, conspiracy, omerta, cover-ups, the “snitches get stitches” mentality, or blackmail. Secretiveness, like indiscretion, is minor. It means someone has an incommunicative quirk. Conspiracy and omerta involve concealing facts for personal or corporate gain. It’s pretty obvious how “the snitches get stitches” mentality is a perversion of discretion. Blackmail weaponizes discretion.
I should add that C.S. Lewis’s “Inner Ring” vice is a perversion of discretion. That vice is a theme of that Hideous Strength. There is another form of it in the Screwtape Letters, where Screwtape advises getting the mortal into different social sets, a religious set and a fast set, so the mortal can take delight in how little each set knows of his other self.

Virtues 3

Legalism or pharisaism was something Christ got hot about in his mortal ministry, though he never used those terms. Agellius is right that he seems to have called it hypocrisy. Hypocrisy now usually refers to pretending to comply with standards, even to advocate for them, so that you can benefit from the higher status people give you for appearing virtuous. Legalists or pharisaists actually comply with the standards, but they still don’t comply with the principles that make the standards worth complying with. As condemned by the Savior, legalists weren’t missing the principle just from dullness of mind or stolid compliance with routine. They were either manipulating the standards for gain, or at least they were focusing on the standards for the warm glow that their personal sense of superior virtue gave them (to give themselves status in their own minds, in other words), and not because of any devotion to the virtue the standards were meant to represent. So legalism/pharisaism and hypocrisy in the modern sense are family vices, because they both involve aping virtue at one remove (legalism) or at two removes (hypocrisy).

Law, the three levels of

Legalism/pharisaism also both involve virtue used for personal gain and for status, instead of for its own sake. But they aren’t the same thing.

Legalism is a perversion of the virtue of obedience. Obedience in the strict sense means following God’s commandments, or a duly constituted authority’s direction, or a parent’s guidance—the Law–without necessarily knowing the principle or purpose of the directive, or having personally adopted that principle or purpose oneself—the Spirit. Obedience, like legalism, involves following the letter of the law without being fully alive to the spirit of it. But whereas the legalist/pharisaist is following the letter to *avoid* following the spirit, and to make himself look good, the obedient man follows the letter because he is loyal to God, the duly constituted authority, and his parents. Obedience is Naaman dipping seven times in the River Jordan. There is no principle behind the act that would be defeated if he took a technical interpretation of it and, for instance, lowers himself in while wearing a wetsuit. It is purely an act of obedience. The legalist avoids the spirit of the law through the letter, the obedient man learns the spirit of the law through the letter.

One of the vices that oppose obedience is also part of the cult of authenticity, interestingly enough. It is the vice of signaing your superior adherence to the spirit of the law by flouting the letter. As with other manifestations of the cult of authenticity, this vice is inauthentic. It encourages people to break the law for show and for status, giving the appearance of rebellion in order to better conform.

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