No, not the masks you assume I have in mind, the masks that have become such a bone of contention in our society. The masks I have in mind are the kind referred to by C. S. Lewis in a passage from his autobiography, Surprised by Joy. Discussing his experience as a soldier in the Great War, he writes of a fellow soldier who was not only (like Lewis) a scholar from Oxford, but also—alarmingly to Lewis—“a man of conscience,” committed to adhering to taken-for-granted moral principles.
Embarrassed by the contrast with his own life, Lewis did his best to conceal the fact that he himself had not taken moral obligations so seriously. “If this is hypocrisy,” Lewis writes:
then I must conclude that hypocrisy can do a man good. To be ashamed of what you were about to say, to pretend that something which you had meant seriously was only a joke—this is an ignoble part. But it is better than not to be ashamed at all. And the distinction between pretending you are better than you are and beginning to be better in reality is finer than moral sleuthhounds conceive. . . . When a boor first enters the society of courteous people what can he do, for a while, except imitate the motions? How can he learn except by imitation?
This idea of masking our true inclinations is one to which Lewis returned more than once—most profoundly in Till We Have Faces, in the character of Orual, who veils her face for most of the time she rules the imagined Hellenistic kingdom of Glome. But what began as a way to disguise her ugliness becomes something far more profound and important: “a way,” as the critic Peter Schakel puts it, “to cover her inner ugliness and to alter her self-identity, to hide and thus almost to bury her old and despised self.”
“All mortals tend to turn into the thing they are pretending to be,” Screwtape says, and that seems to be true of Orual. Obviously, this idea had been lodged in Lewis’s imagination a long time; in a chapter in Mere Christianity titled “Let’s Pretend,” he imagines a person who for years had to wear a mask that made his appearance look better than it really was. “And when he took it off, he found his own face had grown to fit it. He was now really beautiful. What had begun as disguise had become a reality.”
In one of his letters from prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer placed the need for masking oneself in a still deeper theological context—namely, the corruption that marks human life in a sinful world. “We Germans,” he writes, may not sufficiently appreciate “the so-called English ‘hypocrisy’, which we contrast with German ‘honesty’.” It was, of course, that kind of hypocrisy, that masking of the self, that Lewis practiced with his fellow soldier. And for Bonhoeffer it was clearly preferable to a kind of frankness in which, “under the guise of honesty, something is passed off as ‘natural’ that is at bottom a symptom of sin.” Such masking acknowledges that our character is not yet what it ought to be, and it is, therefore, a first step toward improvement, toward virtue. Bonhoeffer once more: “Kant says quite rightly in his Anthropologie that anyone who misunderstands or questions the significance of outward appearance in the world is a traitor to humanity.”
The roots of Lewis’s belief in the importance of masks for the moral life are almost surely to be found in Aristotle, the first and perhaps the greatest of all who have theorized about virtue. “Acts are called just and self-controlled,” Aristotle writes in the Nicomachean Ethics, “when they are the kind of acts which a just or self-controlled man would perform.” So far, so good. This is, after all, what serious mothers and fathers have always known: “Train up a child in the way he should go.” Alas, as disappointed parents also often come to realize, Aristotle did not stop with the sentence I have quoted. His entire thought goes as follows: “Acts are called just and self-controlled when they are the kind of acts which a just or self-controlled man would perform; but the just and self-controlled man is not he who performs these acts, but he who also performs them in the way just and self-controlled men do.” Education in virtue is something more than training or habituation. Masking our wayward impulses is important, of course, but doing so for the right reasons and in the right spirit requires something more. And that something more—“the way” that those who are genuinely virtuous act—is rather mysterious. There seems to be no recipe for acquiring this “way.”
In a recent interview, the novelist and editor Christopher Beha pointed to these complications when discussing his return to the Roman Catholic faith he had left at an earlier point in life. Believing is not, he noted, something a person can just decide to do. “You can decide ‘It’s going to be good for my children if I raise them within the Church,’ or, ‘It’s going to be good for me if I display the outer signs of belief,’ but those are obviously something very, very different,” he said. “What needs to happen for one who has lost faith or did not ever have faith is a turning. A turning of the heart.”
That turning is the mystery that points to a quality that goes beyond simply imitating the virtuous acts of others. We must wonder, then, whether masking of the sort Lewis engaged in when in the presence of his fellow soldier could ever be sufficient to overcome an inner ugliness of character. And in fact, Lewis himself wondered about that. Echoing Aristotle, he identifies what masking could and could not accomplish: “There is a difference between doing some particular just or temperate action and being a just or temperate man.” What is needed is a certain “quality of character” that goes beyond the action itself.
There is a paradox at the heart of any ethic of character—the paradox that bedevils dedicated parents who are trying to raise virtuous children. In order to become virtuous, I must do virtuous deeds in the way (with the spirit and the motivation) a virtuous person who has experienced that “turning of the heart” does such deeds. But were I able to do this, were my heart so turned, I would already be virtuous, not in need of habituation. It seems, then, that I cannot become virtuous unless I already am! There is no way to go from imitating virtuous deeds to becoming a virtuous person. And yet, of course we must persevere as best we can in right action. For if we cannot produce in ourselves that turning of the heart to God, we can, unfortunately, turn the heart away. Hence, Screwtape does his best to impress upon Wormwood the role that habit plays in temptation. “It does not matter how small the sins are, provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick.” Better to put on a mask than to slip into such habits.
Hence, even a simulacrum of virtue is better than none. And, as Lewis said, the difference between acquiring true virtue and acquiring its simulacrum may be “finer than moral sleuthhounds conceive”—even if that difference is never hidden from God. Recognizing the gap, a gap we cannot bridge by any effort of our own to turn the heart, opens up space in the moral life for prayer—prayer that a gracious God would do what we cannot.
All of which brings us back to the masks which, having noted the title of this short piece, you may have supposed I had in mind. Many among us seem to think that the human face ought never be masked. (We must remind them of the Lone Ranger!) Masking the face when we do not much feel like it can surely be something more than just a self-protective device, though no doubt that is what it has been for many. It can also be an other-protective device. And even if we doubt whether it really protects others very much, masking may offer assurance that we are willing to be inconvenienced for their sake. Of course, if I do it to announce my virtue—and, hence, do not do it in the way a “just and self-controlled” person would—the far more important turning of the heart has not taken place. Rather than gradually becoming one who, like Orual, is beautiful beneath the mask, I will experience no inner transformation. And after all, the point of wearing the mask is one day to take it off.
Gilbert Meilaender is Senior Research Professor of Theology at Valparaiso University.
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