You’re a real character

The house lights go down, the audience hushes, the curtains rise – and you are on stage. An unfamiliar experience if you are not a thespian? By no means, if Erving Goffman got it right. Shakespeare told us that one man in his life plays many parts, but he was describing the journey from childhood to old age. Goffman told us that we give different theatrical appearances several times a day.

Goffman was described as “the most influential American sociologist of the 20th century”. He died in 1982. His speciality was the study of our everyday behavioural transactions in a range of circumstances. I first encountered him many years ago through his classic book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. He argued that consciously or unconsciously, we all present ourselves in different roles according to circumstances. We might at first demur. Are we not always the same person? Is it being suggested that we somehow, almost dishonestly, modify our characteristics in order to be seen in a favourable light? It bears thinking about.

I recall one example he gave which brought the issue home to me. He described the waiter in a swank restaurant, moving with dignity, speaking with courtesy, Jeeves-like in his performance. He then returns to the kitchen. As he passes through the swing door, his suave expression is replaced by an annoyed look, his language changes, as does his vocabulary, he moves with irritability and impatience. But when he returns into the dining room, he becomes the urbane Jeeves once more. He does not have a split personality; it is merely that he presents himself differently according to circumstances.

I find this only too easy to recognise. I am a brother, a husband, a father, a grandfather and a great-grandfather. In each of these relationships I respond differently. The changes are subtle but they are undoubtedly there. And they are more marked in other roles. I have school friends, business friends, I am a member of a Catholic parish, I write for the Catholic press, I lecture on a variety of subjects, I run a very active blog. In each of these I present myself as a somewhat different person.

Let’s look at this through the metaphor of theatrical presentation, as Goffman does. We often get the opportunity to set the scenery. One stage setting is the office. It is easy to make a good guess about a person merely by looking at the way he has chosen or arranged his office. Even in the modern desert of the open office, revealing personal touches appear. The home, of course, is another setting where we can control: the size, location, age, decoration, furniture, even the books in the shelves. The car might be considered both as a setting and a prop, but increasingly it is used for self-presentation. What does a shiny BMW, or one of those immense cars whose volumetric capacity seems to be greater than the house it stands beside, say about its owner? What does my old and tatty Honda say about me? We may spend or borrow thousands of pounds to get that setting right.

The next question for the actor is the choice of costume. I dare not discuss this in terms of the actress, though I have the impression that it is a most important issue in social confrontation. My wife would tell you that my normal costume is best described as scruff. But there are occasions when I wear a three-piece suit which has some individual style, and is accompanied by props such as a watch chain. I have to say that I am treated quite differently according to my choice of costume.

Make up is important. Again, with women, there is a range of choices from vamp to respectable headmistress. Both men and women have a choice of spectacles to complement their self-presentation, and hair is a matter of significance for both sexes. Length and style give the messages here, and men have the additional choice of facial hair. What does Hercule Poirot’s waxed moustache tell us about his character?

A decision must be made about voice. Many go, or are sent, for elocution lessons on the (quite correct) ground that received pronunciation gives many advantages in terms of authority and credibility, although the occasional northern vowel can nowadays be acceptable in liberal company.

Yet the actor is not only concerned with his effect on other people; he is also concerned with the effect on himself. As he dons his costume and puts on his make up so he transforms his own internal self into the internal self of his character. Similarly, our own presentation affects the way we feel and act. As I put on my suit I transform from a bumbling ancient into a person of consequence. Even my memory changes from unreliable to precise. I now fit the part I have chosen to use.

Think of Greek drama here. It was not only for practical reasons that masks were used, they allowed the actors the freedom to assume the personality they chose. No wonder that masks are sinister. It is no surprise that a blog contributor, or a Twitterer, may feel free to speak without inhibition behind the mask of a pseudonym.

But I don’t experience it as a choice. Not until I analysed my own presentation for this column, did I realise the extent to which I routinely stage manage myself. Should I refer to myself as a hypocrite in future? And how about you?

About Quentin

Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Catholic Herald columns, Church and Society and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

80 Responses to You’re a real character

  1. Peter D. Wilson says:

    As an amateur actor on stage, I automatically use a chest tone for greater ease of projection than my higher-pitched conversational voice would allow. That I believe to be entirely innocent. I do the same when presenting a conference paper, and there the air of enhanced authority that it affords is a welcome bonus – legitimate, I should say, but it does suggest attempted manipulation of the audience. If the opinions expressed were falsely represented as my own, that would be hypocrisy, but a different matter altogether.

  2. milliganp says:

    From early childhood (or birth) we learn that different behaviours produce different responses and so, it seems, we learn to manipulate. That these primitive childhood skills evolve into adult capabilities is therefore hardly surprising. The challenge is that many of them are subconscious. How I talk to my 92 year-old godmother is entirely different to my conversation at work; I hide a part of my personality.
    As another example, developing active listening skills makes us easier people to talk to but is this, itself, a form of deception? The ultimate test is sincerity, but how do we judge that?
    I spent 20+ years in sales believing that I presented an honest view of the products I was selling; upon reflection I don’t think I was a hypocrite but neither was it “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth”.

  3. Singalong says:

    All that you describe rings very true, but I don`t think there is any element of hypocrisy. It is often an automatic response to the role we have in our family or other group, or we want to fit in and blend with the people we are with, which relates to your post about evolution.

    When our children were young for instance, I had to present as confident and calm during fierce thunderstorms, and in other troubling situations. More recently, I have had to project a calm and collected demeanor when on the stage with the choir I sing with, and while I was getting used to being a Reader during Mass. It is a way of helping the people one is with to feel comfortable. It is very embarassing to watch someone who is obviously ill at ease, and makes it hard for their performance or message to be heard. One has to pretend a confidence one does not necessarily feel.

    Accents can be a minefield. I tend to pick up the accents around me quite easily, and on one occasion I was asked what part of Ireland was I from, as I was unconsciously mimicking the ladies in the parish group, but ask me to do it from cold and I am at quite a loss.

    • St.Joseph says:

      Where I worship 10 minutes before Mass we say Terce everyone sits in silence,one could hear a pin drop, We probably look to be miserable during Mass, We sit for a little while ,priest as well in silence usually until the Sisters move, unless of course someone needs to leave. After Sunday Mass we go to another room and have tea or coffee and biscuits. Then we all lighten up.All laughter and pleasantries .We ought to behave depending where we are. As my son used to say when he was younger -He did not like folk music at Mass or joining hands or clap clap clap.neither did my daughter,nor do my grandchildren.
      My son used to say .he kept that for disco’s as he did one as a teenager..Although he plays drums now in a band, since he was very young-(with the oldies now) also my eldest grandson played drums from 12 yrs in a band at school. Once he played the drums at Mass at 16 in school, on a Feast day, he came with me to an evening Mass, and someone asked him if they didn’t have Mass that day. and he said yes,but he felt he had not be able to hear Mass properly. While playing the drums! He doesn’t play any more.
      There are times in our life where we have different episodes It would be dull if we didn’t
      Wouldn’t life be boring !


      • tim says:

        Different situations demand different approaches. I don’t see that hypocrisy comes into it – directly, at least. If I attend the funeral of a colleague who was the bane of my professional life for a number of years (hypothetical situation) it is my duty to put on a dark suit and a grave and sympathetic expression. This may help me to behave – and feel – as I should on the occasion. Romans 12.15: Ecclesiastes 3.4. Of course, there may be conflicts on such an occasion between the obligations of truth and charity.

  4. John Nolan says:

    I would have thought Goffman was stating the obvious (a common accusation levelled against social scientists!) Anyone who speaks in public, be he a teacher, lawyer or politician, is putting on a performance. Students are taught how to conduct themselves at interview as regards dress, posture, speech etc. A priest does not celebrate the Liturgy in the same way that he chairs a parish finance committee or addresses the Mothers’ Union (although with some priests you wonder if they make any distinction).

    • Vincent says:

      Of course it’s not news that we behave differently in different situations. If that were all Goffman wanted to say he would have written a very short book, and no one would ever have heard of it.

      What interests me is that we are challenged to look at ourselves — and the model suggested is the theatrical one. I find it helps me to examine the different ways in which I, often unconsciously, do this. “Know yourself” said Socrates. He believed that was the beginning of wisdom.

  5. Brendan says:

    I believe that the vast majority of the human race does put on a different face consciously or unconsciously in the daily course of living, and slips in and out of part with suprising alacrity. After all, it took Christ to show us what placing oneself , in what is perceived by us as a vulnerable situation in life, that would expose our obvious shortcomings. eg. lack of height. lack of physical beauty, lack of education, indeed lack of moral backbone etc. ….., the list goes on – and what it would mean to be in complete honesty and sincerity in our dealings with each other, if we exposed these shortcomings to full view. There again His kingdom was not made up of the same criteria as this world – that’s why His help is freely and tangibly available to the human race ! This I see as the nature and mystery of sin and our ‘ fallen state ‘. The mercy is that the great majority of this nuanced behaviour is pretty harmless – and of which we are not really culpable – largely being tangled up with character traits that may well be expected of us in our respective roles in life , as Quentin has illustrated. Indeed much of it can arouse great mirth given the right situation. Sociologically this must add colour to our lives in great measure which I personally would not want to do without !
    However, if we believe that to be fully human in the way that Christ was , and showed us , which means that our charcacter roles in life are devoid of deceit of others , then taking risks by exposing our ‘ shortcomings ‘ is, whether we like it or not, a sine qua non for being fully Christian – the holiness to which we aspire. Other belief systems may well concur with that laudible aim. The Golden Rule, ” Do unto others … etc. ”
    Personally, I have great confidence in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. I hear that our Archbishop of Canterbury has too.

    • John Nolan says:

      Really Brendan? I was unaware that the Anglican ecclesial community had such a sacrament, or that its ministers were ordained to absolve anyone from sin. I recall that in High Anglican circles Confesssion was deemed to have a therapeutic value, and was usually conducted over a glass or sherry.

      • Brendan says:

        Indeed John. I meant it in the hope that Anglicanism might just take Archbishop Welby’s apparent new-found enthusiasm for ” confession ” ,so much so that he wants to voice it in public , to a another theological- level that of a “scrament “. Although Ango-Catholic belief in the said Communion would appear to come very close to the Faith of the Catholic Church ? That’s a lesson to me to be more precise among’st academic minds, John. (laughs)

  6. Brendan says:

    Commenting on Vincent’s mention of the Socratic source of Wisdom. It is not surprising that Greek thought had so much influence on later Christianity, when the learned Judges on the Athenian Areopagus when being addressed by Saint Paul ( who strode between Greek and Jew ) as related in Acts, had already left an empty alcove to an Unknown God among their pantheon. There the pagan state of open mind based on intellect, in its wisdom left room for the other and indeed another. Christ is that bridge between both states – of the fallen and the redeemed. i.e. the journey to finding ones true self. There are many paths to finding God through Christ, and I was reminded that Dionysius , one of their number was converted. ” Knowing oneself ” is in complete accord with being fully human and Christian.
    I have come to see with many other contributors in this piece that social scientists are prone to stating the obvious. If being ‘transformed’ and ‘knowing oneself’ are the same thing in relation to the saving action of Jesus Christ, then the human condition which gives rise to such questions and in many cases discounts this belief albeit through social science which may think it has ‘ full knowledge ‘ must be challenged wherever it is found.
    In relation to ” not knowing ” and ” self-knowledge “, for the purposes of my point in our discussion, Pope Emeritus Benedict puts it like this. ” The combination of expert knowledge and deep ignorance certainly causes us to ponder. It reveals the whole problem of knowledge that remains self-sufficient and so does not arrive at Truth itself, which aught to transform man. “

    • St.Joseph says:

      Jesus asked Pilate ‘What is Truth’ Pilate was looking at Him and did not recognise Him.
      A man 40 years ago told me he believed in God but did not believe in anything else.
      He was drinking a pint of beer ,obviously he knew which one he liked best.
      He thought as I did at 3 or 4yrs that God was a man with a big white beard and long hair and lived in the sky,until at the age of 5 having First Holy Communion lessons after Mass and the priest held up 2 hosts and said to me this one is God and this one isn’t.
      That set me on the trail of finding out why and how, starting at the priest and Holy Mass.
      I often wonder how my life would have been different if that had not happened.
      That is when the questioning began It was not easy, and I am still asking questions.
      You are right when you say Truth ought to transform man ,with a capital T.
      Only through Grace and perseverance.

      • St.Joseph says:

        I admire your faith also I have a great respect for the Anglican Church. However it is not possible for them to change their Communion Sacrament into the Real Presence
        It will never get that close but perhaps in the Spirit.

  7. Brendan says:

    I’m glad you agree St. Joseph. I like other peoples anecdotal stories about their journey to Faith. On this Saint Paul and our dear Pope Emeritus Benedict who are messengers of God’s Truth on this occasion that allowed me to share my thoughts on Quentins Blog.
    I must run a make the tea for my wife coming home from our business. I’ll try and get back to hear more thoughts by others on this later, if I can. Regards, Brendan.

  8. Nektarios says:

    Yes, we are all hypocrites when we try to be something we are not which is the vast majority of us.
    The trouble is we do not come to, or deal with, what is actually going on in our lives – that goes equally for the religious life as well the secular.
    But why are we playing the actor at all? Is it because we want to be seen as something we are not, or become something we presently are not? More holy, powerful, richer, blend in with all the other actors on this life’s stage?
    Is it because we are so hooked on some ideal,(which is fictitious) words, words and more words,
    so we never come to, or look at, what is actually going on in our life at any time?
    Where is this behaviour, which is universal coming from and why?

  9. John Candido says:

    There is no doubt that humans have several different ‘roles’ in differing contexts. How we speak to and act with our friends is different to how we speak and act with our family and relations, at work, to strangers and neighbours in our street. These segues can often occur in the same hour or day.

    Are we indulging in reality or fantasy, sincerity or manipulation, hypocrisy or integrity? Without making too much of a case about this; there is an element of truth in all of these descriptions. It is probably more to do with the humans than any other animal species. I am not entirely sure, but I don’t think that animals are as guilty as humans for being manipulative, hypocritical, fantasist or evil, for that matter.

    I never underestimate the effect of power, wealth and status on the human condition. All three can have a thoroughly corrupting presence in individuals and groups. I am also quite convinced that one’s clothing has an effect on oneself and others. Even shared skills and knowledge can act as a filter between those who are privileged by knowledge and those who are outside such privileges.

    • St.Joseph says:

      There is a well known saying we all know ,but I will change one word that is ‘We can ‘fool’ half the people all the time, all the people half the time,never all the people all the time.but never will we be able to fool God.
      It is obvious that we are different in the eyes of different people.How can we not be.?That’s hypocritical if we try to be everything to all men,
      This is where being true to ones own self-know thy self comes in,
      True friendship lasts by being honest with each other, without being hurfull or rude.
      We have to know how to behave decently.(So we do need to watch our manners on the blog) it is easy to hide behind a screen.
      I tell people my beliefs and they will open up to me on theirs or else communication is worthless,
      I was always the only catholic on the ‘block’ as the saying goes.
      As a teenager I was always called the ‘little catholic girl’
      How they spoke behind my back It did not worry me.
      We had a Pub and a Guest House. full of religious pictures, Our Lady looking out the Shower room window onto the Main Rd- we were never empty.All nationalities.
      The same in the Pub and (no condom machine) we were never without a crowd.,Different music every night in the Hall.
      No mucky stuff.!!!! It seems as if I am boasting, that is nothing to boast about ,it wasn’t easy.
      So if people did not like it they went somewhere else, the choice was theirs.
      I think my husband used to draw the crown for his kindness to all, and would help anyone in trouble-I have a load of bounced cheques to prove it, A fool and his money is soon parted they say-! But he was loved by all. RIP.
      I did not marry a Catholic- I married a good man!!.

      • John Candido says:

        Well it is lovely to hear that one’s ‘better half’ was not just a Catholic, but a very good and decent man. You were and are a very fortunate woman and we all appreciate that you consider yourself very lucky to have married such a good man in your husband St.Joseph.

  10. John Nolan says:

    The word ‘hypocrisy’ comes from the Greek word for acting or playing a part. We all do it, it’s part of being human, and is necessary for civilized intercourse. The man who eschews any type of dissimulation and always expects others to accept him ‘as he is’ is nearly always boorish and objectionable. That said, we don’t want to appear two-faced or to be accused of not practising what we preach. Often we need to strive to compensate for personality traits that might be disadvantageous. As a teenager I was conscious of being painfully shy, reticent and introvert. I deliberately strove to overcome this, I think with some success. The unashamed extrovert might need to train himself to be more reflective.

    John Candido, who talks a lot of sense when he stays off the subject of the Catholic Church, makes some good points. I would like him to expand on the phrase “privileged by knowledge”. This would seem to imply that there are types of knowledge which are restricted to a few and denied to the rest, a form of Gnosticism. I accept that this might apply to a handful of saints and mystics, although I am wary of private revelations. I don’t regard myself as intellectually underprivileged compared with the medical practitioner who attends to my ailments or the mechanic who fixes my car, although I don’t have a fraction of their knowledge and skill.

    • St.Joseph says:

      John Nolan.
      Thank you.
      He did become a Catholic 3 years before he died, after visiting St Francis’s Church in Assisi. then he told me when we went on to Rome to the Canonization of St Padre Pio..
      His prayer was. ‘Pray Hope and Don’t Worry’ (St Pio’s prayer) we put it on his headstone when he died. where I shall be there’ too’. ‘A powerful three words to say!’

    • John Candido says:

      What I meant by ‘privileged by knowledge’ has nothing to do with mysticism and Gnosticism. It is a sociological observation based on class or social stratification, which is another term for class. Instead of discussing power, wealth or our normal understanding of social status, as drivers of potential corruption or differences between people, we are using knowledge and skills as a social discriminator.

      Contrast the difference in levels of privilege, social status and opportunity between increasingly rare examples of factory workers (due to unemployment) and someone with a doctorate in a highly esteemed career from an ancient, well established University.

      If we can accept that such stratification exists between privileged groups or elites who have both qualifications and specialised knowledge, and those who do not have such privileges and opportunities. A religious person, a secular humanist or any other fair-minded individual, needs to ask some questions about such differences.

      One of the more important observations is that talent and brilliance is not confined to any social class, religious affiliation or non-affiliation, or race for that matter. Is society doing enough to improve access to education for any member of any social class?

      What interests me most about being privileged by knowledge is that it is simply unavoidable and that it can lead to prejudice between groups. There will always be someone who knows about things or is skilled at something, that you and I are not able to do or know about. What is also apparent is a gulf or difference in knowledge between groups and individuals can lead to prejudice from either side. A doctor can look down on a ‘mere mechanic, plumber or carpenter’, but the converse is also true. A mechanic, plumber or carpenter can look down on any other person, even a doctor, scientist, or an engineer, simply because they do not possess their knowledge and skills, and are not one of them.

      It is scenarios like these that point to the overriding importance of manners and tactfulness, despite our own set of predilections and prejudices. It also underscores why we have to pretend and act differently now and then. Are we untruthful and manipulative for being polite? Perish the thought. Manners are not easy at times, but our societies would be the poorer without them.

      • John Nolan says:

        JC, ,thanks for your reply. I was thinking that the term ‘privilege’ is usually used to mean an advantage conferred on an individual or small group, whereas knowledge is open to all. The landslide Liberal victory in the 1906 General Election was celebrated by the quatrain:

        The infernal power that stands on privilege
        (And goes with women, and champagne, and bridge)
        Fell – and democracy resumed her reign
        (Which goes with bridge, and women, and champagne).

    • Singalong says:

      “The man who eschews any type of dissimulation and always expects others to accept him ‘as he is’ is nearly always boorish and objectionable.”

      I think this is one of the difficulties faced in communicating with people who have Asperger`s Syndrome. They do not usually intend to be unpleasant or awkward, but their lack of understanding the need to adjust their approach to particular situations, makes it very hard for them to relate well to others, and illustrates the importance of being able to”play the part.”

      • John Nolan says:

        Quite right, Singalong. It is all the more reason why we should not rush to judgement on people.

      • Ignatius says:


        That’s a really useful post! I have a few rough edges to my character and am forever having to work hard at relating to others-if I were not at all of a reflective disposition goodness knows how I would be regarded either in my practice or teaching life. You really have made a good point here.

  11. Nektarios says:

    Playing the actor or wearing a mask in the home, with our nearest and dearest, in the workplace, with our friends, in Church….is it on account of fear or what?
    Perhaps we are too credulous to think that our religious, political and social leaders are not also wearing masks?
    So far, we have only stated the obvious, we all wear masks. My question is why are we living our lives wearing masks?
    Again, so far, we are saying we behave in different mannerisms to appear something we are not –
    logically it must be so, for why else wear a mask?

    • Vincent says:

      Nektarios, is it possible to take your logic too far? I often feel irritable with people, but I try,and, sometimes, succeed in curbing that, and so reply with a smile. My mask?

      If I meet a small child I find that I change my language to simpler words and explanations. My mask?

      If I trip on a stone I have been known to be tempted into foul language. But I can check myself – usually. My mask?

      Were I to meet the Queen, I have no doubt I would behave with a formal respect I do not use in ordinary circumstances. My mask?

      • Nektarios says:

        I understand the point you are making, however what would happen if you did not wear a mask? What would not wearing a mask reveal? Is that not the real you? Is that not what you have to deal with? If we wear a mask we are not in touch with what is actually going on in our life or society or religiously or spiritually. I cannot turn a mask into a virtue.

    • Brendan says:

      re; 12.06PM.
      …. ” the nature and mystery of sin and our fallen state ” i.e. alienation from our previous union with God and that perfect state.

  12. Singalong says:

    However we present ourselves and appear to others, it is only God Who truly knows the real personalities of those He has created, each one of us a unique individual. Stories about Wopsy, which I read as a child, made this very clear to me at a young age. Wopsy was the guardian angel of a little boy in Africa called Shiny John, but he knew that God had another name, the little boy`s own special name, which belonged only to him, to no one else, he would always recognise it, however softly God called, and God would use it only for him.

    We had these books and others for our own children, but they did not seem to conform to the ideas for teaching young children in favour after Vatican 2, so we stopped using them. There were pictures and talk of the devil, as well as possibly a rather patronising attitude to the missions. On the other side of the coin, we encountered difficulties when one of our son`s friends noticed a picture of the flames of hell in a booklet about Fatima which we had not “censored.” It was very hard to make the right decisons about these things.

    • St.Joseph says:

      If Our Lady at Fatima showed Hell to the children it must have been important for them to know that there is one. She asked for prayers from the children to pray for poor sinners who go there.She was not saying that ‘they’ would go.
      It is all right to pray for sinners but they must redeem themselves as well.
      Was that not the Parable that Jesus spoke about Lazarus (not the one Jesus brought back to life, although there will be a connection there if one studied it.
      No one comes back to tell of the rich man’s suffering he wanted Jesus to send someone back to warn his brothers so that they would not end up there!!
      We are redeemed by Jesus’s Sacrifice, but we must co-operate with Him evenif it means suffering and denying ourselves.
      That is the way I explained it to my children.They were brought up on Fatima, and it helped them to in their Faith.My husband many years ago came with myself and my daughter years ago when the Fatima statue was travelling on to Russia I believe that was a lot to do with peace in the country. Holy Mass was said in the Red Square on the Feast day of Fatima for the first time and the wall came down between east and west Germany,and the bullet in our Lady’s Crowned statue is the one that saved Pope John Paul’s life. When we were there Cardinal Ratzinger took the place of The Holy Father as he was ill..
      Of course it is better the love God for his own sake. I believe Pope Francis is telling us this and to tell others by evangelizing. But the whole Truth and nothing but the Truth is also the message.

    • John Nolan says:

      Either hell exists, or it doesn’t, and the dozens of experts who wrote the documents of Vatican II will make not one ha’porth of difference. Most of them are now enlightened, as will the rest of us be before too long.

  13. Ignatius says:

    “. I am also quite convinced that one’s clothing has an effect on oneself and others. Even shared skills and knowledge can act as a filter between those who are privileged by knowledge and those who are outside such privileges…”

    I agree with this statement and with JC’S elaboration of it. You can see this sort of thing everywhere, particularly in the stratification of management and the teaching of management skills. On this blog for example we gradually learn that lucid and informed discussion with restraint is the dominant model so we slowly seek to conform to it as ‘good practice’ Newcomers then are assessed and placed accordingly, if they have the requisite skills then they are welcomed – otherwise studiously avoided or remonstrated with. Here we are a world in microcosm.

    “….I understand the point you are making, however what would happen if you did not wear a mask? What would not wearing a mask reveal? Is that not the real you? Is that not what you have to deal with? If we wear a mask we are not in touch with what is actually going on in our life or society or religiously or spiritually. I cannot turn a mask into a virtue….”

    This fails to see that our masks are in fact part of ‘us’ The human being , a multifacet chameleon thing which operates largely on instinctive, absorbed and consciously learned then subsumed ‘reflexes’ Some of us have an instinct for power and control while others have not achieved such levels of ‘sophistication’ – just blurting out whatever is going on at the time-generally this latter behaviour is eschewed in favour of subtlety as we move through the social echelons though it is secretly envied for its simplicity. We get nowhere by assuming that there is a central “I am” which is rational and autonomous. By gradually accepting our multifacet nature we can however move towards that integration of being we desire and employ the mechanisms of self control. I do think it is necessary to accept that there is a certain “shiftiness” and a multi layered defensiveness which governs our response to situations of fear, aggression, happiness etc, like animals we bask in the sun of felt warmth and stiffen against challenge.

    • Nektarios says:

      There is not space or time now to delve into `nature’. Only to say this, Man is much more than an animal. Our nature is such that it loves and serves God and can reflect upon God.
      If we had any conception what that `being made in the image of God’ consists of, we would not be speaking of one missing link higher that the chimps.

      In this world, due to its nature, everything, but everything is subject to change. So, this ever changing world is now bombarded by weapons of mass distraction. There is the side of man however where he or she is not ever- changing. Man may act like an animal where he only thinks of food and sex primarily. He may dwell in his mind – the more thoughtful, caring and helpful person. He may dwell in the intellect – the more philosophical, theological, legal, or scientific person – but all that is subject to change. So those who wear masks for every situation need an awful quantity of masks, forever changing them. It is child play, it is fun. There are no masks in the truly spiritual mind.

      Even so, were I to put you into a room with a poisonous snake or find yourself confronted by one, you will not play with it, but take action to avoid it, one bite and your dead!
      Off comes the mask and one is not distracted, but totally alert, totally focused.
      Again, if one was a Christian living in the middle east right now, your mind is alert and focused, going to Church could see you dead or maimed for life by bombers and terrorists. One treads very carefully.
      But here in the West we have little or nothing compared to that, so we dawn our masks again and live in endless distraction of change.
      Only in the spiritual aspect are we truly what we are and do not change. no masks!

    • John Nolan says:

      Ignatius, include me out. I’m a pompous, opinionated old git and my acerbity is only mitigated by the fact that I am usually right.

  14. Ignatius says:

    PS All the self control mechanisms etc are known as ‘managing the inner Chimp’ in modern management speak…clearly Darwin was spot on!!

  15. Iona says:

    In Ibsen’s “Peer Gynt” there is a scene where Peer is peeling an onion, and comparing it to himself.. He is peeling off the layers, and eventually he will get to the “real” Peer Gynt. But of course he doesn’t; the layers just get smaller and smaller and there is no “real” kernel or nugget in the middle. (I forget how he reacts, but I don’t think he’s happy about it!)

  16. Brendan says:

    Quentins point about ‘ stage-managing ‘ to the point of an obsession with getting things ‘ right ‘ can have its drawbacks. As I prepare for my weekly worship with fellow parishioners , a look back into the week shows that this ubiquitous stage-managing of mine which seems inherent in all of us – which I believe is some atavistic trait whose genesis can be traced back to our theologically fallen and or genetic makeup as human beings – shows how much retreiving the situation results quite often in the exercise of just plain ‘ saving face ‘. Yes, my feelow travellers , we are terribly fearful of ‘ change ‘ in our lives particularly when our innate weaknesses are painfully exposed to a society which is only too willing to ‘ rub our noses in it ‘ – shardenfreude !
    I am no differnet Quentin, as you ask. Sadly, we see this situation often getting out of control in the political field ‘mongst our politicians and in the cult of ‘ celebrity ‘. This of course should be a point of concern for belivers who see Jesus Christ as Logos – the only true celebrity!
    But my Saviour has shown how wonderfully easy it is to ‘ liberate ‘ ourselves from these chains . Yes, Rousseau had it right – We are in chains ! But these are of our OWN making, and can only be broken by the freedom won for us by Christ himself – quite of is own volition out of love for us and obedience to the Father , unblocking that dam of grace , stored up from all eternity , enveloping the whole of humanity, freeing us from the our fallen state and raising us to be be like Him – ” in whom we live and breathe and have our being. ”
    See you in church !

  17. John Candido says:

    This contribution, to which there has been a reply, was intended as a contribution to Reformation or Deformation. For simplicity, I have left it here

    There is a free article in most recent edition of ‘The Tablet’ entitled ‘Justice for Bishops’ which is under the section called ‘From the Editor’s Desk’. It reaffirms what several people have been saying about the poor state of affairs in the Vatican when it comes to contemporary forms of juridical justice. It is a short article which I recommend to everyone for their consideration.

    There is one major point that I have missed regarding the effect of maintaining the current operation of the CDF and in policies enunciated in the Code of Canon Law, which this article mentions. By allowing the Pope to have the authority to dismiss any Bishop without any warning, and without needing to provide any reasons for his decision, has the unfortunate effect of nullifying collegiality with Bishop’s Conferences. How can collegiality thrive in an atmosphere of fear?

    Bishops fear dismissal by the Pope and therefore are made into very reluctant yes men, afraid of voicing their real opinion about any moral or administrative matter. All of which reinforces what Fr. Greg Reynolds has said about the prerequisite for a ‘healthy organisation’ being ‘loyal dissent’,

    ‘I firmly believe in the Primacy of Conscience and that loyal dissent is an important part of any healthy organization.’

    Without the freedom to state what is on your mind, you cannot offer the sort of ‘fearless advice’ that the upper echelons of the public service of western governments are famous for, or used to be famous for. Loyal dissent or speaking your mind freely is necessary for any organisation to thrive. It is why genuine whistle-blowers are so important for the free and transparent operation of the press, and healthy democratic governance.

    As Fr. Greg Reynolds has said,

    ‘…loyal dissent is an important part of any healthy organisation’.

    If any Bishop fears that he is going to risk being fired for voicing his theological or administrative position, the end result is a dumbed down episcopacy and a dumbed down Roman Catholic Church. How does this help the Church to grow and be more adult, mature and intelligent?

    • RAHNER says:

      Is Greg Reynolds an example of someone who is adult, mature and intelligent?

      • John Nolan says:

        I find myself agreeing with the eponymous Rahner. This must be an effect of the new papacy. God bless our Pope, the Great, the Good!

    • John Nolan says:

      Collegiality as defined in Lumen Gentium has nothing to do with Bishops’ Conferences, a fairly novel concept (1967) and in my opinion not a good one. I favour giving bishops more autonomy, although those who live in the diocese of Arundel and Brighton might well blench at the prospect. But sudsidiarity has to start somewhere, and if the long-term effect is better bishops, I won’t complain.

    • St.Joseph says:

      John Candido
      Any Bishop ought to go through their own Conference to make appeal for the need for change. I don’t think he can ‘preach’ about it to the laity.
      We can discuss things as I have said before,He has the same responsibility as we do when teaching our children the faith.There is enough people making up their own minds as it is,Obviously our conscience comes first, but after we are sure it is right with the Church..And it is Gods Law.
      Am I right in saying the Army used to shoot traitors!!!

      • John Nolan says:

        St Joseph

        Bishops are the successors of the apostles. It was always believed so, and was most recently defined by Lumen Gentium. However, they might err, and no-one who lives in England can be ignorant of the fact that all the bishops but one (St John Fisher) followed Henry VIII into schism. That is why we need Rome. Not because I am an Ultramontanist or a legal positivist (I am neither), but because I believe that the Holy Ghost will not allow the Church to fall into error. THAT IS WHY I AM A CATHOLIC!

      • St.Joseph says:

        John Nolan.
        Yes. I agree.The Holy Father is a Bishop, but only he can make a decision on his own.
        when he speaks with ‘his authority’.!As far as I always understood !!
        Bishops have been making their own mind up since Vat 2!!
        JC does not get that! He believes we all can ‘with authority!.

      • milliganp says:

        St Joseph, sadly, knows little of Ecclesiology. Every Bishop with a flock (i.e. not Auxiliaries or the mock Bishops of the Roman Curia) has authority in his own right. The role of the Bishop of Rome is to be the source of the unity or communion of the church. Bishops are not delegates’ of Rome; their authority derives directly from their office. They have a duty to maintain communion and it is in the exercise of this duty that the unity of the church is manifest.
        Augustine, during his time as Bishop of Hippo, felt the Bishop of Rome was not doing his job properly and so he (Augustine) sent letters of excommunication to a number of Bishops who were not holding true to the faith.
        This is not to derogate from the essential importance of the Papacy but SecondSight is supposed to be a place of reasoned argument for which mere uninformed opinion, however pious, is an inadequate substitute.

      • Quentin says:

        Yet we must not forget that many of us do not know that our opinion is uninformed at the time we express it. It would be a pity for contributors to hold back merely because they are not an expert in that area.

        It is always possible for an unsoundly based opinion to be gently corrected — as indeed you have done in this case. Then we all learn.

  18. Ignatius says:

    “.There is not space or time now to delve into `nature’. Only to say this, Man is much more than an animal. Our nature is such that it loves and serves God and can reflect upon God…”

    This whole thread is about nature so we can delve as much as we like – inn fact the relationship of ‘character’ to ‘nature’ is very interesting; I would think that character describes the more mobile aspect of our nature. Here are one or two thoughts on the topic:

    “Jesus came to announce to us that an identity based on success, popularity and power is a false identity, an illusion! Loudly and clearly he says:
    “You are not what the world makes you but you are children of God … Henri Nouwen

    On this view our character forms a kind of consciously constructed identity which we can develop either out of rock or sand. Character though can only I would guess develop out of what is there to be developed and so must rest on aspects of nature.
    Karl Rahner has a very interesting discussion based in his understanding of human nature in relation to the incarnation; in other words what is it to be a human being and what is it that is capable of being ‘assumed’ into the divine.. Rahner talks of it being the basic meaning of human life to be ‘delivered up and abandoned’ to God to the point where the nature becomes so little of itself that it becomes more the nature of God. (A Rahner Readerp146) All of us are about this task of self abandonment to some degree or another- either growing in grace and cultivation or yielding to feckless growth

    I remember a story about a church in Africa where each of the elders had his own prayer place out in the savannah. Each man went out to pray on a daily basis and so gradually wore a path to his prayer place. Gradually it became practice among the elders and people of the church to go to the relevant elder if the path to that elders prayer patch began to grow over. They would go to the elder and ask if all was well since the grass was growing over their prayers!!
    It seems to me that our lives are rather like savannah in many ways -or even jungle. The area that is any of us has regions that are tangled and matted alongside cultivated fields with the one threatening to break into the other and the cultivation going ahead only with effort and grace; but the whole of the land ,jungle and cultivated plot is ‘us’, the jungle bit no less ‘us’ than the cultivated plot, to believe otherwise is to lapse into wishful thinking. Cultivating the jungle is what we are in cahoots with God at.
    It is pointless also to discuss how we are in the presence of ‘poisonous snakes’ or any other emergency situation because then our ’emergency self’ just comes into pla with all its chemical modifiersy. I was once in the presence of such a creature and was indeed pretty focussed on the thing.. until it was disposed of-then I just went back to being “myself- not in the presence- of a poisonous snake”-still me, no different.

    • Nektarios says:


      The illustration of being in a room with a poisonous snake was an illustration about totally focused attention, that was all. When one is totally attentive there is a very different process going on. One is in totally contact with what is going on with one, where as wearing a mask one is only playing a game a part. And this is the sad state of most of humanity.

      It is also for those who insist on wearing a mask or many masks the difference between a truly spiritual and religious mind and one who plays at it – the actor.
      One either operates out of the spirit that does not change, or one operates out of the animalistic nature, mental nature or the intellectual nature – in those there is constant change, distraction and constant danger, fear and sorrow.

      • Peter D. Wilson says:

        I suspect that anyone who consistently acts the part of a good man may actually become one – a point made in one of the early “Midsomer Murders”.

  19. St.Joseph says:

    We are living in a multitude of religions today ,around us. I see the point you are making. However we have to understand what all this means.
    I have 5 grandchildren ranging from 9 to 24 yrs.
    A saying years ago still relevant today ‘we can not put old heads on young shoulders.
    Young people are finding their selves as they go through life- they will put on plenty of masks,until they find their true self. I find most young people are more intelligent today than the credit we give them they show love more easily to each other,perhaps they will learn if given the chance what the ‘Spirit means’

    • Nektarios says:

      St Joseph
      So what do you not understand in the present discussion?

      • John Nolan says:

        Nektarios, I have read everything that St Joseph has posted over the last three years and have come to the conclusion that a) she is a better Catholic than I am, b) she is a better person than I am, and c) If I ever get to heaven she will have got there long before me.

      • St.Joseph says:

        I am speaking about those who have ‘not’ been blessed with understanding ‘YET’
        We ought not to judge..

      • St.Joseph says:

        John Nolan
        Thank you ,. But am I going to die before you then!!!!

  20. Nektarios says:

    John Nolan & St Joseph
    You are all better than I am, being the least among this august body of bloggers.

  21. St.Joseph says:

    So am I to believe that a Bishop can make decisions in their Diocese against the teachings of the Church?
    For instance neglect of proper RE in Schools.
    Meetings in a Cathedrals for the ordination of women.
    Signatures for discussion at the Bishops Conference for the ordination of women priests, when Pope Paul 2nd said it was not to be discussed..
    Allowing people like Mary Grey and Matthew Fox and others to hold open meetings against Church teachings.
    Etc. Not to mention the Warwick St Masse’s. Etc
    Not the misinterpretation of Vatican 2 .
    Or perhaps I am misinformed-and that is the teachings of Holy Mother Church!


    • John Nolan says:

      St Joseph,

      Of course they can’t. But Newman, in his criticism of Ultramontanism, said bishops are not merely the pope’s lieutenants. Yes, they have to be orthodox, but given the requisite authority they will not be able to hide behind national Conferences or shuffle off unpopular decisions to Rome. Quentin has taught me a lot about subsidiarity, and the only issue I have with him concerns the deformation of liturgy; which is indeed an important issue.

      • St.Joseph says:

        Only one Bishop as I remember whose ‘popular decisions’ with orthodox teachings on RE in schools & Marriage etc -‘retired early’!
        Did he do that voluntarily or was he pushed?
        Yet I did not hear much ‘hu ha’ about that-it’s only the liberal ones who seem to get the attention!

  22. Ignatius says:

    “…This is not to derogate from the essential importance of the Papacy but SecondSight is supposed to be a place of reasoned argument for which mere uninformed opinion, however pious, is an inadequate substitute….”

    Tsk, tsk, and there’s me thinking it was a place where we could just get together and chat stuff over as ordinary human beings groping our way through the fog, how have you all managed to tolerate me for so long??!!

  23. Ignatius says:


  24. John L says:

    Quentin, You mentioned in your column the implied advantage of received pronunciation.. Maybe you do see genuine advantages, but the “received” always makes my hackles rise!
    Received from whom? Those whose vowel sounds come from Saxon/Danish roots of English find the so-called received pronunciation merely another accent amongst many, taking its vowels from Norman French.
    In the context of the current blog, I accept that you merely describe the status quo, but what is hateful about the situation is that some have a tendency to judge a person’s worth or education by his manner of speech, whatever the quality of his English. It is quite unwarranted, and I do not see why such a person should be expected to give up his oral birthright in order to “conform”, or to be accepted in society without provoking contempt. To do so is a case of presenting a false impression of oneself.
    I stick to my flat cap, finding it preferable to a dark carp.
    Yes, I am being flippant, but the spelling used here illustrates the Northern and Midland recognition of the letter “a”. To pronounce “a” as “ar” is French, not English.
    Apologies to the de la Bedoyere ancestry – that isn’t my target!

    • John L says:

      P.S. I find if I take my flat cap South, it is still hard to find that letter “a”, It is often avoided by referring to my flet cep!

      • John Nolan says:

        Does one’s oral birthright extend to using non-standard English grammar on the grounds that it is dialect? One example would be “you was” for “you were”. If there is an obvious disjunct between the written and spoken language, the speaker can be disadvantaged. I know educated Germans who use (say) Swabian dialect in an informal setting but switch easily to Hochdeutsch when required, but I would suggest this is less common over here.

        As for pronunciation or accent, foreigners learning English need an objective standard. This is either RP or (increasingly) east coast American. The advantage of RP is that it belongs to no geographical region. Those who live in the south of England have as wide a range of regional accents as do those in the midlands and north. Regarding the long and the short ‘a’ there are those who use the long ‘a’ when they should use the short one (Mass, lather, photograph) which smacks of genteelism. On the other hand, Lord Curzon affected the short ‘a’ all his life, and was famous for it – but it was an affectation.

      • Quentin says:

        Strictly speaking, I suppose my ancestry should have left me with a French accent. But I was born in Gerrards Cross. I agree that the term ‘received’ is not a happy one; it might be excused simply on the basis that it is the accent to which those who are concerned about social standing most often aspire. It was once upon a time called a ‘BBC’ accent, but that idea began to crumble when Wilfred Pickles read the news during the War. I had to wait until Alvar Liddell came on, in order to check the facts. I understand that the concept of ‘received’ accent goes back at least to Shakespeare’s time. In fact it is continuously changing. For instance Prince William’s accent would in my youth have savoured of board school rather than public school.

        But there is no need to single out accent as an irrational measure of character. There are many others; and these are more dangerous because they are less visible. Take one example: the unconsciously recognised relationship between height and authority.

        I have always maintained that we owe it to our good judgment to know about our instinctive responses – so that we can allow for them. In my voluminous computer research files, I think the term ‘irrational’ throws up the biggest volume of entries.

        Here’s an odd one for you. When I was young I heard my mother remark: “The reason why the poor have so many children is that they can’t afford enough bedrooms.” So I have never watched Downton Abbey because, in one of the early trailers, the grand couple were seen in a double bed. Clearly, I saw, they may have been gentry but not real gentry. By that I mean ‘back to the Conquest’ gentry.

    • Peter D. Wilson says:

      John L – I think we tend to make a distinction between genuine regional accents and a plebeian diction that may rightly or wrongly be taken to denote a lack of education. It can work the other way; I once heard with amusement of my being identified in the workplace as ” ‘Im as talks posh”.

    • John L says:

      Thank you, John, Quentin and Peter for pretty comprehensive replies. What I had in mind was so-called received PRONUNCIATION not regional dialect. I think that dialects have their interest and value in preserving ancient words and structures – I sometimes use my own, but these days it is an affectation to do so. I don’t seek an excuse for the incorrect use of the English language, but make a plea that it is offensive to sneer at a regional accent. I flatter myself I use the language correctly, but I retain a North Staffordshire accent though long away from that area. Some people dislike it – that’s their problem. I offer Dr Johnson as an example – powerful English, Lichfield accent. I believe Shakespeare probably retained a Warwickshire accent too.
      I accept that the South has its regional accents, but the adoption of the French “a” seems common to many of them.
      I didn’t want to labour this point. It just seemed to me that to change one’s accent was another example of putting up a different image. What is slightly arrogant about RP is the assumption by some that we all ought to do so.

  25. John Nolan says:

    If Princes William and Harry are anything to go by, Estuary English will be the Received Pronunciation of the next generation. The 1950s BBC/RADA accent now sounds quaint and I’ve noticed that female RP-speakers under 40 can’t pronounce the ‘oo’ sound – ‘food’ becomes ‘feud’.

    Is the relationship between height and authority an inverse one? I’m thinking of Bonaparte and Hitler.

    • Quentin says:

      And Nelson, and Montgomery. No, I think that these spring to mind because they are exceptions. (And it may be that their shortness is a spur to their determination.)The kind of study that has been done here would be to take senior executives in organisations – say CEOs picked at random, and see whether the proportion of tall ones significantly exceeds their percentage of the population. Apparently they do. We tend, for example, to estimate people’s height in accordance with their rank.

      These sorts of irrationalities, it is suggested, are often related to primitive patterns. In this case the plausible pattern is our built in recognition that physically big pack leaders can protect us wimps.

    • Peter D. Wilson says:

      John N – authority or authoritarianism?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s