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An essay by George William Curtis

The Pharisee

Title:     The Pharisee
Author: George William Curtis [More Titles by Curtis]

THERE is no more beautiful and impressive passage in the New Testament than that which contrasts the Pharisee thanking God that he is not as other men are and the Publican who asks mercy as a sinner. But there is no passage, also, which has been more ingeniously perverted, and it is exceedingly amusing to hear Jeremy Diddler or Robert Macaire or Dick Turpin railing at honest and industrious men as Pharisees because they prefer honesty and industry to knavery.

The taste for honesty and sobriety seems natural and simple enough, and the qualities themselves quite as valuable as those of Diddler, or even of Jonathan Wild the Great. But Jonathan will have none of them. They are Pharisaic impertinences. They are impracticable and visionary speculations, which assume heaven while yet we stand upon the green earth; and Mr. Wild, who assures us that he does not desire to pass himself off as better than other men, declares, with the noble candor which distinguishes him, that simple, downright dishonesty is good enough for him. He does not, indeed, choose that precise word, but he conveys that precise idea.

'Tis a good trick, and it is generally sure of applause. But it is only another version of a familiar maxim, that when you have no argument, you must abuse the plaintiff's attorney. As a matter of fact, your client did steal the handkerchief, or forge the name, or fire the barn. But I ask you, gentlemen of the jury--you may well say--and I appeal to all good citizens, is not this ostentation of superior virtue, this fine air of moral indignation toward my client simply because he happened to slip his hand into the wrong pocket, a little suspicious? Are we angels? I ask your honor is this work-a-day world the celestial seat and the Mount of Vision, and is a man so very much better than his fellows merely because he rolls up his sanctimonious eyes with the Pharisee and thanks God that he is holier than other men? Nay, gentlemen, have we not in this sublime and immortal parable a Divine warning against this Phariseeism which denounces the slides and slips of our common frail humanity? I ask you, gentlemen, by your verdict not to place a premium upon that most odious of all repulsive arrogancies--Phariseeism.

But it is upon the political platform that the gibes and sneers at Phariseeism are intended to be most stinging. The Honorable Jonathan Wild the Great comes out strong, as his henchmen truly declare, against his political opponents. With one vast comprehensive sneer he brands them as Pharisees, as if he were snorting consuming fire. It is not surprising, because they have had their eye upon Jonathan. They have seen him in bad company. They have caught him "conveying" public treasure. They know all about him, and he knows that they know all about him. He called himself Tweed, and he made a mesh of statutes to legalize robbery. But how good he was to the poor! How he distributed coal to the chilly! How he planted pinks and daisies in the City Hall Park, and made the Battery to bloom as the rose! How he received wedding gifts for his daughter from our best citizens; and how generously they subscribed to erect his statue to commemorate that bright flower of the State! And now a sneaking, mousing gang of would-be archangels prate about common honesty, and demand that public hands shall be clean hands! Fellow-citizens, Jonathan Wild is a man of the people. He doesn't pretend to be higher and purer and better than other men. He didn't graduate at a college, indeed, and he never read the Iliad in the original Greek. No, fellow-citizens, there is no cambric handkerchief and oh-de-cologne about him. He is just one of the boys. He whoops it up with the plain people, and, thank God, whatever he is, he is not a Pharisee.

The argument is ingenious. It does not deny that he is a thief. It only insists that those who assert it are Pharisees--and Pharisees are so odious that it is much better to scoff at them than to punish Mr. Wild. There was a good old countryman who had been early taught to take men as they are, which means to consider them liars and rascals. One day a neighbor remarked to him that he thought that the old man had lost the money with which he bought voters, because, he said, while they take your money, the other side take their votes. "The deuce they do!" said the old countryman. "Yes," said the other; "and you will find, in the long-run, that political honesty is the best political policy." "You think so, do you?" was the reply. "Well, do you know that you're a blanked metaphysical Pharisee?"

It is obvious that when the advocacy of common honesty in any relation of life is savagely and scornfully decried as Phariseeism, it is because somebody's withers are wrung. It is a plea of guilty. It is the cry of Squeers when the picture of Dotheboys Hall was displayed to the world: "I didn't do it." If a man demands honesty in politics, and it is retorted, "You're a Pharisee," it is because the dishonesty cannot be denied or disproved, and the retort is therefore a summons to all honest men to look out for thieves.

To deride the demand for decency is to concede that anything but indecency is impracticable. If it be only Pharisees who insist that sugar shall not be sanded, that milk shall not be swill-fed, that coffee shall not be chiccory, that nutmegs shall not be wood, that cloth shall not be shoddy, that employés of the government shall not be forced to pay for their places, that public officers shall be honest, and that government shall not be venal, it is pleasant to think how many intelligent, upright, industrious, and practical Americans are Pharisaical.

[The end]
George William Curtis's essay: Pharisee