I heard Christopher Hitchens say this in a debate, and he attributed it to someone I hadn't heard of. But I fixated on this quotation and thought about it for a while.

Hypocrisy is the compliment vice pays to virtue.

I think my command of English is reasonably strong, but I cannot make sense of this.

  • 1
    It's metaphorical; 'paying a compliment' less figuratively means that hypocrisy is saying that one is virtuous while not in fact being so. At least one who is a hypocrite recognizes that virtue is the preferred option.
    – Mitch
    Apr 6, 2012 at 17:31
  • If you search that exact phrase in Google, you will find a lot, including attempts to explain its meaning. Say: whymustifillthisin.blogspot.com/2011/07/…
    – GEdgar
    Apr 6, 2012 at 17:33
  • Yeah, that's about it. It means that virtue may be discussed and openly advocated, but vice must not be; that is to say, virtue is unmarked and vice is marked. This is the basis of all journalism, of course, and if this weren't the case, the word hypocrisy itself would be meaningless. Oh, and it's a quotation by Oscar Wilde. Apr 6, 2012 at 17:36

6 Answers 6


It was La Rochefoucault. Robert Stern explains this as

In an earlier age, La Rochefoucault could still laugh at hypocrisy as "the compliment vice pays virtue", but he was only dealing with the naive hypocrisy of a Tartuffe. Moliere's hero, after all, just pretends to be more pious than other people in order to cover up his wicked schemes. Tartuffe's hypocrisy was merely one form of unctuous fraud among many others.

It's an odd construction, but based on imitation being the sincerest compliment, vice will imitate [try to look like] virtue. It's hypocritical in the case of vice because it's not sincere at all.


"Hypocrisy is the compliment vice pays to virtue." means that when you are being hypocritical you are in essence acknowledging that a virtue is worthy of emulating -- you want to appear virtuous, even though you aren't actually acting virtuously.


Hitchens used it in response to what he termed retrospective evidentialism: a term he used to describe the way in which religious apologists advocate faith as the only thing one needs to believe in god but then use scientific evidence to support their claim that god exists.

His usage of the quote in this context elucidates the meaning quite well and can be summarised in this way: our virtues are the things we want to define us as people but we are tempted by our vices and when we give in to those temptations we appear not to be striving towards a virtuous existence and therefore are hypocritical.

So Hitchens was basically saying that religious apologists are saying that faith is a virtue and is all one needs but when they give in to the persuasiveness of scientific evidence and try to use it to support their claims, they appear hypocritical because they clearly don't believe that faith is all you need.


Vice can never be virtue, but it can come close by acting like virtue. hypocrites/ or hypocrite means actor/ imitator in ancient Greek. so i think it means that since vice is incapable of any good, it can only pay a false compliment to 'good' acting like virtue.


Too often those making the accusation of "hypocrite" are those that are less virtuous than those they are accusing (who are trying to use the charge to bring the virtuous down to their level). Therefore, to receive the charge of "hypocrisy" is to be unwittingly complimented by the depraved.

From Wikipedia: Vice is a practice or a behavior or habit generally considered immoral, depraved, or degrading in the associated society.


It means that the more attractive a vice is the more virtuous one would have to be to not indulge.

The harder it is to avoid a vice the more virtuous one is when avoiding it.

We of course strive to be virtuous, but when we are hypocritical - and thus indulge in vice - we show how hard it is to virtuous - the more we acknowledge the power of a vice - the more we are free to determine just how virtuous a virtue is.

I've reiterated it a few times - but all of these answers are not only missing it, but claiming it is something else.

As far as Hitchens goes, he was referencing it in connection to a concession that is made, in this quote hypocrisy is the concession the virtuous makes to a vice - which each time such a concession is made "compliments" such a virtue.

  • I think you'r getting this rather wrong. Hypocristy is a vice that points out the virtues really are better.
    – virmaior
    Feb 9, 2014 at 8:45

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