Proverbs tells us: “What a joy it is to find just the right word for the right occasion” (15:23). So it is with the word imposturous, which ideally captures the essence of the deceit which characterizes what currently masquerades as social ethics.
If an impostor is someone who pretends to be someone else to deceive or to defraud others, then imposturous refers to that deceiver’s intentions, promises, and actions. The Great Deceiver is Satan (Rev 13:14), the father of lies (John 8:44). A lie is a false statement made with deliberate intent to deceive. Liars are impostors, and Satan is the arch-impostor.
No one reasonably chooses to do those actions which will deceive, defraud, or destroy himself. Rather, seduced by the siren-song of imposturous ethics, the naïve person places faith in mendacious promises. Here is the very kernel of sin itself, for sin, at its center, is imposturous.
We sin because we seek after that which is a counterfeit good or a treacherous misrepresentation. Consider Eve in the garden, seduced into disobedience of God by disordered desire for power, progress, and perfection (3:5-6). The “good” she wanted was an impostor, a fraud.
Racism, to use a popular example, is a grave evil. Still, correctly deploring the vice of racism is to address only a symptom of the systemic sin which is the cause of racism and other loathsome practices and ideologies. “The root of sin is in the heart of man, in his free will, according to the teaching of the Lord” (CCC #1853, referring to Mt. 15:19-20). As the Catechism puts it:
Only the light of divine Revelation clarifies the reality of sin and particularly of the sin committed at mankind’s origins. Without the knowledge revelation gives of God we cannot recognize sin clearly and are tempted to explain it as merely a developmental flaw, a psychological weakness, a mistake, or the necessary consequence of an inadequate social structure, etc. Only in the knowledge of God’s plan for man can we grasp that sin is an abuse of the freedom God gives to created persons so that they are capable of loving [H]im and loving one another”
(#387; cf. 407-409).
Even in those cases in which sinners recognize evil as evil and choose it nonetheless, they are often animated by the profoundly mistaken notion that they can convert what is objectively evil into their own subjective good. “Evil, be thou my good!” says Satan in Paradise Lost.
This desperate attempt to substitute evil for good–which is the nature of imposturous ethics–is the red thread connecting all manner of corruption. The quest for power, progress, and perfection finds its expression in the hallucinations of such biological impostors as surgical provision of the gender one prefers; such psychological impostors as the assurance that a guilty conscience is assuaged on the psychiatrist’s couch and not in the priest’s confessional; such economic impostors as the canard that society flourishes when the government is the chief or sole source of production and distribution; and such political impostors as the delusion that the aggregation of state power leads to paradise by means of the government’s grandiose redesign of humanity.
In this regard, C.S. Lewis offered a trenchant admonition about those who would use their power to “re-make” human nature: “the power of Man to make himself what he pleases means . . . the power of some men to make others what they please” (The Abolition of Man; and see his novel That Hideous Strength).
The Edenic promise of Satan–you can be as gods!–is the ultimate example of imposturous ethics, for when we have become gods, we tell ourselves, we can impose the New Morality of our class or coterie. Imposturous ethics and politics tell us that we can replace God; that we can divinize ourselves and those bright enough to be our allies; that we can make all things new.
To “make all things new,” however, is the promise of “one who sits on the throne” (Rev 21:5). To surrender such power to anyone else–biologist, psychologist, economist, politician–is to court catastrophe. Here, under the heading of “impostor,” is the Fuehrer, the Duce, the Vozhd, the Great Helmsman, the Dear Leader, the Antichrist (see CCC #675), as well as the medical or psychiatric expert who offers to solve all problems, cure all ills, rectify all wrongs. “Trust me,” they say, “for I am the way, the truth, and the life.”
Here is the core of and the key to imposturous ethics. Here is the ultimate expression of “the end justifies the means.” Here is exactly what Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor meant when they warned us that tenderness leads to the gas chambers. If the Grand Impostor has exclusive knowledge of what is needed in order to achieve “progress,” then empower him, for what are a few million deaths when the result will be heaven on earth?
Thirty years ago, in Centesimus Annus, St. John Paul succinctly explained this kind of moral and political peril:
When people think they possess the secret of a perfect social organization which makes evil impossible, they also think that they can use any means, including violence and deceit, in order to bring that organization into being. Politics then becomes a “secular religion” which operates under the illusion of creating paradise in this world. But no political society–which possesses its own autonomy and laws–can ever be confused with the Kingdom of God [#25].
Consider the warm–and disturbingly deranged–eulogies offered for Castro, after his death on 25 November 2016. In the throes of an ethical scotoma, some pathetically mistake brutal dictators for benevolent fathers.
Imposturous ethics is Pelagianism on steroids. Throughout history, it takes different forms but there is always a common rabidity: the desire to abrogate the First Commandment.
Repeal the First Commandment, and you will very soon be repealing the First Amendment.
Sin is about our substituting what we crave or lust after for what God commands. Totalitarian government is precisely that: it wholly substitutes ideology for theology, and it demands the absolute loyalty which we owe only to God (cf. Acts 5:29, Ex 1:17).
The late political philosopher Eric Voegelin ironically achieved a measure of renown, even in the popular world, when his thoughtful apothegm–“Don’t immanentize the eschaton!”–became widely known. His students know his teaching to be much richer than can be contained in a short formula, but the phrase in question is, nevertheless, a capsule version of what Voegelin warned us about: those who seek to build Heaven on earth deliver, instead, Hell (cf. Is 14:14, 2 Thess 2:4).
The lust for power displayed in the building of the Tower of Babel (Gen 11) may be understood as an adumbration, or type, of the kind of megalomaniacal Herodian ambition which led to the “gas chambers” (Mt 2:16-18), the slaughter of the innocents, after Our Lord’s birth. The builders of the Tower sought to “make a name for themselves”–that is, to achieve such pre-eminence that they could reject dependence upon God.
Imposturous ethics means simply that what is good and true and beautiful is replaced by what is evil and false and ugly. Yet, because we are often spiritually myopic, we may fail to discern the grand impostor. Genuine education is always grounded in helping us distinguish between what is real virtue and what is imposturous vice—and, we hope, morally inoculating us against the ubiquitous false gods of our day.
Deacon James H. Toner (M.A., William & Mary; Ph.D., Notre Dame) is Professor Emeritus of Leadership and Ethics at the U.S. Air War College, a former U.S. Army officer, and author of numerous books, articles, reviews, and monographs. He has taught at Notre Dame, Norwich, Auburn, the U.S. Air Force Academy, and Holy Apostles College & Seminary. He has contributed many columns to The Catholic Thing, Crisis Magazine, One Peter Five, and the Wanderer, as well as myriad academic and military periodicals. He and his wife Rebecca have three sons and eleven grandchildren.