The Capture of Joan of Arc, Dillens

“The Capture of Joan of Arc”
Adolphe-Alexandre Dillens, 1847-52


What is integrity? Is it a dull thing that you get by means of conformism and conventional thinking? Or is it interesting?

It’s really, I think, neither conventional nor unconventional, neither conformist nor anti-conformist, neither respectable nor defiant of the norms. Those just aren’t the right lines to draw.

It’s a matter of living as you think, being who you say you are – as good as your word.

Also, taking very seriously the moments when that congruence isn’t happening, trying to find out Why it’s not there. The Why is not merely academic.   There is a rent in the fabric of oneself. That’s the Why. The next thing is to sew up the rent.

Eloquence is not integrity.

Charm is not integrity.

Talent is not integrity.

Success – even earned success! – is not integrity.

Compassion, though a great thing, is not integrity.

Spiritual yearning, though a deep and fundamental thing, is not integrity.

Goodness! What is it then? Is it just candor about what one plans to do? A woman can feel inclined to trust a man who confides,

“You can’t trust me, because I’ll get away with anything I can.”

In fact she does trust him, because he has seemingly bared his soul. He sets her up by luring her in. And later when – surprise, surprise! – he lets her down, she has no valid complaint. Wasn’t she warned, fair and square?

Hey, what just happened?

Let’s generalize this. Would it be a mark of integrity if a person warned us in advance of being a murderer, a swindler, a free loader, a drunk, a love-‘em-and-leave-‘em seducer, or a fool – and then proceeded fully to act the part of which we were so fairly warned?

I make it a practice to take such “fair warners” at their word and say,

 “thanks for the heads up and so long – gotta run.”

The “fair warners” will claim that they owe us nothing. If we trusted them because they confessed their flaws so frankly, we should have trusted their warnings when they warned us! Now they say they are quits with us, because they have shown the congruence between word and deed that was the supposed hallmark of integrity. Are they right?

What’s missing? Well, word and deed didn’t really correspond. The so-called fair warnings were not given continuously. Instead, the warnings were given at one time and the harmful deed at another – else the perpetrator could never have gotten close enough to plunge in the shaft. There was a surround of lies, or misleading gestures, and night-time advances, protecting and disguising the aggressor till the moment was ripe.

But suppose one is not playing that cunning game, not using or misusing the claim of candor to mask and justify dirty deeds retroactively. The person who does that is, after all, a rat.

Let’s say one is not a rat. One is a nice person. Does the non-rat fall into integrity automatically – as life’s default position? Well, unfortunately not quite.

If we live reasonably unfiltered lives, over time we come face to face with a wide spectrum of experiences. Some of these will facilitate our desire to make word and deed correspond. Some, however, will weigh in on the other side.

For example:

One wants to be truthful

but also to have friends and allies.


One has a defining belief

but some new datum may undermine the belief –

along with the personal style that formed around it.

It turns out that to maintain coherence while breasting these waves will be a task of utmost difficulty. There is nothing cut-to-pattern about it. It appears to be a process and a struggle – rather than a fait accompli. Although it takes longer – in fact all the time we will get – it will feel a bit like growing up.

So, good luck with that.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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