By Michael May
It’s easy to see why Ian Fleming had a hard time with self-righteous people. Anyone with the impulse to overthrow the Seven Deadly Sins with his own set of Deadlier ones clearly has a personal stake in seeing the original list replaced. Fleming admitted to struggling with Sloth, but even a shallow look at his biography will reveal issues with at least Pride and Lust. It’s an understandable desire to point away from those faults and towards others. And an obvious target would be the very people condemning him for his own vices.
To be fair though, Fleming disliked self-righteousness even when it wasn’t directed at him. In an article titled “The Man from UNCLE: Fleming’s Other Spy” (published in James Bond in World and Popular Culture: The Films Are Not Enough by Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010), Cynthia W Walker writes about the collaboration between Fleming and TV producer Norman Felton:
Like most action heroes, Fleming’s Bond, with his “license to kill,” operated above and beyond normal moral standards, but this was a moral stance that Felton, a political liberal who opposed nuclear proliferation and the death penalty, wished to avoid. Apparently, Fleming was aware of Felton’s viewpoint, because he cautioned that [Napoleon] Solo much not be “too prudish, sanctimonious, self-righteous.
Whatever Fleming’s motives for criticizing self-righteousness, he’s not wrong. It’s an odious sin. It’s related to hypocrisy in that its practitioners lack awareness of their own flaws, but unlike hypocrisy, self-righteousness can exist entirely on its own. To use one of Edward Biddulph’s examples from his entry on hypocrisy for this series, Kurt from The Spy Who Loved Me is a hypocrite because he preaches correctness and camaraderie, but offers neither of those to Vivienne when he gets her pregnant. The sin of hypocrisy is always connected to a different sin, so it’s relatively easy to point out. Self-righteousness is a deeper, more deadly problem.
Look at someone like Dr. No. His evil is all in pursuit of power and freedom from oppression. In trying to obtain those things, he in turn oppresses other people, but there’s no hypocrisy in it. He’s not hiding anything. He’s not pretending to be better than the people who caused him to suffer. Instead, he’s simply confident that he deserves what he’s after. And God help anyone who gets in his way. He’s convinced of his own correctness.
Fleming’s novels are full of self-righteous people. Blofeld is especially good at it; certain that he’s better than other people and somehow deserves special treatment. But it’s not just the villains. When M gets on a health kick at the beginning of Thunderball, he develops an annoying streak of self-righteousness that then infects Bond once the agent returns from Shrublands. Bond is obviously prone to the sin, because Le Chiffre notices and comments on it as early as Casino Royale. He accuses Bond of taking comfort in his unquestioning loyalty to the righteousness of Britain and M. In fact, that’s the major theme of Casino Royale: Bond’s questioning and coming to terms with his own self-righteousness.
This is where it starts to get deadly. How many people has Bond killed because he was blindly convinced that M was right? “For Your Eyes Only” plays with this idea when M himself isn’t sure that murdering the Havelock’s assassin is the right thing to do. He can’t even make himself order the mission, so Bond has to volunteer for it. He stammers quite a bit as he does, saying that he’s able to withstand all kinds of hardship “if I have to and I think it’s right, sir.” He realizes that’s a weak answer and continues, even more lamely, “I mean … if the cause is – er – sort of just, sir.” Fleming makes it clear over and over again that Bond dislikes killing in cold blood, but he’ll do it for a righteous cause. And he’s perfectly willing to connect his own righteousness to M’s.
Ironically, it’s in the film version of Casino Royale that M questions the self-righteousness of a government committee inquiring into MI6’s affairs.
“Who the hell do they think they are?” she asks. “I report to the Prime Minister and even he’s smart enough not to ask me what we do. Have you ever seen such a bunch of self-righteous, ass-covering prigs? They don’t care what we do; they care what we get photographed doing.”
It’s ironic not just because M’s putting the shoe on the other foot, so to speak, but also because her complaint reveals her own self-righteousness. She finishes that speech by saying that she misses the Cold War, implying that she considered that a simpler time when her righteousness was more widely assumed.
Back to Fleming though, the most dramatic and destructive example of self-righteousness in the novels is Hugo Drax. Contrasting him with the hypocrisy of Goldfinger, Biddulph points out that Drax’s pretense at being a loyal Englishman isn’t hypocrisy, but a deliberate obfuscation of his true plan. He’s not a hypocrite, but he is completely self-righteous. He’s so confident that he’s correct that anyone who doesn’t see the world as he does isn’t just wrong, but also a fool. That makes Britain a land of fools and in need of destruction.
Drax is self-righteousness taken to its ultimate extent. As Benjamin Pratt points out, self-righteousness can be simply annoying, like when M goes on a health kick, but it also has the potential to be the deadliest of the sins:
From a position of imagined superiority, this is a purist who believes, “I have the right and only answer.” […It is] the malevolent force behind war as well as more common forms of pain that we visit on each other.
Whether we’re arguing over Presidential candidates on Facebook or developing world-changing foreign policy, self-righteousness blinds us to our own fallibility. It closes our minds to the possibility that we have something else to learn. And while that may be a useful or even necessary trait for a Double-O agent, even Bond recognized that it made him less human.
View all in the Seven Deadlier Sins series