Robert Benchley said that the world is divided between those who divide the world into two kinds of people and those who don’t. I am one of those who do, and would like to present a fresh such division. Here the little darling is: The world is divided between people who believe that what is most important about human beings is what they hide and those who believe that what is most important about people is what they do.

An old friend and I frequently have conversations that end up nowhere because we are on opposite sides of this divide. He is a Hide, and I a Do, man. As a Hide man, my friend is—no surprise here—a Freudian. Freud is of course the Hide man par excellence. For Freud nothing is as it appears, everything is in hiding: Ids are seething below stairs, in the attic Oedipus complexes remain unresolved, and though a cigar may sometimes be a cigar, it is more likely disguising something vastly more suggestive. 

My friend is also a devotee of the sociologist Ervin Goffmann, who holds that life is a theater in which we are all playing parts, wearing masks, changing roles—in short, that we are, under social necessity, hiding our real selves. I have only myself to go on here, but my sense is that, if you pull away the mask I present to the public, you will see underneath it the selfsame mask; remove that second mask, and, lo, there I am again, playing the same role of a mildly sly, slightly skeptical, outwardly conformist creature. 

Being a Do man doesn’t mean that I don’t believe people have hidden motives, which of course many people have. I am not so clever in fishing out motives as Prince Metternich, who, when the Russian ambassador died just before the convening of the Congress of Verona in 1822, is said to have asked, “I wonder why he did that?” But I try to be on the qui vive for hidden motives, and if I discover them in people, I weigh them in when I make judgments about them. And judgmental—not a good thing to be, I realize, in our empathy-approving culture—I am, a relentless, resolute engine of judgment-making. We Do-people tend, I suspect, to be more judgmental than Hide people, if only because we have a firmer basis on which to make judgments: namely, actions.

Everyone from time to time has hidden motives; everyone has secrets, some of which are part of one’s inviolable being and oughtn’t to be prodded and searched out, even by therapists. But the real question is do these motives and secrets constitute one’s deepest and truest self. I don’t happen to think they do. 

In his novel The Walnut Trees of Altenburg, André Malraux agrees. Therein a dialogue occurs between the narrator’s father and an old family friend. “Fundamentally speaking,” the friend posits, “man is what he hides . . . A wretched little pile of secrets.”

“ ‘Man is what he achieves,’ my father answered, almost savagely.”

If I were a marriage counselor, I would suggest that a Do and a Hide not marry, for the difference between the two speaks to profound differences about what is important in life. I’m not even certain that the two differing types can become truly close friends, for the Do is likely to think that the Hide is missing the great point in life, which is that, within limits, we all control our own destinies through our actions, while the Hide is likely to think that the Do, in his concentration on the surface of life, is himself merely covering up, and in his achievements compensating for, something he is hiding. 

More people who have been infected by contemporary college education are likely to fall into the Hide camp than people who have been brought up free of higher education. But among those who have been to college further distinctions can be made. Business school and science graduates are likely to be Do’s; those in the humanities and most of the social sciences Hides. 

The Do camp has a moral grandeur wanting in the camp of Hides that comes from taking responsibility for one’s actions. If one believes that we are what we hide, responsibility drops away because we are hostage to inner demons that, behind the scenes, are really calling the shots. Do-people have no such excuse.

Do, Hide, Do, Hide, Do—I begin to sound rather like Frank Sinatra humming Do Be, Do Be, Do. But the distinction, all apologies to Robert Benchley, seems to me crucial, and at some point in life everyone has to ask, Which am I? Hide or Do? And once one decides, lots of other things fall into place.

Joseph Epstein