For fifty years he had been persuading himself that he was a righteous man, and the conviction was now so firmly impressed upon his very soul that nothing could ever shake it.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – The Firm of Girdlestone (1890)
It’s a strange idea, the notion of righteousness. So often we have seen it applied to fictional characters who are emphatically not righteous, as Conan Doyle does here with John Girdlestone and as Dickens did with Seth Pecksniff. Both characters projected their supposed righteousness via religious and traditionally moral facades.
Righteousness still has religious connotations, but much less so than in Dickens’ and Conan Doyle’s day. Even so, in view of her religious upbringing one might expect Theresa May to have a degree of righteousness in her political persona but she doesn’t. Neither does Jeremy Corbyn, yet Conan Doyle’s quote seem to fit Corbyn better than May. It fits his politics, it fits his supporters.
In modern times, the whole idea of righteousness has become much more political and rather more covert. It is signalled via behaviour and language rather than explicit religious quotations or moral maxims. It has morphed into political virtue-signalling and is not likely to be religious nor traditionally moral.
It was easy enough in Dickens' and Conan Doyle's day, but somehow we have made it even easier to be righteously stupid, righteously incompetent, righteously dishonest, righteously wicked.