R. Jay Magill is tired of the cultural cachet accorded to “sincerity,” warning too much of it can be like “an iron girder in a house of cards,” as he paraphrases W. Somerset Maugham. While the occasional burst of heartfelt self-expression can be refreshing and interesting, as a permanent cultural norm this quickly grows tiresome and impractical. It’s also an unfair expectation for most of us, who lack the brilliance to constantly say something truly new. A kind of static results.
Of course, the turn to sincerity in many ways dovetails with the broader “turn to the subject” in philosophy and theology, and Magill cites some sources (like Lionel Trilling) who paint the rise of sincerity as a counterweight against Baroque Catholicism’s conscious opulence. But it didn’t stop there, as Magill points out:
In Trilling’s account, the focus on sincerity arose in the 16th century, with the Protestant Reformation and its emphasis on individual conscience rather than institutional ritual and doctrine. Over time, travel and trade made sincerity ever more important in judging the bona fides of strangers. According to Trilling, sincerity was eventually elbowed aside by the need for authenticity, “a more strenuous moral experience” that responds aggressively to received moral opinion. Authenticity, in this view, is sincerity plus autonomy.
The opposite of our current fetishization of sincerity or authenticity does not, of course, have to be insincerity or even dishonesty. Rather, it can be an understanding that genuine self-expression comes from placing the individual person into a larger web of connections, submerging the self in a broader tradition which one neither invented nor even has to express in a particularly unique manner.
Read a review of Magill’s latest book, written by Daniel Akst for the Wall Street Journal, here.