- Sincerity: How a Moral Ideal Born Five Hundred Years Ago Inspired Religious Wars, Modern Art, Hipster Chic, and the Curious Notion that We ALL Have Something To Say (No Matter How Dull). by R. Jay Magill, Jr.
Perhaps because I had been reading R. Jay Magill, Jr.’s latest book, a moment in a profile of Barack Obama stood out to me. “There are some things about being president that I still have difficulty doing,” the President is quoted as saying. “For example, faking emotion… I’m absolutely positive that I’m serving the American people better if I’m maintaining my authenticity. And that’s an overused word. And these days people practice being authentic. But I’m at my best when I believe what I am saying.”1
It’s the kind of statement, poised at the intersection of the personal and the political, that Magill makes much of in his energetic book, Sincerity: How a Moral Ideal Born Five Hundred Years Ago Inspired Religious Wars, Modern Art, Hipster Chic, and the Curious Notion that We ALL Have Something to Say (No Matter How Dull).
Magill takes his readers on a romp through modern moral history, hop-scotching across historical periods and disciplinary boundaries, to get to the heart of (or, better, asking if there is a heart of) sincerity: a concept that blurs the distinction between the subjective and the intersubjective, naming the ethical operation of “confronting one’s innermost thoughts or emotions and relaying them to others straightforwardly” (13). Magill’s latest is a companion piece of sorts to his first book, Chic Ironic Bitterness (Michigan, 2007), but irony has by no means taken a backseat here. To the contrary, Magill’s most recent titular term seems in his analysis always caught up in a Gordian “tight knot of sincerity and irony” (215) that the author ultimately resists either cutting or untying. Academic readers may not be as surprised as Magill would like to learn that a moral virtue has a history to be charted, but they are nevertheless likely to find valuable connections and more than a few thought-provoking nuggets along the way.
In his introduction, Magill focuses on public figures of our current political moment (from Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck to Julian Assange and Bradley [now Chelsea] Manning), but he also stresses that this is not a book about politics but instead a methodologically eclectic intellectual history. Magill notes that, whether or not pundits took someone like Palin to be sincere, they [End Page 804] continued to use sincerity as a privileged evaluative criterion: “The intriguing thing about our repeated moral letdowns is not that insincerity continues to exist, but that we continue to insist we are outraged by it” (20). Sincerity’s history begins in the sixteenth century, with the philological support of the Oxford English Dictionary’s first exemplary entry for the term: Protestant reformer John Frith’s description of John Wycliffe as a man who had lived “a very sincere life” (27). Chapter one highlights the Reformation’s emphasis on the “primacy of individual conscience over church dogma” (29), which serves both as the cornerstone of Magill’s tracing of sincerity’s navigation of private principle in public life and, crucially, as the catalyst for a reactionary suspicion of the world’s capacity for upholding truth. (I may be sincere, but I am doubtless the only one …) The key figures in this brief chapter are key indeed—Luther, Shakespeare, Montaigne, and Machiavelli—and the analysis moves from religion to literature to political philosophy and back again.
The next two chapters, one on the Puritan turn to interiority and the other on elaborate conventions of salon and courtly society, feel much more focused. The book proceeds roughly chronologically (though with frequent recursions) over five more chapters (on Rousseau’s “natural man” and the French Revolution; Romanticism; Nietzsche, Freud...