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Studies of secularism and modern selfhood locate a transition in the early modern period toward the moral explanatory power of the self, by itself. In this essay, I challenge this view first by locating a distinct form of moral autonomy (sincerely sinning) in the work of Augustine, Anselm, and Scotus, and second by demonstrating this development's fraught legacy in early Protestant forms of conscience. Finally, I apply this history of sincerity to readings of Milton and Shakespeare, writers who illustrate the thematic potential of competing forms of sincerity and of the drama of the will.


Augustine, authenticity, early modern, Scotus, sincerity

This essay offers some preliminary thoughts on one path of the history of sincerity and specifically on how the theological participates in the exchange between truth and the self in the premodern and early modern periods. Read in tandem with Caleb Spencer's continuation of this short two-part thesis, its ideas are intended to invite further exploration and critique rather than to impede alternative or parallel explanations, some of which are represented in the other essays in this issue. One of my principle observations has to do with sincerity's arbitrations with itself, that is, with what is often viewed as the distinctly modern situation in which given positions of sincerity find themselves in competition with alternative positions of sincerity: can we locate theological shifts that created the conditions for a meta-discourse about which version of sincerity is the right version? Pluralism in various forms—ecclesiastical, moral, political—is often cited as a mark of secular progress, but the emergence of a plurality of views of sincerity, I think, offers something of a corrective to this account. [End Page 8]

One way to approach early modern developments in the history of sincerity is by looking back to medieval theological debates about what constitutes an act of "sincerity," considered with some intentional anachronism. Medieval theological writing on the will is part of this history, documenting how the moral agent came to be understood as arbitrating between his moral self and his true self. Exhibited particularly in Augustine, sincerity was indicated not only by a movement of the will toward the good but also, on a dramatic register, by a narrative of struggle. The history of this narrative of struggle, what we are calling "agonistic" sincerity, is a meandering path toward a form of self-coherence consisting of a combination of an individual's effort, conflict, and self-reflection, and many have identified its influence on Protestant Reformers and on their contributions to modern conceptions of subjectivity. Accordingly, the agonistic course of sincerity experiences an initial reinforcement by medieval Scholastic writers who theorize a form of volition that is somewhat independent from the good, and the resulting notion of free will eventually reappears in conversations about autonomy and sincerity in the modern writings of Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, and Wordsworth, as discussed in "Part II."

Too often, however, scholars neglect the premodern history of the independence of will that we associate with modern treatments of sincerity. For the purposes of outlining the literary capabilities of sincerity, a crucial distinctive of the medieval and early modern periods is the fact that a processual and personal form of agonistic sincerity and an impersonal form of ontological sincerity existed side-by-side, which meant that the existential struggle of the will was always understood in theological terms. So while the adage of being true to oneself might remind us of that "more strenuous moral experience" of self-realization that Trilling assigns to modern "authenticity"—which Trilling suggests is an amoral view of the individual fulfilling her unique potential—I want to show that the notions of self-coherence and self-truth emerged in and for the sake of theological questions that remained central to sincerity throughout the period in which we discover the Machiavel, Faustus, Milton's Satan, and other figures who are built out of conflicts of sincerity.1 I will conclude, thus, by suggesting that the recentering of sincerity around an individual's will, along with the continued adherence to a theologically informed moral standard of justice and human fallenness, presented distinct thematic possibilities for writers in the times of Shakespeare and Milton.2


For good reason, Augustine is a key figure in the early Christian history of sincerity. There has been much appreciation for the literary psychodrama of the Confessions and for its depiction of an inward life attempting to realize itself and to square with such outward realities as temptation, knowledge, beauty, biography, and, not least, the sovereignty of God over human decisions. And so one might look to the inwardness on display in a book like Confessions as a counterbalance to the tendency to locate the origins of self-conscious interiority centuries later. Yet there are ways in which the structure and orientation of Augustine's representation of inwardness is strikingly afield from modern notions of authenticity [End Page 9] understood as fulfilling one's potential. In fact, for Augustine, an individual's potential is essentially non-individual. Discovering oneself, whatever that might mean, is an act of faith where faith is understood not merely as doctrinal assent but as the predicative sequence of active confession transforming one's desires. To this end, the opening sentences of the Confessions utter a prayer that also functions as a lesson about the dependence of the human will upon God's: "Lord, I would seek you, calling upon you—and calling upon you is an act of believing in you."3

The example of Augustine speaks to the centrality of volition as a faculty that he held to conduct a person's goodness and integrity—broadly conceived as sincerity—in medieval and later accounts. Just as the will is not autonomous from God's sovereignty, the memoir itself is anything but auto-biographical. It is Augustine's rewriting of his life for God, with the important qualification that, in writing his memoir as a story toward salvation and revelation under the direction of God's will, he doesn't believe himself to be fabricating a fantasy but to be clarifying the divine reality that was previously obscure to him. His self-discovery occurs through the objective revelation that he was acting always in reference to God and was dependent upon him all along. Even his inward struggle—struggle though it was—is for and toward God, as he says in the opening section: "you have made us for yourself [ad te], and our heart is restless until it rests in you."4 Charles Guignon, in On Being Authentic, observes that this formulation is decidedly pre-modern. "We are made toward God, that is, our proper orientation in life is to be God-directed, and so we are only properly and fully human when we are bound to God as we are always meant to be."5 Note the language of directionality—towardness, orientation, boundedness—coupled with teleological language—propriety, fullness, meaning. When looking inward requires averting one's gaze from so many false objects of desire, then an expression like being true to oneself means nothing unless it is correlated as well to God's objective truth. Guignon is right, thus, to remark that "What constitutes self-realization on this view is what would look like total self-loss to many moderns: release from ego and acceptance of one's dependence on the source of one's being."6

For Augustine, generally speaking, there is a limit to one's ability to sincerely hold a false belief or to sincerely pursue sin. That is not to say that an individual cannot exert earnest effort in seeking for the truth in false or temporal objects, as is the case during most of the Confessions, but rather that sincerity involves more than earnestness, if sincerity is to be understood as a form of purity or coherence. A sinful or coherent act of the will is one wherein the nature or object of the act works adversely or privatively upon the will itself, discomposing or fracturing it. In as far as the self acts incoherently, inconsistently with its own makeup, its agency is partial, and it lacks sinceritas.

Accordingly, Augustinian sincerity requires setting a true bearing and being informed by true knowledge. Sincerity is not simply a correspondence between inner feeling and outward action as Trilling would have it; rather, inner feeling must undergo an initial evaluation of its orientation toward or away from God. This early medieval sincerity requires that both the moral agent and the object of [End Page 10] her will be true and well ordered. This is why Augustine characterizes sin by the formal qualities of lust in the Confessions—a "love for things that can be lost against the will"—a love for temporal things.7 Love for God, on the other hand, secures the object of the will (God) by the very movement of the will towards him because such willful actions towards God are natural for moral agents; they are definitive of the composition of the moral will as such.

"For Augustine," in James Smith's summary, "the self is defined by the object of its love" because the "result of the self's turning away from God to the world is, in fact, a loss of selfhood, a loss of identity which, in exile, is found in a 'state of disintegration' and 'lost in multiplicity."'8 The language of unity and division here is instructive for the way Augustine represents the wholeness of the will as a matter simultaneously of self-coherence and coherence with God as its object; the two are ontologically tied. Such disintegration and multiplicity of selfhood play out in the narrative in acts of self-misunderstanding and aimlessness, as the young Augustine disperses himself (or falsely thinks that he is dispersing himself) into events and objects that he treats as ends in themselves rather than as signs of God. The pear tree episode, in particular, demonstrates the erratic perspective that Augustine adopted in performing such a simple theft. At points in his narration Augustine describes the motivation for his sin in negative terms, as a desire to do something wrong, "driven by no kind of need other than my inner lack of any sense of, or feeling for, justice."9 Yet at other points Augustine seems dissatisfied with the soundness of this explanation and deflects his motivation onto other partial, eclipsed, and thus functionally depraved objects of desire, such as beauty, temporal honor, social status, and friendship10—only to disavow them and then return again to them in a back-and-forth pattern that reflects the friction between what he understood at the time (the agonistic struggle) and what is true from the authorial perspective despite what he knew (Augustine's ontology). "The theft itself was a nothing," he says; and then, shortly after, "my love in the act was to be associated with the gang in whose company I did it."11

It is not my aim to disentangle the psychology of this scene, but it serves as a bearing point in the history of sincerity even for its apparent self-contradictions. On the whole, Augustine's theology supports an absolutist view of the human will, one in which the will is fundamentally oriented toward the good although it is not compelled to choose the good; and yet the pear tree and similar episodes remain as reminders of something that resembles modern forms of sincerity that privilege the struggle, the inconstant movement towards the absolute, rather than the outcome of the struggle alone. Part of the problem is the vagueness with which Augustine translates his ideas about ontology (e.g., his negative definition of evil) to his ideas about human faculties like the will. Evil may not have a positive existence, but is the will positively acting when it is directed toward something "evil?" James Wetzel describes this as a "metaphysical tug of war between deficiently motivated perversity and mysteriously bestowed grace," where "the will tends to emerge in relief."12 A text like the Confessions, as opposed, say, to City of God or On the Free Choice of the Will, indulges in what we might call the agonistic drama of the will. And it is [End Page 11] only when viewed "in relief," that is, when viewed in narrative form and with some of the licenses of literary characters to change and yet remain essentially the same, that Augustine's wrongful willing contributes to a bigger picture of sincerity. "Augustine's offering of the will comes less in his disposition to absolutize the will than in his willingness to trade in absolutism for the sake of a good story about the complexity of desire—and desire for the flesh, in particular."13 Could it be that there are two registers of sincerity in the Confessions, one that represents what the will is and another that performs it? Further, is this an early example of what we normally recognize to be a more distinctly modern plurality of positions on sincerity—where one position might overrule another without erasing its influence altogether? Can we detect competing models of coherence?

Still, when investigating the activity of the will directly, as he is in the dialogue format of Free Choice, Augustine indeed takes an ontological and moral position on the will as a faculty that acts precisely insofar as it is acting toward the good. In reverse of Trilling, as quoted in the Preface, the "natural processes of human existence" (namely, acts of the human will) have not "acquired a moral status in the degree that they are thwarted" but do demonstrate their moral status in the degree that they are exercised.14 When God is the first cause of all human action, the will becomes absolute in its relation to God. Such absolutism, Wetzel avers, "suggests both the fear and the impossibility of being essentially related to something"; yet "the God who addresses this fear by asserting his one absolute will against all pretenders to the throne merely validates the impossibility."15 This is one of the reasons for Augustine's emphasis on the free "choice" of the will, a distinction that stresses the freedom of the prior decision to exercise the will at all, as opposed to a view of freedom constituted by a choice between different objects of desire. As Christopher Kirwan explains it, "When he does say that the human will is free … he usually means … that men are free whether or not to exercise their wills—to engage in the activity of willing."16 Augustine's ideas about free will appear in some of the more difficult passages in Free Choice and City of God, to the extent that Luther and Erasmus each would later claim Augustine's support of his own side in their debates over the freedom of the will. Yet while it would be particularly helpful to have a clear idea of what Augustine understands to be the relation between the intellect and the will as well as the extent to which he adopts the intellectualism of Aristotle (the view that the will cannot diverge from the intellect), such clarity is elusive.

Instead, what we can see, especially in Augustine's discussion of original angelic sin, is an identification of the "occurent psychological" status of sin, casting "Lucifer's primal sin as … his taking pleasure in a comparative evaluation of his own superiority vis-à-vis others."17 There is no antecedent cause for willing evil. Instead, the devil took pleasure in himself at the same time that he cognitively valued himself over others, including God—with the additional qualification that an evaluation, for Augustine, is both intellectual and affective, "the thought of being accompanied by a uoluntas for" an object.18 Such simultaneity would make sincerely desiring evil difficult, if by "sincerely" we mean willing an object in a way [End Page 12] that is consistent with what one believes and feels about it, as error and desire occur at the same time, or the one through the other. Perhaps a sense of sincerity can be preserved by appealing to ignorance and the felicitous mistake of self-deception (my sin involved my cognitive mistake), but Augustine's ontology is too imposing. In Free Choice of the Will Augustine reasserts his opinion that the will acts more fully when it is turned toward God; but "If instead [the mind] gets in its own way, so to speak, and it pleases it to imitate God perversely so that it wills to enjoy its own power, it becomes lesser to precisely the extent that it desires itself to be greater."19 This is wholly unlike most descriptions of modern authenticity that privilege originality, and it also distinct from the cultural equation of sincerity with morality with which Ball characterizes the Victorian period.20 Sin cannot be willed in sincerity, for Augustine, since willing evil is, in a sense, to will less and ultimately to lose oneself. And to lose oneself is to forfeit the very grounds of sincerity.


Augustine's devotion to an ontology of the sincere can be viewed as a backdrop to later medieval discussions of the will, especially as applied to the question of angelic sin. While medieval writers do not refer to sincerity per se, they are deeply invested in what we might describe as the problem of the coherence of the will in scenarios like the original angelic sin: how does a perfect will become imperfect, and what does an imperfect will look like? Is there a difference between an imperfect will and a sinful will? Anselm is an important figure in this tradition because he is credited with the "two-wills" theory, the notion that moral agents have two kinds of will—a will for what is personally advantageous and another for what the agent knows to be the right thing to do. Augustine comes short of a two-wills position because he doesn't think that turning toward oneself and away from God in an act of pride is indicative fully of a (positive) act of the will but rather of a defect in the will.21 Anselm's approach derives from his more focused interest in the problem of Lucifer's knowledge: how could he have sinned when he knew that God was right and would punish him? In other words, can we say that Lucifer was sincere when he went astray (could he have been mistaken?), or must we account for the prior sin of insincerity where he potentially knew the wrongfulness and negative consequences of his action yet committed it anyway? Is the latter even conceivable? Anselm answers that indeed it is conceivable, with the important caveat that Lucifer did not act out of a contradiction between his intellect and his will but, instead, acted rationally from affection for his own happiness (affectio commodi) rather than from affection for what is right (affectio iustitiae). These are two wills, or affectivities, whose objects can diverge, and yet their distinct acts are coherent with the normal activity of human volition and thus, in a sense, are sincere. In De casu diaboli, Anselm depicts Lucifer as directing his will toward his own good, but the scenario de-emphasizes the turning away from God that Augustine upholds. For Anselm, agents are influenced by two coexistent motives, happiness and justice. It is this bifurcation that prevents a person from being a "moral robot"22; while at the same time, it is also this very "struggle" that renders a choice as "morally [End Page 13] significant" in the first place.23 In a sense—and perhaps looking forward to Kantian metaphysics—all moral decisions require a negotiation of these two wills in a formulation of moral activity that begins to combine ontological with agonistic forms of sincerity.

Anselm is attempting to explain the provenance of Lucifer's sin while also maintaining his moral culpability. This is significant because it counters Thomas Aquinas's later intellectualist argument that one cannot will something that contradicts what one knows about it—described by Tobias Hoffmann as "clear-eyed akrasia (that is, acting contrary to one's better judgment with full knowledge)."24 If this is true, then sincerely sinning is either impossible or would require an initial mistake in understanding. According to Hoffmann, Aquinas held two ideas: "first, that the will's act depends entirely on the input of the intellect."25 This is a critical point to mention in considering the history of sincerity. Some definitions of sincerity might rely on not knowing the extent of one's decisions, while others are characterized by a vehemence of passion regardless of the intellect's input, and still others might involve a conscious decision to follow one's passion specifically despite being aware of its immorality. This latter version is explicitly anti-intellectualist: as instantiated in later Romantic writings, an act bespeaks the sincerity of one's faithfulness-to-self precisely because it is destructive or contrary, a kind of proto-existentialism. Aquinas's second position, in Hoffmann's account, is "that the angelic intellect is created flawless." Aquinas explains Lucifer's sin as neglect, suggesting that he simply didn't think enough about the morality of the choice to restrain his will. Writing earlier, yet contradicting Aquinas's view, Anselm would contend that Lucifer's happiness—as well as the happiness of any moral agent—should not be viewed as so tied to intellect. "The glory and the tragedy of rational natures is that their happiness may diverge from what they ought to do," and in King's description of Anselm's position we can detect something of the drama that emerges also in the Confessions.26 It is a kind of harmonic sincerity, a form of tragic glory grounded in the epistemological problem of choosing that may remind us of Kierkegaard's "tragic hero" in Fear and Trembling. Yet even the two-wills theory, apart from this agonistic register, seems to require a little more work to further separate the two types of affection in order to lay the foundation for a scenario in which one might be described as sinning in sincerity.

John Duns Scotus does this additional work. Scotus builds on Anselm but separates the will from the intellect more decisively and so paves the way for an experience of sincerity as self-coherence. He calls the separation of the will from the intellect its freedom and, in so doing, initiates something of a paradigm shift in the structure of coherence that makes an act of the will sincere. Scotus appropriates Anselm's two affections for the advantageous (commodi) and for the just (iustitiae) when he addresses Lucifer's "covetous willing."27 This is an act of wanting more happiness for himself than God allows, and were Lucifer to have not made the initial mistake of turning too exclusively toward himself (as Augustine also observed) he would not have slipped into the territory of an immoderate desire for something that is otherwise good—as there is nothing wrong with desiring one's [End Page 14] own happiness or even strategizing for it. For Scotus, the will is naturally inclined toward what is just, but unlike Augustine, Scotus articulates the will's freedom as its independence from the intellect's grasp of the just. The will is free because it has the power to choose not to be determined by its affection for personal advantage in a given instance, and this power is enabled by the will's independence from the intellect. As King points out, this is not so much a theory of two wills as it is two parts of one will, where the freedom of the will consists of its ability to be informed by the intellect and to choose what is right despite the fact that, without rationally considering what is right, the decision may appear to be less advantageous.

Scotus is a significant touchstone on the literary history of sincerity because he effectively removes the intellect from any necessary influence upon the will. And this distinction becomes even more important in later centuries as the relation between intellect/knowledge and morality changes. Looking ahead: where, then, is the place of objective morality in an act of sincerity? It is conceivable, in Scotus's formulation, that one can choose an object, even in an act for which the primary motive is an affection for justice, without fully considering the reliability and applicability of one's knowledge about it. If this sounds like a view of the will's autonomy (using this admittedly loaded term loosely), then we've sufficiently diverged from Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas, and we've made some small but identifiable step toward the likes of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. Scotus is emphatic that justice does not always present itself to the will through the intellect, as Anselm would have it, but is itself an affection and is part of the will:

Although Anselm often speaks [of justice] … by distinguishing two primary aspects [rationes] in reality [ex natura rei] of these characteristics—insofar as the one inclines the will in the highest degree to advantage, whereas the other 'regulates' it (so to speak) so that in eliciting its act it need not follow its inclination—these [aspects] are nothing other than the will itself qua intellective appetite and qua free. For, as mentioned, qua purely intellective appetite it would be actually inclined in the highest degree to the best intelligible thing (just as for the best visible thing and sight), yet qua free it can restrain itself in eliciting an act so that it not follow the inclination (neither as regards the substance of the act nor as regards its intensity) to which the potency is naturally inclined.28

The inclination toward advantage as well as the motive to regulate this "potency" are intrinsic to the will. The will wills its own advantage, and it also follows its own affection for what is right. This is not to say that it always does what is right, of course, but in cases such as Lucifer's, one might choose evil out of a belief that the decision promotes one's advantage, even with a clear-eyed view of its injustice.

At the risk of overstating the case, we can certainly detect in these medieval contexts the seeds of something that in some ways resembles modern sincerity or perhaps even what theorists like Trilling and others have called authenticity (if there is a difference), signaled by a prioritization of the coherence between one's feeling and one's avowal over the coherence between one's avowal and the [End Page 15] objective good. Sincerity has separated itself, in a subtle yet critical way, from morality insofar as it is possible for one to assent to the knowledge of the good of one's own happiness and thus unite feeling and avowal without diluting the volitional act as such. Stated in another way, Scotus can be seen to fold the agonistic register of sincerity into his theology of the will, as seen in depictions of Lucifer's tendentious process of willing his own good, thus allowing for a category of self-coherence that, while potentially immoral, still constitutes positive action. To anachronistically apply the term to Scotus, "sincerely" willing something means being true not to God, nor to one's intellect, but to one's will, choosing something for the sake of the will's affections. This might result, ultimately, in rebelling against God. And thus arguably, for Scotus, the devil was, or at least could have been, sincere.


I've presented a medieval history of sincerity in two ways. The first is through one aspect of the philosophy of the will, beginning with Augustine's ontologically driven model and moving through Anselm's and Scotus's increasingly autonomous views, where the will is free in its ability to act for what is right—which is to say, in its independence from the intellect. Despite being just one trajectory in the history of sincerity, these developments have enormous import for its post-medieval history. The other way that I've presented sincerity is as a drama, that is, as a mode of epistemic reflection, a form of consciousness about the lived reality of knowing, judging, desiring, and choosing, sometimes despite a writer's formal explanation of morality. Although writers like Augustine and Scotus overcome this agonistic register in their formidable philosophical accounts of the will's relation to existence and to rationality, they expose enough of the dramatic scene of volition to convey an outlook on purity of motive that is performed by the desire and search for moral goodness, even when such efforts fail. This subtler form of agonistic sincerity will also play a significant part in the early modern and modern periods.

These two forms of sincerity—the morality of the will and the struggle of willing—are not independent of one another in the thought of Augustine, Anselm, and Scotus. It is never enough simply to try really hard to be sincere; an external standard or telos for moral action also has to be present. Hence, the agonistic register of sincerity does not manifest in any individual struggle (Augustine makes this clear by indicting himself throughout his memoir) but only in the narrative as a whole insofar as individual struggles add up to a process of conversion. From a different angle, Scotus provides a framework in which an individual's pursuit of happiness, even without regard for goodness, is natural and, in a sense, coherent. Yet, for Scotus, in order for human action to be moral, the will must be free; and in order for a will to be free, it must be able to choose what is good even when the good appears to conflict with what will bring happiness. Thus, the devil may be acting sincerely, if sincerity is defined as coherence with created nature, but he is not acting freely because his act is incoherent with what is right. [End Page 16]

I'm using the term "coherent" in this essay partly to denote the aspect of sincerity that represents the unity of a volitional act within a certain view of the volitional faculties; it is thus coherent for the devil to weigh his options and choose to act for his own advantage—that is, coherent with how his will works. I'm also using "coherent" as an index of historical developments in sincerity, where the coherence of a given act of the will becomes increasingly relevant as a criterion for the sincerity of a moral agent especially in narrative literature and, eventually, increasingly sufficient for certifying the acknowledged "sincerity" of an act. Freedom, coherence, nature, moral goodness—whichever term is operative in a given description of the will largely determines the structure of individual sincerity. In the periods I'm discussing, self-coherence both is never enough for morality and also is never severed from morality.


Thus, the first of my three suggestions is that the idea that the will can act sinfully yet coherently emerges earlier than is typically acknowledged in literature on sincerity, in Anselm and Scotus. But I'm also arguing that the medieval adherence to a standard of morality that exists outside of this psychological system but is also accessible within it remains inevitably tied (sometimes problematically and even thematically) to representations of sincerity for longer than is typically acknowledged by literature on sincerity. And, thirdly—though I merely introduce the claim here—this overlap animates innovations in literary imaginations of the late medieval and early modern periods.


In the Reformation period, the age-old issue of the freedom of the will with regards to human sinfulness continues to receive enormous attention, and the two registers of sincerity—the moral and the agonistic—continue to collapse in interesting ways as the individual's conscience takes on renewed theological consequence. Many consider the early modern period to occasion the sorts of spiritual, political, economic, and aesthetic conditions that are conducive to reimagining the importance of inwardness, and such forms of inwardness are often described as combining practice and doctrine (lex orandi, lex credendi), and thus combining outwardness and inwardness. Magill, for instance, stresses how a turn to the inward conscience, combined with new practices of personal Bible reading and the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, fostered a "Protestant culture of religious inwardness that emphasized feeling, reflection, and self-examination."29 Charles Taylor dwells on the related Protestant critique of Catholic practices that synthesize metaphysics and classical ideas of hierarchy with Christian theology (essentially, a Protestant opposition to Christian eudaimonia, arguably in line with Scotus's departure from intellectualism). Reformers contended that this is a pattern of thought that funds forms of idolatry, where intellective and material media were thought to carry too much of the weight of faith.30 Such departure from Christian eudaimonia resulted in a growing recognition of "the new spiritual status of the everyday," an effort in Protestant and Catholic territories to redeem daily living by focusing on God as the spiritual end to everything, while avoiding prideful asceticism.31 In the period [End Page 17] surrounding the Protestant Reformation there was, thus, a dual pressure both to search one's inner conscience and to sanctify the outward habits of life in a way that unambiguously respects the primacy of the conscience.

Protestants often described the sincerity of contrition as un-searchably internal, but for this reason, and paradoxically, the purity of outwardly visible practice accumulated new importance as a testimony to that internal reality. Historians of early modern England have widely recognized a consequent "ethos of plainness" emerging from this pious resistance.32 As David Parry discusses in this issue, to speak "plainly" was to constrain oneself to an ethic of directness and transparency. Yet perhaps the more pertinent social effect of plain speaking was to rhetorically disavow oneself of insincerity—where insincerity is characterized in part by unnecessary complexity of thought and communication. A popular visual emblem for sinceritas in Renaissance Europe is a heart being held or "proffered" by a hand, sometimes the hand of a figure.33 The image works both to locate sincerity and to disembody it—a striking illustration of the kind of psychological violence that might characterize the need to perform what is instinctively internal. This is a period in which sincerity was associated largely with purity, with coming from the right source, from the heart, and associated also, if I can be allowed the phrase, with being on the right side of history. A scan of the OED's earliest listed usages of "sincere" and "sincerity" reveals liberal uses of the relatively new English word in vernacular translations from the Great Bible, the Geneva Bible, and the King James Bible: "As newe borne babes desire the syncere [Gk. a zwdo on] mylke of the worde"; "Blessed are the vndefiled [margin. Or, perfect, or sincere] in the way"; "Feare the Lord, and serue him in sinceritie, and in trueth," to list a few examples.34 Given the effects of the printing press on disseminations of the vernacular scriptures and prayer offices, it is likely that those who read about such "sinceritie" and "trueth" knew well their polemical and political implications in movements of reform, even when such movements are encased in rhetoric of the plain, direct, sola, and sincere.

And yet many writers of the Reformation era, before and after, attest to the psychologically embattled nature of subscribing to such a form of sincerity. What does it take to become confident enough in the purity of one's will, the source of one's action, to speak the truth plainly? Max Weber's well known argument about the Protestant work ethic comes to mind. And many have since espoused how placing such pressure on the purity of inner contrition and faith inversely resulted in felt burdens of righteous living and efforts to demonstrate one's salvation.35 The role of the struggle in operative understandings of sincerity was thus inflamed by Protestant doctrines that eliminated good works from the formal transaction of salvation. As illustrated in Spencer's Redcrosse Knight's failure to differentiate between Despair and holy Remorse, Protestantism affected practices of sincerity not simply by driving it farther inward but also by re-articulating the way that internal feeling ought to transform outward action. In some Protestant paradigms, one could not strategically pursue the moral good; instead, behavior must reflect [End Page 18] the sanctifying consequences of faith without claiming agency (what Scotus would call the freedom of the will) over such movements of the will by always holding in one's mind the difference between acts of faith versus acts of merit. Calvin wrote extensively about this problem. In one concise statement in the Institutes, he counsels the church on how to avoid the kind of spiritual despair that reportedly was caused by excessively searching for inner confirmation of eternal Election. Do not retreat within, he says, but focus instead on the simple vocation of Christian obedience: "to begin with God's call, and end with it."36 In other words, sincerity is not achieved solely by understanding one's internal state but entrusting one's internal state—one's faith, conscience, spiritual status—to a kind of practical living. Such "lived Election" is not especially dissimilar to Augustine's agonistic conversion story: sincerity manifests in living as if you were converted, as if your life adds up to a salvation narrative.

I'm suggesting that the inward turn of early Protestantism in many ways continued to address the problem of agonistic sincerity that we've traced to Augustine and have seen develop in a theology of free will in Scotus. Historians of sincerity and authenticity consistently look to Martin Luther to illustrate what is perceived to be a sea change in the moral authority of conscience and its interactions with the bounded will. For many, the go-to passage is Luther's famous though possibly apocryphal response at the Diet of Worms: "Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen." The statement is often taken as an illustration of Luther's belief in the independence of conscience as a forerunner to the authenticity of being true to oneself.37 Reformation scholars, including Heiko Oberman, have contested this reading, however, suggesting instead that Luther's point was about the captivity rather than freedom of his conscience:

Appealing to the conscience was a common medieval practice; appealing to a "free" conscience that had liberated itself from all bonds would never have occurred to Luther. Nor did he regard "conscience" as identical with the inescapable voice of God in man. Conscience is neither neutral nor autonomous: hotly contested by God and the Devil, it is not the autonomous center of man's personality, it is always guided and is free only once God has freed and "captured" it.38

Conscience, like the will, "must be able to stand the test of reason and experience." But as Luther defended so adamantly throughout his writings, the conscience as well as the will to moral action are captured and made ineffective by the devil and sin. Whereas natural affection for moral law constitutes freedom of will for Scotus, the impurity of this affection and the universality of guilt and sin prompt Luther to believe the opposite, that moral law is the instrument for spiritual imprisonment and condemnation.

We find Luther in a unique position with regards to the question of what it means to act sincerely. He holds to the utter bondage of the will when it moves of its own accord, but once an individual is delivered from the law by the gospel, his [End Page 19] will becomes free from the law and from the imputation of guilt: "God has removed my salvation from my own choice and taken it into his own and promised to save me not by my own work or pursuit but by his grace and mercy."39

In a sense, sincerity manifests in acts of faith, which are performed from a position of freedom from law. In a roundabout way, Luther also separates the acts of the will in faith from the intellect, which of its own effort leads only to self-love: "In assuming the inevitable supremacy of self-love in the state of sin, he agrees with the eudaemonists against Scotus. In assuming that the love of God requires the renunciation of self-love, he agrees with, and goes beyond, Scotus against the eudaemonism of Aquinas."40 For Luther, one certainly cannot sin with sincerity, as is possible for Scotus, and yet neither is sincerity exercised in efforts to follow the law to moral action.

A key to understanding Luther's paradoxical representation of sincerity is his return to Augustinian absolutism through a path that concurrently rejects Aquinas's intellectualism.41 The will is independent of efforts of human judgment, not because of a parallel affection for justice, but because volitional activity in the context of justice is a moral non-starter. In his Disputation Against Scholastic Theology, Luther is clear on this point: "One must concede that the will is not free to strive toward whatever is declared good. This is in opposition to Scotus and Gabriel" (Gabriel Biel, the fifteenth-century nominalist).42 Furthermore, the intellect is no help to the will, since "a person by nature has neither correct precept nor good will."43

Still, Luther finds freedom in the act of surrender, but somewhat distinct from an unqualified experience of the liberation of the inward self, this freedom remains defined by fallenness and the threat of law. In a kind of convergence of the moral and the agonistic, early Protestant soteriology is usually accompanied by a narrative framework—law versus gospel. Thus, while Luther's inward turn may begin to resemble modern forms of sincerity as self-reliance, ultimately the meaning of the self is found exteriorly, vis-à-vis God and his plan, as it was for Augustine. Charles Taylor likewise insists that the quest for the meaning of life or for personal identity would have been nonsensical to Luther, for whom, in a world of original sin, life's main "predicament" is "an unchallengeable framework [that makes] imperious demands which we fear being unable to meet."44 The meaning of the self was clear to Luther as it was to Machiavelli, Dante, Scotus, and Aquinas. The problem, as Taylor suggests, is that one may not be able to live up to it—and for Reformers like Luther, one is certainly unable to live up to it. The primary way, therefore, that Luther might be viewed as a forerunner to modern authenticity—characterized by finding oneself apart from external and transcendent constraints—is in the dramatic and agonistic displays of contrition through which Luther sometimes seems to inhabit (or perhaps "to will") the surrender of faith. Understood this way, the struggle of contrition is not in the act of the will as it appears in an outward form or as articulated in eudaemonism, but in the performativity of the act, in how the act of the will simultaneously establishes and represents an inward state. To deny the power of the will in a movement of repentance constitutes a turn inward for [End Page 20] the sake of paradoxically renouncing the power of inwardness. Its power is in the "perlocutionary act" of "passionate utterance," a kind of freedom of will found somehow within the performative expression of self-renunciation.45 Yet even in this act of inwardness we have departed from the self-discovery that characterizes descriptions of modern authenticity and have returned to a form of self-loss reminiscent of Augustine. The act, which formally leads to death when viewed with reference to justice, becomes an expression of a kind of self-coherence grounded in self-loss.

Luther's turn to conscience, then, is paradoxical in that, performatively speaking, it is characterized by individualism and inwardness, and yet it reinforces an Augustinian and medieval view of the sincere self unalterably qualified by a moral nature implanted by God. Sincerity is inside and outside at once. Somogy Varga stresses the necessity of "relevant constraints" upon Luther's exercise of conscience and how it insinuates modern notions of selfhood. Even Luther's self-renunciation can be described as a form of affectio commodi: "[Luther] simply anticipates the outcomes of possible courses of action and calculates the alternative that is likely to give him the greatest satisfaction."46 "Here I stand," in a sense, distinctly and ironically resembles Anselm's Lucifer who considers his two options in light of what he knows about God as both just and merciful. For Anselm it's a fifty-fifty shot: Lucifer's decision is informed by his acknowledgment, on the one hand, that God upholds justice and, on the other, that God also values Lucifer's happiness and has created him and all moral agents with a will to pursue it. Alessandro Ferrara makes a similar observation when he redirects Luther's statement—"Here I stand. I can do no other"—as a qualification of modern notions of the authentic self. The presence of an external correlative or "framework" (to use to Taylor's term) that we find in Luther re-emerges in what he calls "post-modern eudaimonia"—to be distinguished from but also linked to medieval Christian varieties.47 Authenticity, he argues, requires an act of the will toward oneself: "From the standpoint of this conception of authenticity or fulfillment, even the position or acquisition of good character is irrelevant unless one 'chooses oneself."' But choosing oneself, in Ferrara's understanding of modern authenticity, is constructed "a contrario, from a sense of what it means to fail to attain [selffulfillment]."48 And thus modern authenticity is built on an acknowledgment of self-loss, or epistemological fallenness, or some other way of imagining a lapse between experience and reality—even though the rhetoric of authenticity often tries to hide this lapse.

In other words, in its furtherance of medieval ideas about the human will, the early modern period demonstrates the resilience of a broadly conceived category of affectio iustitiae, where even an idea of individual freedom—freedom through faith for Luther, freedom of will for Erasmus—that may remind us of modern authenticity is, in fact, defined in part against other sources of the self, be those sources God, nature, eudaimonia, the ruling class, or social institutions and empire. As Ferrara puts it: "If I am interested in my own good, understood as fulfillment, I am also thereby interested in justice as the sole condition that can preserve those [End Page 21] relations within which alone the good can be attained."49 And as Spencer discusses later in this issue, the radical individualism celebrated by Rousseau and later Romantics remains invested in forms of justice, correspondence, and truth that emerge in the rhetoric such writers use to level criticism at the social and philosophical conditions that prevent sincere experience.

In short, the struggle of conscience that we see in Luther and early Protestant devotional practice is a struggle for, and over, freedom of the will, as it was in the middle ages, but with added emphasis on the inability of the will to succeed. In this Reformational moment, the sincerity of effortless faith appears in situ in the agonistic back-and-forth of effort and failure. For Luther, sin is never sincere, but it can become postdictably sincere, in a sense, when it leads to surrender and eventual conversion. As we will see, these processual and postdictable qualities lend sincerity an evaluative aspect—that is, a renewed stress on the equally important roles of performance and interpretation—leading to emerging possibilities for authors incorporating the drama of the agonistic into their characters and stories.


As my brief discussion of Luther suggests, early Protestant theology may have ushered a renewed emphasis on an individual's private and internal movement of faith, but such theology also repeated some of the problems of coherence regarding the confirmation of one's internal feeling and avowal. In particular, for theologians like Luther a movement of faith may be individual, but it is not free; it is not really "of oneself." If for Scotus the will is free in its ability not to follow its natural inclination, then in Protestant thought the situation is the reverse: the will is free only when it fully acknowledges its inability to pursue the good and instead embraces an alien, declarative form of righteousness. What appears from one angle to be the purely introverted structure of this sort of Protestant sincerity seems from another angle to be entirely extroverted in its self-emptying. In Erasmus's view, Luther became too wrapped up in his efforts to attack Pelagianism that he altogether abolished the possibility of making any positive statements about the activity of the will; he "has been carried so far by the heat of his defense as to remove it entirely."50 Yet as the proliferation of literature on plain style, spiritual despair, work ethic, forms of living, and sincere obedience attest, Protestant emphases on the individual's faith, the bondage of the will, Election, and sola gratia soteriology spawned a robust language of outward behavioral signs that were thought to betoken not only conversion of heart but also an underlying sense of inward spiritual coherence with behavior and outward forms.

We might describe this development as a dialectical separating and collapsing of the activity of the will and its objective (moral) correlative through which it achieves sincerity or coherence. The subjective and the objective (i.e., the individual and God) are separated insofar as the will is completely incapable of directing itself toward God, and yet the distinction between the two is collapsed in that just-ice—the otherwise external correlative for sincere action—is only experienced through faith and never through action. The result is a further evolution of the agonistic sincerity we located in Augustine's narrative and in the Scholastic fixation [End Page 22] on the example of Lucifer. Early modern narrative literature continued to test the limits of sincerity-as-struggle in various interpretations of evil. Where traditionally authors might represent insincerity in a character who begins by acting in good will but is led astray by passion, the early modern period saw an increase in characters whose falls are predetermined by a misidentification of the self, or a blindness toward the unseen ties of the human will, characters who really believe their passions to be essential to their existence.

A Christian hamartia, in this new context, may not simply be a character's turning away from the moral good but his pursuit of an object that appears to him to be morally coherent with the natural activity of his will. Versions of sincerity, thus, competed with one another in such stories, though such competition is far from a celebration of individuality per se. Literature made use especially of the drama emergent in the dialectic between purportedly well-intentioned acts of will and the often tragically gradual revelation of fallenness. While volition and individual creativity might be celebrated, as they are in characters like Milton's Satan and Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, the fact of original sin and the threat of the passions continued to enforce the prevailing condition of fallenness and incapability. Sincerity itself became a point of dramatic conflict, summed up in the governing maxim that the success of performing sincerity ultimately depends on one's being sincere, indebted perhaps to Augustine and, through his influence, to Luther and other Reformers.51

What I've done is simply to reframe a familiar account of the "classical" narrative patterns of Renaissance literature, in the vein of early critics like T. E. Hulme or Harry Levin, as a history of sincerity. If one way to describe the classical (i.e., ontological) narrative is as a character overreaching, then, in the vocabulary of sincerity, we can describe this character as transgressing the bounds of nature by representing herself as someone she is not, where who she is is not a matter simply of "that within which passeth show" but of the authority of nature, original sin, and final judgment. Hence, Trilling's observation that the early modern "villain" typically combines maleficence with dissembling and duplicity, that is, with insincerity.52 Just so, morality and self-representation were continuously tied to one another through the medieval and early modern periods. And yet the logics of morality and self-representation began to war with one another, not to the ultimate end of severing their connection but of amplifying the content of dramatic conflict. Such villainous characters may believe that they are exercising agonistic yet honest intentions, but their demise culminates with a recognition not only of overreaching the scope of moral activity but of getting caught between opposing views of self-coherence: to what extent am I responsible directly to my own felt experience, and to what extent is experience itself shaped by a misdirected will and thus subject to judgment?

Milton's Satan is a principle example of a character in this period who finds himself caught between ontological and agonistic models of sincerity. Consider one of the many moments when Satan struggles to make sense of the failure of his will. "Oh had his powerful destiny ordained / Me some inferior Angel, I had [End Page 23] stood / Then happy," Satan conjectures. For then, perhaps, "no unbounded hope had raised / Ambition."53 Hope "unbounded" by what? To be the brightest angel is to experience ambition unrestrained by the submission and contentment engendered by the act of keeping one's gaze on the Father. Yet Satan quickly recoils on this excuse and argues that he acted out of freedom, taking the side of Scotus, admitting that any angel could, like him, have chosen to follow his will-to-advantage independently—though tragically—of his knowledge of what is right: "Nay cursed be thou; since against his thy will / Chose freely what it now so justly rues."54

We can entertain the idea that the very structure of Satan's soul—his will (or two-wills), intellect, memory, passion—makes possible the potential of sincerely sinning, if we define sincerity agonistically, according to the drama of willing. Fallible though he is, Satan's volitional composition allows him simply to choose one natural inclination of the will over another. It is not simply the case that Satan fell because he believed something false about God's authority but also, and perhaps more importantly, that he suffered from forgetfulness, choosing to focus on his own advantage rather than on the goodness of God: "Forgetful what from him I still received, / And understood not that a grateful mind / By owing owes not, but still pays, at once / Indebted and discharged."55 The difference bears out in the long-attested reading that Satan's perspective—notably limited yet highly active—seems reasonable, or coherent, at times. Milton's editorial voice throughout the epic has a tendency to rein in Satan's affectio commodi and to remind the reader of what David Urban in this issue calls Satan's "fallacious motives," a phrase that returns to Augustine's commitment to the ontological trueness or falseness of the will's movements. This leaves the reader in a kind of interpretive limbo: perhaps we want to inhabit Satan's logic and to sympathize with him, but then we're tugged the other direction by a narrator and, at times, by Satan himself who correct our opinions about Satan's sincerity—where even such self-corrections suggest sincerity.

But there is another, more experiential route on which we might share in Satan's struggle to discern his own sincerity. I'm referring to what John Rumrich calls "the uncanny epistemology of the damned."56 In an inversion of Stanley Fish's well known assertion of sympathy for Satan despite the laws of theodicy, Rumrich contends that "The theodicy must be seen as sincere because things could have worked out otherwise for Adam and Eve."57 Note his emphasis on the subjunctive, a grammatical mode familiar to the drama of willing. As readers confront Satan in the early books, they witness the inconsistencies and confusion of Satan's perspective, his flawed memory and psychological wavering. Is this Satan's agonistic register of sincerity? The narrator helps readers to interpret this drama the "right" way, but, as Rumrich notes, the narrator's interjections have less the effect of admonishing against admiration for Satan as they do of further complicating the strangeness and aloneness of Satan's plight, especially as the narrator's authority might be conflated with God's as both are targeted in Satan's indictments of divine government. [End Page 24]

Some sixty years after Milton published Paradise Lost, Daniel Defoe expressed his opinion that the poem's "main difficulty" is that it fails to explain "How the Devil came to fall, and how Sin came into Heaven, and how the spotless seraphic Nature could receive infection"—the same questions that occupied the minds of the scholastics.58 Ironically, judging from his disquisitions in the first four books of the epic, these questions occupied Satan's mind as well. His internal dialogues reflect more internal stichomythia than confidence or even progress. Satan's thoughts are bound by nature insofar as they reflect the justice of the theodicy that governs them, but Satan's mind grows into something vaguely distinct from that justice by virtue of the scope of the opposing arguments he entertains. With each emotional and intellectual swing between paradigms of obedience and rebellion, the gap between Satan's will and his intellect appears to grow, a gap between what he thinks will bring him happiness and what he knows to be just. And despite the fact that the distinction ultimately collapses with Adam's vision of the future in the final books and with Satan's unwilling transformation into a serpent, the suggestion of a differentiation between a will-to-advantage and a will-to-justice remains. Satan is guilty of one but damned for both.

Described this way, Satan's volition seems caught between the Augustinian and something else—something ultimately accountable to the medieval union between self-representation and morality but also coherent for its own sake, though tragically so. Satan attempts to be true to himself; and while in the end it turns out that he was being false to himself all along, in some ways he appears as a victim of his own nature. Satan is both the agent and the victim, the subject and object of a tragic recognition: "The terrible thing that happened to him, through no fault of his own, was that he did those things."59 Thus, with respect to drama of the will, Milton's epic might proffer a form of eudemonism in theory, but it is Scotian in practice. In early modern narratives like Paradise Lost, we witness sincerity multiplying into several competing yet ultimately adjudicated forms—what we're responsible to know, the freedom of the will, the orientation of our affections. And like the Scholastics, Milton interrogates Satan and holds him account-able—even more, sets him up as an example—for inventing sin out of nothing, for almost inexplicably violating every law of reason in choosing himself over God, for misappropriating sincerity.


Likewise, many early modern and modern literary works can be dubbed dramas of sincerity insofar as their tragic heroes suffer not because they lack sincerity altogether but because they adopt the wrong kind of sincerity. The effect is to drive the "truth" of sincerity deeper into configurations of the self. And this prompts questions about false bottoms and usurped authority over self-definition: whose sincerity am I experiencing? Jane Taylor considers this question in her work on sincerity and its political history. Taylor's essay in the volume The Rhetoric of Sincerity proposes that early modern Europe underwent a change in the signification of sincerity. Particularly because of its description of the competing sincerity positions [End Page 25] of political conversion and political defiance—à propos the resistant volition of Milton's Satan—her argument warrants extended consideration.

Taylor's exploration of sincerity centers on a comparison of two figures of (potential) conversion: St. Paul as depicted in two of Caravaggio's oil paintings, and Aaron, the moor villain from Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus. The three scenes are renderings of sincerity, or, rather, of what a person will and can do when he is faced with the demand to prove his sincerity, particularly his sincerity of conversion. Taylor finds common ground between religious and legal discourses in the problem of providing and appraising evidence of a subject's sincerity, here defined as a "performance" of the self. The content of a given performance of sincerity, she says, must exceed "rational description and instrumental reason" because otherwise an act of alleged conversion might simply be interpreted as reasonable given the circumstances—e.g., interrogation, violence, judgment.60 For Taylor, the instruments whereby sincerity is demonstrated must, paradoxically, be invisible and therefore putatively natural to the subject and his examiners, and this is accomplished by using the signifiers for the self specifically provided by the examiners. Furthermore, she summarizes the paradox of sincerity as between sincerity as performance, on the one hand, and the fact that a performance is inherently insincere because it "provides an instrument that makes it possible to represent an inner state upon the surface."61 Thus, "Whenever 'sincerity' names itself, it ceases to exist."62 To perform sincerity, then, is to reflect an authority's semiotics for personhood, the kind of personhood that is allowed the privilege of conversion, and, according to Taylor's examples, in the period of the Reformation such semiotics are racial as well as religious.

This paradox plays out in Taylor's vivid comparison of the two Paul conversion paintings that depict Paul as he is confronted and blinded by Christ on his way to Damascus. Whereas the earlier Conversion of Saint Paul (1600) is theatrical—in the sense of Fried's coup de théâtre, a spectacle that acknowledges the presence of viewers—showing a conspicuously Jewish and elderly Paul extravagantly hiding his face and his circumcision, the later version (1601) presents a calmer, younger, and Roman-looking Paul, gently closing his eyes and resigning himself to conversion, ready to fight for the Romans. Version 1 "is a scene of rape," rendering Paul naked and pained. "Version 2 is perhaps more suggestive of a seduction," where Paul is clothed and lying flatly on his back with his arms outspread and inviting.63 This second version, with its Romanized Paul, arguably showcases a sincere conversion as "inner submission to the will of God," a concession to the imperialism of sincerity in religious and racial semiotics. The earlier version, however, is caught up in the violence—or what we've called the agonistic drama—of the paradox of sincerity as inhering within the individual yet determined and corroborated by objective standards (affectio iustitiae, or, turning toward God).

Taylor uses the Caravaggio paintings as a heuristic for reading Titus's Aaron. She focuses on Aaron's famous anti-confession, in which, under duress, he admits to all of his accused crimes, and, "Ay, that I had not done a thousand more."64 While he cannot expect any mercy himself, the life of Aaron's child is on the line, [End Page 26] but he must know that naming so many additional offences, as he does, would lead to something like the harsh and especially symbolic execution of the final scene. What should we make, then, of Aaron's willing and excessive confession? Is Shakespeare simply representing his "black" character—the play never ceases to remind the audience of this fact—as sincere merely by virtue of his race, reflected in a degree of character flatness and legibility that has no choice but to be sincere? Taylor says that the case is vehemently the opposite. "When Aaron is held to account for his vile acts, the resolution [or the boast] that defines his speech is that while he will confess, he will not renounce his prior self."65 He will not, like Paul in Version 2, become Roman. He rejects the Romans' semiotics of sincerity and so owns his crimes but not their form of contrition. Thus, Aaron exercises an extraordinary amount of will not in demonstration but in defiance of the sincerity of conversion.

Taylor's overarching point about sincerity is that early modern art forms convey the "confounding of inner and outer" in an era that increasingly externalized signs of sincerity.66 We might identify this as the development of rhetoric and social codes for an increasingly dramatized agonistic form of sincerity. Artists like Caravaggio and Shakespeare, Taylor convincingly avers, aim to show how the inner self is conceived outwardly and how outward expression always implies an already active view of the inner self.

But I want to pull back from the suggestion that this "confounding of inner and outer" is significantly new to the early modern period. For one, and as Taylor acknowledges, there is nothing new about the practice of reading signs of sincerity; one need only to look at the particularly descriptive confessors manuals of medieval Europe for examples of how authorities creatively interpreted signs of a penitent's conversion of heart. But more importantly, as we've seen, in Augustine and medieval Scholastic writings, the devil, like Paul or Aaron, is also on trial. Anselm, Aquinas, and Scotus interrogate his "sincerity," in a sense. And so we can imagine Lucifer as a kind of Aaron figure; his "boast" is his movement of will toward his own advantage over and against his will to justice. Likewise, Lucifer's sin, like Augustine's, is an "occurent psychological" act, revealed to him as he experiences it. In other words, there is no tidy sequence of pride then fall, knowledge then will. Lucifer's own excessive confession-without-conversion is articulated by his clear-eyed view of evil, as Scotus might have it, when he exercises his will's independence from his intellect—where intellect could be characterized by his power to do otherwise. As these medieval philosophers study Lucifer, they indeed segment him into inner and outer, and they also test ways of closing this gap through intellectualism or through an ontology of the will. But it should not go without observing that these same medieval discussions serve to open a space—exploited, I suggest, by Shakespeare's Aaron—for a clear-eyed and yet sincere claim on villainy, defined as Trilling does, where dissimulation and evil go hand-in-hand. In Aaron, Taylor shows us a sincerity of non-conversion, but, as I've shown, Aaron's philosophical precedent dates from an earlier and distinctly theological discussion of villainy. [End Page 27] Aaron's is not a Roman form of sincerity. It does not include conversion. But in his act he nonetheless claims to be true to his source which he identifies through an appropriation of the racial identity given to him, maintaining a purity of will; and this is possible in the first place because Shakespeare lays out multiple positions on sincerity, a situation enabled by the fact that "the issue of sincerity is no longer one of 'being' sincere but of 'doing' sincerity," in van Alphen's and Bal's words.67 Often this transition from being to doing is characterized as sincerity being replaced by self-fulfilling authenticity. The argument follows that where old sincerity involved not only representing but also being true, new authenticity involves only whether people represent outwardly what is individually true of them inwardly. With my attention to the medieval and Reformation periods, however, I've argued, albeit briefly, that this change retains critical elements of the sincere, namely, an appeal to theology—to a true philosophy of the will, or to a moral reality that defines the very nature of the will, or to fallenness, or to right reason. Pluralism of positions on sincerity indeed relativizes sincerity to each individual, requiring audiences and readers to understand the structure of each perspective, but in dramatic contexts like Titus such pluralism is not static but operates to create dramatic tension. This tension plays out as the competition between sincerities and ultimately leads to a narrative recognition (anagnorisis) that offers some form of clarity and moves closer to the truth, if only by exposing something that is false. Aaron is granted an autonomous rhetoric of sincerity, but in the end it serves to confirm a portrayal of racialized villainy and deception.

The eventuality of multiple versions of sincerity existing in the same narrative context is a significant step in the development of sincerity, but, at least with regards to the coherence of the will, this step is less nascent of modern authenticity than it is ensuant on old sincerity. The sincerity on display in Aaron's rebellion and in Satan's internal dialogue doesn't remove truth from the equation; it simply defers it to thematic problems of conflict and identity, burying it beneath deeper layers of a given performance and, thus, embedding it within performance itself. To this point, Taylor's fellow contributor, Maaike Bleeker, offers the important reminder that the fact that sincerity becomes a performance and takes on a layer of theatrical distance does not neutralize its ability to accurately represent reality. Contrary to Taylor's view that sincerity ceases to exist when it names itself, Bleeker argues that theatricality, the forthright disclosure of the instruments of representation, does not make such representations any less sincere, since "theatricality" does not demarcate something that is staged but only acknowledges the audience and its awareness of the spectacle as staged.68

Using Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 as her primary example of politics as theater, Bleeker observes that all political figures are actors and also that constituents support them not because they represent outwardly who they truly are inwardly but because they are good at performing. They represent outwardly what they want to represent outwardly and what constituents want to see represented outwardly. Thus, by drawing attention to the instruments of sincerity, [End Page 28] a theatrical perspective subverts myths of authenticity in order to relocate sincerity within a truth framework, even if such a framework amounts to pragmatics—for example, in a political figure's reliability, expediency, or ability to make the right decision. The version of sincerity represented here is indeed a "return to" an outward sincerity principle, a correlative (morality, truth, pragmatics, God, power) to which the self is oriented—and in which orientation, or coherence with, lies sincerity.

Essentially, theater exposes how the "natural" and the "self-evident," within a plurality of sincerities, are contingent upon certain structurings of will—as is the case with the medieval voluntarists and intellectualists. And because such theatricality accompanies all performances of sincerity, I suggest that its truth, its reliability, its negotiation of happiness and justice, remain near the surface of the modern (re)turn to sincerity that we locate in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. What change, then, might occasion a more significant shift away from sincerity, a shift characterized perhaps by a freedom from external constraint rather than a freedom in constraint? I've tried to complicate this question. By locating the roots of sincerity in Augustinian and Scholastic discussions about the will, we can understand the early history of sincerity as a problem of coherence, where the question becomes cohering with what? The self cohering with God? Cohering with the nature of its own will, a faculty designed by God and thus accountable to God's justice? Or, in the post-Reformation period, cohering with one's experience, avowal, or feeling? I've argued that the notion that sincerity is defined as the self cohering with itself—in the form of affectio commodi, experience, or avowal—exists as a possibility in the early modern period as well as the premodern period, but also that this form of selfhood is always accompanied by (some may say "haunted" by) a standard for moral action outside the self. The characteristics of this external moral standard, whether described positively or by negation, constitute the theology of sincerity.

Moreover, as these various perspectives on sincerity become present in single contexts such as the writings of Luther, Shakespeare, and Milton, we see the rhetoric of coherence (like the rhetoric of sincerity) being used by power and blending with different expressions of identity. Thematically, thus, the early modern period witnesses a drama of coherence, incorporating into its literary themes an agonistic register of sincerity, the very struggle to become sincere and to parse these interrelated questions. What we see are cracks in the edifice of sincerity—cracks filled by political and thematic possibilities—but no break, no absolute severance of the self from theology where the self generates its own moral significance.69 Where, then, is this break located, if it exists at all? And what would it take to completely disintegrate the concept of self-coherence from the theological tradition of moral agency that incubated it? Are modern and postmodern performances of sincerity structurally distinct from the versions represented in Shakespeare and Milton, or are they simply variants? Is there a more definitive line to be drawn, or is modern authenticity really old sincerity in disguise? [End Page 29]

Matthew J. Smith
Azusa Pacific University, USA
Matthew J. Smith

Matthew J. Smith is Assistant Professor of English at Azusa Pacific University. His work on Renaissance literature and drama, genre, and religion appears in essay collections and periodicals, including SEL, ELR, and Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England. His book—Stage, Cathedral, Wagon, Street: Theatricality and Religion in Early Modern England—is forthcoming with the University of Notre Dame Press, and his co-edited collection, with Julia Lupton—Face to Face in Shakespearean Drama: Ethics, Philosophy, Performance—is forthcoming with Edinburgh University Press. He also serves as Associate Editor of C&L, for which he has guest-edited this issue as well as "The Sacramental Text Reconsidered," June 2017.

Corresponding author: Matthew J. Smith, Azusa Pacific University, 901 E. Alosta Ave., Azusa, CA 91702-7000, USA. Email:


1. Lionel Trilling, Sincerity and Authenticity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1973), 11.

2. These observations are about continuity, in line with David Aers's critique of the "amnesia" that is sometimes operative when we attribute too much novelty to the ideas about subjectivity manifest in a given modern epoch. See Aers, "A Whisper in the Ear of Early Modernists; or, Reflections on Literary Critics Writing the 'History of the Subject,"' in David Aers, ed., Culture and History 1350–1600: Essays on English Communities, Identities and Writing (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1992), 179.

3. Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 3.

4. Augustine, Confessions, 3.

5. Charles Guignon, On Being Authentic (Thinking in Action) (New York: Routledge, 2004), 15.

6. Guignon, 16.

7. William S. Babcock, "Augustine on Sin and Moral Agency," Journal of Religious Studies 16.1 (1988): 28–55, p. 34.

8. James K. A. Smith, "'Confessions' of an Existentialist: Reading Augustine After Heidegger, Part II," New Blackfriars 82.965/966 (2001): 335–47, pp. 335, 339; Smith, 335, 339.

9. Augustine, Confessions, 29.

10. Augustine, Confessions, 29.

11. Augustine, Confessions, 33.

12. James Wetzel, Parting Knowledge: Essays After Augustine (Eugene: Cascade, 2013), 13.

13. Wetzel, 9.

14. Trilling, 128.

15. Wetzel, 13.

16. Christopher Kirwan, Augustine: The Arguments of the Philosophers (London: Routledge, 1989), 68.

17. Peter King, "Angelic Sin in Augustine and Anselm," in Tobias Hoffmann, ed., A Companion to Angels in Medieval Philosophy (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 264.

18. King, "Angelic Sin," 265.

19. Augustine, On the Free Choice of the Will, On Grace and Free Choice, and Other Writings, trans. and ed. Peter King (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 125.

20. Charles Taylor highlights Herder's contribution of individually originated moral sense in "The Politics of Recognition," in Amy Gutmann, ed., Multiculturalism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), 30. See Patricia M. Ball, "Sincerity: The Rise and Fall of a Critical Term," The Modern Language Review 59.1 (1964): 1–11.

21. See King, "Angelic Sin," 269.

22. Peter King, "Scotus's Rejection of Anselm: The Two-Wills Theory," in L. Honnefelder et al., eds., John Duns Scotus 1308–2008: Investigations into His Philosophy (Münster: Aschendorff, 2011), 362.

23. Katherin Rogers, Anselm on Freedom (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 118. Rogers suggests that the origin of this struggle in primal sin (since it must begin at some point) is a "mystery" (107).

24. Tobias Hoffmann, "Theories of Angelic Sin from Aquinas to Ockham," in Tobias Hoffmann, ed., A Companion to Angels in Medieval Philosophy (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 284.

25. . Hoffmann, "Theories," 288.

26. King, "Scotus's Rejection of Anselm," 262.

27. See King, "Scotus's Rejection of Anselm," 266–67.

28. Translated by and quoted in King, "Scotus's Rejection of Anselm," 13–14. From Scotus, Ordinatio 2 d. 6 q. 2 n. 50.

29. R. Jay Magill, 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) (New York: W.W. Norton, 2012), 35.

30. Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989), 219–23.

31. Taylor, Sources of the Self, 221.

32. "Ethos of Plainness" is Hilary Larkin's term in The Making of Englishmen: Debates on National Identity 1550–1650 (Leiden: Brill, 2014). See also Kenneth J. E. Graham, The Performance of Conviction: Plainness and Rhetoric in the Early English Renaissance (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994), and Arne Rudskoger, Plain: A Study in Co-Text and Context (Stockholm: Almqvist and Wiksell, 1970).

33. Martin notes the particular contradiction between sincerity as expressed in the emblem and court society: "Sincerity … was both the dream of transparency and the wish for connectedness in a setting dominated by the uncomfortable sense that one could never trust one's fellow courtiers, open up to them, or reveal one's thoughts to them." John Jeffries Martin, Myths of Renaissance Individualism (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 106.

34. "sincere, adj." and "sincerity, n.," OED.

35. For studies of the despair and melancholy that resulted in English contexts, see John Stachniewski, The Persecutory Imagination: English Puritanism and the Literature of Religious Despair (Oxford: Clarendon, 1991); and Peter Iver Kaufman, Prayer, Despair, and Drama: Elizabethan Introspection (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996).

36. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, vol. 1, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Louisville: Westminster, 1960), 969.

37. Examples of work on sincerity that highlight this passage include: Katharina Bauer, Somogy Varga, and Corinna Mieth, eds., Dimensions of Practical Necessity: "Here I Stand. I Can Do No Other." (New York: Springer, 2017); Ashley Chantler, Michael Davies, and Philip Shaw, eds., Literature and Authenticity, 1780–1900: Essays in Honour of Vincent Newey (Farnham: Ashgate, 2011), 170; John Christman and Joel Anderson, eds., Autonomy and the Challenges to Liberalism: New Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 82; Alessandro Ferrara, Modernity and Authenticity: A Study of the Social and Ethical Thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993), 107; Ferrara, Reflective Authenticity: Rethinking the Project of Modernity (London: Routledge, 1998), 6; Guignon, 139; Charles Larmore, Practices of the Self (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2004), 63; Alberto Masala and Jonathan Webber, eds., From Personality to Virtue: Essays on the Philosophy of Character (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 82; Somogy Varga, Authenticity as an Ethical Ideal (New York: Routledge, 2011), 107. I've listed only a few.

38. Heiko Oberman, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, trans. Eileen Walliser-Schwarzbart (New Haven: Yale University Press), 204.

39. Clarence H. Miller, ed., Erasmus and Luther: The Battle over Free Will, trans. Clarence H. Miller and Peter Marcardle (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2012), 121.

40. Terence Irwin, The Development of Ethics: A Historical and Critical Study, vol. 1: From Socrates to the Reformation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 755.

41. I am focusing on Luther's response to voluntarism and intellectualism, rather than his response to nominalism more specifically, in part because Luther's responses to nominalism and to univocity have received far more attention especially in studies of secularism but also because a reference to Scotus's philosophy of the will puts an aspect of Luther's Augustinianism into relief—namely, the performativity of self-loss.

42. Martin Luther, "Disputation against Scholastic Theology," in William R. Russell and Timothy F. Lull, eds., Martin Luther's Basic Theological Writings (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989), 4.

43. Luther, Disputation, 5.

44. Taylor, Sources of the Self, 18.

45. Sarah Beckwith describes the performativity of early Protestant acts of penitence, ultimately connecting them to acts of acknowledgment in the vein of Stanley Cavell: Shakespeare and the Grammar of Forgiveness (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2011), 114.

46. Varga, Authenticity as an Ethical Ideal, 107.

47. Ferrara, Reflective Authenticity, 74.

48. Ferrara, Reflective Authenticity, 73–74.

49. Ferrara, Reflective Authenticity, 74.

50. Clarence H. Miller, ed., Erasmus and Luther, 21.

51. I want to be careful not to suggest that early modern writers, especially in England, predominantly adopted Luther's theology of the will. Erasmus, in particular, provides an important alternative account of the free will that also influenced playwrights and authors. As Lee Oser describes it in his forthcoming essay in this journal, authors like Shakespeare may have internalized the conflicting terms of the Luther-Erasmus debate in productive tension. Oser, "Free Will in Hamlet?: Shakespeare's Consciousness of the Great Debate between Erasmus and Luther," forthcoming 67.2 (March 2018).

52. Trilling, Sincerity and Authenticity, 13–14.

53. John Milton, Paradise Lost, 2nd ed., ed. Alastair Fowler (London: Routledge, 2007), 4: 58–61.

54. Milton, 4: 71–72.

55. Milton, 4: 55–57.

56. John P. Rumrich, Milton Unbound: Controversy and Reinterpretation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 20.

57. Rumrich, 22.

58. Daniel Defoe, The Political History of the Devil, as well Ancient as Modern (London, 1726), 72.

59. Bernard Williams, Shame and Necessity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993; reprinted 2008), 70.

60. Jane Taylor, "'Why Do You Tear Me from Myself?': Torture, Truth, and the Arts of the Counter-Reformation," in Ernst van Alphen, Mieke Bal, and Carel Smith, eds., The Rhetoric of Sincerity (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009), 19.

61. Taylor, 'Why Do You Tear Me from Myself?', 25.

62. Taylor, 'Why Do You Tear Me from Myself?', 19.

63. Taylor, 'Why Do You Tear Me from Myself?', 41.

64. Quoted on p. 20: Taylor, 'Why Do You Tear Me from Myself?'

65. Taylor, 'Why Do You Tear Me from Myself?', 43.

66. Taylor, 'Why Do You Tear Me from Myself?', 41.

67. Van Alphen and Bal, 16.

68. Maaike Bleeker, "Being Angela Merkel," in The Rhetoric of Sincerity, 254–56.

69. Taylor describes this significance as a displacement of morality: "The notion of authenticity develops out of a displacement of the moral accent in this idea [of moral individuality] … What I'm calling the displacement of moral accent comes about when being in touch with our feelings takes on independent and crucial moral significance." Taylor, "The Politics of Recognition," 28.

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