The American Interest
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Books, Film, and History

Sincerely Yours

Sincerity, a quality we typically think of as a constant and unchanging human virtue, is anything but.

Published on October 10, 2012
Sincerityby R. Jay Magill, Jr.

W.W. Norton & Company, 2012, 272 pp., $25.95

Sincerity is an elusive quality, in real life and as a subject for inquiry. At least in some societies, American society definitely among them, successful social interactions depend to some extent on one’s ability to gauge sincerity, and many individuals are encouraged to test their own sincerity quotient as a key component of personal integrity. Yet sincerity is tough to handle. Too much of it can be crippling: Who wants unalloyed honesty all the time? Undue reliance on it can confuse pure intentions with wise or realistic courses of action. Sincerity is not the same thing as good judgment, yet we often mingle and conflate the two. Even assessing sincerity in personal interactions can be tough. A recent study suggests that computers are better than people at interpreting facial signals, such as smiles, to discern intent. And, of course, we engage one another increasingly more often in virtual as opposed to face-to-face settings. What implications for sincerity flow from that?

Sincerity represents, then, both a tough topic and a really important one, from social and personal standpoints alike. Add to this the fact that sincerity also offers a very interesting history, with some decisively modern and probably decisively Western and American ingredients, and all the makings of a really intriguing study are ready to hand. Significance, complexity and historical causation; I was salivating before I even got my review copy.

In many respects, R. Jay Magill, Jr.’s Sincerity delivers nicely. Its strengths are several. It correctly locates sincerity as an important feature of American culture, including political culture. It probes the origins of the impulse, so we get a genuine sense of why this peculiar quality began to assume such importance. As an historian, I’m a sucker for analysis that connects present to past in mutually enlightening ways, and sincerity offers an unexpected source for that analysis. This recurrently shows the advantages and disadvantages of trusting to sincerity, and it does so without misleading oversimplification, thus encouraging readers to think more fully and deeply about the concept. Finally, Magill’s historical assessment connects sincerity to modern art, and thence to pop culture, in revealing ways, opening another important avenue for contemplation. All of this is delivered in a readable style with lots of stimulating examples, past and present. Any book that tries to incorporate figures as diverse as John Calvin, Nietzsche and Sarah Palin must, I think, have a lively and imaginative intellect behind it.

In several respects, however, the book falls a bit short, for all the credit due in identifying and guiding consideration of a fascinating and underexplored topic. First, particularly in the intermediate chapters, Magill turns heavily to a rather formal, if focused, intellectual history, summing up a host of views that do not always seem clearly relevant to the topic at hand. Exploring Nietzsche, for example, is always challenging and often worthwhile, but no clear sense emerges from the effort that we have learned much about any commonly understood notion of sincerity. And second, in part because of the book’s intense intellectual turn (which does, as noted below, have some definite payoff), several rather more obvious aspects of sincerity are simply neglected, including aspects that could have provided important illumination within the author’s overall framework. It’s always brash to talk about untouched topics, and often unfair to castigate an author for not doing something he never intended. But some comments, interspersed below, are unavoidable in this case.

 

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incerity certainly starts off with a bang, and the initial section alone is worth the price of admission. The introduction establishes the topic vigorously, with particular attention paid to the quest for sincerity in American politics, but carrying the frequent attendant disenchantments. Although many try to test politicians for sincerity, the effort often falters, not only today but in the past as well (Magill reminds us how relentlessly calculating John Adams was). So philosophy and art may be more interesting targets for inquiry, a hint of some of the explorations offered later. Finally, Magill establishes clearly the several faces of his subject, using critiques such as George Bernard Shaw’s belief that only stupid people can be really sincere, along with Lionel Trilling’s unexpected effort to re-establish the principle of sincerity in the 1970s to do so.

In the process, Magill points out that definitions are particularly tricky when one tries to relate inner emotions to outward presentations and actions. Does true sincerity require full disclosure, or does it mandate the pursuit of goals in keeping with one’s principles (in which case dissimulation might sometimes be justified)? The topic’s inherent challenges invite rather than discourage assessment, and they do so even in the face of no little ironic strain. Even as Americans visibly lose trust not only in politics but in all forms of social authority—and, apparently, in each other—they can’t quite ditch the appeal of sincerity. Hence, Magill points out, the sense of public outrage when yet another prominent individual disappoints, whether he’s a politician like John Edwards or a sports celebrity like Tiger Woods. Magill’s introductory comments echo in a concluding epilogue, where he returns to musings about the complexity of sincerity and its potential for harm. All this combines with his persuasive insistence on the need, nevertheless, to maintain some commitment to this elusive quality as a core component of personal integrity.

Step two in Magill’s analysis involves an impressive effort to figure out where sincerity came from in the first place. Word origins help. The first use of sincerity in anything like its modern meaning occurred in 1533, in a Protestant tract. Previously, for a couple of centuries prior, the word was employed (at least in French), with reference to things, not people: artisanal products, for example, were sincere if well made and without fraudulence. Sincerity was thus close in meaning to authentic (another loaded concept, but that’s another story). It was religious change that prompted the shift from objects to humans. Protestants, blasting Catholic reliance on ritual and dogma and charging massive hypocrisy on a corrupt papacy and priesthood, needed an alternative path to religious purity and salvation. Inner conviction, if sincere, provided the path. In treatise after treatise, from the 16th century into the 18th, Protestant clergy emphasized sincerity as a crucial emblem of true personal piety and a sign of divine election.

This explanation is persuasive, particularly when Magill adds some supporting causation, at least for the 16th century itself. He notes that in this period of rapid social change, with some growth in urbanization (though not yet to modern levels) and a more market-oriented economy, traditional social markers became less clear. This particular explanation needs a bit more attention, perhaps, and it could also do with some expansion in time so that it helps account not only for origins but also for persistence and wider application beyond the religious realm. But Magill is unquestionably on the right track. Pre-modern Western society (and surely, many other societies, though Magill pays no attention to non-Western cultures) could turn to some combination of community familiarity and hierarchy, along with rituals, to produce a basis for reliability and trust. Gradually, with greater geographic mobility and more competitive economic forms, these social features eroded, leaving people with new needs to assess others directly—often strangers—in terms of intentions and reliability. This need placed a heightened emphasis on sincerity ultimately beyond the religious realm, a need that only intensified with time. Ultimately in the United States, one might add, unparalleled diversity and geographic mobility, along with most Americans’ distinctive scorn for formality and public hierarchy, explains an intensity of interest in sincerity that is unusual even within the Western cultural framework.

Religion continued to exercise its own influence, particularly as Calvinists amplified the sincerity message and, especially after the Puritan failure in Britain, brought it to the New World. From sermons to the new genre of autobiography, appeals to sincerity, if anything, gained in fervor within the dominant religious cultures of Europe and the United States—no small thing in an era still marked by nearly universal orthodox religious belief.

Religious origins and transmission, bolstered by wider social needs, lead to the next steps in Magill’s argument: explaining what happened to sincerity after the initial Protestant impulse shifted the meaning of sincerity into a more secular orbit. He turns here to various continental intellectuals. Montaigne emerges as the first essentially secular writer to take up the issue of sincerity. Discussion of the French court, and the problems of identifying sincerity amid the pomp of Versailles, may seem somewhat distracting, but Magill’s French focus properly anchors discussion of the 18th-century interest, and particularly the Enlightenment interest, in the natural man, freed from artifice and sincere to the core. Here Rousseau becomes the central figure, despite his personal ethical lapses, with broad claims put forth, possibly even true, about his influence on modern politics and the lingering effects of his praise of moral purity. Magill augments this largely intellectual diet with a fascinating note on how, concurrently, crimes of fraud were being punished more severely than crimes of violence in those days, an intriguing suggestion of social resonance for sincerity concerns that merits a fuller exploration.

Magill’s commentary on 18th-century ideas leads logically enough to extensive treatment of 19th-century Romanticism, which he correctly sees as essentially a new movement. Despite common claims that Romanticism was little more than highbrow nostalgia evoked by the transition from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft, Magill shows that the movement thrived from demand for authentic alternatives to the corruptions of an increasingly industrial world. Both European and American voices emerge here, with due attention to Emerson and Thoreau. The focus on Romanticism and its successors pulls Magill along into discussion of other intellectual currents leading to the 20th century, including Nietzsche but also Freud. This tack tends to lock him into an approach to sincerity as an alternative to other aspects of modernity, notably commercial capitalism, perhaps a bit too much so. But Magill properly notes the recurrent efforts of advertisers to capture claims for authenticity, and so Sincerity escapes the fate of being locked into artificial dualisms.

Indeed, the junction between Romanticism and sincerity generates a fascinating insight about the role of sincerity in modern art. Authenticity of intent increasingly replaced conventional measures of craft in justifying and judging individual artistic products. Magill sees this link as crucial not only to artistic innovations in the late 19th century but also to American art and music in the vibrant 1920s and to artistic influence on advertising in the same period. All this he links to the Beats, Tennessee Williams, Sartre and other developments into the 1950s. The combinations connect in turn to certain social science observations of that day, most important among them David Riesman’s famous “lonely crowd” findings about the importance of a quest for sincerity among other-directed Americans.

Sincerity’s last main chapters, on patterns since the 1960s, offer a similarly diverse palette of topics, from efforts to escape to the countryside to a renewed appeal for sincerity in the wake of 9/11. But the principal focus rests on hippie culture and its successors, with a barrage of specific references that at points assume some specialist, or at least generational cohort familiarity. Hippie distrust of power brokers reflects a latter-day quest for sincerity, however repeatedly disappointed it may be, and specific developments, like Watergate, explain how the gap between a desire for sincerity and what was actually going on in the “real” world steadily widened. The return of intellectual attention to the subject, as with Trilling, highlights the ongoing power of the concept, while the subsequent “Me” decade reflected a fascination with individual authenticity even as larger power structures were discounted. Artistic currents, including Andy Warhol but with many other specific illustrations, again managed to convey the latest links between sincerity and contemporary culture. A final brief chapter then explores even more recent connections among hipster subculture, irony and sincerity, manifested in a number of films, plays and musical forms. Magill’s projection of a consistent link from Romanticism to contemporary genres, organized preeminently, he contends, around a search for sincerity, deserves wide appreciation.

 

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his, then, is a book that adds sincerity to the list of modern qualities worth serious attention, offering nuanced definitions and a solid connection between past causation and current manifestations. It casts new light on modern art broadly construed, amplifying some of the key interactions and tensions between popular arts and the wider society. And while the actual chapters don’t quite justify the final tag line of the subtitle (explaining why we encourage individual expression on grounds of authenticity without consistent concern for quality), the book certainly offers insights in this regard as well.

Yet all this said, I remain impressed with the ground not covered in part because of Magill’s decided tilt toward intellectual and artistic digressions. The book is dotted with wider social insights, true enough. But so many other opportunities for a wider exploration of social impact are left aside. Why not, for example, cut back a bit of the detail on 19th-century intellectuals in favor of exploring the impressive anxiety about fraudulent strangers in American society during the same decades? Karen Halttunen, in Confidence Men and Painted Women, has pioneered our understanding of how growing urbanization, immigration and unavoidable interactions with strangers created real uncertainty about how to assess authenticity in daily life. Connecting this with the broader exploration of sincerity would extend the explanation of the growing need for sincerity and the complex assessment of results. Unfortunately, Magill, despite being deeply and intelligently interested in an historical approach, does not seem to have much use for actual historical work, and in this case the result limits his scope.

Why not, too, strike out in additional directions? “Sincerely yours”, as a valediction, surely deserves attention as a popular marker of the conversion to sincerity. Letters in England and the American colonies traditionally ended with “your humble and obedient servant”—a throwback to the days when hierarchy helped assure one of social credentials. It was in the 18th century—quite consistently with Magill’s chronology—that “sincerely” began to be added to the reference to your humble servant, only to take over entirely by the end of the 19th century, by which point, one assumes, the hope for reliable sincerity had gained full ascendancy over older social markers.

And why, systematically it seems, avoid one of the most obvious modern arenas for sincerity: romance and sexuality? Here’s a classic case where sincerity was once largely unnecessary: Community controls over sexuality, plus the practice of arranged marriages, freed young people from much systematic need to assess the sincerity of a potential spouse. This system, never perfect, of course (or pre-20th-century literature would be much the poorer) began to break down in the West in (you guessed it) the 18th century—another reason that sincerity began to extend into the secular realm from its religious origins. The replacement was imperfect: Rising illegitimacy rates testified to the fact that many women were duped by false professions of sincere devotion. Not surprisingly, some alternatives were explored: The spate of suits for breach of promise of marriage, which surged beginning in the late 19th century until the whole practice came to be recognized as impossibly cumbersome, is a case in point. But there is a rich field for further explorations of modern sincerity in practice when we add personal relationships to the framework that Magill has begun to establish.

Finally, in terms of what seems missing from the analysis, there’s not actually much on politics beyond Magill’s excellent introduction. He does probe Machiavelli as well as some modern practitioners to make the general point that politics and sincerity tend to separate like so much water and oil, but he offers very little about 19th- or 20th-century politics in practice. There is little here to help us understand how modern people, particularly modern Americans, sought to test politicians for their sincerity quotient or, when this failed, what alternatives they sought. The correct observation that, since Watergate, political trust has plummeted ought to have encouraged some analysis of the pre-Watergate sincerity patterns, yet we get no systematic treatment of this area at all.

In other words, though Sincerity is a book ultimately about sincerity in contemporary life, there are too many facets left untended to prevent some real frustration on the part of many readers. Of course, the gaps can be closed by others, and the book’s strengths provide a solid foundation on which to base further work. It’s fine to finish a book with a sense of glass half-full, because the alternative these days is all too often something closer to bone dry. But it will be really interesting to see what additional analysis can be poured in.

One final point, not intended as criticism but rather as a tribute to the thinking Magill already stimulates: We ultimately need real comparative work. Sincerity is about Western culture. It floats the idea that, within this culture, the United States is somehow unusually interested in sincerity, but it does not actually pursue its own comparative hypothesis as it jumps backs and forth across the Atlantic. Even more obvious is the desirability of attending to sincerity or its substitutes in other cultures entirely. Confucianism, for example, may reduce the need for sincerity amid hierarchy and ritual, but what happens when, like Catholicism, Confucianism declines as a mode of social discipline? Is there a post-Confucian Chinese analogue to American sincerity, and if so, how do the two mix and match assumptions, and with what likely consequences? More broadly, what is the role of sincerity in a global age when ever more strangers meet in what amounts to socially chaotic circumstances? When an American President can look a Russian leader in the eye and essentially (and probably incorrectly) proclaim his sincerity (“I looked into his soul”), we know that we have a topic that ultimately deserves a wider geographic scope.

Peter N. Stearns is provost and university professor at George Mason University, where he works on various aspects of social history and how past trends shape current behaviors.