Matthew J. Smith

The first of three times that Augustine uses a cognate of the word “sincerity” in his Confessions—a book sometimes described as innovative for its narrative exposé of the internal life—appears in the beginning of Book 3. Augustine remembers his time in Carthage as a young man as plagued with unchecked passions and a relentless pursuit of sex. It’s also a time during which Augustine frequented the theater and tragic drama in particular. He remembers his enjoyment of tragedy with shame because of the pleasure that he took in witnessing another’s suffering. The problem with tragedy, he thought, is that it incites spectators to an incomplete act of compassion. And, according to Augustine’s ontologically informed ideas about morality, an incomplete act of compassion is therefore a sinful one.

While making this argument, Augustine refers to the necessary and inherent sincerity of benevolentia, one’s good will or compassion toward characters suffering on stage.

Si enim est malevola benevolentia, quod fieri non potest, potest et ille, qui veraciter sinceriterque miseretur, cupere esse miseros, ut misereatur.

The term “sincerity” is deployed here to make an argument about the incoherence of tragic pity. The fact that spectators enjoy tragic theater, he reasons, means that there is some delight taken in another’s suffering, and since good will by definition cannot include bad will, then the presence of such enjoyment at theater proves that any compassion that someone feels toward a character is not, in fact, compassion at all.

Sincerity is coupled with truth in Augustine’s statement (veraciter sinceriterque) because, by his reasoning, sincerity must be coupled with truth. In this sense, to be sincere is to be true, since to be true is for one’s loves to be rightly ordered and properly directed, namely, toward God. There is no sense of true or false self-representation in this use of sincerity. It’s simply a matter of the orientation and wholeness of one’s action. 

The English word “sincerity” comes from the Latin noun sinceritas. The term has been the object of a somewhat dubious etymological legend claiming that the word comes from sine (without) and cera (wax). A sincere sculpture, according to this etymology, is one whose flaws have not been smoothed over with wax. This is probably a false origin, but it does reflect the notion of “purity of source” that seems to characterize uses of sincerity from classical Latin through early modern English. To be sincere is to be from a single source and unmixed with other substances.

What this meaning lacks, notably, is any sense of a thing representing itself as what it truly is. Or as applied to a person, to be sincere doesn’t necessarily have to do with behaving in a way that reflects what is on the inside. This development came much later. A popular Renaissance emblem titled “Sinceritas” displayed a woman offering her heart literally in her hand. We might think of such concern over the difference between inner and outer life as especially characteristic of Romantic thought and perhaps as the object of critique for Modernist writers and artists. The philologist Patricia Ball in 1964 observed that in the Victorian period sincerity was virtually synonymous with morality. To say that an author was sincere, for instance, meant that he was trustworthy and upright and in many ways had more to do with fitting a certain mold of social legibility than anything.

As one might imagine, the development of a performative, or representational, aspect to sincerity (where what is without matches what is within) had an enormous impact on the production of literature and particularly on the writing of character. Of course, classical literature—I’m thinking especially of Ovid, Seneca, Aeschylus, Euripides—involved complex characters who struggled not just over the events of Fortune but also with their internal composition, with mastering their passions or dealing with the consequences of living on the extremities.

But something new emerges at some point. Whereas dramatic conflict in western literature had long come from characters’ struggles to master a situation, overcome obstacles, and do what is right, at a certain point a new kind of dramatic conflict emerged, a conflict of sincerity. For an illustration, consider Milton’s character of Satan. For centuries, readers have argued over what exactly causes his fall—including Daniel Defoe, who in The Political History of the Devil suggests that Milton distinctly fails to account for the origin of sin. But most accounts of Satan’s fall acknowledge that he believed that he was acting in the right, or if that’s saying too much, then at least Satan’s pride was more than merely passionate. His sin was also mixed up with a problem of knowledge.

At one point, Milton depicts Satan’s fall as a problem of forgetfulness:

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.

(Book IV, 55-57)

Is this a moment of recognition? Satan is attempting to make sense of his inclination to rebel by entertaining the possibility that his mind is fallible. As in some late medieval dramatic depictions of the Fall of Lucifer, perhaps Satan was seduced by the splendor of the immanent. Recall that the argument that Satan makes to the soon-to-be-fallen angels is that they shouldn’t accept the Son’s authority simply because they’re told that his existence predates their own. Can one—should one—comply with a moral law that is not manifestly true? …And here the can and the should join sides in a conflation of knowledge and morality.

This has significant consequences for the question of sincerity. Whether or not Satan is right in his justification for rebellion—whether he is right that demands for obedience have been placed on creatures who have not been endowed with the requisite insight to comprehend the law behind such demands—it is noteworthy that Milton offers a view into Satan’s internal wrestling over what counts or should count as morally binding. In essence, Milton has created a new register to the Fall narrative. Satan’s is not only a drama of Fortune and of passion, but also a drama of sincerity.

The key question, I believe, is when and how it became conceivable for rational beings to
sin “with sincerity.” For Augustine this would have been incoherent, just like the prospect of being moved with compassion toward a fictional character whom a spectator already knows is merely fictional. At the heart of this question is the relationship between one’s knowledge and one’s will and more specifically whether a voluntary act always follows what one knows to be true.

As I explore in my essay on the topic (“w/ Sincerity, Part 1: The Drama of the Will from Augustine to Milton”), the problem of the will became a central one for medieval theologians. And as it happens, theologians like Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, and Scotus turned to the example of Lucifer’s original angelic sin for a test case. In many ways, this is the theological debate that gave rise to what we think of as modern character—a character whose deepest struggle is not the struggle to choose what is right but the struggle to know what is right, and also the struggle to know which right is the ‘right’ right.

We get a glimpse here—though just a glimpse—of what theorists like Lionel Trilling will much later term modern “authenticity,” the notion of being true to oneself. For Augustine, this would have made no sense at all. For Milton’s Satan, maybe a bit more, but only to a limit. Why? Is there a way in which modern authenticity is grounded in an old theological problem? The essays in the recently published December special issue of C&L on the literary histories of “Sincerity” explore these sorts of questions.

The ideas above are adapted from Matthew Smith's article published in Christianity & Literature 67.1 (December 2017). Read the full article by subscribing to Christianity & Literature or through your institutional library's subscription.