Sincerely Yours

Sincerity and Authenticity

by Lionel Trilling
Harvard, 188 pp., $7.95

Sincerity as a moral category is something fairly new. We find nothing exactly corresponding to the concept in the philosophy of the ancients, or in their judgment of men. But once established in the moral vocabulary during the Renaissance, it must have seemed secure in its place. Sincerity as a species of truthfulness was itself to be counted as one of the virtues; and sincerity in another form was the mark of the virtuous man. For the sincere man was not simply the one who told the truth about himself, and whose professions of friendship were so far to be trusted. He was one whose firmness of character guaranteed a truth to be told. In the early pages of his new book Sincerity and Authenticity Trilling, who is tracing the history of the concept, takes Shakespeare’s Horatio as typifying this ideal.

Hamlet holds him in his heart’s core because, as he says, this friend is not passion’s slave: his Stoic apatheia makes Horatio what we feel him to be, a mind wholly at one with itself, an instance of sincerity unqualified.

The sincere man tells the truth and because of his sincerity there is a simple truth to tell.

On both counts sincerity and virtue were taken as allies. But their relationship was to become more complex with changing views of human nature and changes in the concept of sincerity. Finally it even seemed that the requirements of sincerity and morality might clash.

Rousseau’s Confessions stands as a milestone in the winding road that led to this surprising confrontation, and the influence of this book worked in several different ways at once. In the first place Rousseau’s writings put in question the concurrence of sincerity and decorum; it was difficult after the Confessions to think of self-avowal as the dignified truthfulness of a virtuous man. Rousseau tells of his own disgraceful, shameful actions and challenges his readers to tell the truth about themselves without similar revelations of shame. Moreover the ideal of the strong, consistent, well-controlled personality was somewhat displaced by Rousseau’s refusal to claim that he had such a character. A sincere man might have to search among shifting desires and emotions for the truth about himself, and one had to accept disintegration as a reality in order to see the truth.

Whether Rousseau himself was good at avoiding self-deception is a moot point. Perhaps his insistence that he was, in spite of everything, as good a man as any is part of what is repellent about the Confessions. And it is interesting that in his famous denunciation of Molière’s Misanthrope he fails to recognize the element of self-deception in the character of Alceste, the paragon of sincerity with whom he clearly identifies and whom he so passionately defends.

Be that as it may; there is no doubt that after Rousseau, telling the truth about oneself came to seem more important, more interesting, and more hazardous than before. The difficulties of the individual in society were…

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