Thursday, March 14, 2013

History of a Virtue


Give me beauty in the inward soul and may the outward and the inward become one.
-Socrates

I have read historical accounts of political ideas and biographies of important people. I have never read anything like R. Jay Magill’s Sincerity, which chronicles the birth, life and possible death of a virtue. Imagine watching Forest Gump appear in all of those history making scenes in the movie. The happy face. The sh*t happens bumper stickers. The civil rights movement. The creation of Apple computers. Magill makes sincerity an unassuming and likable character with a far reaching influence in much the same way.

The book starts out with the story of Protestant reformer John Frith, who was the first to use the word sincere in the English language and the first to die for it. The demand for sincerity sparked religious wars. Even more deaths followed in the name of sincerity when 17th century puritans demanded proof. How do you prove something as subjective as sincerity? That question is never answered in Magill’s story that takes you to 18th century European salons where masks and make up are in vogue. Magill looked at literary masterpieces like John Milton’s Paradise Lost and French Philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau’s works that led to book burnings and a revolution. “Confessions“ was Rousseau’s attempt at the most sincere writing in history. I almost want to read it except Rousseau was regarded as such a hypocrite. Is that always a risk when one proclaims to be virtuous and sincere? Sincerity changed roles during the time of Romanticism, when divinity was found within one self and in nature, not in church. Rather than trying to be sincere for the sake of religious expectations, sincerity showed up in the 19th century as artistic self-expression.

Sincerity made the list of Benjamin Franklin’s famous list 13 virtues. John Adams questioned Mother England's sincerity when she sent soldiers and tax collectors as nannies to care for her colonies. The 20th Century saw 100 years of cynicism. Philosopher Friedrich Nietzche didn’t think it was possible to be truly sincere. Freud held a similar dim view. World Wars continued to divide and build distrust. Meanwhile, the lines between art and advertising were blurred. Could something made to promote consumerism also be considered an authentic work of art? 

The idea of “keeping up with the Joneses” came about in the 1950’s along with suburbs and conformity.  A deep longing for authenticity and sincerity gave way to a social revolution in the sixties when the government, the church and anyone older than thirty could not be trusted. While President Kennedy may not have represented the anti-establishment, the president did express skepticism in his inauguration speech when he declared “sincerity is always subject to proof.”

I skipped over the chapters that chronicled the seventies and eighties in the book since I lived it. I admit that I never gave much thought to sincerity or authenticity in my youth. I grew up believing that you either belonged with the preppies, jocks, nerds, band geeks, goths or stoners. With so many choices, why would you try to make up your own place in the pecking order? My parents could have been cast in Ferris Beuller’s Day Off or maybe been at one Gordon Gecko’s cocktail parties where everyone lived by the motto “Greed is Good.” In my idealistic college days, I never once grieved the loss of sincerity. You can’t miss what you never believed existed.

 Magill devotes a lot of ink to the Hipsters of the nineties. I was too old for that scene. Hipsters are the disillusioned youth who drink my father’s favorite beer (Pabst Blue Ribbon) because it is a working man’s beer. They are keeping it real in their wife beater t-shirts and speak truth through bushy mustaches and beards. The hipster is the dude in line at Starbucks ordering a $6 latte while wearing a mesh trucker hat. The same person wearing the pricey new “vintage” concert t-shirt. Is it enough to have an intention to be sincere and authentic? I loved how this book brought up these age-old questions in historical context.

I tried and failed to finish reading  Lionel Trilling’s Sincerity and Authenticity that was published in the 1960’s. That book looked at the same cultural influences sincerity played on religion, politics, art and literature. But it was like reading a scientific research paper.  R. Hay Magill's Sincerity was a totally different reading experience. You have to applaud an author who can begin a story with someone being burned at the stake and end with references to TV shows like Jackass and Jersey Shore. It just flowed.

Can you recommend a book that deals with the subject of sincerity?   

For today's "Sky's the Limit on what you can learn: Benjamin Franklin's virtue list: Franklin tried to focus on one at a time each week "leaving all others to their ordinary chance." Franklin came up with the list at the age of 20 and practiced it for the rest of his life. For sincerity, he added Use no hurtful deceit, think innocently and justly, and if you speak, speak accordingly.

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