Acts of Sincerity

A Study in the Poetics of Character

Studies of European secularism often observe a transition sometime around the early modern period from an old metaphysical understanding of moral action to a new form of sincerity or, in its more progressive form, authenticity. The work done on the history of sincerity itself corroborates this view. Such accounts point to the emergence of the moral explanatory power of the self by itself. Yet while a transition of this kind certain occurs, the questions of when and through what intellectual instruments remain largely unanswered.

A fundamental question to ask, I believe, is how it became possible to imagine a person sinning sincerely. I suggest that an unrecognized milestone in the history of the sincere self is found in medieval discussions of the will and in the writings of Anselm and John Duns Scotus in particular. These writers helped to create the psychological conditions for a person to act sincerely even when she knows that what she is doing is wrong. The devil, it can be said, was sincere, though damned.

But, in the early modern period, and arguably still today, this new prerogative of the will was not entirely independent from ideas of morality and justice but remained tied to theology and to histories of fallenness and moral transcendence. And the results were enormously fruitful for the cultivation of narrative genres. We can locate in imaginative literature a new complexity of character not marked by a simple, unqualified secularism and disenchantment, but fraught with choices between competing forms of sincerity, those grounded in God and metaphysics and others grounded in the felt nature of oneself. This struggle can be described as a drama of sincerity that manifests in forms of characterization stretching back at least to Augustine’s Confessions and medieval Scholastic imaginings of Lucifer as he was faced with his primal sin.

In this book, I tell this this untold history of sincerity, and I espouse the thematic possibilities for the performance of character that it reveals in several areas of early modern literature: in descriptions of genre and writing in poetics; in the dramatic works of Shakespeare, Ford, and their contemporaries; and in the work of John Milton and other seventeenth-century poets.

My central argument suggests a revision of the poetics of early modern character. Classical studies of dramatic genre eschew the importance of character almost entirely in favor of action, where the relation between character and action is defined by a premodern understanding of sincerity as essentially disparate from a person. Late medieval and early modern narratives close this gap and, in so doing, create a new interpretive framework wherein moral action does not always determine character but the self-understanding of a character has the power to determine the moral composition of an action.

In light of this history, I consider also the extent to which modern stories about desire in literature and popular media have moved beyond the drama of the will. Is sincerity still tacitly tied to theology, including theologies of secularism?

IMAGE: The Peacham Drawing of Titus Andronicus