Sincerity is a complex and rich subject of literary history.

For one, does it even belong to literary history? One could easily imagine histories of sincerity from perspectives like the theory of self-consciousness in German Idealist thought, or Rousseau’s notion of selfhood and self-truth, or much further back in Augustine’s memoir of conversion, or in the self-critical irony and satire of Dryden. Much has been contributed to our notions of authentic selfhood, as well, from postcolonialism, feminism, and ethnic studies.

In this issue of Christianity & Literature we ask specifically how sincerity emerges within the intersection of literary studies and Christian thought and history. Caleb Spencer and I frame sincerity in this volume as a dialectic between expression and interiority, expanding and collapsing through various articulations of self-truth. And the essays in this volume address particular literary moments of the sincere in the works of Augustine, Thomas à Kempis, Shakespeare, Milton, Puritan preachers, Swift, Byron, Blake, Rousseau, Wordsworth, David Foster Wallace, and Ben Lerner.

My own essay contribution to this volume is entitled, “w/Sincerity, Part 1: The Drama of the Will from Augustine to Milton.” In this essay I locate some of sincerity’s recognizably modern fault lines in late classical and medieval philosophy. And I attend, in particular, to the question of how and when an individual came to be understood as able to “sin sincerely.” When did morality and selfhood diverge at least to that extent? The answer, I argue, is found in the writings of Anselm and Scotus, and in particular to their responses to the distinctly narrative problem of Satan’s first sin.

What follows is an excerpt from this introductory essay—”w/Sincerity, Part 1.”


As my brief discussion of Luther suggests, early Protestant theology may have ushered a renewed emphasis on an individual’s private and internal movement of faith, but such theology also repeated some of the problems of coherence regarding the confirmation of one’s internal feeling and avowal. In particular, for theologians like Luther a movement of faith may be individual, but it is not free; it is not really “of oneself.” If for Scotus the will is free in its ability not to follow its natural inclination, then in Protestant thought the situation is the reverse: the will is free only when it fully acknowledges its inability to pursue the good and instead embraces an alien, declarative form of righteousness. What appears from one angle to be the purely introverted structure of this sort of Protestant sincerity seems from another angle to be entirely extroverted in its self-emptying. In Erasmus’s view, Luther became too wrapped up in his efforts to attack Pelagianism that he altogether abolished the possibility of making any positive statements about the activity of the will; he “has been carried so far by the heat of his defense as to remove it entirely.”[1] Yet as the proliferation of literature on plain style, spiritual despair, work ethic, forms of living, and sincere obedience attest, Protestant emphases on the individual’s faith, the bondage of the will, Election, and sola gratia soteriology spawned a robust language of outward behavioral signs that were thought to betoken not only conversion of heart but also an underlying sense of inward spiritual coherence with behavior and outward forms.

We might describe this development as a dialectical separating and collapsing of the activity of the will and its objective (moral) correlative through which it achieves sincerity or coherence. The subjective and the objective (i.e., the individual and God) are separated insofar as the will is completely incapable of directing itself toward God, and yet the distinction between the two is collapsed in that justice—the otherwise external correlative for sincere action—is only experienced through faith and never through action. The result is a further evolution of the agonistic sincerity we located in Augustine’s narrative and in the Scholastic fixation on the example of Lucifer. Early modern narrative literature continued to test the limits of sincerity-as-struggle in various interpretations of evil. Where traditionally authors might represent insincerity in a character who begins by acting in good will but is led astray by passion, the early modern period saw an increase in characters whose falls are predetermined by a misidentification of the self, or a blindness toward the unseen ties of the human will, characters who really believe there passions to be essential to their existence.

A Christian hamartia, in this new context, may not simply be a character’s turning away from the moral good but his pursuit of an object that appears to him to be morally coherent with the natural activity of his will. Versions of sincerity, thus, competed with one another in such stories, though such competition is far from a celebration of individuality per se. Literature made use especially of the drama emergent in the dialectic between purportedly well-intentioned acts of will and the often tragically gradual revelation of fallenness. While volition and individual creativity might be celebrated, as they are in characters like Milton’s Satan and Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, the fact of original sin and the threat of the passions continued to enforce the prevailing condition of fallenness and incapability. Sincerity itself became a point of dramatic conflict, summed up in the governing maxim that the success of performing sincerity ultimately depends on one’s being sincere, indebted perhaps to Augustine and, through his influence, to Luther and other Reformers.[2]

What I’ve done is simply to reframe a familiar account of the “classical” narrative patterns of Renaissance literature, in the vein of early critics like T. E. Hulme or Harry Levin, as a history of sincerity. If one way to describe the classical (i.e., ontological) narrative is as a character overreaching, then, in the vocabulary of sincerity, we can describe this character as transgressing the bounds of nature by representing herself as someone she is not, where who she is is not a matter simply of “that within which passeth show” but of the authority of nature, original sin, and final judgment. Hence, Trilling’s observation that the early modern “villain” typically combines maleficence with dissembling and duplicity, that is, with insincerity.[3] Just so, morality and self-representation were continuously tied to one another through the medieval and early modern periods. And yet the logics of morality and self-representation began to war with one another, not to the ultimate end of severing their connection but of amplifying the content of dramatic conflict. Such villainous characters may believe that they are exercising agonistic yet honest intentions, but their demise culminates with a recognition not only of overreaching the scope of moral activity but of getting caught between opposing views of self-coherence: to what extent am I responsible directly to my own felt experience, and to what extent is experience itself shaped by a misdirected will and thus subject to judgment?

Milton’s Satan is one of the principle examples of a character in this period who finds himself caught between ontological and agonistic models of sincerity. Consider one of the many moments when Satan struggles to make sense of the failure of his will. “Oh had his powerful destiny ordained / Me some inferior Angel, I had stood / Then happy,” Satan conjectures. For then, perhaps, “no unbounded hope had raised / Ambition.”[4] Hope “unbounded” by what? To be the brightest angel is to experience ambition unrestrained by the submission and contentment engendered by the act of keeping one’s gaze on the Father. Yet Satan quickly recoils on this excuse and argues that he acted out of freedom, taking the side of Scotus, admitting that any angel could, like him, have chosen to follow his will-to-advantage independently—though tragically—of his knowledge of what is right: “Nay cursed be thou; since against his thy will / Chose freely what it now so justly rues.”[5]

We can entertain the idea that the very structure of Satan’s soul—his will (or two-wills), intellect, memory, passion—makes possible the potential of sincerely sinning, if we define sincerity agonistically, according to the drama of willing. Fallible though he is, Satan’s volitional composition allows him simply to choose one natural inclination of the will over another. It is not simply the case that Satan fell because he believed something false about God’s authority but also, and perhaps more importantly, that he suffered from forgetfulness, choosing to focus on his own advantage rather than on the goodness of God: “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.”[6] The difference bears out in the long-attested reading that Satan’s perspective—notably limited yet highly active—seems reasonable, or coherent, at times. Milton’s editorial voice throughout the epic has a tendency to rein in Satan’s affectio commodi and to remind the reader of what David Urban in this issue calls Satan’s “fallacious motives,” a phrase that returns to Augustine’s commitment to the ontological trueness or falseness of the will’s movements. This leaves the reader in a kind of interpretive limbo: perhaps we want to inhabit Satan’s logic and to sympathize with him, but then we’re tugged the other direction by a narrator and, at times, by Satan himself who correct opinions we might have about Satan’s sincerity—where even such self-corrections edge on sincerity.

But there is another, more experiential route on which we might share in Satan’s struggle to discern his own sincerity. I’m referring to what John Rumrich calls “the uncanny epistemology of the damned.”[7] In an inversion of Stanley Fish’s well known assertion of sympathy for Satan despite the laws of theodicy, Rumrich contends that “The theodicy must be seen as sincere because things could have worked out otherwise for Adam and Eve.”[8] Note his emphasis on the subjunctive, a grammatical mode familiar to the drama of willing. As readers confront Satan in the early books, they witness the inconsistencies and confusion of Satan’s perspective, his flawed memory and psychological wavering. Is this Satan’s agonistic register of sincerity? The narrator helps readers to interpret this drama the “right” way, but, as Rumrich notes, the narrator’s interjections have less the effect of admonishing against admiration for Satan as they do of further complicating the strangeness and aloneness of Satan’s plight, especially as the narrator’s authority might be conflated with God’s as both are targeted in Satan’s indictments of divine government.

Some sixty years after Milton published Paradise Lost, Daniel Defoe expressed his opinion that the poem’s “main difficulty” is that it fails to explain “How the Devil came to fall, and how Sin came into Heaven, and how the spotless seraphic Nature could receive infection”—the same questions that occupied the minds of the scholastics.[9] Ironically, judging from his expressions in the first four books of the epic, these questions occupied Satan’s mind as well. His internal dialogues reflect more internal stichomythia than confidence or even progress. Satan’s thoughts are bound by nature insofar as they reflect the justice of the theodicy that governs them, but Satan’s mind grows into something vaguely distinct from that justice by virtue of the scope of the opposing arguments he entertains. With each emotional and intellectual swing between paradigms of obedience and rebellion, the gap between Satan’s will and his intellect appears to grow, a gap between what he thinks will bring him happiness and what he knows to be just. And despite the fact that the distinction ultimately collapses with Adam’s vision of the future in the final books and with Satan’s unwillingunwiematic nflated with God’s asthin questions. Names of books and websites worth looking into. Intertexts and sources worth con transformation into a serpent, the suggestion of a differentiation between a will-to-advantage and a will-to-justice remains. Satan is guilty of one but damned for both.

Described this way, Satan’s volition seems caught between the Augustinian and something else—something ultimately accountable to the medieval union between self-representation and morality but also coherent for its own sake, though tragically so. Satan attempts to be true to himself; and while in the end it turns out that he was being false to himself all along, in some ways he appears as a victim of his own nature. Satan is both the agent and the victim, the subject and object of a tragic recognition: “The terrible thing that happened to him, through no fault of his own, was that he did those things.”[10] Thus, with respect to drama of will, Milton’s epic might proffer a form of eudemonism in theory, but it is Scotian in practice. In early modern narratives like Paradise Lost, we witness sincerity multiplying into several competing yet ultimately adjudicated forms—what we’re responsible to know, the freedom of the will, the orientation of our affections. And like the Scholastics, Milton interrogates Satan and holds him accountable—even more, sets him up as an example—for inventing sin out of nothing, for almost inexplicably violating every law of reason in choosing himself over God, for misappropriating sincerity.



[1] Clarence H. Miller, ed., Erasmus and Luther, p. 21.

[2] I want to be careful not to suggest that early modern writers, especially in England, predominately adopted Luther’s theology of the will. Erasmus, in particular, provides an important alternative account of the free will that also influenced playwrights and authors. As Lee Oser describes it in his forthcoming essay in this journal, authors like Shakespeare may have internalized the conflicting terms of the Luther-Erasmus debate in productive tension. Oser, “Free Will in Hamlet?: Shakespeare’s Consciousness of the Great Debate between Erasmus and Luther,” forthcoming 67, no. 2 (March 2018).

[3] Trilling, Sincerity and Authenticity, pp.13-14.

[4] John Milton, Paradise Lost, 2nd ed., ed. Alastair Fowler (London: Routledge, 2007), 4:58-61.

[5] Milton, 4:71-72.

[6] Milton, 4:55-57.

[7] John P. Rumrich, Milton Unbound: Controversy and Reinterpretation (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996), p. 20.

[8] Rumrich, p. 22.

[9] Daniel Defoe, The Political History of the Devil, as well Ancient as Modern (London, 1726), p. 72.

[10] Bernard Williams, Shame and Necessity (Berkeley: U of California P, 1993; reprinted 2008), p. 70.