While we tend to think of human values as universal and outside of time, a new book shines light on the history of sincerity, how it became a value and how it has affected society through the ages. R. Jay Magill Jr.’s new book “Sincerity” defines the value as: “confronting one’s innermost thoughts or emotions and relaying them to others straightforwardly, no matter how relevant to the topic, injurious to one’s own reputation, or embarrassing—or however correct or incorrect.” This alignment of the inner-self with the outer-self came about, writes Magill, primarily through religious movements that emphasized a modest and personal relationship with divine spirits.
What’s the Big Idea?
Since simplicity and honesty were extended into the new concept of sincerity, the value has been ruthlessly mocked by writers from Machiavelli and Nietzsche to Ben Franklin and George Bernard Shaw. “I don’t think you want too much sincerity in society,” said W. Somerset Maugham. “It would be like an iron girder in a house of cards.” Nonetheless, Magill traces sincerity’s influence through Western culture, especially in areas of art and design. The very history of design, says Magill, is a search for visual sincerity, which he argues explains the rise of abstraction in 20th century visual art. Yet insofar as insincerity gives us prettier versions of ourselves, sincerity can be a tough sell.