To thine own self be true?

by Kim on September 29, 2008

“There is a saying ascribed to Isidore the Priest warning that ‘of all evil suggestions, the most terrible is the prompting to follow your own heart.’ Once again, the modern reader will be taken aback. ‘Follow what your heart says’ is part of the standard popular wisdom of our day, like ‘following the dream’; are we being told to suspect our deepest emotions and longings, when surely we have learned that we have to listen to what’s deepest in us and accept and nurture our real feelings? But the desert monastics would reply that, left to ourselves, the search for what the heart prompts is like peeling an onion; we are not going to arrive at a pure and simple set of inclinations. In the matter of self-examination as in others, ‘the truth is rarely pure and never simple’. The desert means a stepping back from the great system of collusive fantasy in which I try to decide who I am … The ‘burden’ of self-accusation, the suspicion of what the heart prompts, this is not about an inhuman austerity or self-hatred but about the need for us all to be coaxed into honesty by the confidence that God can forgive and heal. Henri de Lubac, one of the most outstanding Roman Catholic theologians of the twentieth century, put it with a clarity and brevity very hard to improve upon: ‘It is not sincerity, it is the truth which frees us… To seek sincerity above all things is perhaps, at bottom, not to want to be transformed.’… Like the desert teachers, he warns us against the easy assumptions about the natural wisdom of the human heart.”

From Rowan Williams, Silence and Honey Cakes: The Wisdom of the Desert (Oxford: Medio Media, 2003), pp. 49-50.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }


Craig L. Adams 09.29.08 at 3:13 pm

Good quote. I think the promptings of the heart are also quite different at different times, too. It depends upon our mood. So, there is a slight dilemma to the notion that we should “to [our] own self be true”: which “self”?


Will 09.29.08 at 3:43 pm

Kim, this reminds me of the advice that either Will Willimon or Stanley Hauerwas (I can’t remember which - it might be both) give: the worst advice you can give to a pastor is to ‘be yourself’.


Kim 09.29.08 at 4:59 pm

In my revised propositions on “Self-Love” in my new book, I suggest that “sincerity … is usually but self-deceit masquerading as transparency, the sign of a person taken in by his own act (as in hand-on-heart politicians)… People who are fond of quoting Shakespeare’s words, ‘To thine own self be true,’ should recall that it is the sententious buffoon Polonius who speaks them.”

Cf. the philosopher John Macmurray: “The desire for truth is the desire to be disillusioned.”


PamBG 09.30.08 at 3:26 pm

The quotation above resonates with me.

The comments suggesting that ’sincerity’ is a bad thing do not. Or am misunderstanding the comments?


Kim 09.30.08 at 4:32 pm

Not just the comments, Pam, but the quotation itself, particularly the de Lubac quote, suggest that “sincerity” is, to say the least, a superficial thing, so caught up are we in webs of self-deceit.

For clarification, try the sociologist of religion Peter Berger: “Deliberate deception requires a degree of psychological self-control that few people are capable of. That is why insincerity is such a rare phenomenon. Most people are sincere because that is the easiest course to take psychologically.”

That sincerity, like patriotism, may be the last refuge of the scoundrel - and that it is often just the complacent exteriority of self-deception, try Tony Blair (giving him the benefit of the doubt that, on Iraq, he wasn’t just a goddam liar; with Bush, giving him yet another of doubt’s benefits, you’ve also got to factor in stupidity).


PamBG 09.30.08 at 5:13 pm

Kim: Yeah, I agree with you ‘theologically’ but sometimes this stuff is too airy-fairy.

There are way too many people in this word deliberately trying to represent themselves as what they are not. Personally speaking, I’d much rather deal with those who are at least doing their best to be genuine - however much self-deceit, sin, etc, etc, lies behind that effort.

How quietist is your conviction? Do you think that we should give up trying at all self-knowledge and efforts to be genuine because it can never be achieved? If your answer is yes, then I say I’m glad that John Wesley gave up on Calvinist quietism.


Kim 09.30.08 at 5:42 pm

Quietist? Moi? Just the opposite, I hope. Discovering the truth about ourselves is bloody hard work! And, of course, pacifism, for example, (as I know you know) is anything but quietist: it too is hard work, both as wrestling with the violence within us and as making peace (blessed are the eirenopoioi) in the world. In my experience, it is talk of “sincerity” and being “genuine” that tends to be “airy-fairy”.

By the way, “Calvinist quietism” strikes me as a contradiction in terms. I suspect that, theologically, you have been misled by Methodist fears about the psychological effects of the doctrine of predestination. In any case, historically it is a demonstrably inaccurate description.


PamBG 09.30.08 at 6:23 pm

OK, Kim. Then this just seems like some kind of linguistic hair-splitting. I’m assuming that the word ’sincere’ must conjure up some sort of behaviour for you that it doesn’t conjure up for me. I see no difference in ‘trying to be sincere’ and ‘discovering the truth about oneself’

Surely any ‘discovering the truth about ourselves’ is also fraught because we are sinners who are trying to do the discovering? But that doesn’t mean we stop trying.

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