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"Weak people cannot be sincere" --François de La Rochefoucauld

"Only animals who are below civilization and the angels who are beyond it can be sincere. Human beings are, necessarily, actors who cannot become something before they have first pretended to be it; and they can be divided, not into the hypocritical and the sincere, but into the sane who know they are acting and the mad do not." --The Age of Anxiety (1947) by W. H. Auden

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Sincerity the quality or state of being honest of mind or intention; freedom from simulation, hypocrisy, disguise, or false pretense.


Sincerity in Western societies

Sincerity has not been consistently regarded as a virtue in Western culture. First discussed by Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics, it resurfaced to become an ideal (virtue) in Europe and North America in the 17th century; and it gained considerable momentum during the Romantic movement, when sincerity was first celebrated as an artistic and social ideal. Indeed, in middle to late nineteenth century America, sincerity was an idea reflected in mannerisms, hairstyles, women's dress, and the literature of the time.

More recently sincerity has been under assault by several modern developments such as psychoanalysis and postmodern developments such as deconstruction. Some scholars view sincerity as a construct rather than a moral virtue—although any virtue can be construed as a 'mere construct' rather than an actual phenomenon.

Literary critic Lionel Trilling dealt with the subject of sincerity, its roots, its evolution, its moral quotient, and its relationship to authenticity in a series of lectures published under the title Sincerity and Authenticity.

Aristotle's views on sincerity

According to Aristotle "truthfulness or sincerity is a desirable mean state between the deficiency of irony or self-deprecation and the excess of boastfulness."

Sincerity in Confucian societies

See The Analects

Beyond the Western culture, sincerity is notably developed as a virtue in Confucian societies (China, Korea, and Japan). The concept of chéng (誠、诚) as expounded in two of the Confucian classics, the Da Xue and the Zhong Yong is generally translated as sincerity. As in the West, the term implies a congruence of avowal and inner feeling, but inner feeling is in turn ideally responsive to ritual propriety and social hierarchy. Specifically, Confucian's Analects contains the following statement in Chapter I: (主忠信。毋友不如己者。過,則勿憚改。) "Hold faithfulness and sincerity as first principles. Then no friends would not be like yourself (all friends would be as loyal as yourself). If you make a mistake, do not be afraid to correct it."

Thus, even today, a powerful leader will praise leaders of other realms as "sincere" to the extent that they know their place. In Japanese the character for cheng may be pronounced makoto, and carries still more strongly the sense of loyal avowal and belief.


The Oxford English Dictionary and most scholars state that sincerity from sincere is derived from the Latin sincerus meaning clean, pure, sound (1525–35). Sincerus may have once meant "one growth" (not mixed), from sin- (one) and crescere (to grow). Crescere is cognate with "Ceres," the goddess of grain, as in "cereal."

According to the American Heritage Dictionary,< the Latin word sincerus is derived from the Indo-European root *sm̥kēros, itself derived from the zero-grade of *sem (one) and the suffixed, lengthened e-grade of *ker (grow), generating the underlying meaning of one growth, hence pure, clean.


An often repeated folk etymology proposes that sincere is derived from the Latin sine = without, cera = wax. According to one popular explanation, dishonest sculptors in Rome or Greece would cover flaws in their work with wax to deceive the viewer; therefore, a sculpture "without wax" would mean honesty in its perfection. In its early days the word could refer to the immaterial and material. "One spoke of sincere wine...simply to mean that it had not been adulterated, or, as was once said, sophisticated." Another explanation is that this etymology "is derived from a Greeks-bearing-gifts story of deceit and betrayal. For the feat of victory, the Romans demanded the handing over of obligatory tributes. Following bad advice, the Greeks resorted to some faux-marble statues made of wax, which they offered as tribute. These promptly melted in the warm Greek sun." The Oxford English Dictionary states, however, that "there is no probability in the old explanation from sine cera 'without wax'". Also note the entry on sincere in An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language by Walter William Skeat (p. 555) and Storied Words: The Writer's Vocabulary and Its Origins by Jeff Jeske (p. 145). The popularity of the without wax etymology is reflected in its use as a minor subplot in Dan Brown's Digital Fortress, though Brown attributes it to the Spanish language, not Latin. Reference to the same etymology, this time attributed to Latin, also appears in another of his books, The Lost Symbol.

There are others who believe a slight twist on the cast statue story. The Lost Wax method of casting is capable of very fine detail. The interior detail of, let's say, a gold bust could be solid gold, or it could be back-filled with wax. Wax would keep it from sounding hollow and would give it some additional weight, but without wax, 'sine cere', would mean solid gold.

Quotations on Sincerity

Best be yourself, imperial, plain and true! Browning, Robert (1812 - 1889) British poet. Bishop Blougram's Apology, 1855

What comes from the heart, goes to the heart. Coleridge, Samuel Taylor (1772 - 1834) British poet. Table Talk, 1833

Some of the worst men in the world are sincere and the more sincere they are the worse they are. Hailsham, Lord (1907) British Conservative politician. The Observer, `Sayings of the Week', 7 Jan 1968, 1968

I'm afraid of losing my obscurity. Genuineness only thrives in the dark. Like celery. Huxley, Aldous (1894 - 1964) British novelist. Those Barren Leaves, Pt. I, Ch. 1, 1925

What's a man's first duty? The answer's brief: To be himself. Ibsen, Henrik (1828 - 1906) Norwegian dramatist. Peer Gynt, IV:1, 1867

A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal. Wilde, Oscar (1854 - 1900) Irish-born British dramatist. The Critic as Artist, Pt. 2, 1891

See also

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