Sincerity is the virtue of one who speaks truly about his or her own feelings, thoughts, desires. Sincere expression carries risks to the speaker, since the ordinary screens used in everyday life are opened to the outside world. At the same time, we expect our friends, our lovers, our leaders "to be sincere".
Sincerity in Western societies
Discussed by Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics, where "truthfulness or sincerity is a desirable mean state between the deficiency of irony or self-deprecation and the excess of boastfulness" , it appears as 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 mid- 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.
Sincerity in Confucian societies
Sincerity is notably developed as a virtue in Confucian societies (China, Korea, and Japan). The concept of chéng 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: "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 derives from "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. Another explanation is that without wax 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 up 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 without wax etymology is popular enough to be a minor sub-plot in Dan Brown's Digital Fortress, though Brown attributes it to the Spanish language, not Latin.
The keys of the kingdom of heaven are: sincerity, more sincerity, and more sincerity. All men have these keys. Men use them--advance in spirit status--by decisions, by more decisions, and by more decisions. The highest moral choice is the choice of the highest possible value, and always--in any sphere, in all of them--this is to choose to do the will of God.
- Sparknotes.com, Ethics, Section 4. Last visited, April 25, 2008.
- Google Books Nicomachean Ethics, Book 4, p. 103, 1127b3-31 by Aristotle
- ROB KYFF. THE WHOLE BALL OF FACTS ABOUT WAX. Hartford Courant (Connecticut). LIFE; Pg. D2. April 17, 2002.
- BOB EDWARDS. ORIGIN OF THE WORD CEREAL. National Public Radio (NPR). SHOW: MORNING EDITION (11:00 AM on ET) October 21, 1999.
- Ruth Wajnryb. "If you hear buzzing, get the wax out of your ears"; WORDS. Sydney Morning Herald (Australia). SPECTRUM; Books; Pg. 32. November 18, 2006.