The Power of Sincerity

“Sincerity is that whereby self-completion is effected, and its way is that by which man must direct himself.”

We think of a sincere person as someone honest and open. But for a melancholic idealist sincerity has far greater significance.

The definition of sincerity is freedom from deceit, hypocrisy, or duplicity,
which comes from the Latin sincerus meaning whole, pure, clean, or unmixed, which in turn is believed to come from the Proto-Indo-European for ‘of one growth’.

‘Of one growth’ means that one’s words, deeds, and even one’s bearing are expressions of one’s deeper nature. No pretence, no duplicity, no contrivance, no artifice.

The idealist appreciates this, because his efforts are useless if they do not accord with his ideal. Efforts are too much to sustain, and superficialities are too much to remember if they are not founded in something deep, unchanging, and reliable.

The Doctrine of the Mean ascribes almost supernatural qualities to sincerity:

Sincerity is the way of Heaven. The attainment of sincerity is the way of men. He who possesses sincerity is he who, without an effort, hits what is right, and apprehends, without the exercise of thought;– he is the sage who naturally and easily embodies the right way. He who attains to sincerity is he who chooses what is good, and firmly holds it fast.

Or perhaps it is better to say that it describes an almost supernatural degree of sincerity.

It is only he who is possessed of the most complete sincerity that can exist under heaven, who can give its full development to his nature. Able to give its full development to his own nature, he can do the same to the nature of other men. Able to give its full development to the nature of other men, he can give their full development to the natures of animals and things. Able to give their full development to the natures of creatures and things, he can assist the transforming and nourishing powers of Heaven and Earth. Able to assist the transforming and nourishing powers of Heaven and Earth, he may with Heaven and Earth form a ternion.

This section of the Confucian classic is reminiscent of the older text, the Zhou Yi or Yi Jing, Hexagram 61, ‘Inner Truth’:

Pigs and fishes are the least intelligent of all animals and therefore the most difficult to influence. The force of inner truth must grow great indeed before its influence can extend to such creatures. In dealing with persons as intractable and as difficult to influence as a pig or a fish, the whole secret of success depends on finding the right way of approach. One must first rid oneself of all prejudice and, so to speak, let the psyche of the other person act on one without restraint. Then one will establish contact with him, understand and gain power over him. When a door has thus been opened, the force of one’s personality will influence him. If in this way one finds no obstacles insurmountable, one can undertake even the most dangerous things, such as crossing the great water, and succeed.

Both the Confucian text and the Yi recognise that sincerity is not morally neutral; it both encourages and presupposes underlying virtue:

But it is important to understand upon what the force of inner truth depends. This force is not identical with simple intimacy or a secret bond. Close ties may exist also among thieves; it is true that such a bond acts as a force but, since it is not invincible, it does not bring good fortune. All association on the basis of common interests holds only up to a certain point. Where the community of interest ceases, the holding together ceases also, and the closest friendship often changes into hate. Only when the bond is based on what is right, on steadfastness, will it remain so firm that it triumphs over everything.

Sincerity ensures that our words and deeds arise from a secure foundation in our true nature, rather than the vagaries of cultural forces, or the facades of daily life. The attainment of sincerity is more than simply ‘being honest’ or ‘being oneself’. Rather, it is the expression of one’s true nature, which is in turn the foundation of virtue in a human context.