Plain dictionary meanings won’t do if one wants to understand (and adhere to) Ben’s virtue of sincerity. There is more at work in Ben’s desire for this virtue than just an admonition to be honest. As with the rest of his course, sincerity has to be viewed through the lens of his eighteenth century reality and what we know of him as a person.
Let’s start with what I don’t think he was talking about. This isn’t, as I said, about just being honest and forthright. While that might be an admirable and worthy objective, it would not, in my humble opinion, give full measure to this virtue. First, complete honesty is a practice that seldom promotes social harmony. Albert Camus said: “How can sincerity be a condition of friendship? A taste for truth at any cost is a passion which spares nothing.” I think Ben would have agreed with Albert. The odd harmless untruth is at worst trivial and occasionally perhaps even necessary. Before you go lighting the torches and gathering up pitchforks, let me explain.
Let me assure you that I treasure honesty. I believe in truth and the speaking of it. Even the best of us, however, are not always honest. We tell whites lie; we hide the complete truth; we equivocate incrementally. Our honesty is textured. We do this to spare feelings, offer encouragement and maintain relationships. As a man who had to navigate politics, diplomacy and business, I don’t think Ben would have been terribly concerned with some harmless (or dare I say helpful) prevarications.
So what was he seeking with sincerity? His precept for the virtue contains a hint:
Consider the context in which he conceived his virtues. They were aimed at attaining moral perfection, as he wrote, but within the construct of his relationship with his fellow citizens. Benjamin Franklin’s concept of human interactions was informed by his place in a young and developing society. It is well documented that his dedication to personal betterment was exceeded by his desire for civic improvement. He established or enhanced, among other things, the nation’s oldest public library, America’s first public hospital, America’s first volunteer fire brigade, and America’s first property insurance company. His civic mindedness was based on a belief that the social contract is premised on recognizing the freedom to seek fulfillment and the understanding that this is best accomplished cooperatively. It is from this experience that Ben’s virtue of sincerity emerged.
In his autobiography Ben wrote that he owed “…to Sincerity and Justice, the confidence of his country, and the honorable employs it conferred upon him”.
So that then is Ben’s sincerity. More than an appeal to honesty, it is an exhortation to develop, through conduct, a reputation as a person to be trusted, a person of integrity, a person of responsibility and a person dedicated to the common good. It is a type of sincerity that seems currently out of fashion.
Given the time lag between the writing and the posting of these essays, I generally resist references to current events. I don’t, however, need to know when you are reading this to feel fairly certain that something happened yesterday (whenever that yesterday may be) that would cause you to agree with the idea that Ben’s notion of sincerity seems lacking. Think back and insert whatever political, commercial or celebrity incident of self-centered disingenuousness that fits.
My mother told me that my paternal grandfather thought of others before himself and never spoke unkindly of anyone, which led to his reputation as a man of character. He and Ben would have gotten along just fine. The world could use more of them both. Go speak innocently and justly of others. While you are it, how about building a public hospital or two?