Aristotle on Sincerity

In the seventh section of the fourth book of The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle discusses the virtue of truthfulness — or at least truthfulness of a certain sort. He seems mostly concerned here with how people represent themselves to others: Do they brag about their skills and experiences and credentials, do they with false modesty self-deprecate in an annoying and dishonest way, or do they straightforwardly share an honest assessment of themselves?

This is related to a more general version of honesty, in that people who lie about little things for the sake of their reputations are also more likely to lie about big things in order to take advantage of and cheat people. And the boundary between these different sorts of honesty isn’t exact. But Aristotle plans to deal with this other form of honesty when he discusses Justice later on.

But because of this, the variety of virtue discussed in this section seems almost trivial: the golden mean between being all hat and no cattle on the one hand and failing to toot your own horn on the other — the virtue of a straight shooter who knows his or her own worth.

Various translations of the virtue and vices concerning pretension
Vice of deficiency Virtue (golden mean) Vice of excess
false modesty
dissembling concealment
arrogant ostentation

The vices associated with this virtue are most evident, Aristotle says, when there is no ulterior motive for deception, but when such deception has simply become habitual. At such times, the vices are evidence of a person’s character, and not just evidence that a person has given in to temptation.

Aristotle deliberately pairs this virtue with the previous one (amiability). One way of looking at this is that amiability is the virtue of honestly assessing and expressing our opinions of the good features of those around us, while this virtue of truthfulness is the virtue of honestly assessing and expressing our opinions of the good features of ourselves.

Index to the Nicomachean Ethics series

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics