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Esse Quam Videri: A motto and sound advice for us all.

The State Seal of North Carolina contains the motto adopted in 1893 “Esse Quam Videri” which is often translated as “to be rather than to seem.” This statement, is however, only part of a line taken from Cicero’s essay “On Friendship” or “Laelius de Amicitia” which was written in 44 A.D. (Chapter 26).

The full quote is: Virtute enim ipsa non tam multi praediti esse quam videri volunt which is translated as: Fewer possess virtue than those who wish us to believe that they possess it. The rest of the passage continues:

It is such people that take delight in flattery. When they are addressed in language expressly adapted to flatter their vanity, they look upon such empty persiflage as a testimony to the truth of their own praises. It is not then properly friendship at all when the one will not listen to the truth, and the other is prepared to lie. Nor would the servility of parasites in comedy have seemed humorous to us had there been no such things as braggart captains.

In this work Cicero is discussing the nature of genuine friendship. A friendship not based upon pleasure, or utility, for those are easily formed and easily dissolved. Once we stop receiving pleasure from the other person, the friendship ceases. Too many couples today mistake pleasure as the basis for marriage and that is the number one reason given by people seeking a divorce these days. “He or she doesn’t make me happy anymore.” It’s no wonder that divorce rates in the U.S. are near 60%.

The same holds for utility, i.e., benefit. The employer/employee relationship is based upon this kind of friendship or civility where the relationship exists only because of a mutual benefit.  Once the benefit ceases, the relationship is soon to dissolve.  How long would you keep working for your current employer if you no longer received a paycheck at the end of the week? Your boss really isn’t your friend, at least not a genuine friend.

It is the friendship based upon virtue, a reciprocity of good will and affection for the other that is Cicero’s concern. It is this genuine regard that one has for the other, as one is concerned with oneself, that makes life worth living. Were a man to have every good that life has to offer, e.g., health, wealth, riches, and good fortune, but not have a single genuine friend with whom to share those goods, his life would remain a life not worth living. Think about it. When something wonderful happens to us, we meet the girl of our dreams, land the job we’ve been trying to get for years, what’s the first thing we do? We call a friend. Imagine having all the good fortune in the world but no one to call? No one to share the good news with?

For Cicero, at the core of a genuine friendship lies virtue, the ability to do the right action, consistently, and as a matter of habit. Virtue is a permanent character trait that is the result of a lifetime of hard work and experience. It is life and the plethora of experiences, both good and bad, that teaches us how to be virtuous. And it is wisdom that also comes from learning those hard lessons. In other words, virtue is essentially linked with truth. Learning to be virtuous and capable of developing genuine friendship requires a respect for the truth. It requires the ability to make decisions about how to act that are fully in accord with the truth.

And that is the meaning of our state motto: Be wary of those who tell us what we like to hear rather than those who tell us the truth about ourselves. If we surround ourselves with “yes men” we deprive ourselves of learning the truth, about ourselves and about others. And ultimately, we deprive ourselves of the capacity for friendship.

NCGS § 144-2. State motto. The words “esse quam videri” are hereby adopted as the motto of this State, and as such shall be engraved on the great seal of North Carolina and likewise at the foot of the coat of arms of the State as a part thereof. On the coat of arms, in addition to the motto, at the bottom, there shall be inscribed at the top the words, “May 20th, 1775.” (1893, c. 145; Rev., s. 5320; C.S., s. 7536.)


Ph.D., 1997, University of Buffalo

J.D., 2003, NCCU School of Law

Administrative Magistrate, Durham, North Carolina since 2009