RALEIGH — North Carolina has an official state bird (the Northern Cardinal), an official state reptile (the Eastern Box Turtle), an official state insect (the honeybee), an official state mammal (the Gray Squirrel), an official saltwater fish (the Channel Bass), an official freshwater fish (the Southern Appalachian Brook Trout), an official state marsupial (the Virginia Opossum, which seems awfully unpatriotic), and two official state amphibians, the Pine Barrens Treefrog and the Marbled Salamander.
We have something like an official philosopher, as well, although no legislation has confirmed it. North Carolina’s state motto is esse quam videri, which translates as “to be rather than to seem.” You can find the motto on the state seal, among many other places.
While the underlying idea didn’t originate with him, this specific Latin phrasing came from the pen of the Roman orator and statesman Cicero, who was a contemporary (and enemy) of Julius Caesar and a hero to the founders of North Carolina and the United States as a whole.
As a stylist in Latin, a practitioner of Roman law, an advocate of republican virtues over imperial ambitions, a translator and teacher of classical Greek ideas, and a philosopher of metaphysics, politics and ethics, Cicero had an outsized influence on the world we still inhabit many centuries later.
He is also very quotable. You will find his sayings sprinkled throughout Western literature, law codes and even inspirational websites. Unfortunately, these quotes aren’t always placed in context, which can sometimes drain them of their intended force and meaning.
For example, North Carolina’s motto is taken from a treatise Cicero wrote on the subject of friendship. He noted that real relationships must be based on honesty, not pretense. “The man to open his ears widest to flatterers is he who first flatters himself and is fondest of himself,” Cicero wrote, and the result isn’t a real relationship of two mature human beings. “Fewer people are endowed with virtue than wish to be thought to be so,” he pointed out. “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.”
Can you think of anyone in public life…