Esse quam videri, per Machiavelli and the Great Impostor

Stephen Colbert isn’t alone in kissing off the noble concept of North Carolina’s state motto.

“It is not…necessary for a prince to have all the above-named qualities,” Niccolo Machiavelli advised in “The Prince” (1532), “but it is very necessary to seem to have them.”

And then there was Ferdinand Waldo Demara (1921-1982), who out of self-described “pure rascality” skillfully masqueraded as a monk, a surgeon, a civil engineer, a PhD psychologist and a prison warden.

In “The Great Impostor” (1959), biographer Robert Crichton noted that in one episode Demara “made sure to cover every one of his papers with a note written on small, expensive, discreet stationery….

“At the top of the [embossed seal] was his name, at the bottom his profession of psychologist and in the middle his motto: Esse Quam Videri… the most splendid joke of all.”

Stephen Colbert turns state motto on its head

“In the last part of the show… Colbert typically leaps up from his desk and bounds across the set to a table in front of a fireplace with the Latin motto ‘Videri quam esse’ (“To seem to be, rather than to be”), where he interviews a guest about a new book or movie….”

— From a profile of Stephen Colbert in the New York Times Sunday Magazine.

Not having been aware of Colbert’s uncredited adaptation (corruption? usurpation?) of North Carolina’s state motto, I laughed out loud (sorry, kids, of course I meant LOL’d). Apparently the Latinate mantel inscription was added during a set makeover a year or so ago.