By William Ian Miller
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print Publication Year: 2003
Online Publication Date:September 2009
Chapter DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511499234.008
Subjects: Political philosophy
Praise is a good thing, we are told. We are thus to extol God out of gratitude; we are urged to praise our children to assist their self-esteem and confidence. We praise virtue and excellence, the motive varying, but partly because the very praiseworthiness of the person or deeds elicits the response almost involuntarily, as when we burst into applause at an amazing performance in art or athletics. Flattery, in contrast, has been cursed by moralists from the earliest of times; it is hard to find a vice more excoriated. It is felt to be cheating, getting a step up on the competition by engaging in a form of bribery. The unfairness of it wouldn't quite justify the vehemence with which it is cursed if it were not that flattery had such extraordinary powers. Few are so virtuous as not to be seduced by it, and thus many are tempted to flatter because they almost certainly stand to gain by doing so. Mostly it was the special vice that undid rulers, or people wealthy enough to have followers and entourages: the “monarch's plague,” Shakespeare called it. Men who ruled others needed counsel, and it was much pleasanter to hear one's praises sung than one's errors and vices admonished and blamed.
The flatterer was often pictured as a kind of pimp, a purveyor of pleasure to the organs of our vanity. As with the allure of delights of the flesh, the temptation is overpowering. Flattery is narcotic and addicting.
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Reference Type: bibliography