Saturday, January 28, 2012

The unflattering truth about flattery

For it came to pass that they did deceive many with their flattering words, who were in the church, and did cause them to commit many sins; therefore it became expedient that those who committed sin, that were in the church, should be admonished by the church. (Mosiah 26:6)
Recently when I was reading this verse, the word “flattery” jumped out at me. I’m not sure why. But suddenly I had a lot of questions about it. I asked myself:
  • What is flattery?
  • Why is flattery bad?
  • What makes flattery different from real praise?
  • What are the consequences of flattery, either giving it or receiving it?

I went looking for more information in the scriptures about incidents of flattery to see if I could find specific examples and consequences and characteristics of flattery.

The Book of Mormon has a number of examples of flattery. There was Sherem who “had a perfect knowledge of the language of the people; wherefore, he could use much flattery, and much power of speech, according to the power of the devil.” (Jacob 7:4) Then there was Alma the Younger, who, before his conversion:
“did speak much flattery to the people; therefore he led many of the people to do after the manner of his iniquities. And he became a great hinderment to the prosperity of the church of God; stealing away the hearts of the people; causing much dissension among the people; giving a chance for the enemy of God to exercise his power over them. (Mosiah 27:8-9)
The people of King Noah fell into wickedness because of flattery.
Yea, and they also became idolatrous, because they were deceived by the vain and flattering words of the king and priests; for they did speak flattering things unto them.” (Mosiah 11:7)

Other people mentioned in the Book of Mormon who led people away with flattery were Korihor (Alma 30), Amalickiah (Alma 46:7), kingmen (Alma 61:4), Gadianton (Helaman 2:5) and the wicked Jacob (3 Nephi 7:12).
There are some examples in the scriptures of people using flattery. First, in the Book of Daniel:
6 Then these presidents and princes assembled together to the king, and said thus unto him, King Darius, live for ever.
7 All the presidents of the kingdom, the governors, and the princes, the counsellors, and the captains, have consulted together to establish a royal statute, and to make a firm decree, that whosoever shall ask a petition of any God or man for thirty days, save of thee, O king, he shall be cast into the den of lions.
8 Now, O king, establish the decree, and sign the writing, that it be not changed, according to the law of the Medes and Persians, which altereth not.
9 Wherefore king Darius signed the writing and the decree. (Daniel 6:6-9)
The Babylonian princes used flattery to trick the king into making this decree. Can you see how it would have flattered the king? (“We all have consulted together on this. We all want this for you. We only want to ask things of you rather than anyone else, even God.”)

Another example of flattery is in the Book of Mormon when King Noah’s people bring Abinadi to King Noah for judgment. After accusing Abinadi of speaking evil about King Noah, they end with:
13 And now, O king, what great evil hast thou done, or what great sins have thy people committed, that we should be condemned of God or judged of this man?
14 And now, O king, behold, we are guiltless, and thou, O king, hast not sinned; therefore, this man has lied concerning you, and he has prophesied in vain.
15 And behold, we are strong, we shall not come into bondage, or be taken captive by our enemies; yea, and thou hast prospered in the land, and thou shalt also prosper.
16 Behold, here is the man, we deliver him into thy hands; thou mayest do with him as seemeth thee good. (Mosiah 12:13-16)
The people flatter the king that he hasn't done any great evil, that he has prospered and will continue to prosper, and that he can do whatever seems good to Abinadi. The people also flatter themselve, saying that they have not committed any great sins, that they are strong, and that they will not be brought into bondage or captivity by their enemies.

After looking at some of these things, I started to realize that flattery causes a ton of problems in the Book of Mormon. We talk about the pride cycle a lot, but I’m starting to see that often flattery (either from one's self or from others) puffs up the pride, but flattery is almost never discussed! So it behooves us to gain a better understanding of what is flattery and what it is not so we can learn to avoid being flattered or flattering others.

I’m going to do something that I don’t often do, which is resort to the wisdom of the great thinkers of the world, who have watched flattery in action and have written about it. If you want to read the whole 6 pages of quotes from Giga Quotes, you can, but I have gathered, organized, and paraphrased for you the best ones from there that I could find.

First, we must define flattery and praise. Praise encourages us to good works, but flattery makes us stubborn in our vice(1).

Flattery is poisonous, whether given to a king or his people(2). When it is loved too much, we lose our internal strength to feel satisfaction without it, and then we find ourselves dependent on others to give it to us(3). Flattery serves all the vices(4). It takes advantage of our foibles, fosters our errors, and contains no advice to annoy us with the truth(5). Flattery tends to ensnare. It puffs up our imaginations, strokes our vanity, and makes us become over-fond of ourselves(6). It corrupts both the giver and the receiver(7), and it fosters pettiness in both. Both the giver and receiver hope to deceive the other, but neither is fooled(8). Flattery makes a person think that he is what he is not, and it squelches honest desire to improve by making a person think that he can be admired without actually doing something to merit admiration(9). Even truly wise people can be dazzled and intoxicated by flattery, and over the process of time, geniuses can be degraded into pits of lies by giving flattery(10). Anyone who likes to be flattered will eventually pay for it with a painful, late repentance(11). Flattery can even choke our resolutions and prevent us from doing better things (12). Flattery is like someone spitting on your face to try to clean it(13). If we feast on flattery, we will need more and more, until we will only be pleased with the person who can flatter us the most(14).

The love of flattery is the most pernicious disease of the mind(15). If we are much flattered, we soon learn to flatter ourselves(16). The arch-flatterer is our self(17).

We are blinded by our self-love from seeing our true character, so our self-flattery prepares us to accept flattery from others to confirm our own ideas(18). Self-flattery causes us to rebel against our better judgment, and if we flattery ourselves, we have no chance against the flattery of others(19). But if we don’t flatter ourselves, then flattery from others won’t harm us (20) because we will recognize it for what it is. Flattery is especially agreeable to our faults and unknown character flaws. Idiots will love you if you flatter them on their understanding(21). If you don’t care about true honors, you won’t be misled by fake ones(22).

A flatterer is difficult to distinguish from a friend because they are so obedient and will immediately protest their loyalty. Just as wolves look similar to dogs, flatterers look like friends(23). It isn’t really affection when flatterers caress(24). Flattery grows like friendship, and puts on a show of friendship, but has different fruits(25). Flattery is the worst and most treacherous way of showing we like someone. (26)

Flatterers are the worst kind of enemies(27), “thieves in disguise” (28), and the worst kind of traitors, because they will never correct us, they will make our vices and follies seem good so that we never discover the difference between good and evil, thus strengthening our foibles and encouraging us in all kinds of evil works(29). They will go so far as to praise an ignorant person’s conversation and an ugly person for their good looks(30). Flatterers actually dislike those they flatter and think themselves better than the people they profess to admire(31). A flatterer will expect you to give him advantages, and if you don’t, he will then tarnish your reputation where he once burnished it(32). If ever you find yourself about to flatter someone, think about whether your flattery is worth having(33).

We might think we hate flattery, but often we just hate the way it was given(34). Careless flattery may exhaust you as you try to believe it(35). It is a more sincere compliment to just let a person talk and while we listen(36), give our implicit assent(37), imitate them(38), or act what we feel(39). It is flattering to think that we are worth flattering(40). We may be flattered when someone ridicules our rivals or enemies to us(41). We may be flattered by one who tells us that they know we hate flattery(42).

Who can be flattered? Rulers are poisoned by it(43), but societies also have their flatterers(44). Any of us would be as corrupted as rulers are if we were as exposed to flatterers as they are(45). Rich men despise too much flattery, but hate those who never flatter him(46). Flattery is food at the courts of kings and rulers(47). Women love to be praised for beauty(48), and none are truly immune from flattery if they think their ugliness can be compensated for by their figure or their attitude(49). Even the firmest women will give in to well-timed, skillful flattery(50).

Giving just praise is paying a debt, but flattery is like a surprise gift(51). Flattering is easy, but giving genuine praise is hard(52). Don’t praise people in order to be praised yourself; people see through it and you won’t get any praise worthwhile from it(53). Don’t overpraise people, since it is then a shame to see their actions contradicting the honor you’ve given(54).

Flattery is easy to swallow, but truths about ourselves we seem to only be able to take little by little(55). If we want everyone to speak the truth, we have to learn to hear the truth too(56).

Flattery is hurtful to the innocent unsuspecting person. Rejecting it gives sadness, and accepting it leads to downfall(57). The only way to take flattery is to take it as a warning and an indication of exactly where you lack(58). Honesty needs no disguise or decoration(59).

After reading all the quotes for writing that distillation, I was particularly inspired by the one that spoke about how we only sip little by little truths we find bitter. I felt inside myself that I was one who could only sip difficult truths about myself little by little…and sometimes not at all. So I decided to pray that I would be able to learn the truth. It wasn’t long before the Holy Ghost revealed to me a difficult truth about myself and how I had been treating my husband that evening. Having prayed to receive the truth, I was able to recognize my fault and repent. I asked my husband for forgiveness as well and our relationship became stronger.

The Holy Ghost does not flatter us. It will always tell us the truth and if we are looking for flattery, we will not welcome the Holy Ghost very well when we most need its correction.

Also, I appreciated learning what the difference is between flattery and real praise. Real praise is appreciative of goodness, and can even edify and encourage toward greater goodness.

About a week ago, when I was getting ready to have my personal journal printed as a book, I was reading through it and found so many instances when I speculated freely and enthusiastically about the direction I thought my life was going to go. Well, the way that my life actually went was quite different. I was quite embarrassed that my big dreams and schemes hadn’t come to fruition. It made me feel like I wasn’t to be trusted to dream for myself. But after having read and studied what flattery is and why it is dangerous, I now realize that a good portion of my dreaming must have been self-flattery—being puffed up in the vain imaginations of my heart. I have yet to learn the difference between dreaming that leads to real accomplishment over the long term and dreaming that is simply stroking my own ego. (I suppose I will have to pray to learn to discern the difference.)

Just to give you an example of the self-flattery of which I have been capable…. Last week I visited my old stake to play piano accompaniment for a woman from my previous ward. She happens to be the stake president’s wife. I told her about my blog post “25 Things I’ve learned about being a ward organist” because I thought she would enjoy it; she is also an organist. She expressed interest. I promised her I would send her a copy in the mail. The next day, as I was preparing to send her the copy, I imagined her enjoying it. Then I imagined her handing it to her husband (the stake president) and him getting enjoyment out of it. Then I imagined him reading bits and pieces of it over the pulpit in their next stake conference to break the ice. (He’s known for his humorous talks..) The idea that one of my blog posts could and might be used in stake conference gratified my vanity and I puffed myself up a bit on that one…

Yes, that is a sample of the self-flattery of which I am capable. It’s enough to make a person puke. THANKFULLY, somehow in the above instance, I realized what I was doing, and worked hard to scale back my pleasant imaginations to just entertaining the stake president’s wife. And I worked to acknowledge to myself that though my list of 25 things I’ve learned as a ward organist is mildly funny, there was no guarantee it would be shared with anyone else at all, and probably it wasn’t particularly appropriate material for any talk in church.

Have you caught yourself flattering yourself or others? How do you tell the difference between flattery and real praise? What do you do to praise people instead of flattering them?

(1) Louis XVI
(2) Dr. John Wolcot (used pseudonym Peter Pindar)
(3) Oliver Goldsmith
(4) Cicero (Marcus Tllius Cicero)
(5) Moiere (pseudonym of Jean Baptiste Poquelin)
(6) Jeremy Collier
(7) Edmund Burke
(8) Charles Caleb Colton
(9) Samuel Johnson
(10) Samuel Johnson
(11) Lat., Qu se laudari gaudent verbis subdolis, Sera dant peonas turpes poenitentia.] - Phaedrus (Thrace of Macedonia), Fables (I, 13, 1)
(12) Matthew Prior
(13) Edward Young, Love of Fame (satire I, 1. 755)
(14) Oliver Goldsmith, Retaliation (1. 109)
(15) Sir Richard Steele
(16) Samuel Johnson
(17) Francis Bacon
(18) Plutarch
(19) Sir Richard Steele
(20) Francois Duc de la Rochefoucauld
(21) Henry Fielding
(22) Thomas Babington Macaulay
(23) Sir Walter Raleigh
(24) Letitia Elizabeth Landon (Mrs. George MacLean)
(25) Socrates
(26) Jonathan Swift
(27) Tacitus (Caius Cornelius Tacitus) Agricola (XLI)
(28) William Penn
(29) Sir Walter Raleigh
(30) Juvenal, Satires (III, 86)
(31) Marcus Antonius
(32) Moslih Eddin Saadi
(33) Samuel Johnson
(34) Fr., Francois Duc de la Rechefoucauld, Maximes (329)
(35) Wilson Mizner
(36) Joseph Addison
(37) William Hazlitt
(38) Charles Caleb Colton
(39) Madame Suzanne Curchod Necker
(40) George Bernard Shaw, John Bull’s Other Island
(41) Charles Caleb Colton
(42) William Shakespeare
(43) Michel Eyquem de Montaigne
(44) Marquis de Mirabeau, Victor de Riquetti
(45) Michel Eyquem de Montaigne
(46) Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord
(47) Frances Beaumont
(48) Samuel Johnson
(49) 4th Earl of Chesterfield, Philip Dormer Stanhope
(50) George Lillo
(51) Samuel Johnson
(52) Jean Paul Friedrich Richter (used ps. Jean Paul)
(53) Thomas Fuller
(54) Owen Felltham
(55) Denis Diderot
(56) Samuel Johnson
(57) Walter Savage Landor
(58) Martin Farquhar Tupper
(59) Thomas Otway


Rozy Lass said...

Wow, excellent post. I truly never thought about self-flattery before, but realize now that I am GUILTY as charged. Thank you! I needed this right now.I wish we were neighbors, or at least in the same ward. Your insightful comments are a blessing in my life. See Moroni 6:5 and D&C 88:118

Jocelyn Christensen said...

I used to flatter others a lot. But I think I was trying to be sincere, because I was always actively looking for ways to compliment and encourage others. But I also think flattering them flattered myself in return. Does that make sense? I don't have the energy to do that now! And someone times I feel bad about not doingit.

Michaela Stephens said...

Jocelyn, that's interesting that you say flattering others flattered you in return. Could you explain that a little more?

And, yes, I notice there are times that I feel bad not giving flattery.. I think it is because we sense there is an expectation of it.

Ramona Gordy said...

I have learned much from your post. I found
Psalms 5:9
For there is no faithfulness in their mouth; their inward part is very wickedness; their throat is an open sepulcher; they flatter with their tongue.
The Lord pull's no punches concerning his stand on flattery. Imagine, our open mouth/throat compared to an open grave. What a smelly proposition.LOL

Tobreth said...

I like this article but am finding it difficult to locate specific quotes which have been paraphrased. You reference who said it, but on Giga Quotes they come on many pages and searching by Samuel Johnson didn't help (perhaps he is on different page) but I am looking for the original quote since that is exactly the risk of flattery. I found something similar (the man has a lot of quotes regarding flattery) can you give me the whole quote for #9.

Michaela Stephens said...

Hi Tobreth,
Here is the quote I used for #9:

The mischief of flattery is, not that it persuades any man that he is what he is not, but that it suppresses the influence of honest ambition by raising an opinion that honor may be gained without the toil of merit.
- Samuel Johnson (a/k/a Dr. Johnson) ("The Great Cham of Literature")

Hope that helps.