When the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, addressed the U.S. Congress on Nov. 7, was he guilty of flattery? He said America, by offering freedom to its immigrants, had become the greatest nation in the world and had proven that justice, human rights and democracy can be realistic policy.
After his speech the word "flattery" drifted through American journalism. Was his attempt to rebuild French-American friendship obsequious? I thought his goal, healing a deep wound, justified strenuous rhetoric. Yes, he flattered American democracy, but maybe in just the right way.
Flattery has always had an unfairly bad press. In theory, no one loves it and only liars practise it. Dante relegated flatterers to the eighth circle of Hell, immersed in excrement. Now comes Willis Goth Regier, the erudite director of the University of Illinois Press, with a short, stylish, charming and illuminating book, In Praise of Flattery(University of Nebraska Press). He doesn't entirely redeem flattery and doesn't want to, but he grants it a respectable place in everyday speech.
True, Henry Kissinger, talking to Richard Nixon (unaware a tape recorder was running) set world records for flattery that are unlikely ever to be beaten. True, in the 17th century King Charles I wasn't content to be amused by flattery, like a sensible monarch. His fatal mistake was to take it seriously, especially the then fairly fresh craziness about the divine right of kings. People like Kissinger and Charles I exploited flattery or willfully misunderstood it, but is that flattery's fault? No, says Regier.
There's good flattery as well as bad. Grossly insincere flattery will be detected immediately by everyone except its object, as Shakespeare illustrates with Goneril's and Regan's praise of Lear. Otherwise, flattery is the only form of speech that need not be credible to be effective. "We love flattery," said the great and wise Ralph Waldo Emerson, "even though we are not deceived by it, because it shows that we are of importance enough to be courted." A century or so later, Bernard Shaw agreed: "What really flatters a man is that you think him worth flattering."
Erasmus held a high opinion of generous flattery. In Praise of Folly explains that, when seen through Renaissance humanism, flattery is a sweetener of human relations and a grace of life. Bring it on, was the Erasmus view.
He thought it raised downcast spirits, roused the apathetic and brought lovers together, keeping them united. In that last category Erasmus raised the most crucial point -- the role of flattery in promoting romance, paving the way toward profound love, ideally in the imaginative style invented (historians sometimes claim) by medieval troubadours.
Regier, like most of the world, considers "I love you" both the most beloved and abused of flattering phrases. Abused it may be, but surely it's also essential to the survival of the human race. Would anyone ever marry (or for that matter reproduce) if flattery were not involved on at least one side of an amorous negotiation? "I love you" may be tired, and often tainted by insincerity. But Tolstoy for once got it dead right: "Even in the very warmest, friendliest and simplest relations, flattery or praise is needed just as grease is needed to keep wheels going round." And, we might add, the larger the commitment under consideration, the more flattery may be required. "Let's have a child together" can be terrifying; it's also, when you think of it, the ultimate in flattery.
Richard Steele wrote in the Spectator in the early 18th century that the love of flattery was a disease of the mind, but at roughly the same historical moment Bernard Mandeville, a most learned philosopher, speculated that flattery must have marked the beginning of civilization.
Primitive people, once they grasped the uses of flattery, praised humans above other animals, described the wonders of our sagacity and rationality and thus gave us the confidence to achieve great things.
And without flattery, what would become of politics and politicians? Flattery gives politicians the moral strength to do their work. If flattery were outlawed, hardly anyone would bother to run for election. The consummate in institutionalized flattery is the escort of police motorcycles that leads a successful politician's car through envious mobs.
Richard Stengel's book, You're Too Kind: A Brief History of Flattery (Simon&Schuster), published seven years ago, says we imagine that leaders, such as presidents and prime ministers, grow less susceptible to flattery as they become more successful. Not so: "People of high self-esteem and accomplishment generally see the praise directed at them as shrewd judgment rather than flattery." Stengel also noted that "people who do not suffer fools gladly, gladly suffer flatterers," apparently in the belief that flatterers are not fools.
Stengel eloquently attacked Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People, a humourless, leaden-footed manual on formulaic flattery. Carnegie teaches strategic adulation, praise with such an obvious purpose that it's bound to be boring. Carnegie didn't know about spontaneous generosity. Instead, he encouraged his ambitious readers to punch a kind of flattery button whenever the occasion called for it.
Stengel, like Regier, brought to the subject a gently critical tone. He speculated on the grave insecurity of God, who (if his earthly servants can be believed) apparently craves adulation and lusts after reverence. Can you flatter God? Perhaps not, but thousands of clergy try their best.
Flattery is the propaganda of private life. Stengel noted that praise is often mandatory -- the bride is always beautiful, the baby always adorable, the exhibition powerful (if you are talking to the artist at the opening). Obituaries, too, are built on obligatory praise. Unless dealing with serial murderers. They inevitably celebrate the subject's private charities, kindly manners, unceasing labour and love-filled home life. It seems sad that the subjects are never in a position to enjoy all those genial lies.
As for Sarkozy, his praise of America was strikingly, and originally, specific. At one point he said the French adore many American artists -- Elvis Presley, Duke Ellington, Ernest Hemingway, John Wayne, Charlton Heston, Marilyn Monroe, Rita Hayworth. If he thought he could get jazz fans on his side by mentioning Ellington, he succeeded with me. After that he'll have to turn into a monster to lose my affection. On the other hand: Charlton Heston?