If people weren’t so thirsty for praise, they would do far fewer stupid or desperate things. But would they do any great ones? ‘Nine tenths of the work of the world is done by it,’ as William James notes.
When you are praised for performing a worthless duty you soon learn that it is well worth performing.
High-minded people may dine on the praise of a low toady, but they still hunger for an unaging lustre. As Pascal said, we long to be known by the whole world. So why is the mouth honour of five flunkeys enough to turn our heads?
1 Fame and neglect
Neglect turns some to water, some to fire, and some to stone. It wears down the will of some, enkindles others to flaming resentment, and some it reduces to a glazed numbness. Witness Van Gogh, Nietzsche and Melville. ‘Too long a sacrifice,’ as Yeats wrote, ‘can make a stone of the heart.’
Some people have to hope that they will live posthumously, since the unregarding world has buried them prematurely.
We resent the world still more for its rightful neglect of us than we do when it neglects us undeservedly, since we know that its rightful neglect won’t change. On good days I’m vexed that my work has not received its due. On bad days I fear that it has. Fake praise is good enough for me, if I trust it will last. And if a pleasing semblance stays fixed, I’ll be glad to take it for fact.
Why does a celebrity who once enjoyed some faint notoriety seem such a sad nonentity to us who have had no taste of fame at all?
Some people may strike you as modest, since they seem so content with their small and peripheral post. But they are awestruck that they have arrived at the centre and accomplished so much. Most of us have no need to become famous, since we feel as if we already were.
I soothe the ulcer of my bruised obscurity by the thought of the sort of dunces whom the dizzy world celebrates. It lifts the talentless to such heights of fame, how could its esteem be worth obtaining?
We don’t know ourselves, so why do we long to be known in fame by those who know neither themselves nor us?
None are more heedful of the transience and futility of fame than the few who have earned a full measure of it. They aim to become a mere memory for men and women who forget.
2 We exaggerate praise
The ledger of my self-commendation always shows a profit, since I take much offence which is not meant, but far more as a compliment.
We take it that we’re esteemed more than we are, though less than we ought to be. Our vanity amplifies both the praise and the calumny that we receive. And though we overprice the compliments that come to us, they still seem to set our rate too low. ‘None of us,’ Colton says, ‘are so much praised or censured as we think.’ I’m surprised and elated by all applause. But it still comes short of what I looked for. When I’m made much of it feels like I’ve been brought to the ridge of a low knoll. It both dizzies and disappoints me. I am not due this. Am I due no more than this? All toadying takes me in, though it seldom satisfies me. I have heard it all so many times before done so much more fulsomely by my own smug self. Twain quipped that compliments ‘embarrass me. I always feel that they have not said enough.’
3 Praise for the wrong reason
You need to earn the praise that you give as well as the praise that you get. You have to strive to make yourself worthy of the high works that you commend. You learn by admiring, so be sure to admire the right things. ‘All understanding,’ Goethe says, ‘starts with admiration.’ Though admiration may fool you with appearances, it is the one thing that might lead you to the truth. You ought to praise because you understand or else in the hope of understanding. But many praise because they don’t understand or so that they won’t have to. Their praise is mere presumption. They’re willing to imitate the lazy applause that all give to acknowledged masterpieces, but not to strain their intelligence to find out why they deserve it. Unthinking acclaim wins a name for generosity in this self-congratulatory world, while cool comprehension plies its plain justice to no avail. As Pope wrote, ‘Fools admire, but men of sense approve.’
We ought to admire as we ought to read, not much but ardently.
We can make out small and commonplace excellencies with our own eyes, but we need to be taught to see great and extraordinary ones.
We dote on cheap and second-rate things. But we coldly commend the best, since we love only what is like us. We voice our awe for what is great because we have no choice. We prefer to humour slothfully the many who don’t merit it than to do arduous justice to the few who do. We hug to our hearts the plausible frauds that have gained the world’s good report. ‘Great talents and great virtues,’ Chesterfield says, ‘will procure the respect and admiration of mankind, but it is the lesser talents which must procure you their love and affection.’ Superficial people and achievements stir us to the quick. The second-grade are a necessity, the best a mere luxury. We judge these strictly, while we pet and indulge the tawdry and amusing.
We claim to be awed by the great, though we have no idea why they deserve our awe. And we may know full well why the poor and unconsoled have a claim on our sympathy, but the best we can do is sham it.
Why be Caesar, if not to be admired? And yet what’s the good of being admired by anyone less than Caesar? Conceited people crave praise from those of whom they value nothing but the praise that they give them, and the proud crave praise from those of whom they value not so much as that. Yet each of us is keen to tell our name, as Dickinson put it, ‘to an admiring bog.’
4 Praise as self-love
Most of us venerate nothing but weightier and more prosperous versions of our own self. Bierce defined admiration as ‘our polite recognition of another’s resemblance to ourselves.’ The ideal that I adore is my own self, corrected and perfected in the ways that sort best with the norms of the age. What better wish could you have for those whom you love than that they should turn out to be like you, though more fortunate? Parents hope that their sons and daughters will grow up to be just like them but luckier, and they trust that they will have more luck since they have them as parents, and they groom them in their own habits of self-adoration and self-torment as the most valuable legacy they have to pass on. Procreation is an organism’s way of flattering itself, while rendering its own existence obsolescent.
Few of us prize any talents but the ones we believe that we possess. But we all therefore prize a swag of talents that don’t belong to us.
Some people are sure that their own endorsement of a thing suffices to prove its worth, or that their glib inattention to it is enough to show its unimportance.
We think well of others on the strength of their accidental attributes, and of ourselves on the strength of our intrinsic ones. I esteem them in parcels, but deprecate them in their entirety. And though I may fault some of my own parts, I am never less than delighted with the whole.
We may espy all the traits of those whom we look down on, save how like they are to us.
I praise others no more candidly than I criticize myself, and I’m relieved when my sincere veneration of someone is proved to have been unfounded.
We might be far less warm in our admirations, if we had no chance to hold forth on them.
When we praise, we preen ourselves on our generosity. And when we censure, we preen ourselves on our discrimination.
I admire some people because I guess that they are like me. But by admiring them I come to see that they are not like me at all. True admiration begins in a false identification of likeness, but grows to be an astonished delight in difference. But few of us know any higher way to honour great things than to remould them in our own flawed image.
We choke on the acclamation that we are obliged to dole out to our rivals. But we lavish praise on those who are like us, in order to boost the price paid for our own talents. ‘We but praise ourselves in other men,’ as Pope points out. Whether complimenting or complaining, it is always our own self that we are commending.
You can count on people’s admirers to pare them down to size, and in most cases it is their own size.
We daub the plain face of our selfishness with our gaudy idealism, and we have to lay it on thickest where it is most unsightly.
Real enthusiasts are foredoomed to discouragement, despair and madness, and they’re saved only because their zeal is so promiscuous and their illusions so dogged. But two-faced enthusiasts don’t put a cent of their own funds into their pet ventures, but cajole their dupes to sink their savings in them. They live on debt, which they don’t own up to or pay back. And if the price of their object slumps, then it’s the fools who lodged their faith in it that lose.
Some of our most detached enthusiasms advantage us as much as our most self-seeking schemes harm us.
Enthusiasm is the virtue of salesmen. It makes them seem big-hearted, since they hike the price of what they hawk, and then convince their dupes that they’ve got a bargain.
My self-love makes me averse to flattering but desirous of being flattered. My self-interest makes me wary of being flattered but willing to flatter. My vanity can’t bear to praise those who deserve it, but my ambition stoops to applaud those who do not.
We gild the undeserving in order to lay bare their clay and to show off how handsomely we treat them. We don’t care enough for them to find fault with them. We are willing to make much of them just because we have such slight regard for them. We condescend when we compliment.
How could we bear to praise the talents of others, if we didn’t think so well of our own?
If you aim to flatter with conviction, you have to stay so far from the object of your homage that it is not subject to your reason, or so close that your self-interest is subject to it.
You must disguise your fawning, first from those you pay court to, so as not to rouse their distrust, then from your rivals, who would grudge you getting the start of them, and lastly from your own eyes, since it would make you blush to see what a spaniel you are. My flattery of others fools me as much as it does them.
Flattery, like fornication, can be decently done only in private between no more than two people.
Those who praise generously look jealously on their rivals when they try to do the same. ‘There is,’ Renard wrote, ‘jealousy in admiration as there is in love.’
Those who make much of themselves can bear to make much of others, who in return can bear to pander to them since they see how preposterously they overvalue their own worth.
7 Being flattered
I think less of others when I flatter them. Yet when they flatter me I think more of myself. I’m sure that they are slow to commend me because their commendation is forced from them by my real merit, but I’m slow to compliment them since my compliments are extorted by mere courtesy. Their praise of me is as grudging as my praise of them is gratuitous. I am loath to give them praise, since I suspect that they don’t deserve it, but they are loath to give me praise, because they know that I do. Yet I’m pleased even by plaudits that I sense I have not earned the right to.
I love to receive flattery, since I know that it tells the truth, even if the giver disbelieves it. And I can bear to mete out flattery, because I know it lies, though it never fails to hit its mark. ‘We give others praise in which we do not believe,’ said Jean Rostand, ‘on condition that in recompense they give us praise in which we do.’ People may not be sincere in the applause that they give me, but at least they are right to give it. And how are they to know that I am due far more than the applause that they portion out to me? Though I may not trust the praiser, I never doubt the praise. And though I may not quite swallow all the praise that I’m served, it tastes so good that I thirst for more.
The braying of an ass sounds as sweet as the chant of the sirens so long as it is commending me, though none but the most unfaltering hero can listen to it and not be wrecked.
Drop a small hint, and your mark will crouch to pick up a big compliment. By flattering them tepidly, you learn how warmly they flatter themselves.
I am so expert in overpraising others, because I have practised so long on myself. But I never praise them as much as they would like, since I overpraise myself just as I like.
Self’s the vilest toady of all, the ‘arch flatterer,’ as Bacon designated it. Each of us keeps a little court of fawners in constant session inside our head, who praise us for all that we do. We praise our own selves so inventively yet so effortlessly, so variously yet so repetitively. Our self-flattery is fantastic but unimaginative.
We love to learn from experience and flattery, since they don’t teach us a thing that we don’t already know. Why does praise thrill us, when, as La Rochefoucauld points out, it reveals to us nothing new? I still long to hear a voice other than my own telling me what I tell myself each hour of the day. I’m cheaply pleased, since a mere murmur of praise echoes so thunderously my own hollow self-applause.
We are never more candid than when we are flattering ourselves, or less convinced than when we are flattering others.
Take others as seriously as they take themselves, and you’ve made a good start. Do to them as they do to themselves, that is to say, fawn, coddle, cosset and fool them. And in order to praise them, track down what they think of themselves and replay it back to them. As D. H. Lawrence wrote, ‘the things that he tells himself are nearly always pleasant, and they are lies.’ Learn to talk to them as they do to their own heart. Artists do this for us, and we dote on them for lending shape and grace to our instinctive self-acclaim. Flattery is the insincerest form of imitation.
Angling for praise, I find that I’m caught in a snare of small achievements.
The fortunate, who have always had such a sufficiency of adulation, quaff it down like water. A mere thimbleful befuddles the inconspicuous like wine.
Those who give themselves the most unreserved praise still need to get the most praise from us. Why have we got it lodged in our heads that those who crave praise must be devoured by self-doubt, or that a narcissist must be lacking in self-esteem, or that braggarts feel insecure, or that fanatics are belaboured by incertitude and ambivalence, or that the self-righteous are in flight from their conviction of their own culpability, or that ingrates feel overburdened by the heaviness of their debts, or that executioners are traumatized by the atrocities they commit? If only they were.
We are more gratified by an opportunity to truckle to the great than they are by our truckling. Vauvenargues notes that, though the prominent are easily flattered, ‘we are still more easily flattered when in their presence.’
I’m never more rapt with the human race than when I’m intoxicated, and I’m seldom so intoxicated as when I’ve been plied with a draught of cheap praise.