Our theme this month is #KnowledgeMatters for obvious reasons. At Foreword Reviews, it is safe to say that we are in favor of learning, in favor of giving and receiving information that is correct, and not incorrect—no matter whether that information is something we like or is flattering.
While in normal times, it might seem a little strange to even have to say that out loud, well, here we are. But, it turns out, the current (as of this writing) president’s preference for people who only present him information that flatters him or his worldview is nothing new. As Deborah and Mark Parker would put it, humans have been perfecting the art of “sucking up” to get ahead for a long, long time. In fact, that is the name of their new book from the University of Virginia Press: Sucking Up: A Brief Consideration of Sycophancy.
With tongue not always in cheek, the authors give an account of ass-kissing from the ancient Romans to Kellyanne Conway and lots of interesting history in between. I fired off a few questions for them in the interview below. I also asked them whether they’d be open to brazen false flattery of a certain book review editor.
What you call “sucking up” could also simply be called “networking.” We all have to, in our professional careers, smile at people to try to make them like us. When does it cross into sycophancy?
Sycophancy works by mimicking behavior that we might simply term friendly or open. This makes sucking-up hard to distinguish, sometimes even in ourselves. It uses the rules of one kind of behavior—like those of polite manners—but it seeks to manipulate or deceive the target. So long as it is curiosity about others or a desire to know more about how the world works, networking isn’t duplicitous, however gratifying this interest might be to the target. Some smiles aren’t disingenuous, and some gratification is deserved. But when one feigns curiosity or interest, then it’s manipulative.
It boils down to intent, which is a slippery notion. As a bystander to sycophancy, it’s not always easy to tell what someone is thinking. And even one’s own behavior can be hard to classify. Sycophants often do not recognize their actions as sycophantic. They imagine that the target is so wonderful that he deserves the praise they provide.
You’ve mention some historic sycophants, such as, “Henry Ass-Kissinger.” Who, throughout history, has sucked-up the most?
There are lots of contenders for this title. Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda, deserves some consideration for gold medalist for sycophancy. He initiated the “Heil Hitler” salute and insisted on the use of “Der Führer” as title. His letters are full of groveling praise—that Hitler transformed his way of viewing the world—and imagined scenes of glorious triumphs against various adversaries in which the Führer stands firm and unshakeable.
There are also instances of sycophancy that are painful to contemplate, as when Johann Sebastian Bach presents his Brandenburg Concertos to a minor scion of the nobility. Bach grovels, happy to recall that Christian Ludwig had noticed his “little pieces,” pleased that he has fulfilled his “humble duty” by offering him these compositions, and hopeful that His Royal Highness would not judge his “imperfections” by his “discriminating and sensitive taste.”
An incident from the Roman Emperor Caligula’s notorious rule might well be winner here. During an illness early in his reign, a commoner vowed to give his own life if the emperor recovered. Once back on his feet, Caligula chose to take him at his word and ordered his execution. Death by sycophancy is hard to top.
Well, let’s address the topic everybody’s thinking about: the sycophants President Trump insists he have surrounding him. Do leaders tend to surround themselves only with flatterers?
Power attracts sycophants. And again, here’s a situation in which flattery imitates some of the behaviors that we cherish in friendship. Any real leader will tell you how daunting the task is, and how much support is necessary for success—especially in any bold undertaking. One needs friends and trusted associates. But not all leaders require flunkeys and yes-men.
Trump is a world-class enabler of sycophants. The exchange he reportedly had with Comey, which we have no reason to doubt, makes that clear. By this time in the Trump administration, “loyalty” had been degraded into absolute conformity of opinion and a willingness to distort reality when cued by the President. We’d seen fantastic acts of bootlicking from his staff. When Trump demanded Comey’s loyalty, he was asking him to kiss the ring. Comey’s response was astute. His offer of “honest loyalty,” which Trump found insufficient, clarified the situation. What Trump required of Comey was neither loyal nor honest.
So, what about solutions? I mean, it’s nice to have your ego stroked now and then, isn’t it? How can we recognize when it crosses over into unhealthy ass-kissing?
This is often difficult. Plutarch has a wonderful essay on topic, “How to tell a friend from a flatterer.” He suggests a few tests. One might vary one’s opinions or contradict oneself: a flatterer will shift as one turns. A flatterer will support ignoble, mean-spirited, or vicious actions. A flatterer will undermine one’s other friends. But ultimately, the best defense against sycophancy is to eradicate the flatterer within—our own self-conceit. Plutarch reminds us that we often flatter ourselves, which makes us less resistant to the flattery of others. We meet sycophancy halfway.
When you promote this book, are you going to tell, say, book review editors how handsome they are?
If we told you that you were handsome without having seen you that would surely be sucking up. But if we told you that your questions are smart and we appreciate the opportunity of answering them, we’d hope you’d feel happy and appreciated—and that wouldn’t be flattery.
Howard Lovy is executive editor at Foreword Reviews. You can follow him on Twitter @Howard_Lovy