Cato's Letter No. 34
SIR, Flattery is a poisonous and pernicious weed, which grows and prevails every where, but most where it does most harm; I mean in courts. If few dare speak the truth to their superiors, how shall he who has no superiors ever come to know the truth? Perhaps there never was an instance in the world, where a prince was told the sincere truth in every thing which concerned him to know, by any servant of his. Truth is of a plain, unalterable nature, and cannot be moulded into fashionable shapes; truth is therefore unfit to be a courtier: But falsehood, being the creature of the imagination, is capable of bearing all modish and pleasing forms; falsehood is therefore an agreeable guest in palaces. To illustrate this, endless examples might be brought; but unfortunate princes are the most pregnant examples. Galba, when he had lost all, and nothing remained to him but his life, which he was also soon to lose, had not one about him to tell him his condition and danger; so cruelly dishonest were his servants! Their flattery prevented the means of his preservation. They therefore were the first murderers of their master.
Nothing more is necessary in order to be flattered, than to be uppermost. Galba was hated for his avarice, and despised for his age and severity; yet, in compliance to an emperor, multitudes of people, and particularly of senators and gentlemen, addressed him to put Otho to death, and to banish all his accomplices: And a rumour being spread, that Otho was slain, the same set of flatterers ran to the palace with noisy congratulations, and deceitfully complained that fate had snatched the usurper from their vengeance.
What marks were here of loyalty to Galba's person, and of zeal and firmness to his interest! yet in so small a space as two hours after, Otho's power having prevailed in Rome, Otho had their hearts and their acclamations in his turn, and Galba's death was demanded of him with the same importunity that the death of Otho had been demanded of Galba, and by the same men.
A melancholy lesson of the vile fraudulency of flatterers, and of the blindness of princes who trust in them! Even Galba, who was thought proof against flatterers (adversus blandientes incorruptus ) was deceived by them.
The Sieur Amelot de la Houssaye, from whom many of these observations are taken, says truly, that most princes are better armed against fear than against flattery: Terrors animate them, and threats whet their courage; but flattery softens their minds, and corrupts their manners; it makes them negligent and idle, and forget their duty. Corrupta mens assiduis adulationibus, says Tacitus of Domitian. Besides, mistaking flattery for complaisance (which is a sign of affection) they think that those who flatter them love them, and from that delusion come to trust and employ their most dangerous enemies. He further says, that Philip II of Spain was wont to interrupt those who went about to flatter him, by saying to them roundly, "Cease trifling, and tell me what it concerns me to know": Words worthy of all princes, who are never entertained by their flatterers but with things useless or pernicious. If princes never heard any thing but what they ought to know, they would never hear flatterers.
Flattery is a false and selfish thing, begot only by fear or favour; and having itself only in view, it observes no rule of equity or merit, but praises and calumniates, just according as men are exalted or depressed. Mezeray tells us, that as long as Henry III of France built magnificent monasteries, and plunged himself into monkish devotions, ill-becoming his dignity, the monks revered him as a saint, and called him one: But no sooner was the religious and seditious League formed against him, but these godly ingrates loaded him with all the reproaches and ill names that they could devise; tyrant, hypocrite, murderer, and abominable, were the titles which they gave him; and at last they butchered him as a heretick: So easily can flatterers make one and the same man a god or devil; and so true is it that flatterers love no man, and only court the fortunes of men. Flattery is venal, and always goes to the best bidder; and it is servile, and always crouches most to those who are uppermost, let them be what they will: Adulationi foedum crimen servitutis inest. Most of the evil that princes commit, comes from the lessons and compliance of flatterers; and to such most princes have owed their ruin: Few princes would have done what many of them did, if their false friends had not told them that they might do what they would: We have had many instances of this at home, and there have been more abroad. It would be a great advantage to princes, if they would remember that there never was a prince in the world but was flattered, and never a prince but was hurt by flattery, and many utterly undone by it. It has made good princes bad, and bad worse: By flattery they have been brought to think themselves more than men, and to act worse than brutes; and, in fine, to live and die as beasts of prey live and die, in blood. Their flatterers having made them worse than men, adored them like gods: But, as Pliny says, principum exitus docuit ne a diis quidem amari nisi quos homines ament.
Their business is to tell their great patron what pleases him, though it destroy him; and when they have deprived him of all his friends, his innocence, his felicity, and his possessions, they leave him too; or having ruined his fortune, they take away his life, which is their last and best civility: For flattery ends ever in ingratitude, and often in treason; and for princes to be often distressed by those whom they have obliged most, is nothing new.
Flattery is always great in proportion as its patrons are bad. And therefore Pliny observes, that those emperors who were most hated, were likewise most flattered: For he says, "that dissimulation is more ingenious and artful than sincerity, slavery than liberty, fear than love." Hence flattery is a sign of servitude, and inconsistent with equality, and with liberty, the offspring of equality. It is indeed one of the purposes of flattery to make men worse; it gains by corruption, and lives upon credulity, folly, and vice. It is particularly at perpetual enmity with truth; and flatterers are like liars, not to be believed even when they speak truth. I have somewhere heard flatterers compared to thieves, who break into houses by night; the first thing that they do, is to extinguish the lights: So flatterers, when they have beset a prince, or any other great man, never fail to keep far from him all light and information.
Flattery is cruel, and gives bloody counsels; and flatterers are constant and merciless calumniators: Every word which they do not like, is a libel; every action that displeases them, is treason or sedition: Where there are no faults, they create them. The crimes objected to the honest and excellent Thrasea Petus, were such as these:
That he had never applauded Nero, nor encouraged others to applaud him; that when the Senate were running into all the extravagancies of flattery, he would not be present, and therefore had not been in it for three years; that he had never sacrificed for Nero's charming voice; that he would never own Madam Poppaea for a goddess, she who had been Nero's mistress, and was then his wife; that he would not vote that a gentleman who had made satirical verses upon Nero should be put to death, though he condemned the man and his libel; but he contended that no law made the offence capital; that they could not, without scandal, and the imputation of cruelty, punish with death, an offence for which the laws had already provided a punishment that was milder.
These were the honourable and virtuous crimes of that great and good man; but they were then high treason, and cost him his life. Memorable are the words of Philip de Comines, speaking of court flatterers:
If a six-penny tax be to be raised, they cry it ought by all means to be a twelve-penny one. If the prince be offended with any man, they are directly for hanging him. In other instances, they maintain the same character. Above all things, they advise their master to make himself terrible; as they themselves are proud, fierce, and overbearing, in hopes to be dreaded by that means, as if authority and place were their inheritance.
As all honest truths affect such men, whatever is said against ill men, they construe to be said against them: And even when they are praised, they cry they are abused, and that such praise is rank irony. Now all this is very impolitick: Good men neither fear libels, nor suspect applauses to be ironies. Pliny says justly to Trajan,
When I speak of your humanity, liberality, frugality, clemency, vigilance, &c. I have no apprehension that your Majesty will think yourself reproached with the contrary vices.
But it was not so in some preceding reigns, when virtue was dangerous, truth capital, and every book that contained either was burnt, and its author put to death: By which violent and unjust proceedings, they hoped to shut up for ever people's mouths, to abolish the liberty of the Senate, and utterly to extinguish the memories of good men. Not satisfied with killing the authors, they exercised their rage upon their works, and appointed a junto called Triumviri, to destroy the fruits of the greatest geniuses by fire.
I have scarce ever heard of a more gross or ingenious piece of flattery, than that of Vitellius to Caligula, upon the following occasion: That mad emperor had taken it into his head to be a god, and thought he might debauch some of the she-deities, as well as he had his sisters; he therefore asked Vitellius this question, "Pray, Vitellius," says he, "have you never seen me embrace the Moon?" "O Sir," says the parasite, "that is a mystery which none but a god, such as your Majesty, ought to reveal." Vitellius was one of those, quibus principum honesta atque inhonesta laudare mos est; who praise every thing that their prince does, whether good or bad. Flattery therefore is never at the height, till liberty and virtue are utterlylost; and with the loss of liberty, shame and honour are lost. Tacitus, who never mentions the woes of his country without seeming to feel them, talking of Sejanus, who having got the whole administration into his hands, was now the chief idol at Rome, makes M. Terentius, say with indignation,
We worshipped his manumised slaves, and prostituted ourselves to his former footmen; and to be acquainted with his porter, was a mighty honour.
As flatterers make tyrants, tyrants make flatterers; neither is it possible that any prince could be a tyrant without them: He must have servile hands to execute his will, servile mouths to approve it. It was with great fear that Nero ordered the murder of his mother, though he had wicked counsellors enough to advise and applaud it; and when he had done it, he was thunder-struck and distracted with apprehensions of the consequences: But finding flattery from all hands, instead of resentment from any, he grew outrageously abandoned, and plunged into all licentiousness and infamy: Had it not been for flatterers, the middle and end of his reign might have been as good as the beginning, than which there was scarce ever a better.
I have said enough to shew the vileness and mischief of flattery; a vice which has finally ruined many nations, and many princes, and one time or other hurt all. Let us be thankful that we are not at the cruel mercy of flatterers, and have a prince who we firmly believe will never be led or perverted by them; we hope that he will never have bad counsel given him, and would reject it, if it were: We know his honest purposes, and great moderation; and confess with gratitude, that during his whole reign no outrages have been committed upon the lives and fortunes of any of his subjects; and that the protection of the law has been as strong and extensive, as ever it was, or ought to be. I could say more, but I stop here; for the greatest honour that can be done a prince, is, to suppose him above flattery, and to avoid for his sake the appearance of it, when we speak to him, or of him.
G I am, &c.