Wednesday, May 27, 2009
Beware the Flatterer - The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius - Unpublished Selections Explained, Med. X.13b
Meditation X.13b - Beware the Flatterer - Translated by George Long and rewritten by Russell McNeil
You have not forgotten, I suppose, that those who assume arrogant airs in bestowing their praise or blame on others, are such as they are at bed and at board1 and you have not forgotten what they do, and what they avoid and what they pursue, and how they steal and how they rob, not with hands and feet, but with their most valuable part, by means of which there is produced, when a human being chooses, fidelity, modesty, truth, law, a good daemon (happiness)?2
(1) Marcus employs this graceful self-reflection - "you have not forgotten [have you?]" - as a way of reinforcing his own reactions and responses to those who surround and attempt to influence him in his capacity as emperor and commander-in-chief. Arrogance in others unmasks a nature that regards itself as the center of the universe. Marcus needs to remind himself that the praise he constantly receives from self-regarding men and women is flattery, and nothing more. Even if the praise is merited, it is always motivated by a desire to solicit an advantage to the flatterer. Flatterers are phony. The honeyed but ingenuous accolades flatterers toss in our direction are symptomatic of a self-regard that is evident in other behavioral characteristics flatterers display in their personal lives "at bed and at board (a Latin idiom referring to the loving devotion of a spouse toward his or her partner - the idiom is used frequently in works by Milton, Shakespeare and others)." A Stoic never blames. From the Stoic viewpoint, blame or finger-pointing is a provocative act designed to elevate the accuser at the expense of the offender. Of course it is important to point out error and to correct missteps in others. But this ought always be done sagely - if the goal is to reform the offender. When correction is necessary, a Stoic knows that denigration serves no charitable purpose. It is far more effective to educate an offender, and to do so with compassion and with tact.
(2) Marcus is reminding himself not to succumb to the poisonous and seductive poison of flattery. Emperors, presidents, and kings (and anyone else who holds power over others - parents, bosses, teachers, religious leaders, celebrities, lottery winners, seducers, etc.) are exposed to flattery far more than those in lesser positions of power. Remaining virtuous while wielding power is a challenge for the Stoic. Power can and does corrupt - and a unique form of due diligence is required of a king. As such Marcus needs to ever be on his guard, and to remind himself that arrogance in himself and in others is a sign of rot - a rot that expresses itself in many other ways. Flattery can also rob us of our good sense. When we accept praise, we too may become self-regarding because the flatterer robs us of our other-regarding virtues: fidelity, modesty, and so forth. It also robs us of our most valuable asset, our happiness - picturesquely represented here as an animated spirit - as a good "daemon." Marcus no more believes in daemons (good or bad inferior divinities in Greek mythology) than most of us believe in guardian angels or leprechauns - but we too occasionally invoke language of this sort if it suits a poetic purpose.
Russell McNeil, PhD, is the author of The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius: Selections Annotated and Explained by Skylight Paths Publishing. The unpublished selections presented in this Blog are provided as supplemental material to the published selections which are annotated and explained in the book. The published selections are referenced in this Blog by page number and section.