Chapter 23: Avoid Flatterers & Sycophants

You know who they are: the people around you who praise your every decision, who tell you how smart you are, how wise you are, how brave you are, what a nice suit you’re wearing today. These are the flatterers, the sycophants, the smooth talkers. They deceive you with lush words that make you feel good. And for the most part, it works. Who doesn’t want to bask in the adoration of others?

Flatterers, wrote Machiavelli in Chapter XXIII: How Flatterers Should be Avoided, swarm within the halls of government. They are dangerous because it’s so easy to fall for their lines:

“Men are so self-complacent in their own affairs, and so willing to deceive themselves, that they are rescued with difficulty from this pest. If they wish to defend themselves they run the risk of becoming contemptible.”

Few of us really like to be told we made a bad decision, or that we were wrong. Truth hurts. Being told we’re smarter than Einstein makes us feel a lot better. But unless we encourage people around us to tell the truth, we are vulnerable to their flattery:

“There is no other way of guarding oneself from flatterers except by letting men understand that you will not be offended if they tell you the truth …”

However, Machiavelli warns rulers not to grant this freedom to speak freely to everyone, but reserve it for your trusted inner circle, and only then when you ask for it:

“When everyone feels free to tell you the truth, respect for you dwindles… A wise prince should take another course: choose wise men for your advisors, and allow only them the liberty of speaking the truth to the prince, and only on matters about which you ask, and nothing else. But you should question them about everything, listen patiently to their opinions, then form your own conclusions later.”

Han Fei Tzu wrote that limiting the ability of your advisors to speak freely also limited the opportunities for them to gang up on you over issues they want to pursue, or to conspire against you:

“If ministers are made to stick to their proper duties and speak only what is just, they will be unable to band together in cliques to work for each other’s benefit.”
Han Fei Tzu: Sec.7: The Two Handles

Encourage your closest advisors and staff to be honest and open with you – but only when you ask for it. Warn them that you won’t tolerate dissemination or flattery:

“He should listen to no one outside of these councillors, separately or collectively. He should let each of them know that, the more freely he speaks, the more he shall be respected. Then after listening, carry out your decision, and be steadfast in your resolve about it.”

Although the epithet says ‘flattery will get you nowhere,’ Machiavelli disagrees. He warns that flattery will get the flatterer everything, if the ruler can be deceived by it. It’s a short step from falling for their blandishments to supporting their initiatives or approving their budgets. Flattery well used is a powerful tool for advancement.

“A person who seeks and desires rank must be obsequious and use flattery as powerful men and rulers require. Otherwise it will be impossible for him to attain any rank.”
The Muqaddimah (307), by Ibn Khaldun, 1377

Flatterers know that, with a new mayor or councillor still learning the ropes, flattery can be used effectively to gain favours and deceive politicians. When people around you start telling you how smart you are, what great leadership you’ve shown, or how well you handled that debate – especially when you’re still learning the ropes – instead of believing it, all the warning bells should go off.

“There is great need of a flattering manner which, however faulty and discreditable in other transactions of life, is yet necessary during a candidateship”.
Quintus Tullius Cicero: Commentariolum Petitionis

Flattery will confuse you as to the right and wrong choices; it will make you prone to acting autocratically, because you begin to think all of your decisions are wise and fair. You stop questioning yourself or asking for advice. Pretty soon everyone thinks you’re a fool and says so behind your back, but they continue to tell you how smart you are to your face:

“He who does otherwise is either ruined by flatterers, or his mind is so often changed by conflicting opinions that he falls into contempt.”

Get the Right Kind of Advice

Machiavelli warns that rulers who are susceptible to flattery are indecisive. No one knows what they want, or what is expected, because the rules keep changing. It becomes a game among flatterers that whoever is last to speak to you determines your decision:

“Those things he does one day he undoes the next, and no one ever understands what he wishes or intends to do, and no one can rely on his decisions.”

You should always discourage unsolicited advice, but instead frequently ask for advice from people you trust. Always listen patiently to advice when you ask for it, he says.

“A prince should always seek advice, but only when he wishes and not when others wish. He must discourage everyone from offering advice unless he asks for it. However, he should inquire constantly, and listen patiently about those things of which he inquired…”

You must snap the whip when people give you bad advice, or don’t tell you the truth. Otherwise people will continue to flatter you, or even lie to you:

“If he discovers that anyone, on any issue, has not told him the truth, the prince should show his anger.”

Your advisors should be capable, competent and honest. You will reward them for their efforts, but don’t give away all your power or responsibility. It will be hard to regain it and you may lose much more in a power play against you:

“A prince who is not wise himself will never take good advice, unless by chance he has put all of his affairs in the hands of one very wise person. In this case the prince may be well governed, but it would not be for long, because such a governor would take his position away from him in a short time.”

Machiavelli ends with a final warning about newcomers having too many advisors, and not knowing who gives the best advice. It’s an easy trap for newcomers who want to reward all their friends and supporters by giving them positions of authority and prestige. Instead, stick to a chosen few.

Numerous advisors will fight among themselves for your favour and your benevolence, and will become flatterers, rather than advisors, in order to gain your trust:

“An inexperienced prince who takes counsel from more than one advisor will get conflicting advice, and will not know how to reconcile it. Each of his advisors will think of his own interests, and the prince will not know how to control them or to see through their ruses. And all advisors are like this, because men will always prove unfaithful to you unless they are kept honest by necessity.”

If there isn’t some reward for being honest and loyal, your advisors won’t be. That people are not to be trusted is repeated in The Discourses:

“All men are bad, and will always, when they have free field, give loose to their evil inclinations; and that if these for a while remain hidden, it is owing to some secret cause…”
The Discourses: I, 3

Newcomers to municipal politics, especially those newly elected to the role of mayor, may find themselves in just such a situation. In The Discourses, Machiavelli tells readers that if you’re not strong enough to openly oppose a politician, you have to pretend to be his or her friend through flattery and obsequiousness:

“All who are discontented with their prince are taught, first of all, to measure, and to weigh their strength, and if they find themselves strong enough to disclose their hostility and proclaim open war, then to take that course as at once the nobler and less dangerous; but, if too weak to make open war, then sedulously to court the favour of the prince, using to that end all such methods as they may judge needful, adapting themselves to his pleasures, and showing delight in whatever they see him delight in.”
The Discourses: III, 2

Senior staff and department heads, plus board and committee chairs, will press around you, offering advice, praising and flattering you. They try to cultivate your friendship. Beware: they may simply be looking for your support or your largesse to improve their own position or that of their department.

“Drawing closer to those who fawn can change a person beyond recognition. Likely the single greatest danger and (ruler) faces is the prospect of a personality change as he soaks in the adoration of those who eat his bread and sing his praises.”
Dick Morris: The New Prince, Chapter 22

Best to keep others at arm’s length until you know which among them will be true to your goals. You don’t know if they love you or they’re just trying to use you.

“Men commonly deceive themselves in respect of the love which they imagine others bear them, nor can ever be sure of it until they have put it to the proof.”
The Discourses III, 6

Machiavelli concludes by saying, it is your skills and talent as mayor that determines whether the advice you receive is good or bad, it isn’t the advice that determines whether your decision about an issue is good or bad:

“Therefore it must be understood that, no matter who it comes from, good advice depends on the shrewdness and understanding of the prince, and the wisdom of the prince does not depend on good advice.”

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