Education of a Christian Prince. Chapter 2: The Prince Must Avoid Flatterers
14 min read
14 min read
The prince must avoid flatterers; but this cannot be brought about unless flatterers are kept at bay by every means, for the well-being of great princes is extremely vulnerable to this particular plague. Youthful innocence in itself is particularly exposed to this evil, partly because of the natural inclination to enjoy compliments more than the truth, and partly because of inexperience: the less suspicious the prince is of trickery, the less he knows about taking precautions.
And in case anyone thinks that this can be ignored as a trivial misfortune, he should realize that the most flourishing empires of the greatest kings have been overthrown by the flatterer’s tongue. Nowhere do we read of a state oppressed by implacable tyranny without a flatterer playing a leading part in the tragedy.
Unless I am mistaken, this is what Diogenes had in mind when he replied to the question ‘What is the most dangerous animal of all?’ ‘If you mean wild animals,’ he said, ‘the tyrant; if you mean tame ones, a flatterer.’ This pest has a certain attractive poison, but it acts so quickly that once the princes who rule the world are deranged by it they have allowed themselves to become the playthings of the most vile flatterers and to be taken for a ride by them; these repulsively depraved little men, and sometimes even slaves, were masters of the masters of the world. In the first place, therefore, it will be necessary to see that nurses are
Employed who are either completely immune to this disease or at any rate the least susceptible to it. For their very sex tends to make them especially vulnerable to this evil; then again, most nurses take on the emotional tendencies of mothers, the majority of whom frequently spoil the characters of their children by over-indulgence. Indeed, this whole group should be kept away from the future prince as far as possible, since they have inherited more or less in their very nature the two great faults of foolishness and flattery.
The next concern will be to provide him with well-bred companions (though they will also need some grooming to this end from his tutor) to become his friends but not his flatterers and to create an atmosphere of civilized talk without ever using pretence or lies to gain favour. As to the choice of the tutor, I have already spoken about that.
The question of the prince’s attendants is not an insignificant one either, for they often pander to a boy’s predilections, either through stupidity or in the hope that some sort of recompense will come their way. It will therefore be necessary to fill these positions as far as possible with men who are prudent and honest, and beyond that to deter them by means of warnings and threats from being too permissive, and even further to use rewards to induce them to perform their function conscientiously. This cause will indeed be greatly advanced if anyone who has been caught giving encouragement and ignoble subservience in such a way as to spur the prince’s mind toward things that are beneath the dignity of a prince is punished in public as an example to others (even by death if the nature of his offence requires it). Since we have the death penalty (and that beyond all the laws of the ancients) for a thief who steals a bit of money that he has come across, it ought not to seem cruel to anyone if the ultimate penalty is invoked for someone who has tried to corrupt the best and most precious thing that the country possesses. But the novelty of the idea may prevent its acceptance, although the Roman emperor Alexander ordered a seller of empty promises called Thurinus to be bound to a stake and smoked to death by green logs set alight at his feet. In that case, it might be possible to construct an example artificially by finding a man who has already been convicted of some other capital offence and having it advertised that he was executed for contaminating the mind of the future prince with the plague of Flattery.
If in fixing the penalty one is to take account of the harm done, then a plague of a flatterer does more damage to the state by corrupting and contaminating those first years of the prince with the ideas of a tyrant than does someone who steals from the public treasury. Anyone who has debased the prince’s coinage is visited with ingeniously devised punishmerits, whereas there seems almost to be a reward for those who debase the prince’s mind.
If only that dictum of Carneades were less true at least among us Christians: he said that royal sons could not learn anything properly except horse-riding because in all other things everybody humoured and flattered them, but since a mere horse doesn’t know whether he is being ridden by a nobleman or a commoner, by a rich man or a poor man, by a prince or a private individual, he throws off his back anyone who rides him incompetently. But it is a fact, as we too often see, that not only do nurses, companions, and attendants flatter a prince’s children, but even the very tutor who has been trusted to form the boy’s character conducts his business with a view not to passing out a better prince but to walking out a richer man himself. Quite often even those who preach on religious matters speak ingratiatingly, fishing for the favour of the prince and his court, or if they have some criticism to make, they mouth it in such a way that it becomes the greatest flattery. I do not say this because I think that the use of inflammatory language to rant against the lives of princes should be encouraged, but because I would like preachers to put forward a positive example of a good prince without abuse and not to approve in the Christian prince by obsequious connivance what the pagans have condemned in pagan princes. Officers of state do not give frank advice and counsellors do not consult with him with enough openness of heart. For since the nobility have rival interests among themselves, they all vie with one another in courting the prince’s approval, either to put down an opponent or to avoid providing an enemy with a rod for their own backs. The priests are flatterers and the physicians are yes-men. It is now the custom everywhere to listen to undiluted praise from orators sent from abroad. There used to be one sheet-anchor remaining, but even that is now unreliable: I mean of course those whom the common people call ‘royal confessors.’ If they were sincere and prudent, surely they would be able to give the prince friendly and sincere advice in that uttermost privacy which they enjoy. And yet it very often happens that while each one is looking out for his own interests the means of serving the common good are neglected. Less harm indeed is done by poets and orators, who are all by now well versed in the practice of taking the measure for a prince’s praise not from his deserts but from their own inspiration. Far more damaging are people like magicians and soothsayers who promise kings long life, victory, triumphs, pleasures, and kingdoms and then again threaten others with sudden death, disaster, affliction, and exile, trading upon hope and fear, the two chief tyrants of human life, in the process. Astrologers, who foretell the future from the stars, belong to the same class, but this is not the place to discuss whether theirs is a genuine science. Certainly, however, the hold they now have over the ordinary man presents no small problem to humanity.
But the most pernicious flatterers of all are those who operate with apparent frankness but in some remarkable way contrive to urge you on while seeming to restrain you and to praise you while seeming to criticize. Plutarch has portrayed them marvellously in a short essay entitled ‘How to Distinguish a Friend from a Flatterer.’
Now there are two times of life which are especially vulnerable to flattery: childhood because of inexperience and old age because of mental impairment. Folly, however, appears at any age and always brings selflove along with it. And Plato was right to warn us that the most dangerous kind of flattery is when someone is his own flatterer and as a result readily lays himself open to other people doing the same thing as he himself did of his own accord.
There is a certain implicit flattery in portraits, statues, and inscriptions. Thus Apelles flattered Alexander the Great by painting him brandishing a thunderbolt; and Octavius enjoyed being painted in the likeness of Apollo. The same thing goes for those huge ‘colossus’ statues, greater than life-size, which they used to erect to emperors in the past. A point that may seem trivial to some people, but is nevertheless of considerable importance here, is that artists should represent the prince in the dress and manner that is most worthy of a wise and distinguished prince. And it is preferable to depict him engaged in some aspect of state business rather than at leisure: for example, Alexander holding a hand over one ear while he attends to a trial, or Darius holding a pomegranate, or Scipio restoring to a young man his betrothed wife untouched and rejecting the gold which was offered to him. It is right that the halls of princes should be decorated with fine pictures of this sort, and not with those that encourage debauchery, arrogance, or Tyranny.
Now as regards honorary titles, would not myself deny to the prince his tribute of respect, but I would prefer them to be of such a kind that they remind the prince in some way of his office: that is, I would prefer him to be called Most Honourable, Most Blameless, Most Wise, Most Merciful, Most Beneficent, Most Prudent, Most Watchful, Most Temperate, Most Patriotic; rather than the Famous, the Invincible, the Triumphant, the Ever-August, not to mention the ‘Highnesses,’ ‘Sacred Majesties,’ ‘Divinities,’ and even more flattering titles than these. I approve of the present custom honouring the Roman pontiff with the title ‘his Holiness’ because by hearing it continually he is reminded in what way he ought to excel and what is his finest quality: not having great wealth or a far-flung empire, but being pre-eminent in holiness.
But if it is inevitable that the prince should hear this sort of title sometimes, even against his will, nevertheless he ought not to hide his feelings about what would please him better. Alexander Severus is said to have regarded all flatterers with such hatred that if anybody saluted him too obsequiously or bowed his head too humbly, he would at once noisily denounce the man and send him packing; and if a man’s rank or office saved him from loud denunciation, he was rebuked by a grim countenance.
The boy must therefore be instructed in advance to turn those titles which he is forced to hear to his own advantage. When he hears ‘Father of His Country,’ let him reflect that no title given to princes more precisely squares with being a good prince than does ‘Father of His Country’; consequently he must act in such a way that he is seen to be worthy of that title. If he thinks in this way, it will have been a reminder; if not, flattery.
When he is called ‘Invincible,’ let him think how absurd it is to call invincible a man who is conquered by anger, a slave to lust every single day, and the prisoner of ambition, which leads and drives him where it likes. He should think a man truly invincible only when he does not give in to any emotion and cannot be deflected from what is right by any circumstance.
When he is designated ‘Serene,’ let it come to mind that it is the prince’s duty to keep everything peaceful and harmonious. But if anyone disrupts and confuses the order of things by revolts and the upheavals of war, whether out of ambition or anger, the title of ‘the Serene’ is no ornament for him but flings his crime in his face.
When he is called ‘the Famous,’ let him reflect that no accolade is valid except that which arises from integrity and good actions. For if anyone is depraved by desire, corrupted by greed, or defiled by ambition, then the title ‘the Famous’ is nothing but a warning if he is going astray inadvertently, or a condemnation if he knows he is doing wrong.
When he hears the names of his territories, let him not immediately swell with pride at being the master of such great affairs, but let him reflect what a multitude they are to whom he must be a good prince. If anyone offers him ‘your Highness,’ ‘your Majesty,’ ‘the Divine,’ he will remember that these are valid only for someone who governs his realm according to the example of God with a kind of heavenly magnanimity. When he listens to solemn eulogies, let him not immediately believe or approve of such praise of himself, but if he is not yet such a person as they make him out to be, let him regard it as an admonition and energetically pursue the goal of some day living up to that praise. If he already is such a person, he must strive to improve upon himself.
Indeed even the laws themselves will have to be held under suspicion, for even they sometimes collude with the prince; and no wonder, because they have been either collated or instituted by those who were under the thumb of kings or emperors. When they say that the prince is above the law, when they submit them selves to him, and when they accord him jurisdiction over all things, he must beware that he does not immediately get the idea that he is allowed to do whatever he pleases. To a good prince you can safely allow everything, to an average one not everything, to a bad one nothing. Demetrius Phalereus shrewdly recommends the prince to read books, because very often he may learn from these what his friends have not dared to bring to his attention. But in this matter he must be equipped in advance with an antidote, as it were, along these lines: This writer whom you are reading is a pagan and you are a Christian reader; although he has many excellent things to say, he nevertheless does not depict the ideal of a Christian prince quite accurately, and you must take care not to think that whatever you come across at any point is to be imitated straight away, but instead test everything against the standard of Christ.’
But first, indeed, comes the selection of authors, for it matters a great deal what books a boy reads and absorbs first. Bad conversation defiles the mind, and bad reading does so no less. For those silent letters are transformed into conduct and feelings, especially if they have taken hold of the mind which is prone to some defect; for example, it will take very little to incite a naturally wild and violent boy to tyranny if, without being equipped with an antidote, he reads about Achilles or Alexander the Great or Xerxes or Julius Caesar.
But today we see a great many people enjoying the stories of Arthur and Lancelot and other legends of that sort, which are not only tyrannical but also utterly illiterate, foolish, and on the level of old wives’ tales, so that it would be more advisable to put one’s reading time into the comedies or the myths of the poets rather than into that sort of drivel.
But if any tutor wants my advice, as soon as the boy has a grasp of language he should present the proverbs of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus, and the Book of Wisdom, not so that the lad is tormented by the notorious four senses at the hands of a meretricious interpreter, but so that he may be shown briefly and conveniently whatever is relevant to the office of a good prince. In the first place a liking for the writer and his work must be inculcated. ‘You are destined for kingship,’ one can say, “this author teaches the art of being a king. You are the son of a king and a future king yourself; you will hear what the wisest king of all teaches his own son whom he is preparing for succession to the throne.’ Next the Gospels; and here it is very important in what way you kindle a love of the author and the work in the boy’s mind. For a good deal will depend upon the interpreter’s ingenuity and fluency in communicating concisely, clearly, convincingly, and even excitingly not everything, but those things which are particularly relevant to the prince’s role and which serve to rid his mind of the dangerous attitudes of commonplace princes. Thirdly, the Apophthegms of Plutarch and then his Moralia; for you can find nothing sounder than these, and I would prefer his Lives to be prescribed rather than those of anyone else. The next place after Plutarch I would readily assign to Seneca, for his writings excite and inspire the reader in a wonderful way to cultivate integrity and lift his spirit high above worldly concerns, especially in their repeated denunciation of tyranny. A good many extracts very worthy of attention can properly be taken from the Politics of Aristotle and the Offices of Cicero but, in my opinion, Plato has the purer message on this subject, and Cicero followed him to some extent in his book on The Laws (for the latter’s Republic is lost).
Now I would not deny, to be sure, that very considerable wisdom can be gathered from reading the historians, but you will also take in the most destructive ideas from these same writers unless you are forearmed and read selectively. See that you are not misled by the names of writers and leaders celebrated by the agreed judgment of the ages. Both Herodotus and Xenophon were pagans and very often depict the worst image of a prince, even if in doing so they were writing history, whether telling an enjoyable story or painting a picture of an outstanding leader. Much of what Sallust and Livy write is indeed admirable, and, I would add, all of it is scholarly, but they do not approve of everything that they recount and they approve of some things which should by no means be approved of by a Christian prince. When you hear of Achilles, Xerxes, Cyrus, Darius, or Julius, do not be at all overwhelmed by the enormous prestige of their names; you are hearing about great raging bandits, for that is what Seneca calls them several times.
Yet if you come across anything in these men’s actions which is worthy of the good prince, you will take care to rescue it like a jewel from a dung-heap. For no tyrant was ever so completely blameworthy that he was not involved in some things, among everything else, which can at least be fitted into a demonstration of virtue, even though they were not the products of virtue. There are many things in the letters of Phalaris which seem to be quite worthy of any good king, and the way in which he had Perillus, who was the architect of cruelty, hoist with his own petard is a good enough lesson in kingship. Alexander acted wildly in many ways, but he was right not to touch the women he had captured from Darius and he was right to order a woman to be taken back home when he found out that she was married. These passages, then, will have to be selected from much else, examples taken from the pagans and from despicable men can still be intensely inspiring. If a tyrant and a non-Christian was able to show such restraint, and if a youthful conqueror showed this honourable attitude toward the enemy’s women, what ought my attitude to be as a Christian prince toward mine? If a mere girl had so much spirit, what is to be expected from a man? If something was condemned in a pagan prince by the pagans, how keenly must I strive to avoid it since I profess the religion of Christ!
Beyond this, I think I have pointed out frequently how to accumulate examples by expansion in my book De Copia. Even examples of vice, however, can be turned to the good: the energy and high-mindedness of Julius Caesar, which he prostituted to his ambition, you could well devote to the interests of your country, and the clemency which he simulated for the sake of winning and maintaining the position of tyrant you should use in all sincerity to winning over your subjects’ affection to yourself.
Indeed the examples of the worst princes are sometimes more of an incentive to virtue than are those of the best or average rulers. For anyone would be dissuaded from greed by the story of Vespasian’s tax on urine and by his statement (no less disgusting than the facts) ‘money smells good wherever it comes from’; and the same goes for that detestable phrase of Nero with which he used to instruct his officers: ‘You know what I want, and see that nobody else keeps any.’ In these ways you will be able to turn anything encountered in the historians into an example of proper conduct.
For your commanders, be sure that you choose the best from the great multitude of examples, such as Aristides, Epaminondas, Octavius, Trajan, Antoninus Pius, Alexander Mammeas. Nevertheless, you would not want to emulate them in their entirety but to pick out for yourself the best in the best of them; conversely, there are features that you would avoid even in David and Solomon, two kings who were praised by God.
On the other hand, what greater madness could there be than for a man who has received the Christian sacraments to model himself on Alexander, Julius Caesar, or Xerxes, whose lives even the pagan writers criticized (or those of them who had some degree of judgment)? Just as it would be an utter disgrace to be surpassed by them in any of their good actions, so for a Christian prince to want to copy them completely would be sheer insanity.
The prince must be forewarned not to think that he should imitate straight away even what he reads in the Scriptures. He should learn that the battles and carnage of the Hebrews and their savage cruelty to their enemies are to be interpreted allegorically; otherwise they make pernicious reading. There is a vast difference between what was permitted to that people in accordance with the standards of the time and what is laid down for the blessed company of Christians.
Whenever the prince takes a book in his hands, let him do it not for the purpose of enjoyment but in order that he may get up from his reading a better man. Anyone who strives energetically to improve himself soon finds out how to do so. A considerable part of goodness is the wish to achieve it: for example, someone who recognizes in himself the disease of ambition or truculence or lust, who hates what he sees, and who opens a book looking for a remedy for his malady readily discovers how the affliction may be either banished or mitigated.
Nobody speaks the truth more honestly or more advantageously or more candidly than do books; but the prince must nevertheless accustom his friends to the knowledge that they find favour by giving frank advice. It is indeed the job of those who keep the prince company to advise him opportunely, advantageously, and amicably, but it will nevertheless be well to forgive those whose advice is presented clumsily in order that no precedent may deter those who would advise him properly from doing their Duty.
In a severe storm, even the most skilful sailor accepts advice from someone else; but a kingdom is never without its storm. Who could adequately commend the social judgment which Philip of Macedon displayed when he granted freedom to the man who secretly advised him that he looked indecent when he was sitting with his cloak drawn up to the knee? What he did in a trivial matter the prince must do much more in matters which are hazardous for the country, such as undertaking foreign visits, revising the laws, entering into treaties, and declaring war.