On Flatterers and Friends


I have no need of a friend who changes places when I do and nods in agreement when I do; my shadow is better at that. I need a friend who helps me by telling the truth and having discrimination. —Plutarch, Moralia

I agree with Steve Evans’ most recent post on arguing with people you love. But even if I didn’t, I would still consider Steve to be a good friend. And that, I think, is the point of the post. Friendship doesn’t preclude disagreement, but it does structure how we choose to disagree. I would go even further and say that, in some very tangible ways, friendship requires disagreement. I’m going to quote some Greeks here, so hear me out.

In the ancient world—Greece and Rome mainly, but other places too—friendship and flattery were seen as diametric opposites. The assignment to “write an essay comparing friendship and flattery” was the Roman schoolchild’s version of “what did you do on your summer vacation?” There are dozens of surviving versions, but none more important than Plutarch’s “How to Tell a Flatterer from a Friend,” from his Moral Essays or Moralia.

For Plutarch, friendship required three things: 1) a sincere desire for a person’s well-being; 2) the willingness to be frank; and 3) trust. None of these things is present in flattery, which only considers the best interests of the flatterer, which is the exact opposite of frankness, and which demonstrates that a relationship lacks the trust necessary for honest communication.

I have been thinking a lot about this as it applies to our civic relationships, where, in my opinion, we have come dangerously close to institutionalizing two disastrous social mores: 1) that disagreement requires hatred; and 2) that friendship requires agreement. This creates a social dynamic in which we are unable to engage in political arguments with our friends (or be friendly with people we disagree with). Friends are the people we agree with (US). Enemies are the people we must try to destroy (THEM). Disagreeing with friends is impossible because it doesn’t fit the script.

There are a number of problems with these assumptions, but the one I want to focus on here is that expressing agreement when you do not actually agree is a form of flattery that ultimately works against real friendship.

I will admit that I do this all the time with hot-button political issues. I refuse to engage critically with people that I want to be friends with, or I quickly change the subject, or I do anything I can do to avoid disagreeing because I have a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach that expressing disagreement will cost me a friend, or maybe several friends, and will make me THEM with the people I want to be US with.

I would like to report that this is an irrational belief, but it has happened to me. More than once. What is even worse, I have been on the other end too, where I have tacitly made agreeing with me a condition of my friendship by treating people who disagree with me in decidedly unfriendlike ways. Part of this is that I like to be right. But a bigger part is that I am afraid that, if I am not seen as right, I will not be seen as valuable.

Agreeing with friends is much easier than disagreeing with them. It is more comfortable. It risks less. And it ensures that we won’t get unfriended. But it also ensures that we will live our political lives in self-regulating echo chambers that isolate us from ideas we disagree with. And it ensures that our friendships will generally be too shallow, and too lacking in trust, for honest disagreement. And this is really, really bad.

Plutarch was not just theorizing about the importance of honesty, though. He really wanted to teach us how to tell the difference between flatterers and friends. And here is what he said (Citations are to this Penguin Edition translated by Ian Kidd):

  • Friends show us their honest emotions, whether positive or negative. Flatterers only imitate “the pleasant and attractive aspects of friendship, always putting on a cheerful, vivacious face and never being negative or recalcitrant” (63).
  • Friends are always consistent in their own opinions. A friend “always enjoys the same things, approves of the same things, and guides and organizes his life with regard to a single model, while a flatterer “moulds and adjusts himself by reference to someone else.” The flatterer “is not straightforward or single, but complex and multifaceted” and is “always streaming from one place to another (like water in the process of being poured) and the only form he has is given by the vessels that receive him”(67-68).
  • Friends will express agreement with you only when they actually agree with you, and they will trust your friendship enough to disagree with you when they do not. A flatterer “criticizes the activities, ways of life, and people he sees the subject disliking, and is extravagant in his praise for whatever the other likes” (67).
  • A friend will come to you as an equal. The flatterer “makes himself less than equal, insisting all the time that he is inferior and defective in every way except for badness” (72). “Just as wrestlers prostrate themselves in order to trip others up, so flatterers worm their way into their neighbor’s admiration by self-criticism.” (78)
  • Friends appeal to the better angels of your nature. “The mind consists of one part that is trustworthy, principled, and rational, but another part that is irrational, unprincipled, and emotional. A friend acts as an adviser and champion of the better part . . . but a flatterer sides with the emotional, irrational part: this is what he stimulates and titillates and tempts, and he drives a wedge between it and rationality by devising for it shoddy, sensual indulgences.” (86)
  • Friends perform services out of affection, and “a friend’s interventions and solutions often benefit someone who remains unaware of the friend’s attention.” (89) The flatterer performs services in order to create a sense of obligation. “He recounts all the trips the business has caused him to make, how worried he has been . . . and lists the innumerable efforts he has made and the ordeals he has endured. . . . A flatterer’s favours contain an element of criticism and of wanting the other person to feel ashamed, even while they are being performed” (90).
  • Friends are not jealous of other friends. “One of the chief areas in which a considerable difference between a flatterer and a friend become obvious is in their attitude towards other friends. It is a source of great pleasure for a friend to be far from alone in liking and being liked. . . . A flatterer, however, is false, phony, and debased, because he is well aware that he is mistreating friendship by using it as a counterfeit coin. He is naturally envious, but it is people similar to himself that he relates to in an envious fashion by striving to beat them in a contest of jokes and gossip” (92-93).

Perhaps the most important point that Plutarch makes, however, is that we have only ourselves to blame when our friends turn out to be flatterers. We produce exactly this dynamic when we treat our friends like enemies when they disagree with us and when we reward those who flatter us with our attention and with our friendship. Plutarch is not saying “don’t be a flatterer,” or even “watch out for flatterers.” Rather, he is warning us not to make flattery a condition of our friendship.

And this means letting ourselves be disagreed with, or not completely agreed with, and suppressing the anxious little mammal in our brains that says, “I must either run away or destroy my opponent–or I will die homeless and penniless and without a friend to my name.” It means learning how to trust friends to be friends without expecting them to be constant cheerleaders. And it means framing disagreements–even about important things–as a natural consequence of human beings not being alike.

Or we could take the other path and use the power that we have to make sure that our wonderfulness is always cheerfully confirmed by anyone who wants to be our friend. For information on where that path leads, click here.



  1. As I was reading through the list, what struck me is how many important relationships I have with men that would crumble if, say, I was always honest about my emotions. The list assumes a lot of privilege, I think, particularly the first four points.

    I also thought about my relationship to the institutional church. It rather demands that I take the part of flatterer. At least sometimes it feels that way.

    Those last two points are so important. I’ve seen a lot of family dynamics where flattery is the order of the day there.

  2. I wonder Michael if you see any relationship between flattery and the societal demand to no judge (Who are you to judge? being a common refrain now days)? If rather than tell someone the truth about how we see them (what a friend would do) we lie/omit our opinions or attitudes in order to flatter or appear to approve (we don’t want to appear judgmental afterall).

    To exemplify my example, consider this scriptural passage: “Either how canst thou say to thy brother, Brother, let me pull out the mote that is in thine eye, when thou thyself beholdest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, cast out first the beam out of thine own eye, and then shalt thou see clearly to pull out the mote that is in thy brother’s eye.” I hate how this is used to say “Don’t Judge.” My big question is this, if I can’t see the mote in my own eye, Why the **** hasn’t my brother told me about it or helped me pull it out? Rather than be a friend and help me see more clearly, he flatters me that I am doing fine and doesn’t help me improve.

    Doesn’t being a friend require me to tell him about the beam in his eye, and require him to tell me about the mote in mine? And vis-a-versa? If we don’t, are we guilty of flattery?

  3. Flatterer and friend are not the only possible categories here. Our many relationships involve different levels of trust and intimacy. Some of our relationships, even though we casually call them friendships, are not genuine friendships and are not meant to be. In our interactions with others we constantly have to adjust our judgments about what level of openness is desirable, considering the purposes of those relationships. The example of how we treat political disagreements is a good illustration. Many of our pseudo-friendships are vital social connections but are not strong enough to bear some kinds of disagreement. I think that’s okay. It’s usually better to have a civil relationship with a political foe—a relationship that falls short of genuine friendship—than it is to have no relationship at all.

    I think Michael is correct about the increasing danger of believing that disagreement requires hatred. That’s a really important insight. However, genuine friendship is not the only corrective to this mistake. Norms of civility also give us something to work with in creating relationships where dialogue is possible.

  4. Also, I really love this post. Thanks for giving me so much to think about what friendship requires of me.

  5. Anon 4 Life says:

    Michael, I would love to engage with your posts as a friend. But disagreeing with the BCC echo chamber invites public ridicule, which you have never done anything to oppose when the pile-on lands on someone who disagrees with you. And so I stay silent or limit myself to anonymous trolling, rather than risk the engagement you’re looking for. Try walking the walk for a year, instead of posting an annual resolution to do better.

  6. “Agree with thine adversary whilst thou art in the way” – for me right now that covers 70% of my relationships. Including family, friends and church. I am not rash, brash or condescending, but in this era, I can not be a disagree-er either. I am human I need those relationships. They are the closest I have had for the longest time. I am not fully ready to lose them. I don’t believe I flatter them, but I find myself only communicating in areas we agree about. Sometimes the only agreement is the weather. In former times I considered myself socially savvy, and a bridge builder. In today’s climate politically, religiously, even socially I am on a thin line. For the present I will have to stick to my high wire act. Candor isn’t a wise option on many accounts.

  7. Greetings and Peace, Sisters & Brethren.. Non-LDS friend here. How fascinating to read the posts still up on this site from years past regarding approaches to proselytizing. (The i-z is correct, lol). I love you all & feel terrible for what the hierarchy of your Church does with you. I was brought up Lutheran and know my theology. I know LDS theology as well. Very well. I am 55. When i was 29, the Church hurt me in an appalling way. I say the Church–not its members. That is how it always is. The scourge in my life — from the prophets of your Church — is permanent but I used it to learn. Lately, the Elders came knocking, again, as they always, eventually do. I actually directed them to a ‘cinch’ convert — don’t know your slang, sorry. I just am kind to the guys, I’ll cook them dinner but not suffer them to waste time with this investigator. But this time, I’m baffled. The approach has completely changed. I called 6 different Sisters in the SL Temple & they absolutely refuse to discuss theology with me. They’re no match, so I’m very respectful — i always am anyway, but I mean I don’t try to purposely embarrass them. These young women are unaware of the crux of The LDS Church’s ‘breach’ with all of Christendom. I kid you not. They know theirs is the restored Gospel, and that if I am Lutheran I am deprived of Salvation (as a Mormon would define that). But they have absolutely no idea what, within the whole faith-grace-works (ordinances/commandments) argument, with what is BEING RESTORED! Honestly! Clearly this is not their fault, but seriously. Please, for a moments, consider how astounding it is to be proselytized to, to be authentically gracious to a guest who assumes you could not possibly know his or her Church’s teachings, and worse, assumes…. Think on that.. Assumes that you are antagonistic, whose mind is pretty well made up that my mind envisions not much beyond ‘do you guys really wear that weird.. underwear … ?’ & that when i think ‘Mormon’ (i don’t, i think LDS) I probably, maybe, see a bunch of polygamists romping about, as in the cheapest most irresponsible reality television trash. Now let it settle in, that the uninvited guest in my home, whom I cannot help but treat well(!) will, without a moment’s curiosity about my theology if (if any)–that would defeat the purpose &, let’s be honest, waste time (see D&C Sec. 4)… hand me BOM & if I read, pray & the bosom does not burn, I’m wrong. I’m so polite.. But they will NOT discuss theology anymore. Do they see it as, I’m guessing here.. murmurings? Contention? Is it Satan working through me? Honestly, I’m so curious. Is the utter audacity of this scenario

  8. lost on all but those in leadership? Thx.. – Jen

  9. Sorry to be solo long-winded.. But let me put it more concisely. I’ve read Joseph’s Matthew; they have not read my Matthew’s Matthew; yet even as Joseph’s Restored Gospel is ‘not available,’–their words (& yes, I’ve read it online but can’t bear to embarrass them, so I don’t tell them)—even as they cannot get hold of that JSR Version, they walk into my home with the KJV. One’s mind reels. Should I remind them that the ‘Lutheran’ Canon is incorrectly translated? No. You know what that would mean… Help me, Brethren 🐦

  10. Paul Ritchey says:

    It took your post (and your post was sufficient) to help me realize that my professional relationships are especially predisposed to this problem. I see my colleagues avoiding conflict with each other, and even more than that, I see them absolutely avoiding disagreement with our clients (I’m an attorney).

    Thanks for helping me see (pardon the pun).

  11. J Kent: As I mentioned in a different thread this week, I think we’re sinking ourselves with our emphasis on and approach to proselyting. I think we’d be closer to following the example of Christ if we sent our kids on down-to-earth service missions and encouraged them to learn from others as much as possible. I think we do them (and others) a disservice when we send them to focus on theological conversion (despite, like you say, their lack of theological knowledge), when they could focus on expanding their hearts and utilizing their hands on any worthwhile purpose observable. Sometimes I think the issue is rooted in a lack of confidence in the power of love–that we are afraid we aren’t really doing our job or helping other people (or God’s purposes) unless we persuade people to change. But that feels antithetical to the Gospel of Christ. If love IS the end, rather than the means, then I think we could learn to share differently.

    Like Leona, I feel like preservation of my relationship with the church requires flattery to some degree. I am no longer willing to overtly or verbally flatter…or do anything that I feel may compromise my integrity, but it sometimes feels like identifying Mormon at all communicates certain assumptions about my beliefs that aren’t true. I haven’t figured out what to do about that.

  12. Good work. (But should I credit Michael Austin, or Plutarch?) Especially to say “friend or foe” is a false dichotomy. Maybe “flatterer or foe” works, but “friend” is something else.

    However, I think it is easily over-billed. As a guide to friends and friendship (a tempting read), I’d say necessary but not sufficient. As a guide to relationships, I think it important to recognize (as others have said) that there are more types than just two, including some very legitimate, valuable, important, relationships that are not properly described as either friend or flatterer (or foe).

  13. JKent – I hear you loud and clear. I am connected with a Lutheran run homeless shelter. LDS wards come to help. Over and over again I hear them tell me how good it is for the Lutheran’s to realize that “Mormon’s are Christian’s too.” (and how we are right). Time and again my response to my LDS friends is “We need to realize how much they are Christian ahead of us.” And that we need to open our eyes and hearts like they do.

    I have also had the honor of being invited to a friends house with the full intent of being “fellowshipped” into their faith. The friendship totally dissolved. It wasn’t a friendship or a courtesy it was a cheap plan.

    I could go on with both topics, but I won’t. As I work in the interfaith world, I just want to go back and shake the traditions of our church. I love the people of my church. Creating a real bridge though is going to be tough. That has nothing to do with friends or flattery.

  14. J Kent. I agree with CJ about the potential for transformation of our young people if service missions and listening was the norm rather than theological proselytizing. A sales coach recently observed that it used to be the case that a salesperson knew more than the person to whom he or she was selling, but that is no longer the norm. The norm is that they are closer to equals, and often the buyer is more knowledgeable. Since missionary work is sales, this is a lesson we should learn. However, we do believe in “selling” through spiritual experience rather than knowledge. The problem is that lack of basic knowledge can be a bar to entry.

    Michael: I really enjoyed the post, and I agree with Loursat that there are many gradations beyond just the two of friend or flatterer.

    As I read through this, I couldn’t help but think of a bad experience I had about six years ago in business. My boss’s boss had a call with me about a tricky situation between one of the countries we did business in and another country’s embassy. The embassy country, as some do, had a lot of corruption, and did not like to play by the rules. If you wanted to get things done, bribes were customary, but our company policy was unequivocally anti-corruption. There was no real inroad, and the country making the requests was not on great terms with the embassy country, so there was little reciprocation. I had even tried building personal relationships through one of our office managers who was able to get better access than anyone had before, but without bribes, we were dead in the water with them. It put us in a very difficult position. I explained very clearly what the dilemma was, but he didn’t want to hear that. He became very terse and felt I was creating a block rather than just getting things done. My boss took me to task for disagreeing with him on the call. I pointed out that if he’s only paying me to agree with him then what good am I. She saw it as a political failure on my part. It was definitely a black mark that hung over me for the next year until he left the company.

    I realize that work isn’t “friendship,” particularly not in a hierarchy, but I strive to be honest with people, even in these situations, and it usually has benefited me. In this case, though, flattery wouldn’t have changed the facts. It might have gotten me out of the hot seat, though. I could have pretended to comply then blamed others for failure, another time honored tradition. Instead I lost this important player’s support in my career.

    Being honest (but still diplomatic) has hurt me in a few other situations, too, again for political reasons. But I still believe that it’s a better course.

  15. Michael I agree with you…, and I am not just saying it… really. Ah well, you will just have to trust me on this one.💁🏻

  16. Very interesting. I couldn’t help thinking that Donald Trump does not really have friends. He has people like Orrin Hatch. And nobody in the White House is willing to face the wrath that would come from telling Donald the truth. Of course, some people can tolerate only flattery, and these people are fundamentally insecure at the core. Trump may be the most insecure man in America.

  17. Great post. It reminded me of a friend’s recent comment that people who are self-differentiated have the strength to remain in relationship with people even when they are in conflict, because they do not feel anxious (or cope with their anxiety) when their actions make others feel uncomfortable. My friend said he got the idea from this book, which I hope to read soon: “Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix.”

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