Nietzschean Autopsy of Flatterers and Sycophants

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I often refer to the legendary interaction between two ancient Greek philosophers, Diogenes and Plato. One day, while Diogenes was washing vegetables in a stream, Plato walked up to him and said, “My dear Diogenes, if you knew how to flatter kings, you wouldn’t have to wash vegetables.” To which Diogenes replied with a smile, “If you knew how to wash vegetables, you wouldn’t have to flatter kings.” This witty exchange between Diogenes and Plato encapsulates two different perspectives on flattery and sycophancy, a prevailing phenomenon in society.
The insatiable desire for recognition, approval, appreciation, affirmation, and validation is a driving force that leads some people to surround themselves with flatterers and sycophants. This phenomenon is observable not only among politicians, bureaucrats, business leaders, academicians, artists, religious figures, and peer groups but virtually everywhere in society. It creates a reciprocal arrangement where those being flattered receive the validation and the transitory boost to the self-esteem they crave, while the flatterers and sycophants gain personal advancement, valuable social connections, career opportunities, and protection from potential adverse consequences.

Plato and Diogenes

While pure flattery – exaggerated and insincere compliments – is music to the ears of those who run after them when seasoned with sycophancy – servile behaviour – flattery feeds their sense of self-importance, power, control, and security. Discussing the characteristic of a flatterer, in his essay, How to Tell a Friend from a Flatterer, the Greek philosopher and biographer Plutarch says, “The flatterer is a person who has no nature, no abiding-place of character to dwell in. He takes the shape of his target’s desires, ultimately leading a life not of his own choosing but another’s, moulding and adapting himself to suit another.” Talking about the need of the envious people for appreciation and validation from flatterers and sycophants, in his Parallel Lives: Alexander and Caesar, Plutarch says, “The flatterer is the usual consolation of the envious if they cannot maintain their superiority, to represent those by whom they are surpassed as inferior to someone else.” People who are envious of others may try to surpass the accomplishments and abilities of the persons they envy. However, when they are unable to maintain their own sense of superiority or surpass the importance of those they envy, they often resort to flattery from others as a coping mechanism. In the process, the tribe of flatterers and sycophants keeps increasing in numbers.

What makes some people in society forget about their own individuality, authenticity, and integrity and indulge in flattery and subservience to others, especially those in power for personal gain? The eighteenth-century German philosopher Frederick Nietzsche’s discourse on morality gives some interesting explanations. In his books, On the Genealogy of Morality (1887), and Beyond Good and Evil (1886), Nietzsche talks of two basic forms of morality – master morality and slave morality – that have had an overwhelming influence on human behavior, history, culture, politics, religion, philosophy, social sciences and so on.

Originating among the privileged noble and aristocratic sections of society who have the freedom and power to create their own values, master morality, Nietzsche argues, is the morality of the strong, the brilliant, the noble, and the creative who value wealth, power, courage, excellence, and independence. It regards what is advantageous to oneself as good and what is disadvantageous as the opposite of good (bad) without condemning the latter. 

Slave morality emerges from the slave classes constituted of the marginalized and disadvantaged sections of society, as a response to the master morality. Slave morality is the morality of the weak, the oppressed, and the aggrieved, who value qualities such as sympathy, kindness, compassion, pity, humility, meekness, self-denial, and so on. Since they cannot match the strength and nobility of the master class, the slave class considers what is contrary to the master morality and its values as good, and denounces the master morality and its values as evil. Because they lack the freedom and ability to create their own morality like the privileged sections of society, the underprivileged and oppressed slave class develops their morality, the slave morality, based on sympathy, kindness, compassion, pity, humility, meekness, self-denial, and so on, out of resentment and revenge against the master morality. The slave morality needs approval from others. The slave class judges what is good or evil based on the opposite of what the master class values and does. The slave morality is an inversion of the values of the master morality.

Discussing the characteristics of the members of the privileged class, Nietzsche writes in his book, Beyond Good and Evil, “The noble type of man experiences itself as determining values; it does not need approval; it judges, ‘what is harmful to me is harmful in itself’; it knows itself to be that which first accords honour to things; it is value-creating.” The master class creates its own values and morality, the master morality. The slave class, instead of creating its own morality, merely responds to the master morality. Explaining the response of the slave class, Nietzsche writes in his book, On the Genealogy of Morality, “The slave has an unfavourable eye for the virtues of the powerful; he has a skepticism and distrust, a REFINEMENT of distrust of everything ‘good’ that is there honoured – he would fain persuade himself that the very happiness there is not genuine.” Hence, in the same book, Nietzsche goes on to argue that “While every noble morality develops from a triumphant affirmation of itself, slave morality from the outset says No to what is ‘outside,’ what is ‘different,’ what is ‘not itself’; and this No is its creative deed.”

Flattery and sycophancy as means of survival, coping mechanisms, and strategies to assert slave morality are likely to flourish among the slave class. Through flattery and sycophancy, the oppressed try to appease and ingratiate themselves with those perceived as powerful and superior, the master class. While they align themselves with the master class, they not only flatter their masters but also become subservient to them for personal advantages. On the one hand, they try to please their masters openly by conforming to their values and expectations, but on the other hand, they hate the same masters and wish to undermine them secretly. In fact, they respect neither their masters nor themselves. They are a people who do not possess a will to power, but rather a people who possess a will to servitude.  Therefore, as a further survival strategy, they admire and reinforce the values and virtues of the slave class, namely, conformity, self-denial, mediocrity, humility, kindness, servitude, flattery, sycophancy and so on.  

Because they lack the freedom and ability to create their own morality like the privileged sections of society, the underprivileged and oppressed slave class develops their morality, the slave morality, based on sympathy, kindness, compassion, pity, humility, meekness, self-denial, and so on, out of resentment and revenge against the master morality. The slave morality needs approval from others. The slave class judges what is good or evil based on the opposite of what the master class values and does. The slave morality is an inversion of the values of the master morality.

According to Nietzsche, since master morality values wealth, glory, ambition, creativity, excellence, and self-actualization, it is positive, creative, and life-affirming. Therefore, it is the foundation of all great civilizations and cultures. The resentful, reactive regressive, and life-negating slave morality, on the other hand, is a pathway to corruption, decadence, and deterioration. However, both have their own limitations and contradictions. Therefore, he advocates a third morality, the morality of the Ubermensch (Overman – man who is over or beyond ordinary human condition), in his book, Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883). He argues that the morality of the Overman alone can overcome the drawbacks and contradictions of the master morality and the slave morality and craft a new morality that creates and affirms the self.
In the book, Nietzsche argues that the metamorphosis of a person into an Overman takes place through three stages – the camel stage, the lion stage, and the child stage. “Three metamorphoses of the spirit do I designate to you: now the spirit becometh a camel, the camel a lion, and the lion at last a child.”

The camel signifies the person who accepts the conventional morality in total obedience to the commands of ‘thou shalt’ and shoulders all responsibilities, duties, and burdens imposed on them by society, culture, religion, institutions and so on. At the camel stage, having no will of their own, a person is concerned about following the will of external authorities through absolute slavish conformity and submission. “What is heavy? so asketh the load-bearing spirit; then kneeleth it down like the camel, and wanteth to be well laden,” writes Nietzsche in Thus Spake Zarathustra. Neither ever challenging or questioning the norms and values imposed on them, like a camel, they look forward to carrying as much weight on their back as possible, to prove their worth and virtue. Therefore, in order to make light of the weight of all that he slavishly submits to, the load-bearing spirit of the person asks, “What is the heaviest thing, ye heroes?” so that as they themselves say, “I may take it upon me and rejoice in my strength.” Nietzsche concludes his observations on the camel stage saying, “All these heaviest things the load-bearing spirit taketh upon itself: and like the camel, which, when laden, hasteneth into the wilderness, so hasteneth the spirit into its wilderness.”

Overcoming the camel stage, a person must evolve into the rebellious lion stage during which they rebel against all established values and norms as they are “forced to find illusion and arbitrariness even in the holiest things.” Nietzsche is categorical in saying that in order to rebel against and break free of all that restrict the freedom of the human spirit the lion is an absolute requirement. Hence, he says, “in the loneliest wilderness happeneth the second metamorphosis: here the spirit becometh a lion; freedom will it capture, and lordship in its own wilderness.” At the lion stage, the person says “no” to every norm and value that comes from outside agencies and like a lion, fights for freedom and independence challenging the command, “thou shalt” and creating a scope for ever new possibilities. Therefore, a person involved in the lion stage does not obey or follow any commands or laws except for those they give themselves.

Portrait of Nietzsche by Edvard Munch

From the lion stage, one must evolve into the creative, free, innocent, and joyful child stage where they can say ‘yes’ to life, embrace it as a game unconditionally and affirm it in its entirety. “Innocence is the child, and forgetfulness, a new beginning, a game, a self-rolling wheel, a first movement, a holy Yea.” Just like a child who plays with the world and shapes and transforms it according to their will and vision, a person who has evolved into the child stage will engage with the world freely and creatively. This image of the child at this stage is the image of the Overman who overcomes and transcends all human limitations and becomes themselves by creating their own values and meaning that are of a higher and greater nature. This child stage is where the person becomes the overman. Nietzsche writes in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, “I love him who makes his virtue his inclination and destiny: thus, for the sake of his virtue, he is willing to live on—or live no more.”
In a society where individuals in positions of power earnestly seek approval, affirmation, and validation from others, opportunistic flatterers and sycophants naturally emerge, often marked by what Nietzsche termed ‘slave morality.’ Our society comprises a multitude of those in dominant roles, a subservient populace, and a select few Overmen who forge their own values and imbue life with significance, aligning with Nietzsche’s concept of humanity’s loftiest aspiration. Our society needs an increasing number of Overmen who would supersede the numerous slaves and masters among us and lead us toward a more dignified and elevated state of human existence.

Images courtesy: Wikimedia Commons, Picryl

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