A comprehensive, humorous, and insightful history of man’s sycophantic behavior.
Time editor Stengel (January Sun, 1990) directs his account to the “perfect, gentle reader” (i.e., you and me) and declares that he has an “emotional gratuity” for reviewers. That’s a point or two in his favor, of course. While he takes the subject seriously, his underlying tone is often facetious, and he is aware of the vulnerability of most of us to the victimless crime of brownnosing. In fact, that is his whole point. Stengel’s study is structured as a recap of human history, paying particular attention to the power struggles that provoke flattery. He begins with a prehistoric study of the fur-smoothing, flattening (thus flattering) rituals of our social-climbing simian forebears. Stengel deems much religious ritual to be a form of bribery or flattery, while ancient idolatrous art is defined as court propaganda or spin. By New Testament times, Stengel sees Christ’s golden rule as a utilitarian invitation for the kind of mutual socialization that supports flattery. Aristophanes becomes Stengel’s early critic of demagoguery and its accompanying abuse of flattery, but the highly stratified Roman society of late antiquity only elevates this toadyism (and Stengel reproduces Plutarch’s guide for spotting apple-polishers). Well past classical times, the author follows flattery’s major role in the sparring between sexes as well as the social classes. He then makes an elaborate case for the 12th-century troubadours as the true founders of the Romantic sweet-talk that still dominates our culture. Castiglione, Machiavelli, Montaigne, Lord Chesterfield, and Shakespeare’s Iago are among the thinkers considered in pre-modern times. As Stengel moves on to the nonaristocratic New World (“flattery in America was seen as unmanly”), we are introduced to self-reliant men like Emerson who declare independence and immunity from puffery. Nevertheless, Andrew Carnegie made friends and influenced people with flattery. Stengel even describes the Friar’s Roast as an ironic form of flattery.
A highly readable history.