Core decorum: flattery

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Illustration courtesy of Cecilia Lang

Upon reading Act 1 of Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” Cordelia’s refusal to participate in her sisters’ competition of flattery is striking. She refuses to flatter her father with words she does not mean, and suffers greatly for her choice.

Undergoing both personal and political loss, her father disowns her and she inherits no part of his kingdom. 

Why does Cordelia choose suffering over flattery? After all, is flattery really that bad? 

Flattery occurs around us so much that we often become desensitized to it. We’ve forgotten what it really means and how harmful it is.

The definition of flattery is “excessive and insincere praise, given especially to further one’s own interests.” Thus, flattery is a disguised manifestation of our own selfish desires.

Initially, it may be hard to pinpoint when and how we ourselves use flattery. However, if you evaluate yourself closely enough, you may be surprised by how much you rely on it. 

Have you ever “complimented” someone for the sole purpose that they would compliment you back? If not in person, what about online? 

When you leave a compliment on someone’s Instagram photo, do you really mean it? Or are you hoping they will write a similar comment for you? 

What about when you talk to your professors or bosses? Do you pretend to be something you’re not in order to get yourself an A or a pay raise?

While your words may appear harmless, Plato says, “The ultimate dishonesty is the false appearance of honesty.” No matter how pretty of a bow we may attach to our words, if we do not truly mean them and are only saying them because we perceive a future personal benefit, our words are nevertheless ugly and empty because they do not reflect the truth.

Scripture has multiple warnings about flattery. One of the most prominent ones comes from Psalm 5:9, which states: “For there is no faithfulness in their mouth; their inward part is destruction; their throat is an open tomb; they flatter with their tongue.”

Our words should be faithful to our hearts, and our hearts should be faithful to others. Wouldn’t it be worthwhile if we could make a conscious effort to rid our speech of all flattery? 

That way, we wouldn’t have to question the sincerity of others. Instead, we could take them at their word. Even if we miss out on securing advantages for ourselves, let our commitment to the truth overcome any selfish means of attaining those advantages. 

Thus, like Cordelia, may we always speak “according to [our] bond[s]; no more nor less.”

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