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PROVERBS xxix. 5.

A man that flattereth his neighbour spreadeth a net for his feet.

II. THE second general head proposed for the prosecution of these words, was to shew what were the grounds and occasions of flattery on his part that is flattered. I shall mention three.

1. Greatness of place or condition. There is no thing that secures a man from flattery more than the confident and free access of ingenuous persons. But confidence and freedom are seldom found but where there is a parity of conditions: reproof being of the nature of those things that seldom ascend and move upwards; but it either passes to an equal, or descends upon an inferior. He that is great and potent casts an awe and a terror round about him, and, as it were, shuts and barricadoes himself in from all approaches, like mount Sinai, where the fire burning, and the voice thundering, would suffer none to come near it; so that such an one is still treated with silence and distance; his faults are whispered behind his back; he is scoffed at in little rooms and merry meetings, and never hears the severe, healing truths that are spoke of him; but lives muffled and blind fold, unacquainted with himself and the judgments of men concerning him.

Upon which account, great persons, unless their 145understandings are very great too, and withal unprejudiced with self-love, so as to be their own monitors, and impartial exactors of themselves, are of all others the most miserable. For though a reproof might open their eyes and correct their behaviour, and though there are not wanting those that are concerned for their good, yet they fright away all these remedies, and live and die strangers to their cure.

For in this case men consider, first, the great danger of speaking freely to great persons what they are not willing to hear: it may enrage, and make them their mortal enemies. It may render them as great in malice as they are in power and condition. It is at best a very bold venture, and greatness is not so tractable a thing, as to lay itself quietly open to the reprehender and the faithful admonisher, who speak for the man’s advantage more than for his pleasure, and bring him physic instead of sweetmeats. The experience men have in the world usually makes them fearful to engage in unpleasing offices. Especially when they consider further, how easy it is to be safe and silent; and how little it concerns them to court a trouble, a danger, and a potent displeasure, by endeavouring to do a man good against his will. They think it a great folly to put themselves upon an harsh, and the same also a thankless employment; to lose an interest, and a great friend, only for doing that which they could with much more ease have let alone.

Men see also how ill it has fared with such as have presumed to be free with the grandees of the world, in point of reproof and animadversion: they 146 have been rewarded with frowns, sharpness, and disdain, and sent away with dejected countenances; as if the reprovers themselves had been the persons in fault. Majesty and power usually think virtue and happiness itself bought at too dear a rate, if it be at the price of an admonition.

For all which causes, persons of evil or low minds, which make up much the greater part of the world, are willing to follow their game, and to cajole and flatter a vicious greatness, since it turns so much to their profit and reputation; while the great one, that is abused according to his own heart’s desire, bids the flatterer sit at his right hand; in the mean time making his impartial friend and reprover his foot stool, slighting him for his upright dealing, and sending him to his own virtue for a reward.

2. The second ground of flattery, on his part that is flattered, is an angry, passionate disposition, and impatient of reproof. This also frights and deters men from doing the office of friends in a faithful reprehension. For some minds are more raging and tumultuous than the sea itself; so that if Christ himself should rebuke them, instead of being calm, they would rage and roar so much the louder. That admonition that would reclaim others, does but chafe and provoke them; as the same breath of wind that cools some things, kindles and inflames others. No sooner do some hear their behaviour taxed, though with the greatest tenderness and moderation, but their choler begins to boil, and their breast is scarce able to contain and keep it from running over into the heights and furies of bitterness and impatience. The man, instead of correcting his fault, will redouble 147it with a greater; add fierceness to his folly, affronting and reviling him that would unbesot and reform him.

Now it requires a person not only of friendship and fidelity, but also of courage and valour, to under take to be a reprover here; forasmuch as to reprove such an one, is, in effect, to give him battle: he must be able to bear, and, what is more, to slight and tame his rage; he must not sneak and fly back at every great word, nor suffer himself to be talked and vapoured out of countenance.

But few people are able, and fewer willing, to put themselves to so great an inconvenience for another’s good, and to raise a storm about their own ears, to do an odious, ungrateful piece of service for an ungrateful person; and therefore men usually deal with such currish, sharp natures as they do with mastiffs, they are fain to stroke them, though they deserve to be cudgelled. They flatter and commend them, to keep them quiet, and to compose the unruly humour which is ready to grow and improve upon the least check or opposition.

From the consideration of which we easily see the great misery and disadvantage of passionate, angry persons; their passion does not only bereave them of their own eyes, but also of the benefit of other men’s; which he that is of a gentle and a tractable nature enjoys in the midst of all his errors: for his friend sees, and judges, and chooses for him, when the present precipitation of his mind hurries him besides the steady use of his reason. He is reduced by counsel, rectified and recalled by one that sees his fault, and dares tell him of it; so that the cure is almost as early as the distemper.


We may observe of brambles, that they always grow crooked; for by reason of their briers and thorns no hand can touch them, so as to bend them straight. And so it is with some dispositions; they grow into a confirmed, settled obliquity, because their sharpness makes them unfit to be handled by discipline and admonition. They are a terror and a grievance to those that they converse with: and to attempt to advise them out of their irregularities, is as if a chirurgeon should offer to dress a wounded lion; he must look to perish in the address, and to be torn in pieces for his pains.

It was surely of very great importance to Nabal, mentioned in 1 Sam. xxv. to have been admonished of the rough, unadvised answer that he returned to David’s soldiers; for it was like to have brought a ruin upon him and his family and his whole estate; yet none would do him that seasonable kindness, because of the rudeness and churlishness of his manners: for in the 17th verse that character is given of him, that he was such a son of Belial, that a man could not speak to him.

Many would be willing to recover a person from his follies, but they are not willing to be snapt and railed at for so doing; they would be ready enough to pluck a brand out of the fire, might they do it without burning their fingers. But to be foolish and to be angry too, is for a man first to cast himself into a pit, and then to hinder others from pulling him out.

3. The third and last ground of flattery, on his part that is flattered, is a proud and vainglorious disposition. To tell a proud person of his faults, is to tell infallibility that it is in an error, and to spy 149out something amiss in perfection. Such an one looks upon himself as above all defects, and privileged from doing any thing mean, low, or obnoxious. There is no quality that more estranges a man from the free addresses of his friends, and their hearty communications of their thoughts concerning him, than an high conceit and opinion of himself: for this makes him rate all other men’s judgments by his own measures, and set that price upon himself and his actions, that he thinks all the world must come up to: and therefore he that taxes or reprehends him, must expect the same credit and success that he is like to find, that should accuse an only son to his fond mother: he would quickly experiment that love is wonderfully blind, but especially about those things that it has no mind to see.

A proud person, who, with the worst kind of idolatry, adores himself, and what is more, the worst part of himself, his defects and vices, thinks that his doing of any action is sufficient to stamp it decent and virtuous. As it is reported of Cato being drunk, that one should say of him, by reason of his reputation, so much too great for any slander, that it would be easier to prove that drunkenness was no vice, than that Cato could be vicious; so some people, though they spoil every thing by an undue management of it, lose opportunities, and overlook occasions, yet they must be thought to be still carrying on designs of policy, to err and mistake prudentially; the world must persuade itself out of its own experience, and believe surmises, though contradicted by effects. It must be willing to be 150 sunk by the hands of such skilful pilots, and judge the foolishness of some to be wiser than the wisdom of others.

Now those that would have the world maintain such an opinion of them, are the fairest and the broadest mark for the flatterer to shoot at that can be, the fittest persons to be made buffoons of: for do but commend and praise them to their face, and you may pick their pockets, cut their throats, and cheat them of their estates. Nor need the flatterer fear that they will look through his design, and so discover and loathe all his feigned encomiums; for let them be never so gross and palpable, let him lay it on never so thick, yet pride and conceitedness will swallow all, and look upon itself obliged too, for being so kindly abused.

And it has been sometimes seen, that a man, while he has been flattering and extolling an opinionative fool, (who has with much pleasure heard and embraced him, for the glorious things he so liberally spoke of him,) he has now and then turned his head aside, and flouted and laughed at him to his companions, for suffering himself to be held by the nose by such pitiful arts, so easily discerned and detested by any person of discretion.

Upon an easy observation we shall find, that there is nothing that renders a man more ridiculous, in most of the passages of his life, than much credulity; there is nothing that more certainly makes him a prey to the deceiver and the cheat: but now this is the inseparable property of pride and self-estimation. Every such person carries a belief about him so strong and so great, that it is impossible to overwork 151it: he will turn every romance into a real history, and even believe contradictions in his own behalf.

Which being so, if a man be great and potent as well as proud, it is no wonder if he is always plied with flatterers, and if they resort to him as the crows do to a carcass, always fluttering and chattering about him; for alas! he thinks they are only doing him right, and admiring him for that which he himself admires much more. Pride makes him lift his eyes upward, which is the reason that he never turns them inward; and so being unknown to himself, he must believe the deceiver upon his own word.

Now the deduction that I shall make from all this is, that of the many arguments and signs of real friendship, none is so sure and infallible, as a readiness to reprehend impartially and seasonably whatsoever needs reprehension. For it is clear, that he that does so, prefers the good of him whom he reprehends before his own interest. He knows not but his proud and impatient humour may make him disgust and persecute him for giving him so free and true a view of himself; but yet he ventures all to redeem him from shame and disorder: in a word, he resolves to do the part of a friend, though his very doing so makes him forfeit his being thought so. He that carries on no design for his own advantage in what he does, gives an unfailing demonstration of his sincerity; and he that tells a man what he knows, will find but a small acceptance with him, (as the story of his faults is like to do,) hazards his friend’s favour, and with that his own emolument; and really makes himself and his hopes a sacrifice to the other’s reputation.

Having thus finished the second general head, and 152 shewn the grounds and occasions of flattery on his part that is flattered, I proceed now to the

Third and last, which is, to shew the ends and designs of it on his part that flatters: and those are briefly comprised in these words of the text, He spreads a net for his neighbour’s feet.

It is a metaphor borrowed from the practice of hunters or fowlers: and now, as there is no man that spreads a net, but does it with this double intention, first to catch and destroy the thing for which he spreads it, and then, by so doing, to advantage himself, as either in his pleasure or his profit; so accordingly every flatterer, in all his fawnings and dissimulations, is acted and influenced by these two grand purposes.

1. To serve himself.

2. To undermine him whom he flatters, and there by to effect his ruin.

1. And first, he designs to benefit and serve himself. In all that artificial scene that he lays, by adoring and commending this or that great person, he intends not so much to praise as to be what the other is. He would be great, rich, and honourable; and that puts him upon the dissembler’s drudgery to enslave himself to all his humours, to extol his impertinences, and adore his very villainies. It is not for want of wit or apprehension, that the flatterer speaks such paradoxes; for he sees through that great and glorious bauble that he so cringes to; he despises him heartily, while he harangues him magnificently; his thoughts and his words are at a perpetual jar and distance; he thinks satires, while he speaks panegyrics.

Nay, and perhaps he hates and abhors his own ill 153fate too, that should force him to take such a sordid course to advance himself; that should make him fall down before such an image, and worship such an illustrious piece of emptiness. But profit reconciles evil minds to the coarsest and lowest services; and men are willing to bow their bodies, and stoop down to take up a jewel or a piece of gold, though it be from a dunghill.

But it is evident, that every flatterer designs only his own advantage, whether there be or be not any real foundation of worth in him whom he pretends to admire; and that, from this one consideration, that the same person, in case he falls from his greatness and power, is presently deserted, and finds all his parasites’ encomiums turned into scoffs and invectives. The man’s virtue, if he had any, remains untouched, and perhaps by his calamity improved. He can be as valiant, as just, and temperate, as he was before: but what is that to the purpose? He cannot reward or prefer; he cannot frown an enemy into ruin, or smile a friend or a dependent into a fair fortune. And if so, the flatterer thinks he should but lose his time and his breath to declaim and be eloquent upon so dry a subject. No; his game lies another way; he bids good night to the setting, and reserves his devotion for the rising sun. Men may be both wise and virtuous; but it is their power that makes them commended for being so.

And from this it is also that we may observe in flatterers such great difference in the behaviour of the same person at one time, from what it is at another. While he is yet upon the chase, and a get ting, none so humble, so abject, so full of all servile compliances; but when his nest is feathered, and his 154 bags full, he can be insolent and haughty, he can bend his knee as stiffly, and keep his distance as magisterially as another. For, like Saul, after he comes to a crown and a kingdom, he then presently finds in himself another spirit, and disdains to look after those asses that he used formerly so much to follow. Let his old, rich patrons now commend themselves; he has served his turn of them, caught the fish, and he cares for no more. After the young one is grown up and well thriven, it follows the dam no longer; but instead of following it, if occasion serves, it can kick it. No man uses flattery as his employment, but as his instrument; and consequently, when it has done his work, he lays it aside. And thus much for the flatterer’s first design, which is to serve and advantage himself.

2. His second is to undermine and ruin him whom he flatters. He finds his interest and affairs cast so, that he is not like to be considerable without the downfall of such or such a person, who yet is so great and powerful, that he despairs to shake him by violence and direct force, and therefore he endeavours to circumvent him by art; to which purpose, he pretends himself an admirer of his extraordinary parts and virtues, tickles his ears with perpetual applauses of all his words and actions; and by this means he gets the esteem of a friend, and with that an opportunity of working under ground. But all this while he is big with a design of mischief; he is only taking aim where he may shoot him surely and mortally; so that all the fair speeches and fine flowers that he strews in the other’s way, are only to cover and conceal the fatal gin and trap that he has placed, to catch and bring him into the hands of the 155destroyer. And it is very frequent, that the flatterer, by taking this course, makes his design effectual, and compasses the ruin of him whom he flatters; and that upon these several accounts.

1. First, By this means he deceives him, and grossly abuses and perverts his judgment, which should be the guide and director of all his actions. A right judgment is to the soul what a strong and an healthful constitution is to the body; it will, by its own force, work off all lesser inconveniences and distempers. Though a man be sometimes driven aside by his passions and his irregular appetites, yet so long as his mind and understanding has an habitually true notion and apprehension of things, it will recover the man, and prevent the error from being in finite. And therefore, according to that advice given to the soldier, τὴν κεφαλὴν πεφύλαξο, secure your head; so is every one to be careful to preserve his judging faculties entire, that he may not be abused into false choices, and imposed upon by undue and fallacious conclusions: for a flaw in these leaves the soul like an army without conduct, exposed to all the miseries of dispersion and confusion.

He that is thoroughly deceived, is in the very next disposition to be ruined; for cast but a mist before a man’s eyes, and whither may you not lead him? He marches on with as much confidence into a slough or a pitfall, as he would tread the direct paths that lead to his own house. None plays the fool confidently, but he that verily believes he does wisely. He is flattered into mistakes and false measures of his actions, and views all the passages of his behaviour by a false light, the consequences of which must needs be destructive and miserable.


And therefore every flatterer who endeavours to delude and blind the judgment of a man, properly gives him a fatal wound in the head; and if that be crazed and giddy, it is not the absolute, entire perfection of all the other parts of the body, that can suffice to regulate and direct so much as any one action of life. The whole tenor of a man’s behaviour in this case is like the motion of a watch that has a fault in the spring; he is rendered utterly use less, as to all great and considerable purposes.

2. The flatterer undermines, and perhaps, in the issue, ruins him whom he flatters, by bringing him to shame and a general contempt; for he deals with him like one that pins some ridiculous thing upon another’s back, and then sends him with it into the market-place, where he finds himself hooted and laughed at by all, but walks on wholly ignorant of the cause. The flatterer tells an impertinent, talking grandee, that his discourse wonderfully becomes him; that he utters himself with extraordinary grace and exactness of speech: he accordingly believes him, and gives his tongue no rest, but is still proclaiming his emptiness and indiscretion in all companies. He tells another passionate furioso, that it argues height and gallantry of spirit, not to endure the least under valuing word, the least shadow of an affront; and he accordingly, upon every trivial occasion, takes fire, and flames out into all the expressions of rage and revenge; and, for his pains, is despised by some, hated by others, and opposed by all; and these are the effects and favours of flattery.

In a word, the flatterer deals with the flattered person as the Philistines did with Samson, first put ting out his eyes, and then making him a mock and 157a sport to all that had a mind to divert themselves with his calamity. Shame, of itself, is indeed a great misery; but then we are to consider further, that as to the real advantages of the world, it is to be reckoned amongst the surest and speediest causes of a man’s ruin. For who will employ, who will prefer or recommend a despised person? Kindness and contempt seldom lodge upon the same object. But suppose that a man had a kindness for such an one, yet he would not be able to own the effects of such a kindness, against the general envy and derision and censures of the world; bad certificates to vouch a man’s fitness for any place or preferment.

Shame and contempt casts a man under the feet of those whom he converses with; in which case, we cannot presume upon any such redundancy of compassion and good nature amongst men, as to imagine that any one can be under foot without being trampled upon. He that slights me himself cannot possibly be my friend; but he that endeavours to make others slight me too, must needs be my mortal enemy.

3. The flatterer undermines and effects the ruin of him whom he flatters; forasmuch as by this means he renders his recovery and amendment impossible. Every fault in a man shuts the door upon virtue, but flattery is the thing that seals it. Solomon gives his judgment in the case fully and unanswerably, Prov. xxvi. 12, Seest thou a man wise in his own conceit? there is more hope of a fool than of that man. A man’s way out of error lies through the paths of conviction; and he that recovers a fool must first unbefool him to that degree, as to persuade him of his folly: for it is a thing against nature and reason 158 for a man to think of amendment, who at the same time thinks himself perfect. No man surely prepares himself for travel, while he supposes himself at his journey’s end.

He that makes another sick, and brings him under a distemper, does not presently destroy him, because there is still a remedy in physic; but he that persuades a sick, distempered person that he is well, and so keeps him from the use of physic, he certainly is preparing a coffin for him, and designs no thing but to bring him to his grave.

Every flatterer, by infusing into a man a good opinion of his defects and vices, endeavours to fasten and rivet them into his behaviour for ever; for no man leaves what he cannot dislike. Persuade a prisoner, or a captive, that his prison is a paradise, and you shall never hear him petition for a release. Vice indeed captivates and enslaves wheresoever it prevails; but flattery strives to make the mind in love with its slavery, and so to render that slavery perpetual and unalterable; it would fain intoxicate and charm a man into a kind of stupidity and impotence to help himself. In short, it uses him as Jael did Sisera; it pretends to refresh and entertain him kindly, but it designs only to nail his head to the ground.

And thus I have endeavoured to lay open the flatterer’s ends and purposes. Where, upon the result of all, it is perhaps a disputable case, whether of the two is a worse thing, to flatter or to be flattered; to be so sordid, and withal mischievous, as to practise the one, or so blind and sottishly easy as to suffer the other. But the truth is, this latter is the object of pity, as the former is of the justest 159hatred and detestation. In fine, it must be the harmlessness of the dove that must keep a man from doing one, and the wisdom of the serpent that must preserve him from being abused by the other; neither of which virtues can be had in any perfection, but from the grace and bounty of him who is the author and giver of every good and perfect gift.

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