“Some men are thought to be obsequious, namely, those who to give pleasure praise everything and never oppose.”
“And while for its own sake he [the man virtuous in social interaction] chooses to contribute pleasure, and avoids the giving of pain, he will be guided by… honor.”
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics
We want to be praised for what we do. It brings us great pleasure. And if not unreasonably sought or improperly given, it can bring more than just pleasure.
Human nature inclines toward greatness, in the form of various excellences that fulfill what it is to be human. It is fitting and good, though not simply necessary, that such excellences be in some way recognized by fellow men—especially by those of good judgment. When we are praised by a person of judgment, we experience ourselves as uniquely affirmed in our existence.
It has struck me recently that I share a trait common to many people—I don’t offer enough praise to those around me. I don’t have a habit of looking for opportunities to praise the good in people. Rather I have a habit of being critical, offering criticism with some regularity.
When Aristotle speaks of virtues of social interaction, he refers to one, called friendliness for lack of a better name, which in part is a habitual disposition to offer praise to others. This is not to offer praise as do the obsequious, which is offered as a way of ingratiating oneself—if you’ve read Pride and Prejudice, think of Mr. Collins. The virtuous man offers praise because it is righteous and fitting, and because he “chooses to contribute pleasure” when he can.
In other words, he recognizes the human importance of people receiving praise when it is due, and he gladly offers it. To one who really looks, there is regular occasion to praise those in the ambit of his existence. Most people have no real interest in receiving praise from the obsequious, sensing that it is perhaps neither due, nor well-intentioned. But praise from the sincere man seeking righteousness is balm for the wounded, encouragement for the discouraged, confirmation for the doubtful, and a delight for all.
It is in my power to be the man that offers that praise.
Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), student of Plato, tutor of Alexander the Great, has been considered by many to be the greatest ancient philosopher. The Nicomachean Ethics is his major ethical work.
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