Reflections on Aphorisms #103

I may have stayed up past my bedtime already, so my apologies in advance for short, scattered, thoughts on this maxim.

Today was better, at least if only in my mind, than yesterday and the day before. I wasn’t super-productive, but I was at least happy (and there was some productivity).

Aphorism 143

We do not like to praise, and we never praise without a motive. Praise is flattery, artful, hidden, delicate, which gratifies differently him who praises and him who is praised. The one takes it as the reward of merit, the other bestows it to show his impartiality and knowledge. (Maxim 144)

François de La Rochefoucauld

Interpretation

“I don’t see how Rochefoucauld influenced Nietzsche so profoundly,” I said, before reading Maxim 144, “They share many of the same ideas, but that is not so rare among thinkers, especially ones who share an intellectual tradition.”

But here is the proof; this is a statement that will sound familiar to any who have familiarized themselves with Nietzsche.

One of the interesting things about praise is that it really has a complex role in our lives.

We often withhold praise for one reason or another; fear of causing insult (if what we praise is not the right thing or our praise is not sufficiently fervent), desire to appear superior, inability to recognize merit, or just plain stinginess. Those are all deliberate reasons, too, overlooking the fact that it may simply never occur to us that something should be praised, that we find our own assessments to be based on universally self-evident qualities of someone’s work and therefore redundant.

We may also not communicate ourselves well. When I was teaching, I had many students who assumed that an A on a homework assignment meant the same thing as an A on the quiz; the homework was graded for earnest effort (with feedback to correct mistakes as needed), the quiz on accuracy. A pupil who was diligent but not particularly blessed with proficiency for one reason or another (typically a chronic absence of body or spirit from the classroom) would be astounded to find that they did not receive equal grades across grade categories.

Part of being a good teacher is communicating, bringing the truth to students by going into detail about what has and has not happened in their learning journey.

In this sense, praise is critical because it is a reflection of what students have learned. It’s also easier to incorporate praise into future work than it is to incorporate negative feedback; the praise is a reinforcement of mastered aptitudes, the suggestions require innovation and a new approach. Without both, students have a hard time growing.

But this is only one specific area where praise is especially important, and it should not monopolize our discussion.

The ironic thing about praise is that it’s often an attempt at self-aggrandizement. It’s a perfect way to ingratiate one with others, and in this sense it can become deception. The way around this is to make sure that one is always honest with one’s praise, in the sense that one never lies when praising and by doing so avoids a descent into hollow flattery, but also in the sense that one should praise without selectivity that which is good.

Of course, there’s often a matter of taste (I’ve been writing reviews for perhaps a decade now, and there is definitely taste involved in figuring out what I like in things). There’s also a question of where and when praise should be administered; sometimes the best praise is a quiet affirmation of someone’s value as a creator. At other times, it is to shout one’s truth to the world. Just as one should be truthful in the things one praises, the methods should also be sincerely felt.

Resolution

Praise that which I find to be good.

Do not speak falsehood for the sake of self-service.

Let words serve their purpose as I should serve mine.

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