That friendship is a precious thing is a truism no one disputes. The ancient Stoics went so far as to value it more highly than love between man and woman. We cannot be sure they were wrong. Yet the question of how to distinguish a true friend from a parasite or a flatterer is one worthy of serious reflection. Our relationships with our peers are vital to our well-being and survival; and time spent with false friends is time never to be recovered. Let us examine this question, and see what features of the false friend can be identified.
The most dangerous type of false friend is the flatterer. He insinuates himself into our good graces by adroitly playing on our vanity and character flaws. Excessive praise casts doubt even on the sincerest friendship, and slowly corrupts the bonds of rectitude between men. Flattery conceals itself in true friendship, and is not easily identified, being closely intertwined with emotion, feeling, and our course of dealings. Since friendship is commonly the result of similar tastes between men, the parasitic false friend uses these common interests to gain a toehold into the doorway of our emotions, and there embeds himself. Just as a tick lodges itself in the ears of animals, so the parasitic friend also seeks out the ears of his patron, and uses his voice to gain entry into our sympathies. These are the primary traits of the parasitic friend:
Lack of a fixed character
The parasitic false friend has no fixed character of his own, and will adjust his opinions and positions with regard towards his environment. Like the organ-grinder monkeys of old, he will hop and gyrate to the tune of his patron, with a smile pasted on his face for our amusement. He shapes his own life on the lives of those he wishes to seduce. His method is to evaluate carefully the disposition and interests of his target, and then to build common ground with showy displays of sympathy to those interests.
Inability to speak the truth on relatively simple matters
The habits of dishonesty and mendacity, once acquired, are not easy for the parasite to shed. Such habits become permanent. They implant themselves in the consciousness of the flatterer. For this reason, you will find him denying the reality of even relatively unimportant things. He is an expert in using qualifiers, hedges, and slithery language in such a way that it is difficult to pin him down on topics of importance.
Seeking out men of influence and position
No flatterer or parasite even sought to impress a lowly or impoverished man. Rather, he seeks to ingratiate himself with someone whose coattails he can ride. Surveying history, we note how frequently men of power and influence have been corrupted by parasites and flatterers once they reach the heights of power. Why is this? Even men of sound judgment feel the isolations and pressures of responsibility, and long for an emotional release. The parasitic courtier, advisor, or sycophant provides this emotional release, at least in the short term. But the consequence is the degraded judgment and ailing faculties of the patron. Little by little, the patron becomes more isolated, more divorced from reality, and ultimately ruined. Examples from history could fill volumes.
Constant displays of subservience to his target
With true friends, there is little or no jealousy or rivalry. So a true friend will feel content, or apathetic, if his friend is more successful than he in some area. But the parasitic flatterer is ever mindful of his desire to be a minion to his target. He will make displays of his inferiority and subservience: his desire is always to remain “below” his target in ability or achievement. He wants not honest equality, but pandering subservience.
Desire to please above all else
A true friend will not hesitate to speak the truth, even though it may be unwelcome; but the parasite will place primary importance on the maintenance of good feeling. For this reason, he is very dangerous. The parasite’s only goal is to echo the feelings and sentiments of his patron. Diseases of the body are often easily identified by their physical manifestations. But experience shows that afflictions of the soul are due to our vices, which are often hidden. The parasite feeds our vices and our delusions, thereby contributing to the spreading corruption of virtue within us.
His appearance in times of need
The false friend is especially attractive to us in times of hardship. We are at that point vulnerable, having been weakened in our resistance by the cruelties of fortune; and the flatterer has an instinctive sense of timing in this regard. While a true friend will not desert us in times of need, the parasitic false friend will hover about us, expressing his sympathies and seeking access to our hearts, but will never offer meaningful assistance.
His varying behavior with you and with others
Having no strong character himself, the parasite’s behavior will vary greatly depending on whom he is talking to. He may praise you in private, and yet around others will offer subtle words of criticism to undermine your purposes. Filled with envy of others, he is unable to restrain his jealousies, and will swing from mood to mood depending on the whim of the moment. A true friend will never criticize or undermine you in the presence of others, as he knows that this would put both of you in a bad light.
His desire to inflame the worst instincts of his patron
The parasitic friend secretly despises his patron, despite his excessive flattery, and will cater to the worst vices of his target. A true friend will try to prevent harm from coming to his friend, and will do nothing to encourage his baser instincts. But the false friend, being full of malignity and insolence, takes secret pleasure in seeing his patron dragged through the mud of vice.
These, then, are the hallmarks of the parasitic false friend. I have used the pronoun “he” in reference to such a person, but could just as easily have substituted “she.” Both genders are equally capable of such behavior; and the danger may even be twofold when sexual intimacy is present in the equation. Lady MacBeths exist in real life, if only we know where to look.
Our best defense against the false friend is knowledge of ourselves. When we know ourselves, and do not allow our heads to become too puffed up with flattery, we will not allow the parasite entry into the corridors of our emotional sympathies. But how difficult to know oneself! We will spend our lives trying to know ourselves. As Seneca says (Epistulae XLI),
In every good man a god dwells; but what type of god, we know not.
Another defense against the false friend is a thorough knowledge of men and their motivations. This, unfortunately, can only come from long experience.
But enough of these matters. We will say one more word regarding the qualities of true friends. A true friend will avoid the extremes: he will rarely use false flattery to manipulate his friend, and at the same time, he will be careful not to speak in a way that is too brutally honest. Sledgehammers make bad counselors. Constructive criticism should be delivered with delicacy, just as a bit of seasoning will enhance a dish, but not ruin it. Too harsh of a delivery of criticism will sew a lasting resentment into a friend’s heart. A man can forgive anything except an excess of honesty.