Frye on Machiavelli


Frye taught Machiavelli’s The Prince in English 2i, English Poetry and Prose, 1500–1660.  In his 1949 Diary he writes about his lecture on The Prince: “I’m clarifying my view of a militant organization as pyramidal.  In Machiavelli all peacetime activities are geared to a war economy, of course: it’s a state militant as the Roman Catholic Church is a Church militant” (CW 8, 91).   About a later lecture on Castiglione, he writes, the “lecture said very little except to point out the Prince-Courtier link, & link Machiavelli’s doctrine that appearance (e.g. of virtue) is essential in government with Castiglione’s similar doctrine of the continuous epiphany of culture” (ibid., 98).  Three years later at a party for R.S. Crane, where Frye reports on snippets of the conversation, he says “I said Machiavelli’s Prince, if he had a courtier to advise him, wouldn’t draw Castiglione’s Courtier: he’d get something more like Ulysses, full of melancholy Luciferian knowledge of good & evil, of time & the chain of being” (ibid., 562).

In Elizabethan society Machiavelli became, as Frye says in Fools of Time, “a conventional bogey” in Renaissance drama (20).  The Machiavellian villain is, in Frye’s taxonomy of characterization in Anatomy of Criticism, the tragic counterpart of the vice or tricky slave of comedy.  Examples of this “self-starting principle of malevolence” are Iago in Othello and Edmund in King Lear, along with Bosola in Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi (CW 22, 202).  The Machiavellian villain “often acts without motivation, from pure love of evil” (“Characterization in Shakespearean Comedy”).  In his Notebooks on Renaissance Literature Frye has several references to this unmotivated, automomous principle of evil that makes the villain Machiavellian (CW 29, 130, 144, 275, 278).

The virtues of the prince are force, courage, and cunning.  Frye never tires of pointing out that these are not moral virtues but tactical virtues based on the art of illusion.  This means that for the prince his virtue is not actually virtue at all but only seems to be—a public relations enterprise.  What the prince has to do is pretend to exhibit these virtues.  Appearance becomes more important than reality, and so the prince is like a character in a play—one who puts on a mask.  Frye often contrasts Machiavelli’s view of the prince with Castiglione’s of the courtier (see, e.g., CW 23, 35; CW 7, 266–73, 528; CW 5, 178–9, 232; CW 27, 204; CW 13, 105; CW 20, 171; Myth and Metaphor, 292).  He gives the most extended account of the differences in his essay on Castiglione:

We have derived two words from the metaphor of the masked actor: hypocrite and person.  The former contains a moral value judgment, the latter does not.  If we compare Castiglione on the courtier with Machiavelli on the prince, we see a remarkable parallel: both are constantly on view: what they are seen to do is, socially speaking, what they are; their reputations are the most important part of their identity, and their functional reality is their appearance.  The difference is that Machiavelli’s prince, being the man who must make the decisions, must accept the large element of hypocrisy involved; must understand how and why the reputation for virtue is more important for him than the hidden reality of virtue.  It is essential for the prince to be reputed liberal, Machiavelli says, though he is probably better off if in reality he saves his money.  For the courtier, whose social function is ornamental rather than operative, the goal is an appearance which has entirely absorbed the reality, a persona or mask which is never removed even when asleep. In regard to women, we are told that men “. . . sempre temono essere dall’arte ingannati” (1.40) [bk. 1, sec. 40?], that is, of being manipulated. For the prince manipulation is essential; for the courtier it is not. (“Il Cortegiano”).

We all recognize that hypocrisy can lead to cynicism.  As Frye says, “I said of Bolingbroke that situations change, and the leader does what fits the new situation, not what’s consistent with what he did before.  The fact that hypocrisy is the central political virtue makes some people very cynical.  The Catholic Church maintains that it has preserved both consistent continuity and adaptability–that’s Newman’s point–but it’s not easy for anyone outside the Church to believe that.  (Nor necessary for anyone inside it to believe it, whatever is officially said.)” (CW 5, 409)  We are cynical about advertising and public relations, as well as political statements, because we recognize in much of it that what’s said isn’t really true.  But Frye was not so quick to label all hypocrisy a vice.  Here are several of his reflections on the matter:

At all costs one should keep out of moral rat-traps.  I was recently thinking how clear was Jesus’ instruction not to swear, what a miserable dodge the 39th] (I think: the one on oaths anyway) Article [of the Church of England] was, & then I wondered whether I conscientiously take an oath in court.  I shall not soon forget the sense of relief I felt when I suddenly refused to have anything more to do with this dilemma or any others of its kind.  Again, a certain amount of hypocrisy, of pretending or giving the impression you’ve read something when you haven’t, is inevitable.  The self-directed life says: admitting that you shouldn’t mislead students or kid yourself, your primary duty is to plug the gaps in your reading as soon as possible & in the meantime avoid distracting your students’ attention from their own ignorance to yours.  The superego says: your primary duty is to be absolutely honest with yourself & them—a murderous piece of nonsense.  Oh well, maybe I’d have sacrificed to idols in Rome—certainly I’d have lapped up the meat offered to them fast enough. (CW 13, 11–12)

I used to say that hypocrisy was really a virtue, meaning it as half a joke.  But when our worst impulses start clamoring that they’re our “real” feelings, we realize how debased reality can be even when it’s real. (CW 6, 232)

I don’t think I have my hypocrisy-is-a-virtue point, except in a sermon, but it’s essential to my moral distinction between advertising & propaganda. (CW 13, 121)

Jesus speaks of hypocrisy, which may be a vice in the gospel context but is the one absolutely essential cementing force that holds society together.  Morally, it is the greatest of all virtues.  I’m overstating, I know: I’m just trying to get clear the complete “otherness” of higher kerygma from the lower or social kind.  As Milton says, in society we are contiguous, like bricks in a wall, not continuous as in the spiritual world. (CW 5, 270–1)

“Hypocrite” is a moral term and “person” is not: we accept that everyone has a personality, but it’s supposed to be wrong for people to be hypocrites.  Hypocrisy has been called the tribute that vice pays to virtue, but to know that you’re saying one thing and thinking another requires a self‑discipline that’s practically a virtue in itself.  Certainly it’s often an essential virtue for a public figure.  Situations change, and the good leader does what the new situation calls for, not what is consistent with what he did before.  When Bolingbroke orders the execution of the king’s favourites, one of his gravest charges against them is the way that they have separated the king from the queen, but an act or so later he himself is ordering a much more drastic separation of them.  A successful leader doesn’t get hung up on moral principles: the place for moral principles is in what we’d call now the PR job.  The reputation of being virtuous or liberal or gracious is more important for the prince than the reality of these things, or rather, as in staging a play, the illusion is the reality. (Northrop Frye on Shakespeare, 60–1)

Wayne Booth agrees that hypocrisy is not always a vice.  There are good and bad forms of hypocrisy––what he calls “hypocrisy upward” and “hypocrisy downward.”  In his autobiography, My Many Selves, he explores the idea of hypocrisy upward, the beneficent form of the hypocritical self, and hypocrisy upward is given further elaboration in his still‑unpublished The Curse of Sincerity.

This little book argues that “we all need better education in the rhetorics of masking.”  The point is not so much that we can all benefit from learning how to avoid the traps set by deceptive posers—everyone from con men to advertisers—but that because posing cannot be avoided, even by those who claim always to be completely forthright, we need to reflect more deeply about its better and worse forms. He presents the case for the universality of masking (it plays an essential role in all social interaction) and argues that in all efforts to communicate, we put on this or that mask.  Some of these posings are defensible, some not. Thus we need to distinguish between lying and hypocrisy (both involve deceit, but not all lying is hypocritical); between good and bad forms of posing (hypocrisy upward and downward); between posing for practical benefit and posing for more noble ends, such as creating a better self; between this latter form of self and the self projected from completely disinterested inquiry, as in pure research; between masking as pretense only and the practice of masking that can turn virtue into a genuine habit; and between the forms of literary masking that can improve readers and those forms that lead them astray.

We all have a good measure of Machiavelli in us.

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