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What kind of sycophant do you want me to be?

It may seem perverse that Dante places two flatterers in a lower circle of hell than even mass murderers. Two courtiers are in the eighth circle of Hell, immersed in merda. Dante’s crude scatology is a biblical symbol for utter degradation: “their blood will be poured out like earth, and their bodies like excrement” (Zeph 1:17).

One virtue of Deborah and Mark Parker’s brief treatment of flattery and the like, Sucking Up: A Brief Consideration of Sycophancy (University of Virginia Press), is that it makes sense of this shocking and rather unappetizing placement. Why are Alessio Interminei and Thaïs placed lower than even Attila the Hun? The Parkers write that murder, however terrible, has its limits. Fraud, including sycophancy, is endless: it corrosively renders all interactions questionable. It “debases the community in which we move, creating uncertainty, doubt, and distrust.”

Another virtue of the book is its dismissal of any claims that we might constructively use sycophancy, perhaps after cloaking it as image management. A community in which sycophancy is tolerated becomes a community that is dangerously vulnerable, for the unrestrained and malicious sycophant is very hard to detect, at least until it is far too late.

Plutarch suggested discriminating the sycophant from one’s friends by deploying tests. But Shakespeare’s Iago knows these tests and evades the doomed Othello’s scrutiny. Othello realizes that reticence may be a “trick of custom” but sees Iago’s reluctant speech as “close dilations.” Later, Iago masterfully positions himself as an authentic friend, one who gives hard and unwanted advice, when he cries, “To be direct and honest is not safe,” and dramatically renounces all friendship. He is not caught out until Othello has already committed murder.

Furthermore, sycophancy may destroy even the cleverest sycophant. Iago had said, “I am not what I am,” and the social psychologist Edward E. Jones has suggested that the sycophant, so good at disguising sincerity, eventually conceals her aims from herself. The actor becomes the character. Our intentions, Jones says, become “cognitively inaccessible.”

One dark result of sycophancy can be the gradual cancellation of self. The Parkers note that Andrea, the endlessly put-upon assistant to Miranda Priestly, the imperious editor of the high-fashion magazine Runway, in Lauren Weisberger’s novel The Devil Wears Prada, considers her sycophancy to be a “rational transaction.” But soon enough, we read passages from Andrea like this:

all things non-Miranda somehow ceased to be relevant the moment I arrived at work. In some ways I still didn’t understand and certainly couldn’t explain — never mind ask anyone else to understand — how the outside world just melted into nonexistence, that the only thing remaining when everything else vanished was Runway. It was especially difficult to explain this phenomenon when it was the single thing in my life I despised. And yet, it was the only one that mattered.

Sycophancy, the Parkers conclude, must be confronted, not managed.

The sheer danger of sycophancy also, I think, answers the question that forms the title of a recent lecture [PDF] by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby: “Does Inequality Really Matter?”

Inequality, the archbishop states, specifically matters because it becomes fixed: some eventually operate beyond constraint and assume “a divine right to wealth”; others are inevitably sentenced to lifelong poverty. In such a bifurcated society, the archbishop says, we slowly and disastrously lose our sense of the “the equality of access to God in worship and fellowship.”

Now, it may immediately be objected that the rich can be impressively philanthropic. However, the archbishop notes, when we depend on generosity, “wealth allocation becomes a matter of paternalism, not a basic issue of justice.” When we depend on paternalism, the problem is that we render ourselves courtiers. We make necessary the constant performance of sycophancy — image management, sucking up — perhaps even in the matters of worship and fellowship.

Dante shows us what might be the startlingly unpleasant result of all that.


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