"A Pleasant and Terrible Reverence": Maintenance of Majesty in Sidney's 'New Arcadia.' (Philip Sidney)

By Biester, James | Philological Quarterly, Fall 1993 | Go to article overview

"A Pleasant and Terrible Reverence": Maintenance of Majesty in Sidney's 'New Arcadia.' (Philip Sidney)


Biester, James, Philological Quarterly


Launching into his most dangerous literary performance--his letter urging Elizabeth not to marry Francis, duke of Alencon--Sir Philip Sidney addresses the queen routinely, as his "Most feared and beloved, most sweet and gracious Sovereign."(1) This salute, attributing quasi-divine powers of justice and mercy to the monarch, is thoroughly conventional and apparently unremarkable. Yet while another author might invoke the formula mechanically, then proceed to the matter at hand, Sidney's use of it foreshadows both the arguments he will employ within the letter and a central concern of the New Arcadia.

Written late in 1579 to counter Elizabeth's belief that marrying Alencon would prevent her from becoming an object of her people's contempt, Sidney's letter counsels her to pursue more effective means of evoking their continued love and fear. In the New Arcadia, similarly, Sidney enters the great debate of sixteenth-century political theory, that over how a ruler may best maintain security and majesty, dignity and admiration. In both of his most ambitious written performances, the matter at hand is the question most associated with Machiavelli: how do love and fear compare as foundations of power, as sources of admiration in the sense of wonder or awe?

Sidney's fascination with this question is not unusual: Quentin Skinner has recently shown that emphasis on maintaining peace and security is not peculiar to Machiavelli, but rather a feature of most late works in the mirror-for-princes genre. Unlike earlier humanists, for whom "the preservation of the people's liberty" was paramount, later authors, even commonwealth-theorists, tend "to argue that the fundamental purpose of government is . . . rather to maintain good order, harmony and peace."(2) But how?

For Cicero and the line of authors who echoed him in manuals for princes in the Renaissance, nothing is "better adapted to secure influence and hold it fast than love; nothing is more foreign to that end than fear."(3) For Machiavelli "it is much safer to be feared than loved, if one of the two has to be wanting."(4) For Sidney the answer is not so simple.

Sidney's portraits of rulers in the New Arcadia reflect his sensitivity to the claims of each side, and what emerges most clearly from these portraits and from the incomplete plot is his belief that rulers must provoke the admiration of their subjects or lose all. Like Castiglione's courtier, Sidney's prince must insure that "all men wonder at him, and hee at no man."(5) Sidney offers rulers who successfully command reverence based predominantly on either fear (Euarchus of Macedon) or love (Helen of Corinth), but his ideal, as embodied in Pamela and especially Pyrocles, is an androgynous mixture of the love and mercy characterized as feminine in the Renaissance and the fear and justice characterized as masculine.

He approaches that conclusion, however, round about, engaging readers of the New Arcadia in a debate that builds in complexity as the plot develops. Weighing an issue by presenting arguments in utramque partem is of course standard procedure for humanists, the method they believed most capable of exposing the weaknesses of any single position.(6) The New Arcadia thus demands a reader familiar with the standard arguments over how to command admiration, able to see the abstract precepts behind the specific fictional exempla, and willing to join and enjoy a search that in Donne's phrase "about must, and about must goe."

1. LOVE OR FEAR

Because the issue was central to contemporary political discourse, Sidney's reader need not have had specific sources in mind to follow the drama of his debate. Most influential in advocating a ruler's pursuit of love and goodwill, however, is Cicero's de Officiis, which declares that "it is while we have preferred to be the object of fear rather than of love and affection" that violence and disruption have befallen Rome (2. …

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