The Beautiful Woman in Machiavelli’s L’asino d’oro

A modern philosophy essay. 19 October 2010.

The beautiful woman is introduced in the second chapter when our hero finds himself lost in the forest at dusk. She is “of the utmost beauty, but breezy and brash…with her locks blonde and disheveled” (II.49-50). While no personal name is ascribed to her, she knows our hero by name at their first encounter. This mysterious and clairvoyant woman represents Machiavelli’s view of ancient philosophy: its seductiveness, novelty, and wisdom as told by our hero, as well as the danger and defection it harbors, indicated by his hesitation, shame, and fear in her presence.

According to Circe, however, the beautiful woman has a very different role. She still bears somewhat of a resemblance to her former self as ancient philosophy, but a fragmented one at best. She is forced to live in the shadow of Circe, who fled “all human society and law” and “lives as an enemy to men” (II.106-7, 109). Circe is Machiavelli’s representation of Christianity, which has come to rule men and has seized political power in our hero’s present day. It wields a power far more devastating than any regional usurper could aspire to; it dominates the mind of the common man by presenting his unsettled mind with a remarkably appealing offer of final answers and a promise of immortality.

The problem with ancient philosophy, Machiavelli seems to imply, is that it was too theoretical and rhetorical; it never came to any conclusions, but incessantly turned around in circles instead. It lacked the methodical technique essential to achieving the end it claimed to pursue. Reflected in the beautiful woman, ancient philosophy viewed chance and fortune as the main arbitrators in man’s affairs, and fate is always trusted to extend a benevolent hand through the inscrutable workings of nature. This faith in the benevolence of nature is precisely what made philosophy vulnerable because it conveyed a concept of fatalism and predestination that retarded philosophical inquiry. “A philosopher is always in quest of something; the believer, on the other hand, has ended his quest even though what he believes may be absurd. It is utter obedience that makes for real virtue if one believes in divine laws. How can one be virtuous and at the same time question what is itself a good?” (attributed to Tertullian, Ferm 147).

The beautiful woman reveals her opinion to our hero as they discuss his plight into the forest: “Through your own fault did this not overtake you, as it happens to some, but because Chance was opposed to your good conduct. Chance closed upon you the gates of pity above all when she led you into this place so savage and strong” (III.79-83). Under the employ of Circe, her words suggest a second meaning. Our hero has fallen because it could not be otherwise, for original sin has tainted all of humanity. But he disagrees, it is rather “[his] little wit, vain hope and vain opinion have made [him] fall into this place” (II.85-6).

Christianity recognized the opportunity it had to use the familiar modes and orders of the newly revived philosophies of the early Renaissance. Aristotelianism and Neo-Platonism were instrumental to helping it establish a following (Kristeller 231, 232). Subsequently, Christianity adopted the ancient pinnacle of the good and transformed it into God, who was from then on the sole source of all charity. Circe thus imbibed the beautiful woman with the understanding of humanity as fallen and disgraced, unable of its own capacity to be the honorable. It discouraged man from his former ideal to be magnanimous and autonomous. In order to be virtuous, he must now be humble and surrender himself to God’s will.

The beautiful woman, in conversation with our hero, perpetuates the Christian ideology of salvation. She explains “because that Providence which supports the human species intends you to bear this affliction for your greater good…you must altogether lose your human semblance…by putting you in this place, the ill is deferred, not canceled” (emphasis added, III.118-121, 124-5). This “ill” she describes perhaps implies man’s suffering after the fall. Our hero can delay its effect for a time, but it will be dealt eventually. Christianity proposes that man can find refuge only in Christ, and in this way, it tailors a solution that points only towards itself to a problem that it declares in all mankind.

Christianity declares, according to Machiavelli, that man can only achieve glory when he humbles himself to the Lord. Humility, then, replaces the ancient ideal of pride as the highest virtue. In this way, all men are equal before God regardless of class, race, culture, age, or any other worldly limitation. Our hero is informed about Circe’s power when the beautiful woman tells him about the beasts in her flock: “you must know that in the world these animals you see were once men like yourself…each mourns for your fall and your suffering and your loss (II.127-8, 133-4). Transformed by Circe’s “special virtue…given [to] her by heaven”, all of the beasts fierce and tall, small and timid alike go to pasture together (II.136-140).

Our hero’s concern, however, is not morally driven, but motivated by the potential loss of intellectual inquiry that civilization would be deprived of if philosophy was discarded. In the [hero’s] present time it is already subject to the fancy of Christianity, but now more than ever, it is in danger of losing sight of its purpose. To reclaim it, philosophy must extract itself from its entanglement with religion, and Machiavelli starts by shifting his concern to the same moral inquiry that the common man seeks.

At the beautiful woman’s suggestion, our hero takes the form of an ass. This guise will allow him to gain knowledge of the beasts’ condition and will provide him with the advantage he needs to appeal to the common man in a way that Christianity cannot. Humanism, Machiavelli declares, will reclaim philosophy’s throne; it will replace the Christian notion of charity and expose the deception of “the fall” that has enslaved men’s minds. It will have moral appeal because it will claim, as our hero also expressed, that “learning and eloquence, poetry and the arts, had flourished among the ancient Greeks and Romans but [have] declined in the successive ‘Dark Ages’” (Kristeller 231). Machiavelli sets our hero up to provide mankind relief from the fear and shame imposed on it by Christianity.

Before he sets out to explore the land of Circe’s domain, our hero spends an intimate night with the beautiful woman. This encounter invigorates him at a time when he is lacking confidence and focus. Their intimacy signifies his attainment of the knowledge of good and evil she possesses, for his quest would be unsuccessful without her.

After he has been equipped with the knowledge he needs, our hero is revealed the nature of the beasts in the beautiful woman’s flock. Some are “noble” and others are “voracious” (VI.55, 64), but all beasts are made pitiful by their condition because they have lost their ability to reason independently. They are mindlessly led by Christianity into ‘salvation’, when in fact the only equality they share is in the ‘shameful descent’ they confess.

The beautiful woman carries with her the last light of philosophy. The new ruler Circe threatens to extinguish it, but Machiavelli arranges our hero to expose her slander, thus installing a radical new philosophy. This philosophy rejects the teleology of the ancients and describes nature as an entity neither benevolent nor mutable, and stressing the practical application of philosophy, it seeks to restore political power to its rightful possessors. Ultimately, it encourages the exercise of mankind’s free will as the determinant of its future. Machiavelli proclaims a future that is not decided by fate, chance, fortune, divine intervention, or predestination, but a future contingent on man’s own action. Mankind is the master of its own affairs.

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