“I am here to do your bidding, Master. I am your slave, and you will reward me, for I shall be faithful.”
These are the words of R.M. Renfield, the maniacal sycophant from Bram Stoker’s 1897 classic novel, Dracula. A sycophant, according to the Oxford Language dictionary, is a person who “acts obsequiously toward someone important in order to gain advantage.” Where there are inequities in relationships there is power wielding its influence on how those relationships play out. Those that hold power hold the dominant hand over those under them by force or influence. Those who are underneath play a submissive role in return, whether by enthrallment or subjugation, or both. But there are others who though they play the role of submission wield a hefty influence, the ostensible servants, wolves in sheep’s clothing. These are the sycophants.
The concept of sycophancy derives, as far as we know, from ancient Greece. In Aristophanes’s comedy, “The Archanians,” a sycophant accuses a man attempting to sell his daughters of illegally selling foreign goods. A “sycophant” was someone who litigated by bringing unjustified prosecutions for personal gain, a not uncommon practice back then. Although it hasn’t vanished, this practice is presumably less common today because of its potential consequences, one case in point being a recent president and his attorneys who were levied a hefty fine for prosecuting a civil suit for “trivial gain” thinly veiled over a vendetta. In Dante’s Inferno, the grovellers were thrown to the second pit of the eighth circle of hell. Even to this day, the contempt with which we feel toward sycophants lingers in how the modern Greek language defines it as someone who slanders.
The relationship between the sycophant and his “master” is symbiotic; it usually benefits both parties. The master has a dutiful servant; the sycophant rides his master’s coattails, so to speak, ostensibly grateful to eat the crumbs off the end of his table. However, sometimes the master’s reliance on his sycophant becomes a poison pill that contains within its seeds of self-destruction. King Othello, by relying on the scurrilous warnings of his treacherous servant, Iago, eventually destroyed himself and what he held dearest to himself. In Harold Pinter’s psychological drama, “The Servant,” the deferential, yet conniving, servant, Barrett, manipulates his unassuming master toward such a weak and dependent state that the roles between them become reversed.
Though the stories and settings were very different, Iago and Barrett shared qualities that define sycophancy that are universal. Sycophants exhibit characteristics of the Machiavellian personality, someone who plans and schemes either for personal gain or nefarious purposes. Despite his lowly status as a zoophagus maniac who ate rats and cockroaches, Dracula’s Renfield was also described as “crafty and of superior intellect.” From a clinical perspective these features relate to qualities associated with the antisocial and passive-aggressive personality disorder types.
In all cases, sycophants, by manifesting dialectical qualities of both master and slave gain power through a triangulation process. As a third party, the sycophant serves the master’s interest to maintain power over others. According to Andrew Fiala in his recent book, Tyranny from Plato to Trump (2022), tyrants are enabled by scheming sycophants and “the foolish mob.” In fascist Germany of World War II, Hitler’s charismatic power over the populace of the German nation was enabled by the manipulative propaganda promulgated by his dutiful sycophant, Joseph Goebbels, as much as by the sociological and psychological dimensions of grievance that populist leaders use to gain power over masses of people (two classics in the field recommended to the interested reader: Charles-Marie Gustav Le Bon’s The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind (1895) and Wilhelm Reich’s Mass Psychology of Fascism (1924).
Beyond the qualities that more or less define them, sycophants come in many varieties. In his book that examined the sycophantic personality titled, Ingratiating: A Social Psychological Analysis (1964), Edward Jones identified three types of ingratiation: Flattery, conformity, and self-promotion. Let’s take a look at some of the varieties as illuminated by characters from literature, examples contributed by Deborah and Mark Parker in an article from their blog, “The Ten Biggest Sycophants in Literature and History” (electricliterature.com, 2017).
One of the archetypal sycophants of modern Western literature, Uriah Heep, from Charles Dickens’s classic, David Copperfield, was a would-be master cloaked as a slave “of cloying humility” who as a legal clerk betrayed and blackmailed his alcoholic employer. Because of his indelible flaws of character that led to these nefarious actions, despite eventually being brought to justice his ostensible remorseful confession belied a deeper bitterness that fell victim to his fate.
In The Remains of the Day (2017) by Kazuo Ishiguro, a Nobel Prize laureate for literature, the author described how a butler, the protagonist in this novel, rendered the role of “servant” palatable, even honorable, by disidentifying with the role of submissiveness in the vocation through deeming it as just a role, instead of as a manifestation of who he is.
In “The Devil Wears Prada,” everyone plays sycophant to the abusive, despotic protagonist, Miranda Priestly. In the mid-twentieth-century family serial, Leave It To Beaver, the infamous character, Eddie Haskell, portrayed the classic “Lick Up/Kick Down” sycophant whose unconvincing obsequious pandering to Beaver’s parents covered the viciousness of his true character revealed in the way he taunted and belittled him whenever his parents were not around.
Sycophancy in human relations reveals how the dynamics of power, domination, and submission can be and are often exacerbated and exploited by certain individuals whose role as a third element in this dynamic may be achieved through careful planning, scheming, and deception. Beyond the necessary quality of ambition, in order to be successful a sycophant embodies both qualities of serial intelligence that is able to calculate fairly sophisticated strategies based on an anticipated sequence of reciprocal actions aided by a keen and maturely developed understanding of human nature. Their destructive nature results because these ample strengths are insufficiently balanced by the degree of empathy and caution necessary to discourage acting on those impulses that cause harm and misfortune to others. On a broader scale, social and political systems founded on top-down, autocratic leadership create relationships of power amongst their constituents that are highly polarized. These are the conditions that foster abuses of power and with it those who exploit the dynamics upon which such autocratic systems are founded, the sycophants.
Robert Hamm Ph.D