Love in the Time of Chivalry

How Lothario got his bad name

Posted Apr 25, 2014

Don Quijote

Don Quijote in Alcalá

The man who seeks the impossible may justly be denied the possible.

Don Quijote

Don Quijote in Alcalá

~ Lothario to Anselmo

Lothario: A man who behaves selfishly and irresponsibly in his sexual relationships with women.

~ Oxford Online Dictionary

In Chapter 23 of Don Quijote, Cervantes has a priest (a priest!) tell a tale of seduction, temptation, love, and betrayal. The tale is meant to entertain and perhaps to educate. After all, the tale is one of ‘inappropriate curiosity’ and thus cautionary. Lothario is the anti-hero of the tale, though in my eyes, he is a hero. He is a rational man who understands the vagaries of what these days is called ‘choice architecture.’ But I am getting ahead of the story. First off, having revealed my view that Lothario is a rational man, I deplore the becoming synonymous of his name with ruth- and licentiousness. Lothario falls in love, like any person might, in spite of himself. And that is human, all too human, and Lothario is rational enough to know the gravitational pull of passion before the event.

The priest (again, what does he know?) tells the story to a group of travelers, which excludes the romantically deluded Don Quijote. One wonders how the Knight of the Sorry Face would have reacted. At any rate, the tale is appropriately set in Florentine Italy. Shakespeare would have approved. The actors are the triangle of Anselmo, Camilla, and Lothario. At the outset, Anselmo and Camilla are happily married and well respected in the community. Lothario is Anselmo’s best friend. Everyone would be contented were it not for Anselmo’s nagging doubts about Camilla’s potential fall from virtue. Anselmo has, as it were, an attributional problem. He does not know with certainty how deep Camilla’s virtue runs. Perhaps she has been faithful to him simply because no man has seriously tested her resolve. Anselmo believes that his doubts would be allayed if he could witness Camilla rebuff a determined suitor.

This is where Lothario comes in. Anselmo needs someone whom he can trust to muster a serious challenge to Camilla’s virtue without his maneuver becoming public knowledge. Anselmo pleads with Lothario to play the role of seducer and inform him, Anselmo, about the status of Camilla’s virtue. Lothario’s greatest moment comes when he explains to Anselmo how irrational his plan is. Lothario points out that Anselmo’s status quo is as good as it gets. Camilla is beautiful, faithful, and in command of an excellent reputation, all of which matters of consequence to Anselmo. If Lothario were to challenge Camilla and she resisted, Anselmo would have no reason to be happier than he already is. Indeed, he might be unhappier because he placed a heavy burden on both his wife and his friend. If Camilla succumbed to Lothario’s advances (and Lothario knows that all humans have breaking points), Anselmo would lose his wife and his friend. In Lothario’s account, and in the parlance of game theory, tempting Camilla is a weakly dominated strategy. Therefore, a rational man would not arrange to have her tempted.

Anselmo, though, does not listen to Lothario’s counsel. He insists, Lothario yields, Camilla succumbs; they all despair and find early death. “’This,’ said the priest, ‘seems like a pretty good tale to me, but I can’t believe it’s true, and if it’s invented the author hasn’t done his job in a very convincing way, because I can’t believe there could ever be a husband so stupid as to want to carry out such a costly experiment. [. . .] Yet the way it is told doesn’t displease me at all.’”

Who is the better psychologist? Anselmo understands the contextual nature of human behavior. Behavior is diagnostic of character only if the context makes that behavior difficult (never mind that Camilla’s surrender to the force of the situation is also attributed to her character). Lothario understands that the epistemic gain coming from a sharpened character inference has little positive impact on happiness and great potential for harm. Both Anselmo and Lothario fail to anticipate that Lothario, after playing the role of suitor, would fall in love with Camilla, turning play into reality. Context and character become conflated.

There are other instances of inappropriate tests of character in well-known texts. God tests Abraham’s obedience when telling him to sacrifice Isaac. Shouldn’t God (or the writer of the story who is seeking to portray God in human terms) know that neither outcome of the test can be satisfactory. If Abraham obeys, which he does, God has reason to despise him. In fact, God stops talking to him. He sends a messenger instead. Had Abraham disobeyed, that would presumably have been the end of Genesis. But God couldn’t let it go. In Job, he allows Lucifer to tempt Job to the breaking point. Job eventually gets mightily ticked off and God has to shout him down in an inelegant brute-force dénouement involving inclement weather. Neither one of them gained happiness. Job’s restoration to family life and wealth has a stale taste (what of his first family that died?). God, in other words, could have benefited more from the counsel of a Lothario than from the insinuations of Lucifer.

You may want to think twice about testing the character of those you care about, be they your mates, your children, or people who seem to be driving properly on the road. Life will probably produce temptations anyway. If these temptations are resisted, that is great; if they do not appear in the first place, so much the better.

Note. I used a Penguin edition of Don Quixote, which is a translation by John Rutherford. To him, it’s Lotario who seduces Camila.