Bacon's Essays: Of Seeming Wise

Cornelis_Anthonisz._Allegory_of_the_wise_man_and_the_wise_woman_(c._1530)
Allegory of the wise man and the wise woman, Cornelis_Anthonisz. c._1530. Note the misogyny: the wise woman has a lock on her lips and a key to wind up her brain.

Of Seeming Wise is another difficult one. Perhaps the more abstract concepts push Bacon into more convoluted analogies. It’s loaded with Latin too. Happily, Richard Whately translated that for us in 1868.

The key word is ‘seeming.’ That tells us it’s about know-it-alls, a breed I also greatly despise. Woe is the person who gets stuck in a meeting with one of these bottomless gasbags!

Wiser than a Frenchman

“It hath been an opinion, that the French are wiser than they seem, and the Spaniards seem wiser than they are. But howsoever it be between nations, certainly it is so between man and man.” Some men seem wiser than they really are, others just the opposite.

“…certainly there are [people], in point of wisdom and sufficiently, that do nothing or little very solemnly: magno conatu nugas [trifles with great effort].”

This is your basic pompous Ass, a man or woman who makes a great to-do about accomplishing very little.

False fronts and darkened showrooms

Painter_with_a_pipe_and_book_by_Gerard_Dou
Painter with a pipe and book by Gerard Dou

“It is a ridiculous thing, and fit for a satire to persons of judgment, to see what shifts these formalists have, and what prospectives to make superficies to seem body, that hath depth and bulk.”

Formalist is a loaded word for us linguists, especially us descriptive linguists. Formalists obsess about style over substance, building elaborate architectures out of slender reeds of evidence.

Bacon’s targets erect prospectives — fake structures, I think — to make surfaces look like they have depth. Like trompe l’oeil painting, which was invented in the Baroque period, which began around 1600 in Rome. So Bacon might have seen such painting in England.

“Some are so close and reserved, as they will not show their wares, but by a dark light; and seem always to keep back somewhat…”

These are those people who lean back with their arms crossed and a smug smile on their lips, saying, “Oh, I could tell you stories!” They pretend they can’t tell you for reasons of conscience or confidence, but the truth is, they don’t know anything. If you call them on it, they just get smugger.

Signs of (non) wisdom

Bacon writes, “Some help themselves with countenance and gesture, and are wise by signs; as Cicero spock-eyebrowssaith of Piso, that when he answered him he fetched one of his brows up to his forehead, and bent the other down to his chin; Respondes, altero ad frontem sublato, altero ad mentum depresso supercilio, crudelitatem tibi non placere.” 

I searched for a translation of that long Latin sentence. Turns out it’s the Latin original of what Bacon said in the previous sentence about the eyebrows moving up and down, which doesn’t really sound possible.

He could just say, they quirk their eyebrows to show skepticism, but again, they don’t actually know anything or have any reason to doubt. People use expressions like that to push away topics they don’t understand. My father started doing that very thing as his ability to keep up with conversations declined. It looks wise, but I learned it meant, “I have no idea what you’re talking about anymore.” 

Bacon writes, “Some, whatsoever is beyond their reach, will seem to despise, or make light of it, as impertinent or curious; and so would have their ignorance seem judgment.”

Yes! I hear this all the time from writers who are too lazy to do actual research for their historical fiction or even contemporary fiction. “Why bother? What’s the point? It’s fiction, har har har.” They scoff and sneer, with enough heat to make it clear that their egos have been singed.

This next is more difficult to parse. “Some are never without a difference, and commonly by amusing men with a subtilty, blanch the matter; of whom A. Gellius saith, Hominem delirum, qui verborum minutiis rerum frangit pondera.” [A senseless man who fritters away weighty matters by trifling with words.]

Once you catch Bacon’s drift, it makes perfect sense. We all know this type! These are people who split hair after hair in order to belittle a topic or derail a discussion. It’s also called logic chopping. Here’s a great example from Logically Fallacious:

Example #1:

John: Can you please help me push my car to the side of the road until the tow truck comes?

Paul: Why push it to the side of the road?  Why not just leave it?

John: It is slowing down traffic unnecessarily where it is.

Paul: Many things slow down traffic—do you feel you need to do something about all them?

John: No, but this was my fault.

Paul: Was it really? Were you the direct cause of your car breaking down?

John: Are you going to help me move this damn car or not?!

jackassExplanation: You can see here that Paul is avoiding the request for assistance by attempting to make a deep philosophical issue out of a simple request.  While Paul may have some good points, not every situation in life calls for deep critical thought.  This situation being one of them.

We might also observe that Paul is avoiding the request for help by being a total jackass, one of your more irritating rhetorical strategies. Kudos to John for sticking to the topic at hand! Many people let themselves be dragged completely off track.

 

Stuck in the mud with hot air

“Generally, such men in all deliberations find ease to be of the negative side, and affect a credit to object and foretell difficulties; for when propositions are denied, there is an end of them; but if they be allowed, it requireth a new work; which false point of wisdom is the bane of business.”

Bacon is spot on. Nothing grinds a meeting to a halt faster than a determined hair-splitter. It’s obvious, at least to me, that they’re doing it on purpose. They keep spinning out more trivial objections, reaching far and wide, until the time is up. So the meeting ends with nothing accomplished. They’re happy, because they got to dominate the talk and also didn’t get any more work. Everyone else is frustrated because their time has been thoroughly wasted. The only solution is a strong moderator. The manager should say, when the first hair is split, “That’s a good point, Georgina. Why don’t you draw up a list of every far-reaching potential ramification for us to consider next week? That’s the perfect job for you.”

Bacon writes, “To conclude, there is no decaying merchant, or inward beggar, hath so many tricks to uphold the credit of their wealth, as these empty persons have, to maintain the credit of their sufficiency.”

 

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