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Bacon's essays: Of Deformity

Rumor has it that Bacon wrote Of Deformity with reference to his cousin, Robert Cecil, who had recently died. If you’ve read any of my Francis Bacon mysteries, you know all this stuff. Francis’s competition with Robert is a major subplot. But here’s the nutshell for the rest of you.

A dwarf in a nutshell

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Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury

First, Robert wasn’t really a dwarf. He was 5′ 4″, which is short, but not outside the norm. He was obliged to stand around the court with tall, handsome men like Sir Walter Ralegh and the Earl of Essex, which must have been unpleasant. The Queen sometimes called him her Dwarf — one of her sharp little nicknames. He had a crooked spine and a crooked shoulder and walked with a flat-footed gate. He possessednone of that beauty of graceful motion Bacon praised so highly last month.

He was the son of William Cecil, Lord Burghley, Queen Elizabeth’s Lord Treasurer and for many decades the most powerful man in England. In those days, nepotism was just the right way to do things. He started moving Robert toward the seat of power from an early age.

He had to hold his somewhat taller and smarter nephew, Francis Bacon, at arm’s length to keep him from competing. Burghley’s resistance is the only sensible reason for Elizabeth’s persistent refusal to grant Francis any real honors or any position of real influence during her lifetime. He had to sit by and watch while his cousin was knighted, appointed to the Privy Council, and named Secretary of State. Bitter dregs!

Even under James I, who looked much more favorably on Francis, Robert surged ahead. He had been created Earl of Salisbury before his death in 1612. At that time, Francis had been knighted and made Solicitor General, but no titles. Pfui.

On the other hand, Bacon kept being distracted by philosophy. He often failed to toe the party line with respect to things like subsidies (taxes.) He could see all sides of any question and was inherently more interested in the balance than the conclusion. He was an exemplary Lord Chancellor, but I don’t think he would have been a good Secretary of State.

Back to deformity

“Deformed persons are commonly even with nature; for as nature hath done ill by them, so do they by nature; being for the most part (as the Scripture saith) void of natural affection; and so they have their revenge of nature.”

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Richard III, another famous crookback

Mean-spirited, I think. Nature twisted your body, so you spite nature by becoming a twisted person.

“Certainly there is a consent, between the body and the mind; and where nature erreth in the one, she ventureth in the other. Ubi peccat in uno, periclitatur in altero.” [The Latin is a translation of what Bacon just said: where nature erreth…”]

This is a small counterpoint to the notion that twisted persons get even with nature. Really, nature is the one doing all the twisting. She screwed up that spine, why not go all the way to the character?

Then he walks that back a little bit. His cousin is dead, Bacon’s venom falls only on cold earth.

“But because there is, in man, an election touching the frame of his mind, and a necessity in the frame of his body, the stars of natural inclination are sometimes obscured, by the sun of discipline and virtue.” 

Election means choice; selection. He means here that people have some choice in determining their own behavior. You can’t change your twisted body (in those days), but you could mitigate your  twisted nature by discipline and virtue.

A cause, not an effect

“Therefore it is good to consider of deformity, not as a sign, which is more deceivable; but as a cause, which seldom faileth of the effect. Whosoever hath anything fixed in his person, that doth induce contempt, hath also a perpetual spur in himself, to rescue and deliver himself from scorn.”

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Tyrion Lannister. Oh, yeah. He’s extremely bold!

Deformed people are spurred to extreme measures in order to rise above the contempt of others. Makes sense.

“Therefore all deformed persons, are extreme bold. First, as in their own defence, as being exposed to scorn; but in process of time, by a general habit.” Extreme boldness is a hard habit to break, all right.

Now we get to the real nitty-gritty about Cousin Robert.

“Also it stirreth in them industry, and especially of this kind, to watch and observe the weakness of others, that they may have somewhat to repay. Again, in their superiors, it quencheth jealousy towards them, as persons that they think they may, at pleasure, despise: and it layeth their competitors and emulators asleep; as never believing they should be in possibility of advancement, till they see them in possession. So that upon the matter, in a great wit, deformity is an advantage to rising.”

Great men (foolishly) don’t worry about these deformed and stunted servants. They can’t lead armies can they? (No, but they can fund them.) Cecil let others condemn his enemies (Essex and Ralegh), sitting quietly in the background pretending to be neutral. Although neither of those strong men was stupid enough not to take Cecil seriously. Still, they must have failed to recognize the extent of the web he wove under and around them.

Never trust a eunuch

“Kings in ancient times (and at this present in some countries) were wont to put great trust in eunuchs; because they that are envious towards all are more obnoxious and officious, towards one.”

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Varys

If you don’t learn anything else from the Game of Thrones, it should be to never underestimate your eunuchs, slaves, and dwarves!! Not to mention the little girls. That series could have been written by Robert Cecil, now that I think of it.

For the record, Robert was not a eunuch. He married and had two children. His line continues unbroken to this very day. He also famously had affairs with some fine ladies, like Lady Suffolk, Lady Derby, Lady Anne Clifford — or so it was said. Knowing Robert, he might have started those rumors himself. He something of a model for George R. R. Martin’s Tyrion Lannister, now that I think of it.

“But yet their trust towards them, hath rather been as to good spials [spies], and good whisperers, than good magistrates and officers.”

Cecil won and held office principally by having all the threads in his hands. He started courting James of Scotland while it was still borderline treasonous to do so. He was just super-clever about it, laying on the flattery and warning young James about devious persons like the Earl of Essex and Sir Walter Raleigh. Although in fairness, by all accounts he was an able administrator.

“And much like is the reason of deformed persons.” This is how they think. That’s all there is to it.

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Pedro de la Gasca

Or not quite all. “Still the ground is, they will, if they be of spirit, seek to free themselves from scorn; which must be either by virtue or malice; and therefore let it not be marvelled, if sometimes they prove excellent persons; as was Agesilaus, Zanger the son of Solyman, AEsop, Gasca, President of Peru; and Socrates may go likewise amongst them; with others.”

If they have a choice between virtue and malice, at least a few will go with the virtue. And here we go with another totally obscure list of examples. Sigh.

Pedro de la Gasca doesn’t look like a dwarf or a deformed person. His Wikipedia page doesn’t say. He was a very able administrator, however, being both a priest AND a lawyer. Agesilaus was King of Sparta, though short of stature and lame from birth. He was admired by his good friend, the historian Xenophon — a good strategy if you want to be remembered positively.

Zanger the son of Solyman sounds like a Marvel character. Nope; he’s the youngest son of Suleiman the Magnificent, who had a lot of sons. His real name is Şehzade Cihangir and he was born with many physical defects, though he was said to be very clever. I’ll bet old Suleiman was shooting damaged bullets by that time.

Aesop and Socrates, well, fine. Socrates was short and homely, if not precisely deformed.

Bacon's essays: Of Beauty

I somewhat suspect Bacon wrote Of Beauty so that he could write the next one, Of Deformity. But we’ll talk about that next month.

Virtue first

Bacon was reared by a strict Calvinist. He can’t talk about appearances without first making sure we understand that inner beauty is more important.jewel

“Virtue is like a rich stone, best plain set…” This is one of his more famous quotes. The usual interpretation, I think, is that virtue is beauty enough. Virtue is like a jewel. But it also means that virtue won’t show in a beautiful face, because you’ll be distracted by all that beauty.

He continues: “and surely virtue is best, in a body that is comely, though not of delicate features; and that hath rather dignity of presence, than beauty of aspect.”

This is getting rather detailed. Is he looking in a mirror? But no, Bacon wasn’t vain. Arrogant, yes, by all accounts, but not vain. Elizabethans believed the outer person reflected the inner character. So Virtue can’t be beautiful, or you won’t see it, but it can’t be ugly, either. That just wouldn’t make sense. Ugly, deformed people are wicked somewhere deep inside.

Beautiful people are seldom great

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King Edward IV

“Neither is it almost seen, that very beautiful persons are otherwise of great virtue; as if nature were rather busy, not to err, than in labor to produce excellency. And therefore they prove accomplished, but not of great spirit; and study rather behavior, than virtue.”

They don’t have to be accomplished, do they? Things get given to them. There are lots of studies about the impact of attractiveness on success. It helps, is the message. But being good at what you do also helps, so don’t take that as an excuse to lie down and do nothing if you don’t look like the people on TV.

There are exceptions, as Bacon notes. “Augustus Caesar, Titus Vespasianus, Philip le Belle of France, Edward the Fourth of England, Alcibiades of Athens, Ismael the Sophy of Persia, were all high and great spirits; and yet the most beautiful men of their times.”

Ismail_I
Shah Ismail I, Sophy of Persia

Really? I need to have a look at these fellows. And may I just note that I’ve always wanted to be the Sophy of Austin? I just truly love that title. Definitely don’t want the responsibility, though. Just the hat.

I’m skipping Augustus Caesar ‘cuz I had enough Roman emperors last time. There’s no sculpture of Alcibiades, so he must have established quite a reputation! His Wikipedia page says nothing about beauty. He was an able speaker, in spite of his lisp, and an unruly youth. Humph.

Edward the Fourth of England? Really not seeing it. Shah Ismael of Persia was quite the hottie, however. Two more… No portrait of Philip le Belle (Philip II), though he was described as a handsome, strapping fellow. Titus Vespasianus has busts and this fine full-length statue. He was quite the globe-trotter. He served in Britannia and in Judea, where he had an illicit affair with Queen Berenice, daughter of Herod Agrippa. Well, well, well.

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Titus Vespasianus in his birthday suit

The best part of beauty

“In beauty, that of favor, is more than that of color; and that of decent and gracious motion, more than that of favor.”

dancersSo, better to have a shapely nose than a porcelain complexion (which you can achieve with zinc), and better to be graceful and decorous (seemly) of motion than to have nice features. Hm. We tend to go with the pretty face, but we are all hooked on images, which focus on faces, rather than on watching people in motion. Unless they’re dancing.

Ha! He anticipated that thought there: “That is the best part of beauty, which a picture cannot express.” The movements, the ineffable qualities. Whatever it is that shows character.

On the other hand, “There is no excellent beauty, that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.” If the proportions are too perfect, too regular, the face is uninteresting and thus not really beautiful. Maybe he thinks beauty should have a touch of mystery?

“A man shall see faces, that if you examine them part by part, you shall find never a good; and yet altogether do well.” For Bacon, this follows on his observation that beauty of motion is best.

judi-dench
Judi Dench

“though persons in years seem many times more amiable; pulchrorum autumnus pulcher...” [the autumn of the beautiful is beautiful.] That’s interesting and, I think, true. I wish more actors and actresses could recognize this rule. They make hard caricatures of their beautiful faces with plastic surgery, so then they look like e.g. somebody wearing a really freaky Burt Reynolds mask.

Bacon goes on to say, “… for no youth can be comely but by pardon, and considering the youth, as to make up the comeliness.” No idea what this means! I think he means that true beauty is only found through acts — decent motion — and, underneath it all, virtue. Young people might be virtuous, but they haven’t done anything yet. So their beauty is superficial. 

Or maybe he means, they haven’t lived enough for their character to show on their faces. He wrote this in his sixties, I think. You do tend to think that all young people are beautiful, by virtue of their dewy young faces. But I remember not thinking that at all when I was young.

The obligatory moral

“Beauty is as summer fruits, which are easy to corrupt, and cannot last; and for the most part it makes a dissolute youth, and an age a little out of countenance; but yet certainly again, if it light well, it maketh virtue shine, and vices blush.”

Beautiful youths don’t achieve things, they’re given things. But if beauty happens upon a virtuous person, it adds luster and helps to repel vice.

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