Bacon's Essays: Of Cunning

Back to the official order of essays. This week, we consider Of Cunning, a topic Bacon learned a lot about during his lifetime in Elizabeth and James’s courts.

Naked fools


The emperor walks naked

“We take cunning for a sinister or crooked wisdom. And certainly there is a great difference, between a cunning man, and a wise man; not only in point of honesty, but in point of ability.” Wisdom has depth; cunning is shallow. 

“…to know a fool from a wise man, Mitte ambos nudos ad ignotos, et videbis.” [Send both, stripped naked, to strangers, and you will soon see which is which.”] Cunning depends on disguises.

(“Naked” could mean “wearing only a shirt” in Bacon’s day.)

Small wares and shallow tricks

“And because these cunning men, are like haberdashers of small wares, it is not amiss to set forth their shop.” Those are not praise words! Let’s have a look at those wares.

“It is a point of cunning, to wait upon him with whom you speak, with your eye; as the Jesuits give it in precept: for there be many wise men, that have secret hearts, and transparent countenances.”

I’m not sure what this means. Any Jesuits in the audience? I think it probably means that cunning people mirror your expression, going “Uh-huh. Oh, yeah.” Wise people keep their own counsel and reserve judgement. Their faces are “transparent” in that they reveal their actual opinions, if anything.

anna-as-francisAnother is, that when you have anything to obtain, of present despatch, you entertain and amuse the party, with whom you deal, with some other discourse; that he be not too much awake to make objections.” The old distraction ploy — we all know that one. Get people rattled up about gay marriage and lower the tax rate on the super-rich. Effective!

And now it seems like Bacon’s reading from a stand-up comic’s playbook: “The breaking off, in the midst of that one was about to say, as if he took himself up, breeds a greater appetite in him with whom you confer, to know more.” Always leave them wanting more!

How about this advice? “And because it works better, when anything seemeth to be gotten from you by question, than if you offer it of yourself, you may lay a bait for a question, by showing another visage, and countenance, than you are wont; to the end to give occasion, for the party to ask, what the matter is of the change?”

It works, too. People walk past me at a conference and say, “Why on earth are you dressed like Francis Bacon?” And then I stuff a bookmark into their hand. Cunning, huh? Oh, yeah.

“In things that are tender and unpleasing, it is good to break the ice, by some whose words are of less weight, and to reserve the more weighty voice, to come in as by chance.” He’s obviously talking about book marketing. “Have you seen this hilarious cat video? Oh, by the way, I wrote a bunch of murder mysteries in which there are no cats whatsoever.”

“In things that a man would not be seen in himself, it is a point of cunning, to borrow the name of the world; as to say, The world says, or There is a speech abroad.” Many people are saying this.

The Columbo maneuver

“I knew another that, when he came to have speech, he would pass over that, that he intended most;columbo-peter-falk and go forth, and come back again, and speak of it as of a thing, that he had almost forgot.”

OK, I did not know that Francis Bacon was so influential in 70’s television circles!This essay is way more fun than I expected.

“Some procure themselves, to be surprised, at such times as it is like the party that they work upon, will suddenly come upon them; and to be found with a letter in their hand or doing somewhat which they are not accustomed; to the end, they may be apposed of those things, which of themselves they are desirous to utter.”

Now he’s obviously talking about Masterpiece Theater. We come upon Alistair Cooke in an armchair reading a book, and next thing we know we’re addicted to The Forsyte Saga. Talk about cunning! No one could actually read those books.

It’s like the cat in the pan, man

Bacon says this: “There is a cunning [proverb], which we in England can [know], the turning of the cat in the pan; which is, when that which a man says to another, he lays it as if another had said it to him.”

flipping-cakesExcept the cat turning in the pan usually means what we call flip-flopping. There’s a great explanation in this blog here. Originally, the thing in the pan was a cake. Makes more sense when you remember that ‘cat’ used to have an ‘e’ on the end. So what got flipped was a cake. The proverb meant then what it means now: to change views or sides abruptly.

Makes more sense with cake. If a cat finds itself in a pan, it’s going to flip right on out of there.

Everything sounds more plausible wrapped in an anecdote. “Some have in readiness so many tales and stories, as there is nothing they would insinuate, but they can wrap it into a tale; which serveth both to keep themselves more in guard, and to make others carry it with more pleasure.”

“A sudden, bold, and unexpected question doth many times surprise a man, and lay him open.” Another ploy of the detective.

“But these small wares, and petty points, of cunning, are infinite; and it were a good deed to make a list of them; for that nothing doth more hurt in a state, than that cunning men pass for wise.”

And ain’t that the truth!


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