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

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.”

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.

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

“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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