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.”

richardiii
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.”

tyrion
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.”

varys
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.

pedro_de_la_Gasca
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.

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