Bacon's essays: Of simulation and dissimulation

Bacon isn’t talking about computer modeling in this essay. He’s talking about deceit: when it’s necessary and when it should be avoided. The word ‘simulation’ is a fine example of semantic drift. In Bacon’s day, it only meant pretense, behaving falsely. Nowadays that meaning is hard to resurrect, it’s been so overgrown by the modeling sense. Dissimulation isn’t even a word for us, but for him it meant pretty much the same as simulation, but with a stronger connotation of ill intent. Sir Richard Steele distinguished them neatly: “Simulation is a Pretence of what is not, and Dissimulation a Concealment of what is.” (OED.) (Steele would have known Bacon’s essays by heart.)

Bacon advocates circumspection, rather than simulation, for those who can swing it. He seems to think such persons are few. Maybe they are; we do have a tendency to be eager to share what we know. That’s why there are Share buttons all over everything!

Livia Drusilla wife of Augustus Caesar Line engraving Wellcome L0050547 1This essay gets off to a rocky start, for my taste. I don’t know my Romans as well as Bacon did, so stories about Livia,  Augustus, and Tiberius go right over my head. (When I hear the name Tiberius, I think of a starship captain, not a Roman emperor.)

Bacon writes: “For if a man have that penetration of judgment, as he can discern what things are to be laid open, and what to be secreted, and what to be showed at half lights, and to whom and when (which indeed are arts of state, and arts of life, as Tacitus well calleth them), to him, a habit of dissimulation is a hinderance and a poorness. But if a man cannot obtain to that judgment, then it is left to him generally, to be close, and a dissembler.”

In other words, if you’re clever enough to know what to tell whom and when and not say any more than that to anyone, then lying will just get in your way. Least said, soonest mended. If you can’t be that discriminating, hold your tongue. Or, Bacon seems to advise, learn to lie. He means ‘be evasive’ more than ‘tell deliberate falsehoods.’

Either way, what an annoying person he must have been to talk to sometimes! I make him nicer than this in my stories. One of these days we’ll end up at Court, where he can dissemble with the rest of them.

Three degrees of concealment

He gives us the classic rhetorical division of the subject into three parts. “There be three degrees of this hiding and veiling of a man’s self. The first, closeness, reservation, and secrecy; when a man leaveth himself without observation, or without hold to be taken, what he is. The second, dissimulation, in the negative; when a man lets fall signs and arguments, that he is not, that he is. And the third, simulation, in the affirmative; when a man industriously and expressly feigns and pretends to be, that he is not.”

Well, that’s the opposite of Richard Steele’s definitions. Ay, me.

Bacon values reservation most highly. A man should not let his thoughts and feelings slop around out there where everyone can grab hold of them. “Besides (to say truth) nakedness is uncomely, as well in mind as body; and it addeth no small reverence, to men’s manners and actions, if they be not altogether open. As for talkers and futile persons, they are commonly vain and credulous withal. For he that talketh what he knoweth, will also talk what he knoweth not.” Ain’t that the truth!

He also points out that people who don’t tell secrets are often told them by others, so you learn more by holding your tongue. Sneaky.

The second degree, dissimulation, can be necessary, if you’re going to be discreet. You can’t just stand there saying nothing. This part is rather vivid; he must be writing from experience. “They will so beset a man with questions, and draw him on, and pick it out of him, that, without an absurd silence, he must show an inclination one way; or if he do not, they will gather as much by his silence, as by his speech.”

The third degree, simulation, “is a vice, rising either of a natural falseness or fearfulness, or of a mindBull Oostvaardersplassen 1 that hath some main faults.” Here he’s talking about outright deception, habitual lying. We say such people are full of bull and don’t respect them or trust them, although they can be entertaining.

The upside of deceit

Bacon finds three advantages to simulation and dissimulation. First, by obscuring your intentions, you can surprise your opponents.

Second, “to reserve to a man’s self a fair retreat.” If you don’t advertise your goal or target, you won’t be obliged to admit to failure if you don’t make it. (This sounds like a good strategy for dieting or setting a publication schedule…)

“The third is, the better to discover the mind of another.” This is a lovely strategy which I find near impossible for my own self, but it really does work. You say nothing, or little nothings like “oh?” and “huh.” Your interlocutor, frustrated by your lack of response, gives you more and more information. “What, you think the butler did it? Why, because he’s named in the will?”

Bacon isn’t irresponsible enough to leave us with the idea that lying is a good thing, so he ends with three disadvantages. First, both evasiveness and falsehoods make you look weak and fearful. Second, such behavior “puzzleth and perplexeth” people, so they don’t want to work with you. Third, “it depriveth a man of one of the most principal instruments for action; which is trust and belief.”

“The best composition and temperature, is to have openness in fame and opinion; secrecy in habit; dissimulation in seasonable use; and a power to feign, if there be no remedy.”

Sound advice, in any age.

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