Francis Bacon


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.

Bacon's essays: Of Youth and Age

At last, an essay that mostly makes sense right off the bat. Of Youth and Age is conventional wisdom, mostly, with that special Baconian twist.

I’ll pick quotes out of order for a change of pace, looking first at Youth, then at Age, and at some gentlemen who don’t quite fit either pattern.

The upside of youth

Cosimo de’ Medici, Duke of Florence

“A man that is young in years, may be old in hours, if he have lost no time. But that happeneth rarely.” He means that a young man who knows how to buckle down and make the most of his time could be considered old in experience. But then where’s the fun? The lessons learned from youthful indiscretions?

Cosimo is OK, but dig this crazy coat of arms the House of de’ Medici devised for themselves!

“But reposed natures may do well in youth. As it is seen in Augustus Caesar, Cosimus Duke of Florence, Gaston de Foix, and others.”


“Young men are fitter to invent, than to judge; fitter for execution, than for counsel; and fitter for new projects, than for settled business.”




The downside of youth

“Young men, in the conduct and manage of actions, embrace more than they can hold; stir more than they can quiet; fly to the end, without consideration of the means and degrees; pursue some few principles, which they have chanced upon absurdly; care not to innovate, which draws unknown inconveniences; use extreme remedies at first; and, that which doubleth all errors, will not bucking_horseacknowledge or retract them; like an unready horse, that will neither stop nor turn.”

Let me unpack this a little. “Stir more than they can quiet,” means set more things in motion than they can manage or bring to fruition. Similarly, “fly to the end, without consideration,” means getting ahead of yourself. Most things have a tedious middle section that has to be gotten through, in between the bright idea and the exciting finish.

Young people may not have the experience to avoid fruitless paths. “Care not to innovate,” I think means, “don’t mind innovating” even when that creates more inconveniences. I could be wrong on that one, but I don’t think it means, “don’t like to innovate,” because young people love to innovate. It saves having to learn stuff from the boring old past.

Not being willing to acknowledge your errors is one of the most annoying things for the people you work with. And Bacon is right: it totally makes things more difficult, either to go forward from the botch or to repair the thing. Own your mistakes, boys and girls. Say, “I screwed up. Let me fix it.”

The upside of age

Septimius Severus

“Natures that have much heat, and great and violent desires and perturbations, are not ripe for action, till they have passed the meridian of their years; as it was with Julius Caesar and Septimius Severus. Of the latter, of whom it is said, Juventutem egit erroribus, imo furoribus, plenam. [His youth was not only full of errors, but of frantic passions.] And yet he was the ablest emperor, almost, of all the list.”

Anyone recognize the name ‘Septimius Severus’? Severus Snape, perhaps? An able emperor, but a complex YA fantasy character.

Bacon is saying that passionate, wild-tempered, we might say hyper-active people, are going to be a hot mess in their youth, racketing from one thing to the next, getting into fights and bad affairs. Age slows them down enough for their reason to prevail. Then all that energy serves them well as they get older.

“…heat and vivacity in age, is an excellent composition for business.” 

“And certainly, the more a man drinketh of the world, the more it intoxicateth; and age doth profit rather in the powers of understanding, than in the virtues of the will and affections.”

Older people love the world more, in all its complicated weirdness. I’ve noticed that myself, now that I’m on the high side of sixty. Old people and middle-aged people look at things and laugh (not all couple-old-peoplethings, but ordinary life stuff), where young people are gaping in outrage and saying, “That should be stopped.” It’s perspective. You can’t make people stop being jerks or fools or whatever they are, so you might as well laugh.

I’m not sure about the “virtues of the will and affections.” Maybe he saying youth is more wilful, which might be true, somewhat. If he’s trotting out the old saw that youth loves more deeply than age, he’s wrong. Youth is just more single-minded about it.

Another thing he doesn’t note is the lessening of self-consciousness with age. There’s an old saying for that, apparently not as old as Bacon: In your twenties, you worry about what people think. In your forties, you don’t care what people think. In your sixties, you realize people haven’t been thinking about you at all.

The downside of age

“Men of age object too much, consult too long, adventure too little, repent too soon, and seldom drive business home to the full period, but content themselves with a mediocrity of success.”

Good enough to get along with; give it a lick and a promise.

old_women“…the errors of aged men, amount but to this, that more might have been done, or sooner.” This follows from consulting too long.

“A certain rabbin, upon the text, Your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams, inferreth that young men, are admitted nearer to God than old, because vision, is a clearer revelation, than a dream.”

This old saying was old in Bacon’s day. Now I have to look it up. Oh! It’s from the Bible, Acts 2:17. Who’d’ve thunk it?

A couple of guys that just couldn’t make it happen

“There be some, have an over-early ripeness in their years, which fadeth betimes.” Like a child star who never gets an adult part.

“These are, first, such as have brittle wits, the edge whereof is soon turned; such as was Hermogenes the rhetorician, whose books are exceeding subtle; who afterwards waxed stupid.” 

I would never want to hear Francis Bacon say I had waxed stupid! This is Hermogenes of Tarsus, surnamed The Polisher. What did he polish, we wonder? Arses? He flourished in the reign of Marcus Aurelius (AD 161–180).

Waxing stupid isn’t the worst thing that’s been said about this poor shlub. Here’s Wikipedia: “His precocious ability secured him a public appointment as teacher of his art while he was only a boy, attracting the note of the emperor himself; but at the age of twenty-five his faculties gave way, and he spent the remainder of his long life in a state of intellectual impotence.” Ouch!

I like the method of having one’s faculties grow stronger with age, except of course the knees and the eyes.

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