Of Deformity – Summary

Of Deformity is an essay by Francis Bacon.


The word ‘deformity’ in the title of the essay refers to unusual or abnormal features of a person’s body. Bacon states that deformed people are in harmony with nature. Referring to the Bible, he remarks that one who is naturally deformed also fails in having natural emotions. In other words, as deformed people are physically impaired by nature; they, in turn, devoid themselves of ‘natural affection’ by being unmerciful and lacking emotions for others. By doing so, they get their revenge on nature and hence achieve stability. As mentioned above, we find the influence of the scriptures on Bacon; blindness, leprosy, deafness and paralysis are a few common disabilities which are called diseases in the Bible. Disability has been equated with disease; it has been attributed to God, who inflicts it on disobedient people as an expression of his fury.

According to the Bible, disbelief in God is a sin as it damages the image of the divine. And committing this sin is metaphorically equivalent to disobedience towards God. Consequently, a disbelieving person receives God’s curse in the form of deformity. It is important at this point to understand what the scriptures state; the Bible views disability from a religious perspective, which was being annulled and questioned in the Renaissance period. Now it is interesting to observe how, first making the readers familiar with the established ideas around deformity, Bacon, in the remaining part of the essay, examines deformity as a Renaissance man.

Bacon now says that since there is an agreement between body and mind, when the body is impaired by nature so is the mind, which results in inappropriate behaviour by the deformed person. This idea at the root of physiognomy, a pseudo-science based on the belief that one’s bodily features shape one’s character or that the body reflects the ideas of the mind. However, Bacon does not conclude that it is true in every case. He differentiates between the ‘election’ of mind and ‘necessity’ of body. He propounds the view that one’s mind is free to act, irrespective of the deformity of body. What Bacon seems to argue here is interesting and against the basis of physiognomy. It is not in one’s hand to cure one’s twisted or impaired body (at least in those days), but one can rectify one’s morally warped behaviour.

It is necessary to understand what Bacon means by saying that “there is an election touching the frame of his mind, and a necessity in the frame of his body”. Bacon is highlighting the Renaissance principle that man, being a rational being, is responsible for his actions. There is nothing like predetermination and there is no causal relationship between a deformed body and moral corruption. People choose to act and behave in a certain way, and that is possible only if they are aware of the power of their mind. Some people realise this, and in such cases, the mind overpowers the wicked behaviour expected from their deformed bodies. Bacon has ingeniously made a comparison between the ‘stars of natural inclination’ and ‘sun of discipline and virtue’ to drive his point home. The sun here symbolises man’s rationale or the mind that can overshadow the natural inclinations towards evil in the deformed person.

Laying out his argument, Bacon now suggests that deformity is not a ‘sign’ of a person’s inappropriate behaviour because it would be deceptive to do so. Instead, it should be taken as a ‘cause’ which seldom fails in its effect, implying that it sometimes fails in moulding one’s behaviour. Most importantly, Bacon states, “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.” Abnormal features or deformities, which invite contempt for the person, also have the potential to make him/her immune to scorn and contempt. While defending themselves continuously from unkind comments, deformed people become used to this and become daring and courageous. Instead of crying over their weakness, they observe the mental or moral weaknesses of people around them.

Here Bacon follows a different trajectory. We can see that he is seeking some positivity in the deformed person. He further states that superior people are not envious of deformed people as they cannot harm them or challenge their positions. Being under this misconception, their superiors ignore their abilities until the deformed person possesses what he was aspiring for. This moment proves to be surprising for their superiors as the inferior one turns the tables upon them. Bacon then calls deformity an ‘advantage to rising’; suggesting that deformity can be turned into an opportunity. When people neglect you as an invalid, then you, by using your wit and being consistent in your efforts, must astonish them and prove your worth. This again reminds us of the Renaissance thinking that one’s will is what matters, nothing is determined in advance.

Bacon implies that deformed persons can know their worth, by referring to ancient times. Being envious of others’ bodily perfection, eunuchs would be submissive and obliged to their superiors to get favours. Further, they would act, not as the king’s officials but as spies. Bacon has cleverly chosen the words “spials and good whisperers” for eunuchs rather than ‘magistrate or officer.’ Whereas a magistrate judges on the basis of visible evidences or happenings, a spy is attentive to what is happening behind the scenes and hence updates the king about any conspiracy or rebellion brewing against him. Just as a eunuch would manage to perform responsibly, a deformed person can do the same.

What is established from the above example is that, just like a eunuch, a deformed person can protect himself from receiving scornful remarks if he wishes to do so. By hook or by crook he can achieve what a normal person can, and when it happens, we should not wonder. It is not surprising that history has names such as Agesilaus, Zanger, Aesop, Gasca the President of Peru and Socrates; all of whom were deformed in one way or the other and made their way to success. Citing the names of these great rulers, writers and philosophers, Bacon emphasises again that, through intelligent choice a ‘deformed person’ can turn out to be a genius and an exemplar. Bacon’s views in this essay truly reflect the emerging worldly approach of the early modern period, where the masses started disapproving of deformity as a sign of malevolence and a penalty inflicted by God for disobedience.

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