The Courtier (3)

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Is beauty always good?

[The suggestion is made that beauty is often destructive.] Here Sir Frederick, to pacify master Morello and to break their talk, would not suffer Count Lewis to make answer, but interrupting him said: Perhaps master Morello is not altogether out of the way in saying that beauty is not always good, for the beauty of women is many times cause of infinite evils in the world: hatred, war, mortality, and destruction, whereof the razing of Troy can be a good witness. And beautiful women for the most part be either proud and cruel (as is said) or unchaste, but master Morello would find no fault with that. There be also many wicked men that have the comeliness of a beautiful countenance, and it seemeth nature hath so shaped them, because they may be the readier [more able] to deceive, and that this amiable look were like a bait that covereth the hook.

Then master Peter Bembo: Believe not (quoth he) but beauty is always good.

Here Count Lewis because he would return again to his former purpose, interrupted him and said: Since master Morello passeth not to understand that which is so necessary for him, teach it me, and show me how old men may come by this happiness of love, for I will not care to be counted old, so it may profit me.

Beauty can never be considered evil

Master Peter Bembo laughed and said: First will I take the error out of these gentlemen's mind, and afterward will I satisfy you also. So beginning afresh: My Lords (quoth he) I would not that with speaking ill of beauty, which is a holy thing, any of us as profane and wicked should purchase him the wrath of God. Therefore. . . I say that beauty cometh of God, and is like a circle, the goodness whereof is the centre. And therefore, as there can be no circle without a centre, no more can beauty be without goodness.

Whereupon doth very seldom an ill soul dwell in a beautiful body. And therefore is the outward beauty a true sign of the inward goodness, and in bodies this comeliness is imprinted more and less (as it were) for a mark of the soul, whereby she is outwardly known: as in trees, in which the beauty of the buds giveth a testimony of the goodness of the fruit. And the very same happeneth in bodies, as it is seen that palmisters [Note 1] by the visage know many times the conditions, and otherwhile the thoughts of men. And which is more, in beasts also a man may discern by the face the quality of the courage, which in the body declareth itself as much as it can. Judge you how plainly [in] the face of a Lion, a horse, and an Eagle, a man shall discern anger, fierceness, and stoutness; in lambs and doves simpleness and very innocency; the crafty subtlety in foxes and wolves, and the like (in a manner) in all other living creatures.

The foul therefore for the most part be also evil, and the beautiful good. Therefore it may be said that beauty is a face pleasant, merry, comely, and to be desired for goodness; and foulness a face dark, uglisome, unpleasant, and to be shunned for ill. And in case you will consider all things, ye shall find, that whatsoever is good and profitable, hath also evermore the comeliness of beauty.

Cosmic order and beauty

[Bembo reminds his listeners of the principles of cosmic order and beauty, making the traditional comparison with the human body.] Behold the state of this great Engine [physical universe] of the world, which God created for the health and preservation of everything that was made: the heaven round beset with so many heavenly lights; and in the middle, the earth environed with the elements, and upheld with the weight of itself; the sun, that compassing about giveth light to the whole, and in winter season draweth to the lowermost sign [i.e. astrological sign], afterward by little and little climbeth again to the other part; the moon, that of him taketh her light, according as she draweth nigh, or goeth farther from him; and the other five stars, [Note 2] that diversely keep the very same course.

These things among themselves have such force by the knotting together of an order so necessarily framed, that with altering them any one jot, they should be all loosed, and the world would decay. They have also such beauty and comeliness, that all the wits men have can not imagine a more beautiful matter.

Think now of the shape of man, which may be called a little world: in whom every parcel of his body is seen to be necessarily framed by art and not by hap [chance], and then the form altogether most beautiful, so that it were a hard matter to judge, whether the members--as the eyes, the nose, the mouth, the ears, the arms, the breast, and in like manner the other parts--give either more profit to the countenance and the rest of the body, or comeliness. The like may be said of all other living creatures. Behold the feathers of fowls, the leaves and boughs of trees, which be given them of nature ot keep them in their being, and yet have they withal a very great sightliness.

[So all things made by people, as well as those made by God, have their ordered beauty.] Leave nature, and come to art. What thing is so necessary in sailing vessels, as the fore part, the sides, the mainyards, the mast, the sails, the stern, oars, anchors, and tackle? All these things notwithstanding are so well favoured in the eye that unto who so beholdeth them, they seem to have been found out as well for pleasure, as for profit. . .

Good and beauty are in effect identical

Beside other things therefore it giveth a great praise to the world, in saying that it is beautiful. It is praised in saying the beautiful heaven, beautiful earth, beautiful sea, beautiful rivers, beautiful woods, trees, gardens, beautiful cities, beautiful churches, houses, armies. In conclusion this comely and holy beauty is a wondrous setting out of everything. And it may be said, that Good and Beautiful be after a sort one self [identical] thing, especially in the bodies of men; of the beauty whereof the nighest cause (I suppose) is the beauty of the soul, the which as a partner of the right and heavenly beauty, maketh sightly and beautiful whatever she toucheth, and most of all if the body where she dwelleth be not of so vile a matter that she cannot imprint in it her property.

Therefore beauty is the true monument and spoil of the victory of the soul, when she with heavenly influence beareth rule over material and gross nature, and with her light overcometh the darkness of the body.

It is not then to be spoken that beauty maketh women proud or cruel, although it seem so to master Morello. Neither yet ought beautiful women to bear the blame that hatred, mortality, and destruction, which the unbridled appetites of men are the cause of. I will not now deny but it is possible also to find in the world beautiful women unchaste, yet not because beauty inclineth them to unchaste living, for it rather plucketh them from it, and leadeth them into the way of virtuous conditions through the affinity that beauty hath with goodness. But otherwhile ill bringing up, the continual provocations of lovers, tokens, poverty, hope, deceits, fear, and a thousand other matters overcome the steadfastness, yea of beautiful and good women; and for these and like causes may also beautiful men become wicked.

Then said the Lord Cesar: In case the Lord Gaspar's saying be true of yesternight, there is no doubt, but the fair women be more chaste than the foul.

And what was my saying quoth the Lord Gaspar? The Lord Cesar answered: If I do well bear in mind, your saying was that the women that are sued to always refuse to satisfy him that sueth to them, but those that are not sued to, sue to others. There is no doubt but the beautiful women have always more suitors, and be more instantly laid at [approached] in love than the foul; therefore the beautiful always deny, and consequently be more chaste than the foul, which not being sued to, sue to others. [Note 3]

False beauty

Master Peter Bembo laughed and said: This argument can not be answered to. Afterward he proceeded. It chanceth also oftentimes, that as to other senses, so the sight is deceived and judgeth a face beautiful, which indeed is not beautiful. And because in the eyes, and in the whole countenance of some women, a man beholdeth otherwhile a certain lavish wantonness painted with dishonest flickerings, many whom that manner delighteth, because it promiseth them an easiness to come by the thing that they covet, call it beauty; but indeed it is cloaked unshamefastness [immodesty] unworthy of so honourable and holy a name. . .

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  1. Those who read palms, or (as here) faces.
  2. Only five planets were then known.
  3. Castiglione allows a traditionally misogynistic comment about women to enter the debate -- only ugly women need to be unchaste.

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