Ugly Truths and How to Deal With Them

‘Ugly men are, and ought to be, ashamed of their existence.’

Walter Bagehot, Milton.

‘A certain samadhi monk of the lotus hall at Retired Emperor Takakura’s tomb one day picked up a mirror and took a good look at his face. The shocking ugliness of his own visage filled him with such despair that he found the very mirror repulsive; for a long time afterwards  he continued to fear mirrors so much that he wouldn’t even touch one, and he avoided the society of others. He secluded himself away, only emerging to take part in the temple’s devotions. I was very struck to hear this story.’

Yoshida Kenko, Essays in Idleness.

‘Since our persons are not of our own making, when they are such as appear defective or uncomely, it is, methinks, an honest and laudable fortitude to dare to be ugly; at least to keep our selves from being abashed with a consciousness of imperfections which we cannot help, and in which there is no guilt. I would not defend a haggard beau, for passing away much time at a glass, and giving softnesses and languishing graces to deformity. All I intend is, that we ought to be contented with our countenance and shape, so far, as never to give our selves an uneasy reflection on that subject. It is to the ordinary people, who are not accustomed to make very proper remarks on any occasion, matter of great jest, if a man enters with a prominent pair of shoulders into an assembly, or is distinguished by an expansion of mouth, or obliquity of aspect. It is happy for a man, that has any of these oddnesses about him, if he can be as merry upon himself, as others are apt to be upon that occasion: When he can possess himself with such a cheerfulness, women and children, who were at first frighted at him, will afterwards be as much pleased with him. As it is barbarous in others to railly him for natural defects, it is extremely agreeable when he can jest upon himself for them. Madame Maintenon’s first husband was a hero in this kind, and has drawn many pleasantries from the irregularity of his shape, which he describes as very much resembling the Letter Z. He diverts himself likewise by representing to his reader the make of an engine and pully, with which he used to take off his hat. When there happens to be any thing ridiculous in a visage, and the owner of it thinks it an aspect of dignity, he must be of very great quality to be exempt from raillery: The best expedient therefore is to be pleasant upon himself.’

Richard Steele, The Spectator, 20 March 1711.

‘Beauty is a thing of great recommendation in the correspondence amongst
men; ’tis the first means of acquiring the favour and good liking of one
another, and no man is so barbarous and morose as not to perceive himself
in some sort struck with its attraction. The body has a great share in
our being, has an eminent place there, and therefore its structure and
composition are of very just consideration. They who go about to
disunite and separate our two principal parts from one another are to
blame; we must, on the contrary, reunite and rejoin them. We must
command the soul not to withdraw and entertain itself apart, not to
despise and abandon the body (neither can she do it but by some apish
counterfeit), but to unite herself close to it, to embrace, cherish,
assist, govern, and advise it, and to bring it back and set it into the
true way when it wanders; in sum, to espouse and be a husband to it, so
that their effects may not appear to be diverse and contrary, but uniform
and concurring. Christians have a particular instruction concerning this
connection, for they know that the Divine justice embraces this society
and juncture of body and soul, even to the making the body capable of
eternal rewards; and that God has an eye to the whole man’s ways, and
wills that he receive entire chastisement or reward according to his
demerits or merits. The sect of the Peripatetics, of all sects the most
sociable, attribute to wisdom this sole care equally to provide for the
good of these two associate parts: and the other sects, in not
sufficiently applying themselves to the consideration of this mixture,
show themselves to be divided, one for the body and the other for the
soul, with equal error, and to have lost sight of their subject, which is
Man, and their guide, which they generally confess to be Nature. The
first distinction that ever was amongst men, and the first consideration
that gave some pre-eminence over others, ’tis likely was the advantage of

Now I am of something lower than the middle stature, a defect that not
only borders upon deformity, but carries withal a great deal of
inconvenience along with it, especially for those who are in office and
command; for the authority which a graceful presence and a majestic mien
beget is wanting. C. Marius did not willingly enlist any soldiers who
were not six feet high. The Courtier has, indeed, reason to desire a
moderate stature in the gentlemen he is setting forth, rather than any
other, and to reject all strangeness that should make him be pointed at.
But if I were to choose whether this medium must be rather below than
above the common standard, I would not have it so in a soldier. Little
men, says Aristotle, are pretty, but not handsome; and greatness of soul
is discovered in a great body, as beauty is in a conspicuous stature: the
Ethiopians and Indians, says he, in choosing their kings and magistrates,
had regard to the beauty and stature of their persons. They had reason;
for it creates respect in those who follow them, and is a terror to the
enemy, to see a leader of a brave and goodly stature march at the head of
a battalion.

And Plato, together with temperance and fortitude, requires beauty in the
conservators of his republic. It would vex you that a man should apply
himself to you amongst your servants to inquire where Monsieur is, and
that you should only have the remainder of the compliment of the hat that
is made to your barber or your secretary; as it happened to poor
Philopoemen, who arriving the first of all his company at an inn where he
was expected, the hostess, who knew him not, and saw him an unsightly
fellow, employed him to go help her maids a little to draw water, and
make a fire against Philopoemen’s coming; the gentlemen of his train
arriving presently after, and surprised to see him busy in this fine
employment, for he failed not to obey his landlady’s command, asked him
what he was doing there: “I am,” said he, “paying the penalty of my
ugliness.” The other beauties belong to women; the beauty of stature is
the only beauty of men. Where there is a contemptible stature, neither
the largeness and roundness of the forehead, nor the whiteness and
sweetness of the eyes, nor the moderate proportion of the nose, nor the
littleness of the ears and mouth, nor the evenness and whiteness of the
teeth, nor the thickness of a well-set brown beard, shining like the husk
of a chestnut, nor curled hair, nor the just proportion of the head, nor
a fresh complexion, nor a pleasing air of a face, nor a body without any
offensive scent, nor the just proportion of limbs, can make a handsome

Montaigne, On Presumption, translated by Charles Cotton.


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