Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Portraits of Statisticians: Sir William Petty

Famously described by William Congreve as a "Paint-drinking, skewwigged ninnybob," Sir William Petty lived to be insulted. He had at least a brief association with every significant figure in late 17th century politics and philosophy, and he seems to have been lambasted by all of them. Scholars disagree as to when Sir William began to deliberately seek out the vituperation of the great. It is an established fact, however, that the first of many journals where he recorded each insult begins with a pasted in note, believed to have been written by the captain of the ship where Petty served as a cabin boy at the age of 14:

"Thisse fowl bagg of sloth in form of boye, thisse lackluster lackwit lackey of Lusifir, thisse caldron of yncompetence, thisse lard befingered mangler of knots, thisse ill starred lodestone that ever pointeth Hellward... in short, thisse ydiot is put from off thisse ship to wander the shores of Normandee, in the sure hope that he shall bring the entire nation of France to tumble oceanward, and thus redeeme himself in somme small measure."
The captain set the tone for Sir William's future employers and acquaintances. While working as Thomas Hobbes' personal secretary he contrived to spill a bottle of very fine and rare brandy over a nearly completed early draft of Leviathan, compounding the error by setting the whole thing on fire. Hobbes' reaction, as recorded in Petty's journal, was understandably distraught:

T.H. did screech and leap about, beating myself around the head and shoulders with his burning book, all the while declaring me to be "the very stuff of which dung heaps do one day aspire to be made" and "the ditch dropping of a hog impregnated whore." I thought this last very fine, though not a patch on the previous week, when M. Descartes named me "a pustule of which one cannot tell if the greater foulness be contained within or spread upon its bloated surface," after I trod not once, not twice, but thrice upon his gouty toes. I believe it was his appalling accent that added a certain savor.

While at Oxford, Petty met Robert Boyle. Sir William delighted in neglecting the social graces around the fastidious Boyle, chewing with his mouth open when they took meals together, taking his shoes off and placing them on the table in the middle of a conversation for no apparent reason, and constantly reaching out with a moistened finger and attempting to smooth out Boyle's wild eyebrows. When he could take no more, Boyle cried out that Petty was
"...like unto a large fart in a small room, noxiously invading the senses of all men of taste!"
Petty also met John Milton during this time, who referred to him as "a purest twat, the sight of whom makes the onward march of my glaucoma a great mercy."

One glaring omission from Petty's conquests is Oliver Cromwell. During the Commonwealth Sir William did all he could to get close to and then infuriate him, but Cromwell proved either unflappable or oblivious. Finding relatively subtle tactics like sneezing in his face ineffective, Petty pulled out all the stops. He propositioned Cromwell's daughters, loudly and as crudely as possible, in Cromwell's presence. He performed obviously unnecessary amputations on key members of the New Model Army while serving as their physician. He even made a point of emitting regretful (and dangerously treasonous) sighs whenever Charles I's name came up. It was all to no avail. Sir William thought he was finally getting through when he started addressing the Lord Protector by the nickname "Ollie Crom-Crom," but was horrified when he discovered that Cromwell had fallen in love with it, going so far as to sign the brutal Act For the Settlement of Ireland with the name.

While Petty's attempts to get up Cromwell's nose were missed by their intended target, they did not go unnoticed by others, and may have been instrumental in saving him from execution upon the restoration of the monarchy. He bounced back, and had his greatest triumph when, while receiving his knighthood from Charles II, he slipped and "accidentally" bashed his forehead into the sovereign's nose, eliciting twin torrents of blood and abuse. Petty writes
I feared to have died of pleasure, as the king screamed out a whole lexicon of invective. A stream of "arseholes" and "whoresons" gave way to the sort of eloquent curse that can only come from God's anointed monarch. I was told that I was "not fit to be skinned and used as a condom by Satan"; that "the company of a dead weasel that had been rolled in the vomit of a buzzard" was preferable to mine; and that he would "take an onion studded with broken glass" and place it up my fundament if I ever crossed his path again. I have never been more proud.

1 comment:

Julie Powell said...

The creepy thing is, this rings oddly true to my own experience.