Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Francis Bacon, The Essays

Francis Bacon, The Essays, Penguin Classics, Edited with an Introduction by John Pitcher, London, 1985.

The poet Ben Jonson, not an easy man to please, declared that no one every spoke ‘more neatly, more pressly [precisely], more weightily, or suffered less emptiness, less idleness’ in his speech than Bacon. His ‘hearers could not cough, or look aside from him, without loss’ and the ‘fear of every man that heard him was lest he should make an end’. [‘Explorata: or Discoveries’, in Ben Jonson: the Complete Poems, ed. George Parfitt, Penguin, 1975, p. 401.] (23)

Tracing back through the published sequence of Essays, form the final edition in 1625 to the one in 1612 and then to the first versions in 1597, we find everywhere a perceptible thinning out of the prose between this or that observation or maxim. In 1597 and 1612, Of Suitors begins ‘Many ill matters are undertaken, and many good matters with ill minds’, but in 1625 the alliterative doubling on many, matters and minds, and the single fulcrum of undertaken is changed into something very fancy indeed: /
Many ill matters and projects are undertaken, and private suits do putrefy the public good. Many good matters are undertaken with bad minds; I mean not only corrupt minds, but crafty minds that intend not performance. (26)

In 1625, the Essays are like an expanding universe, moving outwards, filling space so as to be able to join up within what is irreconcilable matter: the conjunctions striven for are impossible, but the words continue to flow in. so much so, in some instances, that the prose can become heavily literary, or even flatulent. (27)

[1625] What is truth? said jesting Pilate, [in John 18.37, Jesus declares that he has come into the world to bear witness to the truth, to which Pilate replies ‘What is truth?’ : jesting, or scoffing, is Bacon’s addition] and would not stay for an answer. (Of Truth, 61)

This same truth is a naked and open daylight that doth not show the masques and mummeries and triumphs of the world half so stately and daintily as candle-lights. Truth may perhaps come to the price of a pearl, that showeth best by day; but it will not rise to the price of a diamond or carbuncle, that showeth best in varied lights. A mixtureof a lie doth ever add pleasure. (Of Truth, 61)

One of the Fathers, in great severity, called poesy vinum daemonum [The wine of devils (St Augustine calls poetry the ‘wine of error’; St Jerome, the ‘food of devils’)] because it filleth the imagination and yet it is but with the shadow of a lie. (Of Truth, 62)

But is it not the lie that passeth through the mind but the lie that sinketh in and settleth in it, that doth the hurt, … (Of Truth, 62)

Certainly the contemplation of death as the wages of sin and passage to another world is holy and religious, but the fear of it, as a tribute due unto nature, is weak. (Of Death, 64)

Groans and convulsions and a discoloured face, and fiends weeping, and blacks and obsequies and the like show death terrible. (Of Death, 64)

But above all, believe it, the sweetest canticle is Nunc dimittis [Now let (your servant) depart (in peace), Luke 2.29], when a man hath obtained worthy ends and expectations. Death hath this also, that it openeth the gate to good fame, and extinguisheth envy: Extinctus amabitur idem [The same man (envied while alive) will be loved once he is dead, Horace, Epistles, II, 1.14] (Of Death, 66)

Men create oppositions which are not, and put them into new terms so fixed as, whereas the meaning ought to govern the term, the term in effect governeth the meaning. (Of Unity in Religion, 69)

For as the temporal sword is to be drawn with great circumspection in cases of religion, so it is a thing monstrous to put it into the hands of the common people. Let that be left unto the Anabaptists and other furies. [Protestant sectarians who had radical views on the equality of men, and whose history had been violent.] (Of Unity in Religion, 70)

Nay rather, vindicative persons live the life of witches, who, as they are mischievous, so end they infortunate. (Of Revenge, 73)

…that Hercules, when he went to unbind Prometheus (by whom human nature is represented), sailed the length of the great ocean in an earthen pot or pitcher; [For the earthen pot, not in Apollodorous, see R. S. Peterson, Imitation and Praise in the Poems of Ben Jonson, New Haven and London, 1981, pp. 131-3. In The Wisdom of the Ancients, Bacon explains the hidden meaning of the story like this: ‘The voyage of Hercules especially, sailing in a pitcher to set Prometheus free, seems to present an image of God the Word [Christ] hastening in the frail vessel of the flesh to redeem the human race’. See below, p. 276] lively describing Christian resolution, that saileth in the frail bark of the flesh thorough the waves of the world. (Of Adversity, 74)

…the pencil of the Holy Ghost hath laboured more in describing the afflictions of Job than the felicities of Solomon. Prosperity is not without many fears and distastes, and adversity is not without comforts and hopes. We see in needleworks and embroideries, it is more pleasing to have a lively work upon a sad and solemn ground, than to have a dark and melancholy work upon a lightsome ground: judge therefore of the pleasure of the heart by the pleasure of the eye. Certainly virtue is like precious odours, most fragrant when they are incensed or crushed; for prosperity doth best discover vice, but adversity doth best discover virtue. (Of Adversity, 75)

For men are too cunning to suffer a man to keep an indifferent carriage between both, and to be secret, without swaying the balance on either side. (Of Simulation and Dissimulation, 77)

Let parents choose betimes the vocations and courses they mean their children should take, for then they are most flexible. And let them not too much apply themselves to the disposition of their children, as thinking they will take best to that which they have most mind to. It is true that if the affection or aptness of the children be extraordinary, thenit is good not to cross it: but generally the precept is good, Optimum elige, suave et facile illud faciet consuetude. [Choose what is best, and habit will make it pleasant and easy (a saying ascribed to the followers of Pythagoras, in Plutarch, On Exile, 8 (Moralia, 602b)] (Of Parents and Children, 80)

He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune [i.e. has placed himself at a disadvantage, since he must do nothing which may jeopardize the well-being of his wife and children, the hostages who prosper or suffer according to his good or bad fortunes.], for they are impediments to great enterprises, either of virtue or mischief. (Of Marriage and Single Life, 81)

Unmarried men are best friends, best masters, best servants; but not always best subjects, for they are light to run away; and almost all fugitives are of that condition. (Of Marriage and Single Life, 81)

Certainly wife and children are a kind of discipline of humanity; (Of Marriage and Single Life, 82)

For envy is a gadding passion, and walketh the streets, and doth not keep home: Non est curiosus, quin idem sit malevolus. [No one is inquisitive without being malevolent as well, Platuus, Stichus, I.3.54] (Of Envy, 84)

The inclination to goodness is imprinted deeply in the nature of man, insomuch that if it issue not towards men, it will take unto other living creatures: as it is seen in the Turks, a cruel people, who nevertheless are kind to beasts and give alms to dogs and birds; (Of Goodness and Goodness of Nature, 97)

Therefore, to avoid the scandal and the danger both, it is good to take knowledge of the errors of an habit so excellent. Seek the good of other men, but be not in bondage to their faces or fancies, for that is but facility or softness, which taketh an honest mind prisoner. (Of Goodness and Goodness of Nature, 97)

Such men in other men’s calamities are, as it were, in season [At their happiest],… (Of Goodness and Goodness of Nature, 97)

…that make it their practice to bring men to the bough [i.e. to hang themselves], and yet have never a tree for the purpose in their gardens, as Timon had [Timothy of Athens, known as the Misanthrope, announced that since he was going to cut down a tree in his garden on which many had hanged themselves, would-be suicides should use it at once.] (Of Goodness and Goodness of Nature, 98)

As for nobility in particular persons, it is a reverend thing to see an ancient castle or building not in decay, or to see a fair timber-tree sound and perfect: how much more to behold an ancient and noble family which hath stood against the waves and weathers of time. For new nobility is but the act of power, but ancient nobility is the act of time. Those that are first raised to nobility are commonly more virtuous but less innocent than their descendants—for there is rarely any rising but by a commixture of good and evil arts. (Of Nobility, 100)

Shepherds of people had need know the calendars of tempests in state; (Of Seditions and Troubles, 101)

For when the authority of princes is made but an accessory to a cause, and that there be other bands that tie faster than the band of sovereignty, kings begin to be put almost out of possession. (Of Seditions and Troubles, 102)

[In Bacon’s day, an atheist was not necessarily someone who denied the existence of God, but someone who identified the creative principles of the universe with God. Note 4, page 109, Of Atheism]

For none deny there is a God but those for whom it maketh [It seems to be an advantage to believe] that there were no God. (Of Atheism, 109)

And, which is most of all, you shall have of them that will suffer for atheism and not recant; whereas if they did truly think that there were no such things as God, why should they trouble themselves? (Of Atheism, 109)

But the great atheists indeed are hypocrites, which are ever handling holy things, but without feeling; so as they must needs be cauterized in the end. (Of Atheism, 109)

They that deny a God destroy man’s nobility, for certainly man is of kin to the beasts by his body, and if he be not of kin to God by his spirit, he is a base and ignoble creature. It destroys likewise magnanimity, and the raising of human nature. For take an example of a dog, and mark what a generosity and courage he will put on when he finds himself maintained by a man, who to him is in stead of a god, or melior natura [a better nature, from Ovid, Metamorphoses, I.21] , which courage is manifestly such as that creature, without that confidence of a better nature than his own, could never attain… Therefore, as atheism is in all respects hateful, that it depriveth human nature of the means to exalt itself above human frailty. (Of Atheism, 110)

It were better to have no opinion of God at all than such an opinion as is unworthy of him: for the one is unbelief, the other is contumely; and certainly superstition is the reproach of the Deity. (Of Superstition, 111)

Atheism leaves a man to sense, to philosophy, to natural piety, to laws, to reputation; all which may be guides to an outward moral virtue, though religion were not; but superstition dismounts all these and erecteth an absolute monarchy in the minds of men. Therefore atheism did never peturb states, for it makes men wary of themselves, as looking no further: and we see the times inclined to atheism (as the time Augustus Caesar) were civil times. (Of Superstition, 111)

The causes of superstition are: pleasing and sensual rites and ceremonies; excess of outward and pharisaical holiness; (Of Superstition, 112)

And as wholesome meat corrupteth to little words, so good forms and orders corrupt into a number of petty observances. (Of Superstition, 112)

There is a superstition in avoiding superstition, when men think to do best if they go furthest from the superstition formerly received: therefore care would be had (as it fareth in ill purgings) the good be not taken away with the bad, which commonly is done, when the people is the reformer. (Of Superstition, 112)

It is a strange thing that in sea voyages, where there is nothing to be seen but sky and sea, men should make diaries; but in land-travel, wherein so much is to be observed, for the most part they omit it; (Of Travel, 113)

If you will have a young man … travel… Let him not stay long in one city or town; more or less as the place deserveth, but not long: nay, when he stayeth in one city or town, let him change his lodging form one end and part of the town to another, (Of Travel, 114)

And let his travel appear rather in his discourse than in his apparel or gesture; and in his discourse, let him be rather advised in his answer than forwards to tell stories; and let it appear that he doth not change his country manners for those of foreign parts, but only prick in some flowers of that he hath learned abroad into the customs of his own country. (Of Travel, 114)

It is a miserable state of mind to have few things to desire and many things to fear. (Of Empire, 115)


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home