Francis Bacon.

Bacon's essays : with annotations (Volume 3) online

. (page 29 of 57)
Online LibraryFrancis BaconBacon's essays : with annotations (Volume 3) → online text (page 29 of 57)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

have no means of deciding, with just confidence, which of two
roads he ought to take ; while yet he must, at a venture, take
one of them. And the like happens in numberless transactions
of ordinary life, in which we are obliged practically to make up
our minds at once to take one course or another, even where
there are no sufficient grounds for a full conviction of the

The infirmities above mentioned are those of ordinary minds.
A smaller number of persons, among whom, however, are to be
found a larger proportion of the intelligent, are prone to the
opposite extreme ; that of not deciding, as long as there are
reasons to be found on both sides, even though there may be a
clear and strong preponderance on the one, and even though the
case may be such as to call for a practical decision. As the
one description of men rush hastily to a conclusion, and trouble
themselves little about premises, so, the other carefully examine
premises, and care too little for conclusions. The one decide
without inquiring, the other inquire without deciding.

' Beware of being too material.'

On this point I take the liberty of quoting a passage from
the Elements of Rhetoric [p. 3, ch. i. 2] :

' It is remarked by anatomists that the nutritive quality is

Essay xxv.] Annotations. 289

not the only requisite in food, that a certain degree of disten-
sion of the stomach is required to enable it to act with its full
powers, and that it is for this reason hay or straw must be
given to horses as well as corn, in order to supply the neces-
sary bulk. Something analogous to this takes place with
respect to the generality of minds, which are incapable of
thoroughly digesting and assimilating what is presented to them
in a very small compass. Many a one is capable of deriving
that instruction from a moderate-sized volume, which he could
not receive from a very small pamphlet, even more perspicu-
ously written, and containing everything that is to the purpose.
It is necessary that the attention should be detained for a cer-
tain time on the subject ; and persons of unphilosophical mind,
though they can attend to what they read or hear, are unapt to
dwell upon it in the way of subsequent meditation. 3 1

' True dispatch is a rich thing'

It is a rare and admirable thing when a man is able both to
discern which cases admit, and which not, of calm deliberation ;
and also to be able to meet both in a suitable manner. Such a
character is most graphically described by Thucydides in his
account of Themistocles ; who, according to him, was second 'to
none in forming his plans on cautious inquiry and calm reflec-
tion, when circumstances allowed him, and yet excelled most
men in hitting off some device to meet some sudden emergency :

If you cannot tind a counsellor who combines these two kinds
of qualification (which is a thing not to be calculated on), you
should seek for some of each sort ; one, to devise and mature
measures that will admit of delay; and another, to make prompt
guesses, and suggest sudden expedients. A bow, such as is
approved by our modern toxophilites, must be backed that in,
made of two slips of wood glued together : one a very elastic,
but somewhat brittle wood ; the other much less elastic, but
very tough. The one gives the requisite spring, the other keeps
it from breaking. If you have two such counsellors as are hero
spoken of, you are provided with a backed bow.

1 Elements of Rhetoric, Part III. chap. i. 2.

290 Of Dispatch. [Essay xxv.

And if you yourself are of one of the two above-mentioned
characters the slow-hound, or the grey-hound you should
especially provide yourself with an adviser of the opposite class :
one to give you warning of dangers and obstacles, and to cau-
tion you against precipitate decisions, if that be your tendency ;
or one to make guesses, and suggest expedients, if you are one
of the slow and sure.

Those who are clever [in the proper sense i.e. quick'] are
apt to be so proud of it as to disdain taking time for cautious
inquiry and deliberation ; and those of the opposite class are
perhaps no less likely to pride themselves on their cautious
wisdom. But these latter will often, in practice, obtain this
advantage over those they are opposed to that they will defeat
them without direct opposition, by merely asking for postpone-
ment and reconsideration, in cases where (as Bacon expresses
it) * not to decide, is to decide/ If you defer sowing a field till
the seedtime is past, you have decided against sowing it. If
you carry the motion that a Bill be read a second time this day
six months, you have thrown it out.


IT hath been an opinion, that the French are wiser than they
seem, and the Spaniards seem wiser than they are ; but
howsoever it be between nations, certainly it is so between man
and man ; for, as the Apostle saith of godliness, ' Having a show
of godliness, but denying the power thereof/ 1 so, certainly
there are, in points of wisdom and sufficiency, 2 that do nothing
or little, very solemnly, Magno conatu nugas. 3 It is a ridiculous
thing, and fit for a satire to persons of judgment, to see what
shifts these formalists have, and what prospectives 4 to make
superficies to seem body that hath depth and bulk. Some are
so close and reserved, as they will not show their wares but by
a dark light, and seem always to keep back somewhat ; and
when they know within themselves they speak of that they do
not well know, would nevertheless seem to others to know of
that which they may not well speak. Some help themselves
with countenance and gesture, and are wise by signs ; as Cicero
saith of Piso, 5 that when he answered him he fetched one of his
brows up to his forehead, and bent the other down to his chin ;
' Respondes, altero ad frontem sublato, altero ad mentum de-
presso supercilio, crudelitatem tibi nonplacere/ 6 Some think
to bear 7 it by speaking a great word, and being peremptory;
and go on, and take by admittance that which they cannot
make good. Some, whatsoever is beyond their reach, will seem
to despise, or make light of it, as impertinent 8 or curious, 9 and

1 2 Timothy iii. 5.

a Sufficiency. Ability ; adequate power. ' Our sufficiency is of God.' 2 Cor.
iii. 5.

3 Trifles with great effort.

4 Prospectives. Perspective glasses.

' They speke of Alhazen and Vitellon,

Of queinte mirrours, and of prospectives .' Chaucer.
* In Pis. 6.

6 ' You answer, with one eyebrow up to your forehead and the other down to your
chin, that you do not approve of cruelty/

7 Bear. To manage; to contrive.

' We'll direct her how 'tis hest to tear it.' ShaJcespere.

8 Impertinent. Irrelevant.

' Without the which, this story
Were most impertinent.' Shakespere.

9 Curious. Over-nice. See page IOO.

II 2

392 Of seeming Wise. [Essay xxvi.

so would have their ignorance seem judgment. Some are never
without a difference/ and commonly by amusing men with a
subtlety, blanch 2 the matter ; of whom A. Gellius saith, ' Homi-
nem delirum, qui verborum minutiis rerum frangit pondera.' 3
Of which kind also Plato, in his Protagoras,* bringeth in Pro-
dicus in scorn, and maketh him make a speech that cousisteth
of distinctions from the beginning to the end. Generally, such
men, in all deliberations, find ease to be of the negative side,
and affect a credit to object and foretell difficulties ; for when
propositions are denied, there is an end of them ; but if they be
allowed, it requireth a new work ; which false point of wisdom
is the bane of business. To conclude, there is no decaying
merchant, or inward beggar/ hath so many tricks to uphold the
credit of their wealth, as these empty persons have to maintain
the credit of their sufficiency. Seeming wise men may make
shift to get opinion ; but let no man chuse them for employ-
ment ; for, certainly, you were better take for business a man
somewhat absurd than over-formal.


* Some help themselves with countenance and gesture?

Cowper in his Conversation has well described a man of
this class :

' A shallow brain behind a serious mask,
An Oracle within an empty cask,
The solemn fop ; significant and budge ;
A fool with judges, amongst fools a judge ;

1 Difference. A. subtle distinction.

Blanch. To evade. ' A man horribly cheats his own soul, who upon any pre-
tence whatever, or under any temptation, forsakes or llanches the true principles
of religion.' Goodman's Conference.

'A senseless man who fritters away weighty matters by trifling with words.'
(This expression not in Aulus Gellius. A passage like it occurs in Quintilian
ix I.)

4 Plato, Protag. i. 337.

* Inward beggar. One secretly a bankrupt.

' To the sight unfold
His secret gems, and all the inward gold.' Lansdowne.

Essay xxvi.] . Annotations. 293

He says but little, and that little said,

Owes all its weight, like loaded dice, to lead.

His wit invites you by his looks, to come,

But when you knock, it never is at home ;

'Tis like a parcel sent you by the stage,

Some handsome present, as your hopes presage ;

"Pis heavy, bulky, and bids fair to prove

An absent friend's fidelity and love ;

But when unpacked, your disappointment groans

To find it stuffed with brickbats, earth, and stones/

' Seeming wise men may make shift to get opinion.'

There is a way in which some men seem, to themselves, and
often to others also, to be much wiser than they are ; by acting
as a wise man does, only, on wrong occasions, and altogether
under different circumstances. Such a man has heard that it
is a wise thing to be neither too daring nor too timid ; neither
too suspicious nor too confiding ; too hasty nor too slow, &c.,
and he ventures and holds back, trusts and distrusts, hastens
and delays, spends and spares, &c., just in the same degree that
a wise man does, only, he is venturesome where there is real
danger, and cautious where there is none ; hasty where there is
no cause, and dilatory when everything turns on dispatch;
trusting those unworthy of confidence, and suspicious of the
trustworthy; parsimonious towards worthy objects, and profuse
towards the worthless ; &c.

Such a character may be called ' the reflection of a wise man.'
He is the figure of a wise man shown by a mirror ; which is an
exact representation, except that it is left-handed.

The German child's-story of Hans und Grettel, like many
other childish tales, contains, under a surface of mere foolery,
an instructive picture of real life. Hans stuck a knife in his
sleeve, having been told that was the proper place for the needle ;
and put a kid in his pocket, because that was the place for a
knife, &c.

It may be said, almost without qualification, that true wisdom
consists in the ready anct accurate perception of analogies.
Without the former quality, knowledge of the past is uniii-
structive ; without the latter, it is deceptive.

294 Of seeming Wise. [Essay xxvi.

One way in which many a man aims at and pretends to
wisdom, who ' has it not in him/ is this : he has heard that
' the middle course is always the best / that ' extremes are to be
avoided/ &c. ; and so he endeavours in all cases to keep at an
equal distance from the most opposite parties. As was ob-
served in ' Annotation ' the second on Essay XI., he will never
quite agree, nor very widely disagree with either : and thus, as
almost always each party is right in something, he misses the
truth on both sides ; and while afraid of being guided by either
party, he is in fact guided by both. His mimic wisdom con-
sists in sliding alternately towards each extreme. But if ypur
orbit be a true circle, independent of the eccentric elliptical
orbits of others, this will make sundry nodes with theirs ; some-
times falling within and sometimes without the same eccentric
orbit. That is, in some points you will approach nearer to the
one than to the other ; in some you will wholly agree with one
party, and in some with another ; in some you will differ
equally from both ; and in some you will even go further from
the one party than the opposite one does. For, true wisdom
does not depend on another's extravagance and folly. The
varieties of human error have no power to fix the exact place of

Another exemplification of the golden mean upon which this
seeming wise man prides himself, is the adoption of the conclu-
sion that where a great deal is said, something must be true ;
imagining that he is showing a most judicious and laudable
caution in believing only part of what is said, doing what is
called 'splitting the difference/ This is the wisdom of the
clown, who thinks he has bought a great bargain of a Jew,
because he has beat down the price from a guinea to a crown
for some article that is not really worth a groat.

Another of these pretenders to being, or being thought to
be, wise, prides himself on what he calls his consistency, on
his never changing his opinions or plans ; which, as long as
Man is fallible, and circumstances change, is the wisdom of one
either too dull to detect his mistakes, or too obstinate to own

Another, having been warned that ( wisdom and wit ' are not
the same thing, makes it a part of wisdom to distrust every-
thing that can possibly be regarded as witty ; not having judg-

Essay xxvi.] Annotations. 295

ment to perceive the combination, when it occurs, of wit with
sound reasoning. The ivy-wreath conceals from his view the
point of the Thyrsus. His is not the wisdom that can laugh
at what is ludicrous, and, at the same time, preserve a clear
discernment of sound and unsound reasoning.

Again Some of these seeming wise men pride themselves
on their scorn for all systematic knowledge, and on their
reliance on what they call common sense and experience. They
depend on their 'experience' and their ' common sense' for every-
thing, and are continually obtruding what may be called the
pedantry of experience and common sense on the most abstruse
subjects. They meet all scientific and logical argument with
' Common sense tells me I am right/ and 'My every-day's
experience confirms me in the opinion I have formed/ If they
are spoken to of Political Economy, they will immediately
reply, ' Ah, I know nothing of the dreams of Political Economy'
(this is the very phrase I have heard used) ' I never studied
it I never troubled myself about it ; but there are some points
upon which I have made up my mind, such as the question of
free trade and protection, and poor-laws.' ' I do not pro-
fess' a man will perhaps say ' to know anything of Me-
dicine, or Pharmacy, or Anatomy, or any of those things;
but I know by experience that so and so is wholesome for sick

In former times men knew by experience that the earth
stands still, and the sun rises and sets. Common sense taught
them that there could be no antipodes, since men could not
stand with their heads downwards, like flies on the ceiling.
Experience taught the King of Bantam that water can never
become solid. And to come to the case of human affairs
the experience and common sense of the most intelligent of the
Roman historians, Tacitus, taught him that for a mixed govern-
ment to be established, combining the elements of royalty,
aristocracy, and democracy, would be next to impossible ; and
that if it were established, it must speedily be dissolved.
Yet, had he lived to the present day, he would have learned
that the establishment and continuance of such a form of
government was not impossible. So much for experience !
The experience of these wise men resembles the learning
of a man who has turned over the pages of a great many

296 Of seeming Wise. [Essay xxvi.

books without ever having learned to read ; and their so-called
'common sense' is often, in reality, nothing else than common

Yet these very persons pass for wise, or, as Bacon expresses
it, ' get opinion/ by the oracular decisions they are continually
pronouncing on the most difficult scientific questions. For
instance, decisions on questions concerning taxation, tithes, the
national debt, the poor-laws, the wages which labourers earn
or ought to earn, the comparative advantages of different modes
of charity, and numberless other questions of Political Economy,
are boldly pronounced by them, while not only ignorant, but
professedly ignorant, and designing to continue so, of the whole
subject : neither having, nor pretending to have, nor seeking for,
any fixed principles by which to regulate their judgment on each
point. That gentleman equals them in wisdom, while certainly
surpassing them in the modesty of his doubt, who, on being
asked whether he could play on the violin, made answer that
he really did not know whether he could or not, because he had
never tried.

It is somewhat remarkable that this claim to be thought
wise, founded on the adherence to so-called common sense, should
be so generally allowed as it is. For it not consistent with
the universal, though unconscious, and often unwilling, testi-
mony of mankind that systematic knowledge is preferable to
conjectural judgments, and that common sense is only our second-
best guide. This testimony is borne in the fact that the sailor,
the architect, the physician, and every other practitioner, each
in his own department, gives the preference to unassisted common
sense only in those points where he himself has nothing else to
trust to, and invariably resorts to the rules of art wherever he
possesses the knowledge of them. 1 But most people are apt to
give credit for wisdom to those, not whose views are, on the
whole, most reasonable, but those whose common sense consists
in common notions, and who are free from all errors, except
vulgar errors.

Another mode in which men set up for being wise is, by
being fastidious. They are so excessively acute at detecting
imperfections, that in looking at a peacock's train, they would

1 See Elements of Logic, Preface, p. xv.

Essay xxvi.] Annotations. 297

fix on every spot where the feathers were worn, or the colours
faded, and see nothing else.

Again It is a characteristic of some of these seeming wise
men, that not only are ' little things great' to them, as the poet
says they are to ' little men/ but great things are little to them.
With writers of the ' seeming- wise ' class, it is the com-
monest artifice to adopt that style of mysterious grandiloquence
which was adverted to in the Preface to this volume. Let a
writer on science suppose, Logic, or Metaphysics bring for-
ward what knowledge he does possess, in dark hints, insinu-
ating that he has a vast store of wisdom unrevealed, and that
great discoveries may be expected, some day or other, from
himself or some of his disciples, when the world is ripe for
them ; and let him speak of all other writers on the subject
with insolent contempt ; and it is likely that a large portion of
that numerous class, the credulous, will give him credit for
being a great philosopher.

Such persons may remind one of a story told of a certain
Banker who bequeathed to his son a nourishing business,
together with a large and very strong iron chest, securely
locked, and which had always been supposed full of gold. ' To
tell you the truth/ said he, ' the chest is empty : but if you keep
the secret, the secret will keep you.'

As to this, and other tricks by which men (in the modern
phrase) ' puff themselves/ they might have been introduced by
Bacon in the essay ' On Cunning.' But it is worth noticing,
that those who assume an imposing demeanour, and seek to
puff themselves off for something beyond what they are (and
often succeed), are, not unfrequently, as much under-rated by
some, as they are over-rated by others. For, as a man (ac-
cording to what Bacon says in the essay ' On Discourse') by
keeping back some knowledge which he is believed to possess,
may gain credit for knowing something of which he is really
ignorant, so, if he is once or twice detected in pretending to
know what he does not, he is likely to be set down as a mere
pretender, and as ignorant of what he does know.

' Silver gilt will often pass
Either for gold or else for brass/ 1

See Proverbs and Precepts, as Copy-pieces for National Schools.

298 Of seeming Wise. [Essay xxvi.

' You were better take for business a man somewhat absurd
than over-formal.'

By 'absurd' Bacon probably means what we express by
'inconsiderate'; what the French call f etourdi.' 1

The 'over-formal' often impede, and sometimes frustrate,
business by a dilatory, tedious, circuitous, and (what in col-
loquial language is called) fussy way of conducting the simplest
transactions. They have been compared to a dog, which cannot
lie down till he has made three circuits round the spot.

1 See Essay XLVII.


IT had been hard for him that spake it, to have put more
truth and untruth together in few words, than in that speech,
' Whosoever is delighted in solitude, is either a wild beast or a
god; 31 for it is most true, that a natural and secret hatred and
aversation towards 2 society, in any man, hath somewhat of the
savage beast ; but it is most untrue, that it should have any
character at all of the divine nature, except 3 it proceed, not out
of a pleasure in solitude, but out of a love and desire to sequester
a man's self for a higher conversation; 4 such as is found to
have been falsely and feignedly in some of the heathens as
Epimenides, the Candian ; Numa, the Roman ; Empedocles, the
Sicilian; and Apollonius, of Tyana; and truly, and really, in
divers of the ancient hermits and holy fathers of the Church.
But little do men perceive what solitude is, and how far it ex-
tendeth; for a crowd is not company, and faces are but a
gallery of pictures, and talk but a tinkling cymbal, where there
is no Jove. The Latin adage meeteth with it a little : 'Magna
civitas, magna solitude/ 5 because in a great town friends are
scattered, so that there is not that fellowship, for the most part,
which is in less neighbourhoods. But we may go farther, and
affirm most truly, that it is a mere 6 and miserable solitude to
want true friends, without which the world is but a wilderness ;
and, even in this scene also of solitude, whosoever, in the frame
of his nature and affections, is unfit for friendship, he taketh it
of the beast, and not from humanity. 7

A principal fruit of friendship is the ease and discharge of
the fulness of the heart, which passions of all kinds do cause

1 Aristotle, Eth. B. 8.

3 Aversation towards. Aversion to. ' There is such a general aversation in
human nature towards contempt, that there is scarcely anything more exasperat-
ing.' Government of the Tongue.

3 Except. Unless. ' Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom
of God.' John iii. 3.

4 Conversation. Course of life. ' What manner of persons ought we to be in
all holy conversation and godliness.' 2 Pet. iii.

5 ' A great city, a great solitude.'

6 Mere. Absolute. See ' Merely,' page 25.

7 Humanity. Human nature. ' Look to thyself; reach not beyond humanity.'
Sir Philip Sidney.

300 Of Friendship. [Essay xxvii.

and induce. "We know diseases of stoppings and suffocations
are the most dangerous in the body ; and it is not much other-
wise in the mind : you may take sarza 1 to open the liver, steel
to open the spleen, flower of sulphur for the lungs, castoreum
for the brain ; but no receipt openeth the heart but a true
friend, to whom you may impart griefs, joys, fears, hopes, sus-
picions, counsels, and whatsoever lieth upon the heart to oppress
it, in a kind of civil shrift or confession.

It is a strange thing to observe how high a rate great kings
and monarchs do set upon this fruit of friendship whereof we
speak, so great, as 2 they purchase it many times at the hazard
of their own safety and greatness : for princes, in regard of the
distance of their fortune from that of their subjects and servants,
cannot gather this fruit, except, to make themselves capable
thereof, they raise some persons to be as it were companions,
and almost equals to themselves, which many times sorteth 3 to
inconvenience. The modern languages give unto such persons
the name of favourites, or privadoes, as if it were matter of
grace or conversation ; but the Roman name attaineth the true
use and cause thereof, naming them ' participes curarum ;'* for
it is that which tieth the knot : and we see plainly that this
hath been done, not by weak and passionate princes only, but
by the wisest and most politic that ever reigned, who have often-
times joined to themselves some of their servants, whom both

Online LibraryFrancis BaconBacon's essays : with annotations (Volume 3) → online text (page 29 of 57)