Bacon's Essays: Of Boldness

Of Boldness is an odd piece and awkwardly written, to my ear. The take-home message? Bacon didn’t approve of boldness. “This is well to be weighed; that boldness is ever blind; for it seeth not danger, and inconveniences.”

I pity the fou

le-fou
Le fou. Wikimedia Commons.

“There is in human nature generally, more of the fool than of the wise; and therefore those faculties, by which the foolish part of men’s minds is taken, are most potent.” This is Bacon’s explanation for why Demosthenes advised that action was the most important part of oratory. (I think he meant performance or style.) Bacon would have chosen elocution or invention as more fundamental to a fine speech. Planning, artfulness, not mere showmanship.

Bacon sounds a little peevish about all this emphasis on boldness (outward show.) What’s the most important thing in business? Boldness. Second and third most important? Boldness. 

Here’s the whinging: “And yet boldness is a child of ignorance and baseness, far inferior to other parts. But nevertheless it doth fascinate, and bind hand and foot, those that are either shallow in judgment, or weak in courage, which are the greatest part; yea and prevaileth with wise men at weak times.”

And more: “boldness is an ill keeper of promise.” You can see him standing on the sidelines at court, shaking his heads at the antics of some flashy courtier.

 

Mahomet and the mountain

mahomet
Mahomet. Wikimedia Commons.

“Mahomet made the people believe that he would call an hill to him, and from the top of it offer up his prayers, for the observers of his law. The people assembled; Mahomet called the hill to come to him, again and again; and when the hill stood still, he was never a whit abashed, but said, If the hill will not come to Mahomet, Mahomet, will go to the hill. So these men, when they have promised great matters, and failed most shamefully, yet (if they have the perfection of boldness) they will but slight it over, and make a turn, and no more ado.”

The expression “If the mountain won’t come to Mohammed, Mohammed must go to the mountain,” apparently derives from this essay. I’m astonished! First, that Bacon missed the lovely alliteration of a ‘mountain,’ instead of ‘an hill,’ which my mind’s ear can barely tolerate.

Second, that the meaning seems to have been turned over, if not all the way upside down. Bacon uses Mahomet as an example of a showboat, making promises he can’t possibly keep and then just saying, “Oops, oh, well, no matter.”

The adapted saying is used to illustrate the humility of a great man, who popcatepetlrecognizes his small place in the grand scheme and is willing to adapt.

Further proof that you can quote Bacon to make any point you like!

“Certainly to men of great judgment, bold persons are a sport to behold; nay, and to the vulgar also, boldness has somewhat of the ridiculous. For if absurdity be the subject of laughter, doubt you not but great boldness is seldom without some absurdity.”

 

Greasing the squeaky wheels

Bacon’s attitude towards boldness is very un-American. In our culture, people are advised to step up and ask for what they want. Here’s a list of such sayings off the top of my head:

  • the squeaky wheel gets the grease
  • you can’t know ’til you try
  • fortune favors the bold
  • nothing ventured, nothing gained

This idea is so much a part of our culture we tend to think it’s simply common sense. Bacon shows us that the wiser part of action might be the part where you think your plan through first.

If you’re interested in the cultural specificity of this idea, you might enjoy this enjoyable work of sociolinguistics: Different Games, Different Rules: Why Americans and Japanese Misunderstand Each Other, by Haru Yamada. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Get your local library to borrow it for you. It’s quite the eye-opener! And could be useful, if you go to Japan, which would great fun.

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