Bacon's Essays: Of Expense

Of Expense is a short one. Its brevity makes me laugh, because Francis Bacon was a notorious spendthrift. He simply had no conception of the value of money. He was arrested in the street for debtMoney Treasure Cash Treasure Chest Coins Euro in 1598 and held prisoner in the sheriff’s house until his cousin, Robert Cecil, rescued him, as he had several times before.

There’s an anecdote reported in James Spedding’s Life and Letters, all covered with caveats. Caveats first: “This, it is true, is but the recollection in 1691, of a conversation overheard by a shop-boy in 1655, relating to a matter which took place no later than 1620.” Caveat lector!

While he was Lord Chancellor, Bacon kept a chest filled with coins in his study at Gorhambury, his boyhood home near St. Albans. His servants, by which we mean the gentlemen in his employ, would come in and fill their pockets from this supply. When a visitor remarked upon this to his Lordship, Bacon answered, “Sir, I can not help myself.”

For all his caveats, Spedding believes the essence of the anecdote. It fits our sense of Francis Bacon, both the irresponsible management of servants and funds and the clear-eyed self-awareness. Still, bear in mind that this essay is a bit like getting advice about dieting from an obese person.

Spend within your means

“Riches are for spending, and spending for honor and good actions.” Generally Bacon advises us to stay within the bounds of our income. There are exceptions, as per this opaque sentence: “extraordinary expense must be limited by the worth of the occasion; for voluntary undoing, may be as well for a man’s country, as for the kingdom of heaven.”

I think this means you can spend lavishly only to serve your country or your God.

“But ordinary expense, ought to be limited by a man’s estate; and governed with such regard, as it be within his compass; and not subject to deceit and abuse of servants; and ordered to the best show, that the bills may be less than the estimation abroad.”

His servants (always remember that means ‘staff’, not menials) brought him down, as I have often mentioned before. He ought to have controlled them and knows it. He never really blamed them, which is one of the reasons we admire him to this day.

And note the Elizabethan regard for appearances. Live so that other people can see you are sensible.

“Certainly, if a man will keep but of even hand, his ordinary expenses ought to be but to the half of his receipts; and if he think to wax rich, but to the third part.”

More good advice! Save half your income; if you really want to get ahead, save two-thirds. When I was young, conventional wisdom was that you should never spend more than a quarter of your income on housing. That’s gone up to a third these days. No wonder people have a hard time following Bacon’s advice!

Tend to your own affairs

Elvis_Presley“It is no baseness, for the greatest to descend and look into their own estate. Some forbear it, not upon negligence alone, but doubting to bring themselves into melancholy, in respect they shall find it broken. But wounds cannot be cured without searching.”

This is like refusing to weigh yourself because you don’t want to know how much you’ve gained, or refusing to go to a doctor because you don’t want to know how sick you are. In all these cases, the facts must be faced if you’re going to fix the problem.

If you can’t manage your own estate, choose well when you hire help. And change them often, says Bacon, “for new are more timorous and less subtle.” I think he means old account managers are more likely to figure out how to cheat you. Like Elvis Presley’s manager Colonel Tom Parker, who gradually embezzled more and more of Elvis’s earnings, reaching fifty percent at the end.

Balance your indulgences

“A man had need, if he be plentiful in some kind of expense, to be as saving again in some other. As if he be plentiful in diet, to be saving in apparel; if he be plentiful in the hall, to be saving in the stable; bacon_wikicom1and the like.”

This sounds a little self-serving. Bacon had a fussy tummy, so he could be saving in diet without giving  up anything he cared about. But as Shakespeare taught us, clothes make the man. No courtier in Elizabethan or Jacobean times would attempt to save money by skimping on clothes.

Look at this portrait, painted in 1618, when Bacon was Lord Chancellor. Note the fine lace on the wide ruff and on his very stylish turned-back cuffs. That’s the real McCoy, that lace – handmade in Brussels, probably. And the kidskin gloves.

Those gold threads in the trim on his sleeves and hem are real gold. There was no gold tone whatever in those days; just the actual valuable metal, spun ultra-fine and stitched in by highly skilled drapers.

The colors are off in this photograph of the painting, but his sleeves are lined with purple silk. Both of those qualities were expensive. Silk was imported from Italy. Purple dye was still produced from tiny little sea snails.

You’d have to live on pottage for your entire lifetime to save up enough for this splashy outfit. But it really wouldn’t do for a Lord Chancellor to dress in anything less resplendent.

Don’t sell short

“In clearing of a man’s estate, he may as well hurt himself in being too sudden, as in letting it run on too long. For hasty selling, is commonly as disadvantageable as interest.”

Usury was still regarded as immoral in Bacon’s time, although a variety of devices had sprung up to allow investors to profit from the money they loaned out. Banking was in its infancy in England, although thriving by this time in Italy. I’m not going to dig into this here, but I think they called the profit portion fees or fines for the use of the money.

And here’s some advice born from experience: “Besides, he that clears at once will relapse; for finding himself out of straits, he will revert to his custom: but he that cleareth by degrees, induceth a habit of frugality, and gaineth as well upon his mind, as upon his estate.”

If your debts are simply wiped clean by some benefactor (like your disliked rival cousin), you will slide right back into your old bad habits.

And here’s some especially pertinent advice for the 21st century: “A man ought warily to begin charges which once begun will continue; but in matters that return not, he may be more magnificent.”

Endless subscription services, these days. You subscribe to your software and your TV and your books and whatever else. Great for the companies that are receiving a steady income, but a poor economy for us peons.

References

Spedding, James, ed. 1890. The Letters and the Life of Francis Bacon. Vol. VII. London: Longmans, Green, and Co.

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