Bacon's essays: Of Prophecies

Happy birthday, Lord Verulam! Francis Bacon would be 457 years old today.

“I mean not to speak of divine prophecies; nor of heathen oracles; nor of natural predictions; but only of prophecies that have been of certain memory, and from hidden causes.”

In Of Prophecies, Bacon only considers confirmed cases of prognostication, in the OED’s second sense of the word: “a prediction of a future event or outcome.” He believed in prognostication; this is his exploration of the idea. Verification is crucial for Francis Bacon. You can’t just fling prophecies out there without following up on them to see if they really did come to pass.

Empires and new continents

Norse discovery of America

Bacon attributes his first quote to Homer. The lines come from the Aeneid, which was written by Virgil, but OK. “At domus Aeneae cunctis dominabitur oris, Et nati natorum, et qui nascentur ab illis.” Our good friend Richard Whateley translates: “Over every shore the house of Aeneas shall reign; his children’s children, and their posterity likewise.” Bacon says this was considered a prediction of the spread of the Roman Empire.

Seneca got credit for predicting the discovery of America:

“–Venient annis
Saecula seris, quibus Oceanus
Vincula rerum laxet, et ingens
Pateat Tellus, Tiphysque novos
Detegat orbes; nec sit terris
Ultima Thule:”

(There shall come a time, in later ages, when Ocean shall relax his chains, and a vast continent appear; and a pilot shall find new worlds, and Thule shall be no more Earth’s bound.)

That is actually kind of cool. Of course, Bacon would have been thinking of Christopher Columbus, not the Norsemen, but he supported the overturning of old ideas upon the discovery of new facts.

Degustabis imperium

galba
Galba

The next section contains a stream of supposed predictions of persons becoming great rulers. I like the sound of this one: “Tu quoque, Galba, degustabis imperium,” (Thou also, Galba, shall taste of empire.)

In my variety of English, that’s ambiguous. Galba may taste like empire or he may get a taste of empire. I don’t find a regular thing called “empire cake,” but there’s a whole Wikipedia page for King cake, which I’d never heard of before. Who knew? Well, lots of people, apparently. These things are eaten all over the world for the festival of Epiphany at the end of the Christmas season. The kings in question are Biblical kings. Huh.

 

king-cake
King cake, Southern style

“Domitian dreamed, the night before he was slain, that a golden head was growing, out of the nape of his neck: and indeed, the succession that followed him for many years, made golden times.” I can’t find a picture of this, sadly. You’d think someone would’ve painted an image like that by now.

 

 

Catherine-de-medici
Catherine de’ Medici, ca. 1555

Bacon reminisces, “When I was in France, I heard from one Dr. Penal that the Queen Mother, who was given to curious arts, caused the King her husband’s nativity to be calculated, under a false name; and the astrologer gave a judgment, that he should be killed in a duel; at which the Queen laughed, thinking her husband to be above challenges and duels: but he was slain upon a course at tilt, the splinters of the staff of Montgomery going in at his beaver.” (Don’t be vulgar! That means his hat.)

Bacon was in France for about three years in his late teens, so between about 1576-1579. The King of France during those years was Henri III. The Queen Mother — his mother — was the infamous Catherine de’ Medici. “Given to curious arts,” indeed!

“The trivial prophecy, which I heard when I was a child, and Queen Elizabeth was in the flower of her years, was, “When hempe is spun, England’s done.” whereby it was generally conceived, that after the princes had reigned, which had the principal letters of that word hempe (which were Henry, Edward, Mary, Philip, and Elizabeth), England should come to utter confusion; which, thanks be to God, is verified only in the change of the name; for that the King’s style, is now no more of England, but of Britian.”

We can see that interpreting prophecies requires a certain amount of artistic license.

Hints about fleets

armada
English ships and the Spanish Armada, August 1588

“There was also another prophecy, before the year of ’88, which I do not well understand.

“There shall be seen upon a day,
Between the Baugh and the May,
The black fleet of Norway.
When that that come and gone,
England build houses of lime and stone,
For after wars shall you have none.” 

It was generally conceived to be meant, of the Spanish fleet that came in ’88: for that the king of Spain’s surname, as they say, is Norway.”

I don’t well understand this one either. Apart from the whole Spanish Armada thing, the English didn’t get seriously into building houses of stone until the 17th century. Lots of timber and plaster before that, or so it seems to me.

Johannes_Regiomontanus
Johannes Regiomontanus

 

“The prediction of Regiomontanus, “Octogesimus octavus mirabilis annus,” (Eighty-eight, a wonderful year) was thought likewise accomplished in the sending of that great fleet, being the greatest in strength, though not in number, of all that ever swam upon the sea.

I think Johannus Regiomontanus could have been talking about his garden, for all anyone knows. He was a mathematician and astronomer who died in 1476. He was the grand-teacher of Nicolaus Copernicus, but not generally famous for prognostication.

 

 

Jests, with dragons

“As for Cleon’s dream, I think it was a jest. It was, that he was devoured of a long dragon; and it Hokusai_Dragonwas expounded of a maker of sausages, that troubled him exceedingly.”

Man, I hate these philosopher’s jests. I totally don’t get it. But look at what a wonderful dragon I found for you! The expression on his face is priceless. He is “Dragon, by Hokusai,” Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849.)

Turns out Bacon thinks these prophecies are all hogwash!

“My judgment is, that they ought all to be despised; and ought to serve but for winter talk by the fireside.” Entertainment value only, although sometimes the causes of much mischief.

There are three things that give prophecies what credit they possess: “First, that men mark when they hit, and never mark when they miss; as they do generally also of dreams.”

“The second is, that probable conjectures, or obscure traditions, many times turn themselves into prophecies; while the nature of man, which coveteth divination, thinks it no peril to foretell that which indeed they do but collect.” Obvious predictions or odd little bits of obscure poetry, as we have seen, get turned into prophecies after the fact, because humans love to attribute things to the supernatural. What’s that about, anyway? It’s true, though.

map_world_43ad
Map of the known world in 43 A.D.

Bacon supports this assertion by taking another look at Seneca’s supposed prophecy about the New World, which impressed even skeptical me for a while there. “As that of Seneca’s verse. For so much was then subject to demonstration, that the globe of the earth had great parts beyond the Atlantic, which mought be probably conceived not to be all sea: and adding thereto the tradition in Plato’s Timaeus, and his Atlanticus, it mought encourage one to turn it to a prediction.”

I didn’t know there was speculation about lands beyond the sea in ancient times, but it’s plausible that there would be, especially with Vikings splashing about all over. (Kidding. They didn’t go that early.) But the ancients knew Africa was a large land mass beyond a sea. They could certainly have posited more of that nature.

Bacon’s last rather dry word on the subject: “The third and last (which is the great one) is, that almost all of them, being infinite in number, have been impostures, and by idle and crafty brains merely contrived and feigned, after the event past.”

So don’t be fooled, y’all!

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Kaye George
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Great post! You did a ton of research for this. I, too, am fascinated by the ancients contemplating a world beyond their own. I guess we do that now in looking for life on other planets.