Bacon's essays: Of Revenge

Of Revenge is a good one: short & pithy. I don’t know why Bacon chose to place this one so near the top of the list. It’s fourth, after Truth, Death, and Religions. Revenge tragedies, as they later came to be called, were all the rage in the theater in the 1580s and ’90s. These are plays like Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy and Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. Maybe it was a topic around the table after supper at Gray’s Inn. (Bacon was not a guy who hung out in taverns.)

The Wikipedia article about revenge plays suggests that people were concerned with the placement of the boundary between actions of the state and of the individual. This is a time of great transition, remember, from the bad old days when every lord had a private army and the future in which the state itself was ruled by laws ratified by representatives of the people.

Wild justice

Bacon was firmly on the side of law, public responsibility, and civilization. This essay is an expression of that strong belief.

He starts with the wonderful line, “Revenge is a kind of wild justice.” (I find a dozen books titled Wild Justice at Amazon.) Bacon meant ‘wild’ in both senses: uncivilized and unconstrained. He explains that revenge is worse than the wrong it purports to right, because while the original crime breaks the law, revenge throws the whole idea of law out the window.

Bacon disparages those who seek vengeance as being weak and a little childish, though he doesn’t use those words. He uses these: “That which is past is gone, and irrevocable; and wise men have enough to do, with things present and to come; therefore they do but trifle with themselves, that labor in past matters.”

And these: “This is certain, that a man that studieth revenge, keeps his own wounds green, which otherwise would heal, and do well.” An excellent observation, in my humble opinion.

Bacon was a forward-looking man. By all accounts, he didn’t spend much time grumbling about the past, not even about harms done to him by his peers. (Like drumming him out of the Lord Chancellor’s office on trumped-up bribery charges.) So it’s not surprising that he can write so lightly about dismissing the wrongs done to you.

The essay ends with this odd note: “vindictive persons live the life of witches; who, as they are mischievous, so end they infortunate.” Bad witches got themselves hung; good witches just cured your warts or found your lost brooch and didn’t stir up a fuss in their villages.

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Marlee
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This is very helpful!Thanks for the great review!

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