Bacon's Essays: Of wisdom for a man's self

Of Wisdom for a man’s self is chock-full of vivid metaphors, which makes it more fun to illustrate from Wikimedia Commons than many of these essays. It’s about the evils of excessive self-interest, particularly in the servants of great men. It’s also more accessible than many of his essays — few Latin quotes, lots of homely examples, and an evergreen topic.

Don’t be shrewd

ant on leafBacon starts with this observation: “An ant is a wise creature for itself, but it is a shrewd thing, in an orchard or garden.” He’s using ‘shrewd’ to mean ‘injurious.’ (This quote is one of the entries in the OED for that meaning of this word. Love it when that happens.)

From here, we leave moral relativity behind, coming out strongly against immoderate self-interest. “And certainly, men that are great lovers of themselves, waste the public.” Waste our time, our resources, our patience… Don’t we know it!

It is right earth

Here’s the full quote: “It is a poor centre of a man’s actions, himself. It is right earth. For that [one] only stands fast upon his own centre; whereas all things, that have affinity with the heavens, move upon the centre of another, which they benefit.”

earthThe general point is easily grasped: it isn’t good to believe the world revolves around yourself. To achieve some affinity with the heavens (to be good, wise, useful, immortal…), you need to place yourself in the service of someone or something other than yourself. Good advice in any era.

I got stuck on the phrase “right earth,” but it’s just a pithy, compact, now obsolete way of saying, “Low, isolated, and backwards. Bartleby’s helped me out with their notes on this essay: “Note 2. Precisely like the earth. Bacon here is thinking of the old astronomy, according to which all the heavenly bodies moved round the earth.”

Bacon notes that it’s excusable for a prince to believe the world revolves around him, because, as a prince, he represents a whole people. In that sense, he isn’t being self-interested; he’s serving his subjects.

“But it [he referring of all to a man’s self] is a desperate evil, in a servant to a prince, or a citizen in a republic. For whatsoever affairs pass such a man’s hands, he crooketh them to his own ends; which must needs be often eccentric to the ends of his master, or state.”

He knows a lot about this, having been an advisor to both Elizabeth I and James I. He served many hours in their courts from his earliest youth until near the end of his life at age 65 in 1626. He saw many men and not a few women curry favor by offering services, both sincerely and otherwise.

A bias upon the bowl

Bacon’s own servants (staff, in our terms) brought him down in April, 1621. He had been Lord Chancellor to James I for a mere three years, during which time he cleared an enormous backlog of  bowlingcases and established rules to make the office run more smoothly. Unfortunately, his enemies (like the odious Sir Edward Coke) wanted to strike at him as a scapegoat for James’s offenses (favors to sycophants with pots of money.) So they made a stink about Bacon taking gifts from plaintiffs. This was common practice in those days and it could readily be proved that such gifts never influenced his judgement.

Unfortunately, his servants had also been taking bribes to manipulate the docket, moving those who paid into more favorable slots. Apparently, Bacon truly didn’t know about this. He should have. Their behavior provided his enemies with 23 separate counts of corruption, forcing James to relieve him of office and ban poor Bacon from court for the rest of his life.

There’s a little story from those times that reveals Bacon’s character. When he entered a room where many of his erstwhile servants were sitting, they all rose, showing proper deference. Bacon said, with a sad little smile, “Sit down, my masters. Your rise has been my fall.”

That was a long digression, but it helps us understand how Bacon came to be so wise in the ways of self-interested men.

Here’s the heartfelt quote: “It were disproportion enough, for the servant’s good to be preferred before the master’s; but yet it is a greater extreme, when a little good of the servant, shall carry things against a great good of the master’s. And yet that is the case of bad officers, treasurers, ambassadors, generals, and other false and corrupt servants; which set a bias upon their bowl, of their own petty ends and envies, to the overthrow of their master’s great and important affairs.”

I love that “bias upon the bowl.” We would call it “spin” and be thinking about billiards, not bowling.

A bestiary of the self-centered

crocodile-gessner's-animalium
From Gessner’s Animalium

We had the ant at the very beginning. Now we get rats, foxes, badgers, and crocodiles.

“Wisdom for a man’s self is, in many branches thereof, a depraved thing. It is the wisdom of rats, that will be sure to leave a house, somewhat before it fall. It is the wisdom of the fox, that thrusts out the badger, who digged and made room for him. It is the wisdom of crocodiles, that shed tears when they would devour.”

It’s false wisdom, in other words. “But that which is specially to be noted is, that those which (as Cicero says of Pompey) are sui amantes, sine rivali, are many times unfortunate. And whereas they have, all their times, sacrificed to themselves, they become in the end, themselves sacrifices to the inconstancy of fortune, whose wings they thought, by their self-wisdom, to have pinioned.”

Sui amantes, sine rivali: I found the translation for this on the Wikipedia page about Narcissism, which quotes this essay. Sometimes you just can’t get away from Francis Bacon! It means “lovers of themselves, without rivals.”

We’ll end with my favorite quote from this essay — a vivid illustration if I ever read one. “And certainly it is the nature of extreme self-lovers, as they will set an house on fire, and it were but to roast their eggs.”

house on fire

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