This essay, Of Innovations, is a strange one. The language is dense and the meanings of many words have altered, so it’s difficult to unpack. But unpacking Bacon’s essays is my job in these posts, so I’ll do my best.
First, let’s take a brief look at the word ‘innovation,’ which was new in Bacon’s century. OED’s definition is “The action of innovating; the introduction of novelties; the alteration of what is established by the introduction of new elements or forms.” The first citation is from 1553. It wasn’t a praise word in those days. Innovations were something to be skeptical about or disdainful of.
Here’s Robert Hooker, a far more influential thinker than Bacon in their day: “1597 R. Hooker Of Lawes Eccl. Politie v. xlii. 88 To traduce him as an authour of suspitious innouation.”
Innovation is suspicious by its very nature. If someone called your work innovative, they were insulting you. That’s the opposite of our sensibility. “Innovative” is a word authors and film-makers love to see in their reviews.
Bacon doesn’t disapprove of innovations, though he approaches them with caution. “As the births of living creatures, at first are ill-shapen so are all innovations, which are the births of time.” Innovations may appear ugly and undesirable at first.
Then he goes on to assert that first is best. “Yet notwithstanding, as those that first bring honor into their family, are commonly more worthy than most that succeed, so the first precedent (if it be good) is seldom attained by imitation.”
This is a classic idea in an aristocratic society. He who first gains the title (the honor) is the most valiant. The rest of the family lives in the slowly fading glow of his achievement. The modern example that leaps to my mind is the greatness of Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books (dragons!) and the weakness of the continuation of that series by her son.
I had to read that sentence many times to get the meaning, and now it makes perfect sense. That is a common experience in reading Bacon. At first it makes no sense. My mind jams on the chunky phrases and skids off across the surface. But if I force myself to read slowly, phrase by phrase, I start to get a better grip.
Maybe that’s a lesson in itself. My reading habits have become ultra-modern, thanks to the internet — and my years in graduate school. I skim rapidly, flicking from this to that, browsing for the thing I want or waiting for something especially interesting to pop out. Then I focus in.
But I spend far less time sitting and reading one book for long periods of time than I used to. Bacon forces me to slow down and dig in. Elizabethans probably read more slowly and more thoroughly, having less to read in the first place and taking the act more seriously perhaps. Although Bacon reportedly had a laser-like focus of attention, which he could switch from one task to the next without pause. That’s the plus-size brain at work.
We got the motion
Back to the essay. “For ill, to man’s nature, as it stands perverted, hath a natural motion, strongest in continuance; but good, as a forced motion, strongest at first.”
This would have seemed very cutting edge in terms of natural philosophy (science), in Bacon’s day. All that talk of natural and induced motion — it’s practically Newtonian!
But note the cynicism: evil is the natural tendency of man’s nature. Left to our natural impulses, we will turn toward the bad. Being good requires effort, a constant struggle — a very Protestant view.
That idea is still strong in our society, at least in the Western world, but we also have, since the late 20th century, the idea of seeking our bliss — discovering a style of life in which our natural impulses support our best selves. Then entropy will only lead you into more good.
Bacon leads us gradually to a more positive view of innovation. “Surely every medicine is an innovation; and he that will not apply new remedies, must expect new evils; for time is the greatest innovator; and if time of course alter things to the worse, and wisdom and counsel shall not alter them to the better, what shall be the end?”
This is a clever choice of analogy, because people are always looking for that perfect remedy. The diet pill that lets you eat like a fool; that gadget that relieves back pain without exercise…
“Time is the greatest innovator.” That’s the money quote from this essay, the line most frequently repeated. It’s also an example of Bacon’s sometimes astonishing prescience. He didn’t know about the theory of evolution, still hundreds of years in the future. Everyone, including him, believed that all the creatures on earth were as God made them, unchanged and unchanging. In this essay, he’s talking about the works of man, not about the development of life on earth, but the breathtaking breadth of his comprehension makes room for the modern understanding as well.
The perils of conservatism
Bacon segues into a discussion of the hazards of standing still and resisting innovation, now that he’s got us feeling a bit more positive about the whole idea. Again, these words apply to our lives, right here, right now. It’s the human condition, folks. Sigh.
Custom — we would say ‘tradition’ — has the benefit of familiarity. “It is true, that what is settled by custom, though it be not good, yet at least it is fit; and those things which have long gone together, are, as it were, confederate within themselves…”
It may not be all that great, but at least it’s comfortable. Things hang together in a way we’re used to and can deal with.
“[W]hereas new things piece not so well; but though they help by their utility, yet they trouble by their inconformity.”
Inconformity means that innovations stick out by their very newness.
He’s channeling that stubborn conservative person, arms crossed, nose wrinkled, looking at that innovation and grumping about why they can’t just keep doing things the way they always have done. My father wasn’t conservative intellectually or politically, but as he got older, he tended to resist innovations. He walked around in the late 80s saying, “I’ve got a word processor right here,” while pulling a pencil out of his pocket. Very funny, Dad — the first ten times.
“Besides, [innovations] are like strangers; more admired, and less favored. All this is true, if time stood still; which contrariwise moveth so round, that a froward retention of custom, is as turbulent a thing as an innovation; and they that reverence too much old times, are but a scorn to the new.”
(Note: ‘froward’ is not an old-fashioned way of spelling ‘forward.’ It means “Disposed to go counter to what is demanded or what is reasonable; perverse, difficult to deal with, hard to please; refractory, ungovernable.”)
Bacon is saying this attitude would be fine if the world stood still and nothing ever changed. But it doesn’t. It moves around so much, that a stubborn insistence on tradition causes more disruption than the new idea. People who insist on living in the past become obstacles to healthy changes.
We tend to think of technology when we think of innovation, but Bacon would have been talking more about social and cultural changes. We’re in the throes of a major worldwide battle these days about social innovations. One way to characterize that battle would be that people who hate change are hotly confronting people who love it.
If you’ve lived in a monochrome society most of your life, seeing faces of different colors all around you, in your own workplace or school or grocery store, might be disturbing. It might even feel like some kind of invasion.
But those of us who grew up in big cities or went to big universities or traveled a lot love the multiculture. We love the variety of faces, voices, costumes, and cuisines. One of the many pleasures of traveling in London is hearing half a dozen languages on a single trip on the tube. It is the way the world is trending. People are mobile and globalization stirs the big pot. Fighting against this inevitable innovation — insisting on “a froward retention of custom,” creates turbulence indeed.
Note that white people aren’t the only ones being froward. People in conservative pockets all over the world are pushing back against change. ISIS springs to mind, alas.
Time alters by degrees
“It were good, therefore, that men in their innovations would follow the example of time itself; which indeed innovateth greatly, but quietly, by degrees scarce to be perceived.”
That sounds like evolution again. Part of our global problem is that change has been rapid in the past fifty years. Huge leaps in technology have enabled huge social transformations.
But nobody seems to want to slow down. They either want to drag us kicking and screaming (literally) back to the past, like the reactionaries in ISIS, or they want to change everything now, like the extreme left wing anywhere.
Bacon notes that “whatsoever is new is unlooked for…” Well, yes. Surprises are unexpected. He further notes that if the new thing helps you, you thank the times. If it hurts you, you blame the creator. More likely, you’ll thank yourself for being clever enough to adopt the new thing if it works for you. If it doesn’t, you’ll decry the times. Sounds like indie authors vs. the tired, old corporate publishing industry.
Always the moderate, Bacon urges caution in politics. “It is good also, not to try experiments in states, except the necessity be urgent, or the utility evident.” This is the classic argument for incremental change and a good argument it is.
Bacon ends on a pious note: “as the Scripture saith, that we make a stand upon the ancient way, and then look about us, and discover what is the straight and right way, and so to walk in it.” Move forward, but with caution and intention.
Good advice in any era.