Bacon's Essays: Of Innovations

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.

Awkward beginnings

Bacon doesn’t disapprove of innovations, though he approaches them with caution. “As the births ofblack filly 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.”

Representation of the Sun in an eccentric orbit without epicycles

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 bypocket-protector 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.

human-diversity-projectWe 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. grin

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.

Pix & notes: How to sit on a throne

Like many middle-aged people, my knees are going pear-shaped. So I went to see Dr. Barbara Bergin, a highly recommended orthopedic surgeon in my area. Among other talents, she’s written a novel called Endings, about a peripatetic physician. But that’s another story. 

Bergin has seen a lot of knees, male and female. She has noticed a strong tendency for women to develop problems like “patellar malalignment and chondromalacia, greater trochanteric bursitis, piriformis syndrome, and gluteal tendonitis, iliotibial band syndrome, posterior tibialis tendonitis ane even peroneal neuritis and plantar fascitis, since they’re not really due to biomechanical stresses, but are related to the way we sit.” (Taken straight from the doctor’s website, to exercise your Latin skills.)

In short, women’s knees are screwed up because of the way we sit. Women are trained to sit with knees together with ankles crossed or with legs crossed, poses properly demonstrated by the US Congresswomen shown here. (Click the picture to go to the original page with their names.)

But it wasn’t always this way! One of the things I love about this doctor is that she looks beyond the pathological, putting down her instruments to forage in the wider world. Her S.L.A.M. page shows a portrait of Queen Victoria on her throne, her knees clearly well apart underneath her long dress.

And therein lies the problem. You can’t sit like that in a modern short skirt without displaying your lady parts in a way that would make most of us very uncomfortable. On the other hand, many modern women wear pants as often as not and could therefore presumably spare their knees by relaxing that posture.

Part those royal knees

Monarchs spread their knees; that’s all there is to it. Granted, I’ve only spent 30 minutes grazing images, but I can’t find any monarchs with their knees together between Ancient Egypt and the twentieth century. I treat you to a survey of the knees-apart vs knees-together issue, ending of course with Francis Bacon and his aunt, Lady Russell, whose self-designed funeral monument put this in my head in the first place.

ancient egypt
Note the short skirt and the sheer fabrics.
Her Majesty Elizabeth II and family


The princess could spread those knees with perfect modesty, if she wanted to, but you don’t get to be a princess by sitting like a man!

emperor gojong, Yi haeung
Portrait of Emperor Gojong, Yi Haeung wearing Tongcheonggwan and Gangsapo. Portrait painted by Yi Hancheol and Yu Sook.
pere donokoromo II
HRM Pere Donokoromo II, The Pere of Isaba Kingdom 2012
Queen Victoria
Queen Victoria, comfortable in her role
Charles II
Charles II, demonstrating the full S.L.A.M. posture
Francis Bacon
Francis Bacon, as he used to sit on the dais as Lord Chancellor, listening to cases.
Lady Elizabeth Russell
Lady Elizabeth Russell, sitting like a person who owns herself. That skull probably represents the neighbors she bested in aggressive land acquisitions.

Moriarty and the canon

Not this kind of canon!

My second historical series, the Professor & Mrs. Moriarty mysteries, is based (obviously) on a character created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The task of re-creating him for my fictional purposes was similar in some ways to writing about a real historical person about whom little is known, and that little was provided by an unreliable source.

We’ll start by looking at the canon and then move on to the work I did to provide my professor with a full history.

A brief clarification

Being a Trekkie, I often encounter variations on the word ‘canon.’ Regular readers of this blog will know that I can’t keep my fingers out of the online Oxford English Dictionary for more than an hour, so they’ll be expecting this digression to look up words. (I love to look up words! They have such curious histories!)

Not this kind either!

Trekkies who have been blasted for writing ‘cannon’ should take heart. The spelling of the artillery piece didn’t settle down until at least the eighteenth century. Before that, you could mix and match at your pleasure.

OED gives this definition for the meaning of ‘canon’ in play here: “The collection or list of books of the Bible accepted by the Christian Church as genuine and inspired. Also transf., any set of sacred books; also, those writings of a secular author accepted as authentic.”

Oddly, I’ve never seen anyone confuse that definition with church officials like Kanunnik Petrus-Ludovicus Stillemans (1821–1902) of Flanders, pictured, smiling. Church officials don’t usually look so friendly in their portraits. But of course they don’t figure as largely in modern society as Star Trek, which has several Wikipedia pages, including one entirely about the official canon.

Building on someone else’s planet

Although popular stories have been told, retold, and re-imagined for as long as there have been stories, as far as I know (lazily looking up no literary works on the theme) they tend to stick closely to the original tale. There aren’t any early ballads like Robin Hood Goes to Rome or The Continuing Adventures of the Knights of the Round Table: American Damsels.

Writing and film-making in fictional worlds created by someone else became increasingly popular over the second half of the 20th century, perhaps partly fueled by the demand for more stories about the characters we love in Star Trek and Star Wars and similar. TV and movies are so vivid, they stimulate a more powerful sense of reality. The canon is important for establishing the boundaries of the fictional universe.

The whole idea may have begun with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s immortal creation, Sherlock Holmes. The first writer to borrow Holmes for his own work was Doyle’s friend, J. M. Barrie who published “The Late Sherlock Holmes” in 1893. Note that Doyle pushed Holmes into Reichenbach Falls in 1893, hoping to wash his hands of his famous character.

This comes from the Wikipedia page on Sherlock Holmes, which is worth a visit for its comprehensive treatment of the character, including his knowledge, skills, deficits, and more. There’s a book about Holmes-derivatives: The Alternative Sherlock Holmes: Pastiches, Parodies, and Copies by Peter Ridgway Watt and Joseph Green. All of the Holmes works are in the public domain now in both the U.K. and the U.S.

Many, many writers have written stories featuring their version of Sherlock Holmes. Novels have been based on other Doyle characters as well. Irene Adler, the clever female villain who appeared in one Doyle story, “A Study in Scarlet,” takes center stage in a series of mystery novels by Carole Nelson Douglas. M. J. Trow wrote a series featuring Inspector Lestrade, who is hopefully more effective in those stories than in Doyle’s. Sherlock’s brother Mycroft gets his turn in books by several authors. Even Mrs. Hudson, Holmes’s housekeeper, takes a turn solving crimes in three books by Martin Davies.

Enter the villain

At last, we turn to the subject of this essay, Professor James Moriarty. I’m not the first to choose him as my protagonist. John Gardner, Michael Kurland, and Kim Newman have also been drawn to the antagonist as protagonist. I haven’t read any of those books, but the blurbs suggest that their Moriartys are closer to Doyle’s than mine in terms of the criminal mentality. In their works, he remains a villain through and through.

My Moriarty is a good guy. I don’t have the temperament to write a series about a dark character. At the time that I came up with this series, I was fishing for an idea that would appeal to the big corporate publishers. I wanted a fresh take on a marquee name, featured in stories with lots of romance. I wanted my protagonists to be good people, acting out of a desire to serve, not out of self-interest. Classic heroes, in other words; not anti-heroes.

And yet Professor Moriarty is a villain, everyone knows it. In some ways, he is the embodiment of villainy, the source and fountain of evil: the master criminal. How could I make that work?

Then I started reading about the late Victorian period, just grazing, and I realized that the law was wholly in capable of keeping up with the greed of the burgeoning worlds of financial and commerce. People were easily exploited and ruined with no recourse. Social standards were still so rigid that loss of position or apparent virtue could drive a woman or man into disgrace and poverty in the blink of an eye. Sometimes, the only way to right such wrongs would require breaking a few petty laws here and there.

I liked the idea of a do-gooder criminal couple. It sounded like fun, with an infinite series of stories to draw out of the injustices of the late 19thcentury, all of which still resonate in the early 21st. Now I just had to examine the canon that started this whole blog with a magnifying glass to see how to transform Doyle’s Moriarty into mine.

Load the canon

Luckily for me, Doyle didn’t devote many words to his master criminal. Moriarty appears in only seven stories out of the sixty Sherlock Holmes works. The list below comes from Sherlock Peoria.

Moriarty only has a role in two:

1888    January 7, Saturday — The Valley of Fear 
1891    April 23, Friday — “The Final Problem”

He is only mentioned in the other five:

1894    April 3, Tuesday — “The Empty House”
1894    August 1, Wednesday — “The Norwood Builder”
1897    February 6, Saturday — “The Missing Three-Quarter”

1902    September 3, Wednesday — “The Illustrious Client”

1914    August 2, Sunday — “His Last Bow”

Moriarty is thinly drawn, as well as sparsely mentioned. He also captured the popular imagination, however, earning his own Wikipedia page and a central role in most of the recent Holmes reboots.

I re-read all the stories to note every detail I could find about James Moriarty.

Here’s his physical description: tall and thin; high, domed forehead, white; eyes deeply sunken in his head; clean-shaven, pale, ascetic-looking; rounded shoulders; face protrudes forward and oscillates from side to side in a curiously reptilian fashion. puckered eyes (whatever that means.)

This is not an attractive man! But always remember that the description comes from Sherlock Holmes, who was clearly obsessed, via the ultra-partisan John Watson. I assumed every feature was exaggerated to form a negative impression. Remove the hostility, and I found a tall, thin man with a high-domed forehead. A “high domed forehead” in itself is not unattractive; au contraire.

I decided to make my Moriarty younger and fitter, the better to inspire jealousy in the very competitive Sherlock Holmes. I also gave him a moustache, because most men in the late Victorian period wore hair on their faces. Being perfectly clean-shaven might indicate a tendency toward aestheticism. He’ll shave it off after the turn of the century along with everyone else, if my series lasts that long.

Intellectually, Moriarty had few peers. Holmes needed an antagonist worthy of his own intellectual prowess. And class still mattered (still does.) So Doyle made Moriarty a man of good birth, good education, with a brain for math. At age 21, he wrote “a treatise upon the binomial theorem that was well known across Europe and which led to a chair in mathematics at a small British university.” But he was forced to resign his chair and move to London, where he became an ‘army coach’ – a private tutor to officers preparing for exams.

That I can work with it. If he’s a brilliant mathematician of the correct social class, he would probably have attended Rugby, one of England’s famous public schools. The mathematician Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) went there. Then of course he would continue on to Cambridge to write that paper. Cambridge has produced many mathematicians, including Isaac Newton, Alan Turing, and Bertrand Russell.

Viktor Yevgrafov as Moriarty

Once I chose Rugby, my Moriarty’s childhood fell into place. Rugby was the home of masculine Christianity: a philosophical movement that originated in England in the mid-19th century, characterised by a belief in patriotic duty, manliness, the moral and physical beauty of athleticism, teamwork, discipline, self-sacrifice, and “the expulsion of all that is effeminate, unEnglish and excessively intellectual.” (Wikipedia.)

Who would send their bright boy to such a school? A vicar from a smallish parish. I gave my James a pair of frosty parents: a vicar and wife who loathed one another, but kept up appearances in public. That and Rugby would explain my character’s stoicism and unexpressive demeanor. I wanted him to be hard to read, so that Sherlock Holmes, whose imagination is famously febrile, would fill in the blanks with the traits and attitudes of the master criminal he desired.

All I needed now was that small university from which he was forced to resign. Some other person playing this game (via Wikipedia’s citations) chose Durham University. That looked good to me too. I like the area, which is loaded with coal, one of the fountains of financial chicanery in the nineteenth century. Full circle!