Bacon’s works

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Bacon's Essays: Of Riches

Francis Bacon writing of riches; how rich is that? I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the guy had no sense of money. He spent freely and gave generously to friends and servants, without any real notion of where the money came from. He left tens of thousands of pounds of debt when he died. But we can observe things we can’t perform ourselves.

Money vs virtue

“I cannot call riches better than the baggage of virtue.” He means he can’t say anything better about Baggage_Carrierwealth, other than that it is something that follows along behind virtue.

“The Roman word is better, impedimenta. For as the baggage is to an army, so is riches to virtue. It cannot be spared, nor left behind, but it hindereth the march; yea, and the care of it, sometimes loseth or disturbeth the victory.”

Wealth can prevent you from achieving virtue, he’s saying.

“Of great riches there is no real use, except it be in the distribution; the rest is but conceit. So saith Solomon, Where much is, there are many consume it; and what hath the owner, but the sight of it with his eyes?”

All you can do with money is spend it or sit around looking at your sacks of coins and chests of jewels. That’s even less interesting these days, when wealth is basically a series of positive and negative electrons.

What’s it really worth?

debtors_prison2
The Pickwick Papers, Mr. Pickwick wakes up in debtor’s prison, by Hablot Knight Browne, ca. 1837

“Do you not see what feigned prices, are set upon little stones and rarities? and what works of ostentation are undertaken, because there might seem to be some use of great riches? But then you will say, they may be of use, to buy men out of dangers or troubles.”

“As Solomon saith, Riches are as a strong hold, in the imagination of the rich man. But this is excellently expressed, that it is in imagination, and not always in fact. For certainly great riches, have sold more men, than they have bought out.”

First, profits are always bigger in the mind than in reality. Second, seeking riches is more likely to get you into trouble than out of it. And ain’t that the truth?

 

Neither seek riches nor scorn them

“Seek not proud riches, but such as thou mayest get justly, use soberly, distribute cheerfully, and leave contentedly. Yet have no abstract nor friarly contempt of them.”

beggar-and-rich-man
The beggar and the rich man

This is solid Bacon, the man whose family crest says, “Moderate things are surest.” Don’t seek money out of pride — to make yourself seem important. But don’t scorn money either, like some poverty-loving monk. Be thou neither Gatsby nor Thoreau.

Cicero said, “In studio rei amplificandae apparebat, non avaritiae praedam, sed instrumentum bonitati quaeri.” Our good friend Richard Whately translates for us: “In his desire of increasing his riches, he sought not, it was evident, the gratification of avarice, but the means of beneficence.” 

Good advice, Cicero! My personal take on this is that you want enough money to be secure from want and pay your health insurance, so your whole family doesn’t get taken down by some disaster. But once you get there, wherever that is for you, the rest is gravy. Share it! Be like J.K. Rowling, who gives away great sacks of her Wizard’s Treasure.

Don’t get rich quick

“Harken also to Solomon, and beware of hasty gathering of riches; Qui festinat ad divitias, non erit insons.” Whatley translates, “He that maketh haste to be rich, shall not be innocent.”

“[R]iches gotten by good means, and just labor, pace slowly; but when they come by the death of others (as by the course of inheritance, testaments, and the like), they come tumbling upon a man. But it mought be applied likewise to Pluto, taking him for the devil. For when riches come from the devil (as by fraud and oppression, and unjust means), they come upon speed.”

“The ways to enrich are many, and most of them foul. Parsimony is one of the best, and yet is not innocent; for it withholdeth men from works of liberality and charity.” Thrift can easily turn to stinginess.

stuartdrill
A century later, by the clothes, but a cool picture

“The improvement of the ground, is the most natural obtaining of riches; for it is our great mother’s blessing, the earth’s; but it is slow. And yet where men of great wealth do stoop to husbandry, it multiplieth riches exceedingly. I knew a nobleman in England, that had the greatest audits of any man in my time; a great grazier, a great sheep-master, a great timber man, a great collier, a great corn-master, a great lead-man, and so of iron, and a number of the like points of husbandry. So as the earth seemed a sea to him, in respect of the perpetual importation.”

In Bacon’s day, most agriculture was still done on the medieval plan. The Dissolution turned thousands of acres into private hands and stimulated a renaissance in farming practices. Many a hard-working yeoman hoisted his family into the middle class by draining marshes and managing his lands more intelligently. Forward-thinking gentlemen, like the one in the anecdote, grew very rich indeed. Bacon wouldn’t have considered that excessively speedy acquisition, nor greedy, since agriculture was the major employer in those days too. The well-managed farm would benefit everyone who worked on it.

Them that’s got, gets

“It was truly observed by one, that himself came very hardly, to a little riches, and very easily, to great riches. For when a man’s stock is come to that, that he can expect the prime of markets, and overcome those bargains, which for their greatness are few men’s money, and be partner in the industries of younger men, he cannot but increase mainly.”

Hard work and fair dealing

“The gains of ordinary trades and vocations are honest; and furthered by two things chiefly: by diligence, and by a good name, for good and fair dealing.” That’s plain enough.

But be wary of bargains. “But the gains of bargains, are of a more doubtful nature; when men shall wait upon others’ necessity, broke by servants and instruments to draw them on, put off others cunningly, that would be better chapmen, and the like practices, which are crafty and naught.”

Chapmen are merchants or brokers. I don’t get the middle part “…broke by servants…” Impressionistically, it means false bargains might be created by servants and deception, shaving off a little here and a little there, slapping paint on a shoddy product…

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The Butter Churn, Ralph Hedley, 1897

Churning stocks is also bad. “As for the chopping of bargains, when a man buys not to hold but to sell over again, that commonly grindeth double, both upon the seller, and upon the buyer.”

“Sharings do greatly enrich, if the hands be well chosen, that are trusted.” Going into partnerships is good, provided that the partners trust each other.

“Usury is the certainest means of gain, though one of the worst; as that whereby a man doth eat his bread, in sudore vultus alieni (in the sweat of another’s brow); and besides, doth plough upon Sundays.”

Lending money at interest had a dubious status in Bacon’s day. It was necessary then as now for growing a new enterprise, but it had all those unsavory Biblical connotations, like forcing the investor, in some sense, to work on Sunday.

Invention is the mother of money

“The fortune in being the first, in an invention or in a privilege, doth cause sometimes a wonderful overgrowth in riches; as it was with the with the first sugar man, in the Canaries. Therefore if a man can play the true logician, to have as well judgment, as invention, he may do great matters; especially if the times be fit.”

The story of the Internet age.

“He that resteth upon gains certain, shall hardly grow to great riches; and he that puts all upon adventures, doth oftentimes break and come to poverty: it is good, therefore, to guard adventures with certainties, that may uphold losses.”

A lot of people lost a lot of money gambling on New World adventures. The Earl of Cumberland, who was hopelessly addicting to piracy, once said, “I have thrown my lands into the sea.” He meant he’d sold his vast inherited estates to fund his seafaring adventures.

“Monopolies, and coemption of wares for re-sale, where they are not restrained, are great means to enrich; especially if the party have intelligence, what things are like to come into request, and so store himself beforehand.” Bacon doesn’t say anything negative about this. Monopolies were normal, gifts of the king to favorites, in his day. A risky thing to object to in writing.

“Riches gotten by service, though it be of the best rise, yet when they are gotten by flattery, feeding humors, and other servile conditions, they may be placed amongst the worst.” Yep.

“As for fishing for testaments and executorships (as Tacitus saith of Seneca, testamenta et orbos tamquam indagine capi, “Wills and childless parents, taken as with a net”), it is yet worse; by how much men submit themselves to meaner persons, than in service.”

This is an odd thing for a lawyer to complain about! Surely most of his colleagues at Gray’s Inn made a substantial portion of their livings by serving as executors of wills.

Penny wise, pound foolish

“Believe not much, them that seem to despise riches for they despise them, that despair of them; and none worse, when they come to them.”

People without money who pretend to despise money can be insufferable when they get some.

“Be not penny-wise; riches have wings, and sometimes they fly away of themselves, sometimes they must be set flying, to bring in more.”

There was no such thing as an economist in Bacon’s day. They knew that prices rose throughout the period, but I don’t suppose there was a theory about it. The term “inflation,” applied to prices, didn’t come in until the nineteenth century. But that’s what he means here. Pile those pennies up in the corner and their value will leach away. Better to put the money into use by investing it. 

“Men leave their riches, either to their kindred, or to the public; and moderate portions, prosper best in both. A great state left to an heir, is as a lure to all the birds of prey round about, to seize on him, if he be not the better stablished in years and judgment.”

This is why rich people add conditions to their wills and make their children wait until they’re well into their twenties to inherit.

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A painted sepulchre

“Likewise glorious gifts and foundations, are like sacrifices without salt; and but the painted sepulchres of alms, which soon will putrefy, and corrupt inwardly. Therefore measure not thine advancements, by quantity, but frame them by measure: and defer not charities till death; for, certainly, if a man weigh it rightly, he that doth so, is rather liberal of another man’s, than of his own.”

Bacon wants us to do good while we’re alive and not just pile up riches to do good after we’re dead. I can see his point, but it’s still good to leave your wealth to a good cause!

Bacon's Essays: Of Plantations

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Massacre at Jamestown, by Matthaeus Merian in 1628

When Francis Bacon speaks of plantations, he means colonies. This essay was published in 1625, so he would have known much about the early colonization efforts of Sir Walter Raleigh and the Virginia Company. The first disastrous settlement at Jamestown was planted in 1607. He would have heard about the massacre of 1622, in which the Powhatan Confederacy tried to get rid of the troublesome interlopers once and for all. Bacon would have heard stories about starvation, disease, Indian attacks, and bitter fighting among the colonists, but this essay shows no sign of any of that. He chose instead to provide his considered opinion about how colonization ought to be done.

Plantation, not extirpation

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Opechancanough, Powhatan’s brother, from Captain John Smith’s 1624 Generall Historie

“I like a plantation in a pure soil; that is, where people are not displanted, to the end, to plant in others. For else it is rather an extirpation, than a plantation.” Could there be a milder response to the violent conflicts between English and Indian?

Toward the end, he adds, “If you plant where savages are, do not only entertain them, with trifles and gingles, but use them justly and graciously, with sufficient guard nevertheless; and do not win their favor, by helping them to invade their enemies, but for their defence it is not amiss; and send oft of them, over to the country that plants, that they may see a better condition than their own, and commend it when they return.”

He was convinced, as all Europeans were, of the vast superiority of their own cultures and practices. It’s the way of all people, I suppose. Justice and courtesy would have gone a long way in making English colonization more successful in the long run. There was a lot of room. We would have overwhelmed the aboriginal inhabitants eventually, since agriculture supports larger populations, but it could have happened more gradually, with less bigotry and violence. My $0.02, at Jacobean rates.

Don’t be greedy

“Planting of countries, is like planting of woods; for you must make account to leese almost twenty years’ profit, and expect your recompense in the end. For the principal thing, that hath been the destruction of most plantations, hath been the base and hasty drawing of profit, in the first years.”

Bacon’s readers would understand the analogy of an investment in woods perfectly. You have to wait for the trees to grow, after all. Until then, it’s just a patch of ground. You can hunt in it, but not much else.

Choose your settlers wisely

rogues
Thieves and rogues

“It is a shameful and unblessed thing, to take the scum of people, and wicked condemned men, to be the people with whom you plant; and not only so, but it spoileth the plantation; for they will ever live like rogues, and not fall to work, but be lazy, and do mischief, and spend victuals, and be quickly weary, and then certify over to their country, to the discredit of the plantation. The people wherewith you plant ought to be gardeners, ploughmen, laborers, smiths, carpenters, joiners, fishermen, fowlers, with some few apothecaries, surgeons, cooks, and bakers.”

He might have added, don’t bring a shipload of gentlemen adventurers either. They won’t know how to work, even if they could be goaded into the manual labor required to build a town.

Later he adds, “Cram not in people, by sending too fast company after company; but rather harken how they waste, and send supplies proportionably; but so, as the number may live well in the plantation, and not by surcharge be in penury.” Harken how they waste; there’s a delicate phrasing.

Consider the victuals

Finicky Francis — advice about provender is the largest component in this essay.

jerusalem_artichokes
Jerusalem artichokes

“In a country of plantation, first look about, what kind of victual the country yields of itself to hand; as chestnuts, walnuts, pineapples, olives, dates, plums, cherries, wild honey, and the like; and make use of them.” We’re still looking for the country that has olives, cherries, and pineapples, though I suppose he knew perfectly well those fruits didn’t grow in the same sorts of places.

“Then consider what victual or esculent things there are, which grow speedily, and within the year; as parsnips, carrots, turnips, onions, radish, artichokes of Hierusalem, maize, and the like.”

Woohoo! A new word, ‘esculent.’ Here’s OED: “Suitable for food, eatable.” First citation? Francis Bacon. He probably made it up.

“For wheat, barley, and oats, they ask too much labor; but with pease and beans you may begin, both because they ask less labor, and because they serve for meat, as well as for bread. And of rice, likewise cometh a great increase, and it is a kind of meat. Above all, there ought to be brought store of biscuit, oat-meal, flour, meal, and the like, in the beginning, till bread may be had. For beasts, or birds, take chiefly such as are least subject to diseases, and multiply fastest; as swine, goats, cocks, hens, turkeys, geese, house-doves, and the like.”

He advocates a sort of communalism, all farming the community plots and sharing rationed portions of the produce.

Keep an eye out for profit

smelting
Medieval iron smelting

Don’t rush into the commercial aspects of your venture, but do keep your eyes out for ways to pay back your investors as soon as may be. You might try planting tobacco. There seems to be plenty of wood in most cases, so watch out for iron. “If there be iron ore, and streams whereupon to set the mills, iron is a brave commodity where wood aboundeth.” Takes a lot of fuel — and water, which he doesn’t worry about — to process ore.

Other options are harvesting bay salt, pitch and tar, or growing silk. That last seems highly unlikely, although the Spanish successfully planted both silk-growers and mulberry trees in Oaxaca. Bacon probably read those accounts as well, at least the ones translated into English.

“But moil not too much under ground; for the hope of mines is very uncertain, and useth to make the planters lazy, in other things.” If all you have to do is scoop up a pan-full of gold every month or two, why bother to grow crops?

Limit the government, but not too much

“For government, let it be in the hands of one, assisted with some counsel; and let them have commission to exercise martial laws, with some limitation.” Remember that God is always with you. 

“Let not the government of the plantation, depend upon too many counsellors, and undertakers, in the country that planteth, but upon a temperate number; and let those be rather noblemen and gentlemen, than merchants; for they [the merchants] look ever to the present gain.” It is also the function of noblemen and gentlemen to govern, though he doesn’t say this.

Location, location

Jamestown_and_James_River
The cradle of the Republic: Jamestown and the James River

“It hath been a great endangering to the health of some plantations, that they have built along the sea and rivers, in marish and unwholesome grounds. Therefore, though you begin there, to avoid carriage and like discommodities, yet build still rather upwards from the streams, than along.”

I’m reading Libbie Hawker’s excellent novel Tidewater, about the Jamestown settlers and the Powhatan Confederacy. She says the settlers suffered from a lack of fresh water seasonally, as the tide flowed higher, making the river water briny. The semi-starved men were forced to haul water from fresh springs at a considerable distance. 

 

 

Bring in the women and leave no man behind

“When the plantation grows to strength, then it is time to plant with women, as well as with men; that the plantation may spread into generations, and not be ever pieced from without. It is the sinfullest thing in the world, to forsake or destitute a plantation once in forwardness; for besides the dishonor, it is the guiltiness of blood of many commiserable persons.”