Bacon's Essays: Of Counsel

I’m expecting Of Counsel to be a goodie. Bacon was a counselor to two major monarchs, after all. He knew whereof he wrote.

“The greatest trust, between man and man, is the trust of giving counsel. For in other confidences, men commit the parts of life; their lands, their goods, their children, their credit, some particular affair; but to such as they make their counsellors, they commit the whole: by how much the more, they are obliged to all faith and integrity.”

These days the trust feels even more like a commitment. You give accountants, lawyers, and allied health professionals your social security number, after all. They could take it and run, if they wanted, or drop it on the sidewalk or in their unshredded trash.

Counselors, don’t stay for supper


Athena emerging from her father’s head

I’m going to include the whole long quote. Bacon loved to give classical myths modern interpretations. Here, he looks at the story of Jupiter (Zeus), who first married Metis, the Titan whose name means ‘skill’ or ‘craft.’ She got pregnant and he devoured her, babe and all. Then he became pregnant and delivered Athena, who burst fully armored from her father’s head.

Bacon takes this to mean that kings will get advice from their counselors, but then once the ideas have developed, they will take them into their own hands and present them as proceeding entirely from their own initiative.

Well, yeah, ok. I can see it.

“[T]hey say Jupiter did marry Metis, which signifieth counsel; whereby they intend that Sovereignty, is manied to Counsel: the other in that which followeth, which was thus: They say, after Jupiter was married to Metis, she conceived by him, and was with child, but Jupiter suffered her not to stay, till she brought forth, but eat her up; whereby he became himself with child, and was delivered of Pallas armed, out of his head. Which monstrous fable containeth a secret of empire; how kings are to make use of their counsel of state. That first, they ought to refer matters unto them, which is the first begetting, or impregnation; but when they are elaborate, moulded, and shaped in the womb of their counsel, and grow ripe, and ready to be brought forth, that then they suffer not their counsel, to go through with the resolution and direction, as if it depended on them; but take the matter back into their own hands, and make it appear to the world, that the decrees and final directions (which, because they come forth, with prudence and power, are resembled to Pallas armed) proceeded from themselves; and not only from their authority, but (the more to add reputation to themselves) from their head and device.”

The downside of counsel

Guess how many downsides? Three, you’re right! There are always three sub-heads with Francis Bacon. How many miles did he pace in the fields beyond Gray’s Inn sometimes, trying to come up with that third point to make his list complete? (Three, of course. That was easy.)

whispering“First, the revealing of affairs, whereby they become less secret. Secondly, the weakening of the authority of princes, as if they were less of themselves. Thirdly, the danger of being unfaithfully counselled, and more for the good of them that counsel, than of him that is counselled.”

“And as for cabinet counsels, it may be their motto, plenus rimarum sum (I am full of leaks): one futile person, that maketh it his glory to tell, will do more hurt than many, that know it their duty to conceal.”

Two can keep a secret if one of them is dead — Benjamin Franklin.

Bacon doesn’t worry much about the weakening of authority. He thinks good kings know better than to concern themselves on this score.

The last danger is greater: that your counselor will be working for himself, not you. But it’s not as easy as that sounds. You have more than one, we hope, and they keep an eye on each other. “Besides, counsellors are not commonly so united, but that one counsellor, keepeth sentinel over another; so that if any do counsel out of faction or private ends, it commonly comes to the king’s ear. But the best remedy is, if princes know their counsellors, as well as their counsellors know them: Principis est virtus maxima nosse suos (It is the greatest virtue of a prince to know his own.)

Don’t probe your patron’s personality


Canute reproving the flattery of his courtiers

“[C]ounsellors should not be too speculative into their sovereign’s person. The true composition of a counsellor, is rather to be skilful in their master’s business than in his nature; for then he is like to advise him, and not feed his humor.”

That’s key. You don’t want counselors who are trying to flatter you or play to your ego. Not if you want to be a good monarch, that is. And you really don’t want to be that kind of counselor either. You’ll only succeed if your master is a shallow ponce. Wouldn’t you rather work for wise King Canute than whimpering King John?

The practical Bacon

Bacon participated in every Parliament from 1581 to 1601. That means he sat in a lot of meetings. His advice about making meetings more productive still holds, as often as not. Here are some choice bits.

“The counsels at this day, in most places, are but familiar meetings, where matters are rather talked on, than debated. And they run too swift, to the order, or act, of counsel. It were better that in causes of weight, the matter were propounded one day, and not spoken to till the next day; in nocte consilium (advice comes over night.)”

“In choice of committees; for ripening business for the counsel, it is better to choose indifferent persons, than to make an indifferency, by putting in those, that are strong on both sides.” Good luck with that!

“I commend set days for petitions; for both it gives the suitors more certainty for their attendance, and it frees the meetings for matters of estate, that they may hoc agere.” (Hoc agere means to attend to our business.)

round-table“A long table and a square table, or seats about the walls, seem things of form, but are things of substance; for at a long table a few at the upper end, in effect, sway all the business; but in the other form, there is more use of the counsellors’ opinions, that sit lower.”

Surely a round table would be better still? Although you don’t find many of them, and they are hard to expand.


Categories: Bacon's works Essays

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